Illustration of two women in The Story of the Stone
Recording date:

Dream of the Red Chamber, also called The Story of the Stone, is one of China's greatest literary works. Professor John Minford discusses the background of this novel, written by Cao Xueqin during the High Qing of the 18th century.

Professor Minford is a sinologist and literary translator, primarily known for his translations of Chinese classics such as The Story of the Stone, The Art of War and I Ching. He graduated from the University of Oxford with First Class Honours in Chinese Studies, and later studied for his PhD at the Australian National University. Since 2006, he has been Professor of Chinese at the School of History and Language in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

Supported by the Australian Centre on China in the World.

Transcript of ‘The Story of the Stone: Cao Xueqin and his Bannerman Friends’

Speakers: Nathan Woolley (N), Professor John Minford (J), Audience (A)

Location: National Library of Australia

Date: 19/05/16


N:        Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the National Library of Australia. My name is Nathan Woolley, I am the curator of the exhibition, Celestial Empire. Meeting here are the National Library and as we begin I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, I thank their elders past and present for caring for this land that we’re now privileged to call home.


Tonight is the last lecture in this series that the National Library of Australia has been presenting in collaboration with the Australian Centre on China in the World at the Australian National University. This is also in fact the last public event of the exhibition, Celestial Empire, which will be ending this Sunday. Now Celestial Empire and its public programs have been made possible through the very generous support through many partners and I’d just like to name these partners ‘cause without their support the National Library of Australia is unable to do such wonderful exhibitions if I do say so myself as the curator. So first and foremost we have to thank the National Library of China, it is their generosity with their objects and with their time that’s made this exhibition possible. Our commercial partners include Shell in Australia, the Seven Network, Wanda One, Optus Singtel, Huawei, Cathay Pacific and TFE Hotels. Our event partners in addition to the Australian Centre on China in the World also includes Asia Society Australia. Our government partners are the Federal Government through the National Collecting Institutions Touring Outreach Program and the Australia China Council of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and also the ACT Government through Visit Canberra. I’d also like to thank all of you for your support for the public programs of the Celestial Empire and for coming along this evening.


Tonight we’ve very fortunate because we will be having Professor John Minford speak to us on one of the greatest novels in all Chinese culture. The work and achievements of Professor John Minford can only be described through the use of superlatives. I will try to limit them in my talk but it’s very difficult. He has been described very recently by an award-winning author as one of the foremost cultural intermediaries of our day. Professor Minford is a Sinologist and literary translator. He is renowned for his translations of Chinese classics such as The Story of the Stone and The Art of War. His translations from both classical and modern Chinese are celebrated for their skill of execution and their depth of emotion. He studied with scholars David Hawkes at Oxford University and Liu Ts’un-yan at the Australian National University. John himself has taught at institutions in mainland China, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand. He is currently Emeritus Professor of Chinese at the Australian National University and the Sin Wai Kin Professor of Chinese Culture and Translation at the Hang Seng Management College of Hong Kong.


John is an inspiring teacher. He is very committed and generous to his students who always are very aware how fortunate they are to have him, to share his insight and passion for Chinese culture. He instructs them in the same way that he translates, with great feeling and humanity, a rare quality in modern tertiary institutions. When I was the Coordinator of the ANU China Institute for many years, once a week John Minford would teach a class outside my door in the small reading room we had there. I soon discovered it was impossible to get any work done when I knew John Minford was teaching outside, and so within two weeks I had joined the class and was enjoying John’s instruction for the rest of semester.


John’s most recent work is a translation of the famous Chinese divination text, the I Ching, which I have brought along this evening—and I might note is available for sale downstairs tonight in the National Library of Australia bookshop. One eminent scholar of Chinese has written that this rendition of the I Ching will ensure as a classic of the twenty-first century and beyond. Another eminent scholar has described this book as a work of art, but also very user-friendly, and I wonder if I might be so bold to suggest that this description, a work of art but also user-friendly, is also an apt description of John Minford himself. So please join me in welcoming John Minford. Thank you.




