Cao Zhan’s “Dream of the Red Chamber” is a novel from the 18th century that is widely recognized as the finest of all Chinese novels and one of the greatest works of world literature.
The novel is a combination of realism, romance, psychology, fate, daily life, and the supernatural, presented as a series of events instead of a tightly plotted story. It follows the downfall of the Jia family, consisting of two main branches and many relatives and servants, with a total of 30 major characters and over 400 minor ones. The central focus is on Baoyu, the talented but stubborn heir of the clan, who is doted on by his mother and grandmother but scolded by his strict Confucian father for his close relationships with his female cousins and maids. Of note are Daiyu, the melancholic object of Baoyu’s unrequited love, and Baochai, his eventual wife and the vivacious one. The novel and Baoyu’s character, in particular, are believed to be semi-autobiographical works by Cao Zhan. The portrayal of the family accurately reflects upper-class life in the early Qing dynasty, while the diverse character portraits show psychological depth.