This book was written one year before the French Revolution, in 1788, in Beijing, China by a riches-to -rags nobleman called Cao Xue Quin. It is viewed by many as the greatest classical Chinese romantic novel ever written.
I read the original Chinese version of this book when I was in high school, many years ago. At that time, my impression was that it was a Chinese Romeo and Juliet type tragic love story, in which the main characters Bao-yu and his cousin Dai-yu (Black Jade) suffered the fate of unfulfilled love, and no ever after. There was more to it than that, but I could not figure out what.
Recently, I re-read the book (the current trans- lated version). This time it sounded like the Adven- tures of Tom Jones, in which the teen-aged playboy Bao-yu was dallying in the ranks of the female members of his household (his cousins and maids), longing after many but only truly loving Dai-yu.
It was also a bit similar to Upstairs Downstairs -- a big noble clan with all its ladies, young misses and maids, and their lives of adventures and tears. But something was still missing. There was a theme, a message, which draws me and others to this great work of literature.
I finally figured it out: Almost all the WOMEN in this book were described as elegant, sophisticated, intelligent, graceful, excellent decision makers, and above all, beautiful. Most MEN, however, were described as fools, red-necks, unfaithful, heart-breakers, nogooders, users of prostitutes and abusers of power!
What I am looking at is a book (or one-MAN crusade) of Early Feminism. It is all the more remarkable because in feudal China, women did not have equal status. "marrying for love" seldom existed. It was more like "married by parental arrangement". Poor girls were sold as maids into rich households, or worse, they were sold as second wives or concubines.
The confirmation of my theory came from the author Cao himself. In his introductory book review, he said, "Thus begins this book ... I have hidden the real events and substituted them with fiction ... There were real persons in the inner-chambers, and their stories must be told ..." (Modern translation: I have real women in my household).
This message would make this a truly revolutionary work, not only in feudal China, but even to-day.
Should have first read the book review by the author.