J:          Well I shall follow that with a eulogy of Nathan Woolley, I think, but I think I’d better get down to brass tacks ‘cause I mean you know I’ve got a lot of stuff to get through. I’m sorry we don’t have enough handouts. I will therefore try and talk in a more intelligible fashion. I was thinking I could rely on you just reading it off the page but no such luck because we’ve run out of handouts, I’m so sorry.


Let me begin by thanking Nathan for inviting me here, and for saying I have a great affection for the National Library, it’s a great institution and so far shows no signs of deteriorating. May it long last because it’s not happening on the other side of the lake, and I preface my remarks tonight with a ... what I think is a very poignant quotation from the great Carl Gustav Jung when he delivered a funeral oration for his friend, the great German translator, Richard Wilhelm, who also translated the I Ching. And Carl Gustav Jung said the universities have ceased to act as disseminators of light. I’m afraid that was true then in the 1930s, it’s far more true now and I’d say they now disseminate darkness, in fact. However tonight let’s move on from that to what I think is a much more pleasant topic which is the greatest novel in Chinese literature, perhaps one of the greatest novels in the world, the Story of the Stone. And I want to address today what I think is a really crucial issue which is how was it possible that perhaps the greatest work in all of Chinese literature, poetry, fiction, whatever emerged out of apparently nothing from an author who wrote nothing else, about whom virtually nothing is known? How could something like that happen?


