Brian Salter's Blogs:
Red Dreams in BJ

 

OK, I know many people think I am pig ignorant, but I have to admit that before coming to China I had never heard of a book called Dream of the Red Chamber – 红楼梦 (also known as Dream of Red Mansions), which is widely regarded as one of the four ancient Chinese classical masterpieces. It’s required reading for almost everyone, much as Shakespeare is for the Brits, and many rank it with the likes of 'War and Peace'.

The writer, Cao Xueqin, was born in the early 1720s and lived for only forty years. He devoted the last ten years of his life to the writing of this novel, which paints a vivid portrait of an aristocratic Chinese family surrounded by wealth, power and prestige, while under the surface, is a family in which chaos and dissension frequently prevail. Those of a “certain age” will see parallels in Peyton Place or Dallas! The success of the novel is derived from the characterisation of the 400 or so people and the nuances of family life as it affected those who lived during the Qing Dynasty.

To add to my ignorance, it has taken me over a year to discover one of Beijing’s parks called Da guan yuan – 大观园 – or Grand View Garden, which is a 130,000 sq. m. landscaped garden themed around the Dream of the Red Chamber, and boasting more than 40 pavilions, terraces and buildings.

It’s located in the southwest of Beijing at Xuanwu District, a brisk 20 minutes walk from the nearest subway station. Using the description in the story as a guide, it was created between 1984 and 1989 and was originally used as the location for the first CCTV television series (36 episodes in all) based on the novel which aired in 1987 and is regarded by many within China as being a near-definitive adaptation of the book.

Not surprisingly, it has become popular with Chinese visitors, though not one westerner did I see there the entire time. Come to think of it, my western colleagues at work have never even heard of it either, so maybe that is no surprise. Anyway, just in case one should be in any doubt as to whether it is worth going all the way out there to see the place, there is a notice saying that Da guan yuan is one of China’s top 40 tourist attractions … at least I suspect that is what it means…

But today is a cold day and even the lakes are frozen solid, so it’s no surprise that the place isn’t actually crawling with people … thank goodness!

Not, you understand, that that stops the park management from adding some artificial colour in the form of plastic peach and cherry blossom throughout the park… perhaps just a tad too early guys?

Kite flying appears to be quite popular in this corner of Beijing, as can be witnessed by the abandoned kites caught up in the trees…

But the winter chill is enough to attract a number of people out onto the ice…

… and we all know that signs telling you what you are not allowed to do only ever apply to other people!

The entire park is actually laid out with more than 40 scenic spots set within it. The most attractive parts are the courtyards which replicate the residences of the main members of the wealthy Jia family in the novel. Many of the buildings are red-coloured, but this is the most magnificent…

The Red Mansion Exhibition in the Enjoyment Red Hall is the main display of the Red Mansion Culture and Art Museum where inside there are numerous displays of anything remotely to do with the novel. Here’s Jia yuen Chun, the sister of Jia Bayou, one of the principle characters who was born on the first day of the first lunar month (Chun means spring) – gazing out through the doorway at all the visitors …

There are a couple of palanquins on display too – one red and another yellow.

While around the walls of one room are costumes used in the TV drama series…

I’m not sure what these plaster cast mouldings have to do with anything, apart from the fact, of course, that they are characters in the novel…

There’s even a bust of the author Cao Xueqin – though as no one appears to have had a handy Polaroid or iPhone around at the time, no one is really sure what he looked like – hence the “vague” look of the sculpture.

(Just to put it all into context, Cao was ten years older than George Washington; and when he was 20, Voltaire was just starting to publish his own works, whilst the steam engine was invented one or two years after Cao's death.)

Cao was born into a noble and powerful family, which was reduced from extreme prosperity to poverty. They say that the life of luxury in his boyhood acquainted him with the ways of noble families and the ruling classes, while poverty in his old age enabled him to observe life more clearly. Of the book’s 120 chapters, the first 80 were written by Cao, while the last 40 chapters were thought to have been written by another writer, Gao E.

Dream of the Red Chamber describes the life and declining fortunes of a large feudal family. At the heart of the novel is a tragic love story between Jia Baoyu, Lin Daiyu and Xue Baochai – often described as China’s answer to Romeo and Juliet! Instead of telling the love story superficially, Cao taps into the social origins of the tragedy through probing deeply into the characters' minds and the complicated relationship among them, hence exposing the hypocrisy and cruelty of feudalism and the decadence of the ruling class.

Naturally wall after wall is covered with drawings, photographs, sketches, explanations … ad nauseam, though some are highly attractive…

Sketches of the heroine, Lin Daiyu are superb..

… as are those of the Lady Dowager…

One of the first films of the book was made in 1936; so naturally there are still-frames from the film on display…

Another of the best known productions was made in 1943 and directed by Bu Wancang.

We have already talked about the CCTV series made in 1987. But there was also a later remake for TV, which aired in 2010 and was one of the most expensive Chinese TV series ever made at RMB118 million - US$17.55m. It was made up of 50 episodes, but wasn’t as popular as the earlier version.

And never one to miss a marketing opportunity, there is plenty of tack for sale to the hordes of red mansion fans; though what one would actually do with a painted egg, apart from dust it occasionally and hope it doesn’t fall off its perch, is beyond me.

…though this vase could at least be used to hold flowers (or even plastic blossoms?)

Back outside once again there are plenty of painted covered walk ways to delight the eye

while the snow-covered lakes set off by the red pavilions are a joy to behold.

It’s been a freezing cold day, but I am now determined that when I get back to my apartment, one of the first jobs on my extensive to-do list is to download a copy of Dream of the Red Chamber from the internet. Wish me luck!