Wednesday 15 June 2022

In Praise of Readers' Reviews: The Story of the Stone on Goodreads

 Nicky Harman peruses Goodreads for reviews of a classic Chinese novel.

As a translator, I’ve always been fascinated by how readers react to their first foray into translated Chinese fiction. The Leeds Centre for Contemporary Writing runs an excellent section with readers’ reviews of contemporary novels; but what about the classics? I have a personal favourite (I’m currently half-way through my second reading), The Story of the Stone, also known as A Dream of Red Mansions, or The Red Chamber Dream, an epic family saga written and set in eighteenth-century Beijing. By way of an experiment, I decided to trawl through the Goodreads review sections.

It was an eye-opener. Clearly, many readers have put a lot of time and effort into writing about the novel. I was immensely impressed by the quality and quantity of the reviews, by how well-informed some of them were, and by the goodwill and general friendliness of the discussions. It felt just like an online bookclub. 

First, a clarification. There are several different translations but only two complete ones, both of which date from the 1980s. The others are abridged.

1.      1893 – H. Bencraft Joly (abridged)

2.      1958 – Chi-Chen Wang (abridged)

3.      1980 – Gladys and Hsien-Yi Yang (complete)

4.      1986 – David Hawkes & Jon Minford (complete)

5.      2013 – Christine Sun (adapted mini-version for Real Reads) 

The reviews I read are all of the complete versions listed above, the Yangs (entitled A Dream of Red Mansions) and the Hawkes-Minford (entitled The Story of the Stone, an alternative title of the Chinese original). Both translations are highly respected for the beauty and the naturalness of the language. (Although none of the reviewers talk about it, I have also read the Chi-Chen Wang abridged volume – a gift from the vicar in our village when I was a child. His parents had been missionaries in China and he encouraged my quixotic desire to study Chinese. The rest, as they say, is history.) All these translators are fascinating characters in themselves, and I would encourage anyone to look up their biographies on Wikipedia.

But to return to the reviews, which can be found on Goodreads under either The Story of the Stone (different reviews for different volumes) or A Dream of Red Mansions. They are a treasure trove of perceptive observations. Chinese novels are often perceived as difficult because the context, the story-lines, the ways of thinking, the genres, are all unfamiliar, even when the setting is contemporary and urban. A five-volume novel about the eighteenth-century Jia family’s rise and decline is going to come across as even more exotic. Add to that, a cast of a couple of hundred characters, and readers who are new to Chinese fiction will need determination. Most, however, appeared undaunted. I particularly liked the review that described The Story of the Stone as a time machine: If you ask me what a time machine looks like now, I'll give you a little smirk and tell you there's no need for wires, DeLoreans or electricity and definitely no use for a smoke generator. All you need is ink and paper and a well-written story of another time and place. This particular contraption brought me to 18th century China. An enriching, illuminating and profoundly moving trip I'll never forget …There are tales of early love, of death, of Imperial visits, of funerals and doctor's visits, of a boy's first wet dream and of a whole lot of etiquette. The importance of formalities is brought home really well here and sometimes in a most touching way. There is something moving about the deference shown to those higher and lower in the all-important hierarchy, wherein sincere warmth still has its place. But there is also viciousness in some characters who seemed angelic before and the result is a rich tapestry, not of caricatures, but of people that truly come alive. 

There are far too many high-quality, painstakingly-written reviews here to quote from them all but I would encourage anyone reading or re-reading Cao Xueqin’s novel to dive into the reviews as well. Imagine they are a virtual reading group and enjoy other readers’ perspectives. Some clearly know the novel and its translations very well and explore literary questions in some depth (for instance, authenticity of the original or the translators’ expertise at reproducing the poems). Others offer the kind of chatty comment you would expect to hear in a bookclub meeting. In response to a reader who was worried about missing a lot of the plot and the hidden references, one reviewer writes: ‘I don't see it as a problem and that's also the case for rereading books and finding out even more. … Books that are so foreign can also broaden your horizon and direct you to learn even more about the culture, so I don't worry about that.’ 

Meanwhile I am making my way through volume 3 of the Hawkes-Minford translation. I am intrigued by the amount of sexual freedom given to Baoyu (or not), by how literate the women and girls are (or not), and by the gender roles and who is transgressing them, among many other things. I am shocked by the brutal reality of slavery (many of the servants are referred to as being bought and sold), and by the way that all the females except the old servants are prohibited from going out into the streets that lay beyond the mansion walls. And as I read on and hope to learn more, I will imagine myself in a time machine, being spirited away to another, extraordinary time and place. 

PS While writing this post, I came across Ann Waltner’s guide entitled Dream of the Red Chamber , available online for free. Highly recommended and informative.