Now I have to take a few shortcuts here. This novel ... I could just spend the next 15 hours talking about it ... it is the most superb work of fiction which creates an illusory world because fiction’s after all illusion in the form of a dream. It calls itself in Chinese The Dream of the Red Chamber or The Dream of Red Mansions, Hong Lou Meng, and it is a work which is both at the same time incredibly absorbing in its depiction of daily life and human emotion but also incredibly moving in its attempt to see through that veil of illusion to a deeper truth so you know as the famous expression, gungun hongchen, looking through the red dust, but it looks through the red dust having first examined the red dust in loving detail, every single detail of life is there so it’s a very appropriate book to talk about at the end of this wonderful exhibition. I mean I’m afraid I’m not a big fan of maps but I mean for me there are too many maps because you know maps can go ... a little bit of map goes a long way for me, I’d rather than a novel any time but I mean it is a wonderful exhibition and I was enjoying it very much. And I think this novel ... if any work of literature captures eighteenth century China, it’s Hong Lou Meng. It is eighteenth century China, it’s all there from the ways to make tea, the ways to make love, the ways to do anything, really, it’s all in that book. And what you make of it is really dependent on you, on what you want to ... it’s the same as the I Ching, I have said on many occasions that Chinese culture begins with the I Ching and ends with Hong Lou Meng you know and I ... perhaps for better or worse I’ve been involved in translating both so I should be absolutely exhausted and I am. And if I fall over I shall ask my friends in the audience to carry me out with dignity. Anyway you see I’ve been pondering this question about how it was that this extraordinary book emerged out of nothing and of course it’s completely untrue, it didn’t. That’s the answer to my question. I’ve got to find my other glasses because I have to sort of sometimes look at my audience because you’re probably all ratting in horror to my rambling method of delivering ... I just always ramble, I’m afraid. Now the thing is this novel has been an object of obsessive interest in China ever since it was written. It still is and people treat it like a kind of ... a corpse you know they like to put it ... tear it apart and analyse it but the way they don’t do is to understand it and read it with sympathy. And they specialise ... there’s a whole branch of study called hong xue, which means the study of the Red, right? The Red Chamber, right? And it’s a kind of ... it is a form of pathological academic obsession with a novel which avoids talking about it as a novel at all and you see I think that in order to understand it what we have to do is to get beyond that and that’s what I’m trying to do this evening if you’ll be patient. And I want to start by lifting out of my handout a short piece of prose which I only discovered very recently by one of the Manchu friends of the author. Now I’m not going to say anymore except to read you this very short extract because to me it was the clue to what I think is a revelation. And my friend, Geremie Barmé, helped to translate this recently while we were working on this together and it’s just called Wu meng ji, which I think really should be translated as daydream, you know? It’s one of two essays written by this Manchu aristocrat from the Aisin Gioro clan. He was a member of the imperial family and a close friend of the author. That’s why it’s relevant. And he wrote two little essays on dreams, which are completely ignored by everybody, but you know if you actually bother to read these things you start to see that the culture, the environment out of which this novel grew because nothing comes out of nothing, you know? Sorry, it was a bit of a stupid remark. But anyway this is a short extract from this wonderful essay and it goes like this: In the summer I'd be just like old Su Dongpo and, after lunch, lie down with a book in hand and before long I'd have dropped off and was dreaming. As I awoke I was in a daze, unsure of whether I was still in a dream or awake, like a skiff on a vast sea…This illusory body of mine enters the illusory realm, the dream that is human existence, and in this great dream I am but dreaming still. And in my dream I speak the language of the dreamer; I dream of enlightenment and I dream of the fulfilment of dreams. How can I know where this illusion will ultimately take me, and where it will end. And reading this one ... if one knows the novel and Story of the Stone, Hong Lou Meng, one immediately recognises the vocabulary, one recognises the whole mindset out of which this novel grew. These are his buddies, these are his drinking friends and he knew a whole bunch of them, Manchu aristocrats, the author, and they wrote poems and essays and so on which have been largely ignored. And now I think it’s time to revisit that whole little world and to see it for what it was, a very special little enclave within Chinese culture which produced the greatest masterpiece in the entire history of that culture, of that literature. Well let me just backtrack a little bit. Who are the Manchus? Who are the Manchu bannermen? Now I know that Professor Barmé gave a very learned discourse earlier on in this series on Manchu identity and the bannermen and so on so I won’t get stuck on that otherwise we’ll be here all night but suffice it to say that the author of this novel, Cao Xueqin, was what we might call an honorary Manchu. His family had served the Manchu cause for several generations going back to the years before the Manchu invasion of China and so they were accorded the status of Manchus, they were actually called bond servants of the imperial family and later on they were absorbed into one of the Chinese banners of the imperial household and so they were ... although they were ethnically Chinese they had the status of Manchus. It’s a bit like the Japanese going to South Africa you know they were called honorary whites ... well it’s not very like that but anyway they were Manchu, honorary Manchus so for example ... to give you very concrete examples, in the Cao family the women did not bind their feet because Manchu women were not allowed to bind their feet. And they performed all sorts of other daily rituals that were typical of Manchu families, dropping on one knee and so on, qing’an and the book is full of that kind of stuff. And so they were to all intents and purposes Manchus and all their friends were Manchus and in ... even the author’s grandfather, Cao Yin, he was very close to the Kangxi Emperor. And all of ... a lot of his friends ... I won’t say all, that’s an exaggeration ... a lot of his friends were Manchus. And I think we’re immediately here face-to-face with the fundamental paradox of the situation that the greatest work of Chinese literature was actually written by someone who was fundamentally Manchu. And I think what we have here is the most interesting phenomenon which runs through the whole of Chinese culture, really, I mean it’s a very, very old culture, we all know that and it’s all wonderful and I'm supposed to re’ai zhongguo wenhua which I don’t, actually, but I mean you’re supposed to think it’s this fantastic endless sort of eternal object ... actually it’s not. I mean every culture, every civilisation, every language, every literature has a tendency to stagnate and one of the wonderful things is when those cultures and literatures can absorb new life, new influences, new energies from outside. And of course European culture’s been like that you know all along and Ezra Pound was one of the first to really articulate that idea when he said that translation is the lifeblood of European literature. Of course it is. And it circulates it, it gets the chi flowing within that culture. Now, the Manchus when they first arrived obviously knew very little in the way of Chinese but during the Kangxi reign that started to change. Kangxi himself was a very ardent student of things Chinese, and in particular he was interested in that big book there, the I Ching, and used it to make very important decisions of state. So he was a very key transitional figure in the way in which the Manchus started to become part of Chinese culture and started to write in Chinese and started to be Chinese, really. And of course part of being Chinese is to write poetry because everybody in China, it’s a bit like doing the crossword puzzle, you don't have to be a ... you don’t have to be Wordsworth or Shelley or Byron to be a Chinese poet, you just have to have a diary handy or an iPhone and just jot down something in the appropriate poetic form, which you had to learn as part of your exams anyway, so let’s not make a big thing about being a poet. And so these Manchus started to become poets and it so happens ... and I’ve chosen one of them that ... one of the greatest of all Chinese poets and I said ... meaning from the very beginning to the very end, 1911, was a Manchu and his name was Nalan Xingde, and he was a very highborn Manchu aristocrat. I happened to have the pleasure of visiting the palace in which he grew up in Peking just a few weeks ago. It became later the residence of Madame Soong Ching-ling, that gangster’s moll who became the sort of pet idol of Communist China. Her husband gave her a revolver as a wedding present. That gives you some idea of the nature of this extraordinary lady. Anyway she was moved into this wonderful palace and that’s where Nalan Xingde grew up. And you see he was ... he only lived to the age of 30, he was about the same age as Keats when he died but he wrote a small quantity of the most wonderful ... what they call lyric versts of the poetry. And I’ve given you some examples here. I’m only going to read one because I’m going to run out of time very quickly but if you’ve got a handout you can turn to page three. If you haven’t I’ll try and read this so that you understand it without. It’s perhaps his most famous poem and it goes like this: The fire in my heart is turned to ashes.I feel like a monk;Only my head is still unshaven. O poor heart!How wind and rain have worn you out!How partings from friends, dead and alive,Have torn you to pieces!This orphan candleSeems like an old friend.There remains one thing alone That keeps me from a complete Awakening: —Love, in the ashes of my heart! I mean that’s a ... it’s a very, very wonderful poem in Chinese and that’s a rather inadequate translation by a very interesting man called John Wu, who published his translations under the pen name of Teresa Lee, gives you some idea of the kind of gender ambivalence of this whole genre of poetry. And he was a very famous figure in Kuomintang China. And I think he was the KMT Ambassador in the Vatican, I'm not sure ... he was certainly a Catholic and a very eloquent one and he transla ... I’ve heavily revised this translation, I have to admit. But this poem, this whole poet, I mean ... is so close to the mood of The Story of the Stone that in fact for a long time people believed that he was the model of the main character of the novel. The main character of the novel is a young man by the name of Jia Baoyu, a very, very complex adolescent who loves boys and girls, who loves more or less anything, you know. He’s in love with love, I think that’s what they used to say in the ‘60s, and he’s this extraordinary androgynous very beautiful young man who likes to consort with actors, preferably female impersonators and singsong girls and people of that ilk. And when his father finally realises that’s what’s going on he more or less beats him to death and ... but he grows up during the 120 chapters of this novel to ... he grows up experiencing all the pains and frustrations of love and all the frustrations of growing up itself in a huge family that’s falling apart at the seams. And eventually you know sees through it all and becomes enlightened and wanders off into other snow singing a mad song to become a sort of zen monk. Well I mean that’s the bare bones of the story. I’m sorry, I’ve kind of ... it’s a real spoiler, that but I mean you know he doesn’t ... I once said to my son on the way in ... this is many, many years ago when they were showing a film about this novel at the then Chinese Embassy out in Watson and I was driving in from Yass with my young son and he said what’s the film about, Dad? And I said well it’s about a young man, and I gave him the ... and eventually he turns into a monk. And my son misheard me, he thought I ... I thought I said chipmunk so throughout the movie he kept saying Dad, when does he become a chipmunk? Well he doesn’t become a chipmunk, he becomes ... he doesn’t even really become a monk, he just wanders off into the void and that’s the essence of the story, it’s about somebody who you know sees through the illusion of human emotion but having experienced it to the full. I mean it’s not like a kind of stereotypical Buddhist novel, it’s not at all. It’s what you might call a Daoist novel because, as you know, Daoists, unlike Buddhists, they revel in the world before seeing through it. I mean they make sure they get the best out of it both ways, they’ve got a bob both way and that’s a typical Daoist philosophy. I mean read Lin Yutang, you’ll hear all about it.  So this Manchu, I mean here’s a guy you know, Nalan Xingde, who could ride out there with the best, I mean he was a good horseman. He was a great archer, he could do all the right Manchu things and yet he could write this extraordinarily sort of heavily laden poignant lyrical poet, I mean it’s all like that, it’s utterly heartbreaking but it’s supposed to be because his ... the young woman he loved to pieces died very young and there’s an absolute flood of biographies coming out now, they’re all like Mills & Boon romances about the young poet, Nalan Xingde, and you know his love life and so and they’re all rubbish but his actual poetry is really amazing and worthy of being better translated than it has been. Now ... so you he was a friend of the author’s grandfather, in fact Cao Xueqin’s grandfather, Cao Yin, was a host to the whole ... the whole range of both Manchu and Chinese men of letters and in that respect he reflected exactly the reign of the Emperor, Kangxi, because Kangxi was the first Manchu emperor to really bridge that gap between the Chinese and the Manchus, and he studied very hard to understand Chinese culture. Now what interests me this evening, and I’m trying to cut out the sort of ... cut the fat off the bone if you like ... what interests me is to take this idea further and it’s never really been done, you see, it’s a new thing. People are interested in Cao Xueqin’s Manchu friends in order to find out when he was born and when he died, nobody agrees on that, you know? Still to this day they don’t know when he was born and when he died so when they trying to talk about having a centenary ... I mean no, it’d be 300 years after his birth ... or after his death ... the British Museum contacted me and said would I advise them on a big exhibition at the British Museum? And I said you better be careful because nobody actually agrees on when he died, so you might pick the wrong year, and then you’ll be in serious trouble so they don’t know anything about this author at all. You know they don’t know when he was born, when he died, they don’t even know who his father was for sure and all they know is that he had a few Manchu friends, a few Bannermen friends, high-ranking members of the imperial clan, the Aisin Gioro clan and that ... and they mention him in their poems. So then immediately these scholars start rushing around reading the poems, not in order to read the poems, but in order to try and get a handle on when he was born and where he went where and to use it as biographical material. And that’s all we have. And so they’ve kind of ignored them as people in their own right, they’ve ignored them as writers as well and they’ve just used them as carcasses from which to extract some sort of factual maggot from time to time in order to feed you know the industry of hongxue, of this novel’s appalling scholarly obsession. So I think that what I want to do now is to skip to some of the poems that these people wrote. There were two brothers, you see, called Dun Cheng and Dun Min, and they were very, very high-ranking Manchus. And they used to meet up with the author, Cao Xueqin, from time to time, they’d go off and have picnics and things like that. And I want to go straight to a particular occasion when they went ... one of the brothers, Dun Cheng, went with the author to visit his brother, his own brother, Dun Min, in the villa where he lived on the outskirts of the Manchu city near a lake called Taipinghu. And the other brother was not there and so Dun Cheng found himself with his friend, Cao Xueqin, and he describes this in great detail, that Cao Xueqin was absolutely dying for a drink. I mean the one thing we know about him from almost every poem written about him is that he really liked to drink, a lot, I mean and when he wanted to drink he really had to drink you know the feeling. And I mean he would ... it’s known that he would just simply hand over a chapter of his novel in return for a bottle of wine and usually the person would never bring it back and he’d have the wine and then realise he’d lost a chapter and he’d have to rewrite the chapter all over again from memory you know which is why the novel is such a mess, basically, it’s full of contradictions, it’s full of textual variance and people’s names changed from one chapter to the next and so on but I mean the point is that his friends saw this as a very endearing quality in him and if I can just find the actual quotation, yes, it’s on page 10. I’m sort of jumping around but I always do. Dun Cheng, in a long preface to one of his poems, writes of meeting Cao Xueqin near his brother Dun Min’s villa, the elm garden near Taiping Lake in the southwest corner of the inner Manchu city:  It was an autumn morning, a rainy day and windy and bitingly cold. My brother, Min, did not come out—  He might have been in there but he didn’t come out when they knocked on the door so they walked off into the suburbs of Peking on a very cold autumn morning and they got to the brother’s house and he wasn’t sort of answering the bell. —and Cao Xueqin was in serious need of a drink.  You know, it’s early in the morning, let’s not beat about the bush here, it’s before breakfast kind of thing you know and he really needed a drink.  So I pawned my sword— So they went ... he went off into the nearest village and took his sword out and pawned it to buy some wine. —and we drank. Xueqin was absolutely overjoyed, and wrote a long poem to thank me for it! I wrote this in reply. And he gives his own poem. And in the poem he talks about Cao Xueqin ‘bursting out in joyful laughter, tapping a stone on the ground and improvising a high-spirited poem.’ This little vignette gives us a vivid image of the man and of the lifestyle of Cao Xueqin and his aristocratic Manchu friends. Concerning Cao’s ability as a painter and ... as a poet and painter, the Dung brothers leave us with a few suggestive comments. His verse had a weird ... you see we don’t have any of his verse, I mean we don’t have anything that this man … this greatest genius in the history of Chinese literature you know we have nothing other than this novel, it’s the most extraordinary state of affairs. No poems, no paintings, no nothing, no dramas, no letters, no prose, essays, nothing at all. They tried to produce some stuff and it all turned out to be forgeries, you know. He had ... his poetry which they had read had a weird quality like that of the ghost-haunted Tang poet, Li He. From his novel we can see that Cao’s ... you can see Cao’s extraordinary versatility with all the various genres of Chinese verse and his delight in versifying. His paintings, ‘cause he also painted, according to his friend Zhang Yiquan, was the ideal vehicle for his romantic notions inspired as he was by the hills and streams outside his door, by the flowers and birds he saw in front of his home. He also played the seven-stringed qin, what van Gulik calls the Chinese lute, with great skill.  Now for me after having immersed myself a bit in what these Manchu guys were doing and I mean there were about three or four of them I found myself going back to the novel and realising my goodness, this is part of the same world, it hasn’t come out of nowhere, it’s part of this little world and of course the world on which these Manchus modelled themselves was in fact the world of an earlier group of free-living, freethinking free spirits called the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of them but it sounds like a great name for a pop band you know, the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, but I mean they were this wonderful collection of people who wrote poetry and gathered under trees and played music and drank and took drugs and all the kind of things that you did in those days in the third, fourth centuries and they became legendary you know the Seven Sages of the Bamboo ... and we know that these people idolised them because they used to have their names you know one of the things you can find out about Chinese men of letters very quickly is that their names give you clues to their character and Cao Xueqin, although we know nothing about him, we know that one of his names was Mengruan, which I dream about Ruan Ji. Ruan Ji was one of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove so basically he aspired to be like that person and that we know ... and that tells us a huge amount. It’s like a cryptic clue in a crossword you know I mean from that we can immediately realise that these people modelled themselves on the sort of eccentric zany neo-Daoist Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove. Now then we come to the more interesting question is why and what did it mean? And there are various answers to this, one is that simply these were impoverished Manchus who just were down and out layabouts and all they wanted to do was to drink and make merry but there is a more interesting angle which is that they lived ... all of these people lived through some very dangerous times, I mean it’s not a recent phenomenon that China has become a police state, I mean this has been happening for centuries, you know and I mean to live in the second half of the eighteenth century, it was not all roses, you know, the police were after you all the time in case you said something inappropriate. And you know my most hated emperor of course is Yongzheng because he brought about the downfall of the Cao family thanks to a palace rivalry between various prince ... I won’t go into that but Qianlong, the big guy who came after who ruled for you know the whole second half of the eighteenth century, I mean downstairs is like full of Qianlong stuff, I mean he was also an absolute you know he ran a police state basically and he was always picking on people for possible references you know to anti-Manchu sentiment and so on so these Manchu noblemen were very nervous about the situation because you know they just worked ... lived in constant fear that one of them would be just hauled out and accused of having sympathised with the wrong prince or the wrong you know cause and simply be exiled to some horrible island you know off the south coast of China and that would be the end of them. So they were very, very nervous and it was actually Arthur Waley who suggested that one of the reasons why these people like my author and Manchu bannermen friends, one of the reasons why they played up the whole sort of eccentric you know was so that nobody would take them seriously as genuine people involved in the political world and I think that’s quite an interesting idea. But I think there’s also another aspect to these people that I find more important, more interesting which is that they were on the sort of cusp between being Chinese and Manchu. They wrote in Chinese, they didn’t write their poetry in Manchu, they wrote in extremely eloquent Chinese and they were ... but at the same time they were very much Manchu and I’d like to draw your attention if you’ve ... be patient with me to some remarks made by some quite distinguished scholars about why it was that these Manchus were able to be such extraordinary manipulators of the Chinese poetic language. I’ll see if I can find this without spending too much time, it’s towards the end of the section on that very first guy, Nalan Xingde, and I particularly want to draw your attention to a scholar called ... it’s on page 2, actually ... a great scholar called Wang Guowei who died in 1927, he committed suicide. He was a Manchu loyalist and therefore very much going against the tide of early republican China and when he saw how things were falling apart he walked into a lake in Peking and drowned himself but he was one of the greatest scholars of his time. And he had this wonderful remark in his little study on Chinese poetry called Renjian cihua where he says ... he talks about Nalan Xingde, the poet I just read to you a poem by, and he says Xingde was able to be so genuine and moving, zhenqie, to use the eye of nature to observe and the tongue of nature to articulate feelings because as a Manchu he had not yet been steeped in or infected by Han mores. So this is a very, very penetrating analysis of the situation, he’s saying more or less what I said at the very beginning, which is that by virtue of being Manchus, these figures were able to bring renewed vigour to a culture that was sort of stagnating and I think that’s terribly true. I think that the reason ... in fact I’d go further than that and say the reason why the author of The Story of the Stone was able to create such a transcendent masterpiece that’s written in the most wonderful Chinese was because ... precisely because he wasn’t Chinese. Now this would be regarded as heresy by of course the Chinese establishment today just as it would be regarded as heresy to point out that the great poet, Li Bo, had Turkish origins which I think’s undeniable. And of course a long of the Tang dynasty vigour came precisely from the influence from central Asia and from those lovely singsong girls who sang all the latest pop songs from you know Turkistan and places like that. That was what kept the place alive, you know and this happened again. Even the great storyteller Pu Songling was supposed to have Turkish family background and you know this belies the whole concept of Han you know the Han chauvinist theory of Chinese culture, which I have to say is untenable. And I think that they would be reluctant to accept my argument that this is what makes The Story of the Stone unique in Chinese ... but I mean I’m afraid I can go on and prove it, I’m sure. I shall spend what’s left of my life trying to do so because I think it’s terribly important, because otherwise how do you explain this extraordinary phenomenon? The Chinese produced lots of novels you know you’ve got The Three Kingdoms, you’ve got All Men are Brothers, you’ve got you know that wonderful erotic novel, Golden Lotus and so ... but I mean they’re nothing compared to The Dream of the Red Chamber. Compared to The Story of the Stone, they are nothing, they are naive, they’re rather crudely written and so on and so forth and they’re very Chinese. And suddenly you get this novel and there’s never anything like it afterwards and before and it ... things don’t happen for no reason at all and I think I’m beginning rather late in life to sense what it is that has caused this and this is why I’ve chosen the topic of Cao Xueqin and his bannermen friends, because it gradually began to dawn on me that actually it grew out of this whole environment, these very special people who’ve never been treated seriously because you know there was a very anti-Manchu sentiment and now of course that’s beginning to change, people are starting to be proud of being Manchu suddenly after all these years which is quite bizarre but I mean you know these things happen, fashions come and go. And probably by another 10 years it’ll be something else you know but I mean I think that the time has come to try this argument out. I’m finding it more and more convincing. Now I want to try to give you a bit more of an idea of what these friends thought of him and there’s a ... rather a nice poem on page nine by another of his bannermen friends. Now this guy, Zhang Yiquan, he wasn’t a Manchu, he was what they call a Chinese bannerman, a hanjun and it’s very interesting because here in Canberra we had amongst us for many years, and several of you would have known him, a very fine Chinese scholar by the name of Liu Ts’un-yan and he was also a Chinese bannerman, a hanjun and these were Chinese people who were, I suppose, you’d say collaborators with the Manchus and were basically set up in banner organisations parallel to the Manchus and the Mongols and so on. And there were Chinese bannermen, there were even Russian and Korean bannermen and this particular man, Zhang Yiquan, was a Chinese bannerman and he was a good friend of Cao Xueqin’s. And this was one thing he wrote on page 9 and it’s about ... it’s something he inscribed on a painting done ... we haven’t got the painting, we don’t know what it looks like but we know this inscription is by him. And it says: He loves to express his romantic notions with his brush,In his cottage in the western suburbs, his quiet sanctuary.Outside his door, hills and streams inspire poetry and painting, Before his hall, flowers and birds enter his songs.He envies not the great poet Li Bo’s court banquets;He regrets not the great painter Yan Liben’s court summonses. In other words this man, this genius, Cao Xueqin, he wanted to have nothing to do with the official world you know he was a genuine recluse and he lived out in the sticks, you know. And he was not tempted, I mean his family ... his family had been ruined during the reign of the Emperor Yongzheng. His family which had been you know perhaps the richest family in China for several decades during the reign of Kangxi, they were great favourites of the Kangxi Emperor, and he raised them to positions of enormous wealth and then when Yongzheng took over in the late ‘20s, I mean he associated his family with one of the rival contenders for the throne and punished them severely and basically ruined them, took away all their money, their property and so on and that’s how our author ended up in Peking poverty-stricken but with his memories of the incredible extravagance of his youth. The whole novel is sometimes called The Dream of Nanking because he grew up in Nanking in the south, and in a family of untold wealth but also a very cultured family. His grandfather compiled the complete poems of the Tang dynasty for example and had a superb library and had friends who were writers and painters so he grew up in this very cultured and very, very wealthy family and then suddenly crash you know it all just disappeared and he had to move up to Peking where there were still one or two members of the family who still had you know small apartments in town kind of thing so he lived off them for a while and then moved out to literally a kind of shack out in the western suburbs of Peking and supposed to have lived mostly on porridge except that he did drink large amounts of wine so I don’t take that terribly seriously. And the poem by his friend, Zhang Yiquan, ends with the lines: Which of the ancients can be compared to him?His free untrammelled mind rides with the white clouds. And there again this is how his bannermen friends saw him, as a free spirit, as somebody who as another poem says when he walked into the room it was like spring came in the door you know he just made everything come alive and he was you know I was asked to write his biography for the so-called Berkshire National Dictionary Chinese Biography and I mean to write a biography of this man is almost impossible because you know nothing except a few poems and all we know is he drank a lot of wine, he liked to paint and he was very poor and he loved to play games, he was apparently a terrific player of games. We know that from again anecdotal references from his bannermen friends. He used to just like to sit there in his room, probably rather drunk, playing games you know probably games like Go or drinking games, probably. And he was also apparently ... and this is absolutely credible ... a great expert on Chinese medicine and he used to sometimes go out into the hillsides up there culling herbs and then would mix up concoctions and so on for old ladies living in the village. I mean this may just be anecdotal rumour you know but I mean this is all we have, all we have is nothing except that we also have the greatest novel perhaps you know in the history of world literature and from that certain crazy people manage to deduce facts about his life which are completely fictitious of course because this is a novel, not historical fact.  Now if we turn now from his friends to what he himself wrote about his intentions in writing this masterpiece we have an extraordinary sort of apologia and I’d like to read you a little bit of that, it’s on page 11. He writes: having made an utter failure of my life  ... because he did, I mean he had no job, he had no money. He was married twice but you know he died shortly after his second wife gave birth. Well his wife had had infant son, we don’t know how old the son was and the son died and you know one of his Manchu friends said he died of grief at the death of his infant son so his life was really you know nothing, no job, no money, no collection of poems, no surviving paintings. I mean ... and yet the most famous figure in Chinese literature. I mean if the Chinese didn’t have this absurd Confucius Institute, they have the Goethe-Institut or something, they’d have the Cao Xueqin Institute because he is the greatest single literary figure I think in the whole of Chinese literature. And yet he had nothing, you see. So: Having made an utter failure of my life I find myself one day in the midst of my poverty and wretchedness thinking about the female companions of my youth.  I mean he was very, very keen on girls, I mean obviously from his novel because the novel’s all about girls and the main character, the ma ... it says ... there’s a wonderful passage in the main ... in the novel where it says about the main character, if he ever he was in pain you know all he had to do was to call out girls, girls and he was fine you know much better than Panadol, I mean he just you know he’d believe that boys were just disgusting and girls were the thing. Of course later on he modified that view because he became involved with boys as well as girls but this is the main character. Now we can’t deduce from that that the author was like that because probably the main character is a composite of different people but certainly the novel is all about beautiful young ladies, I mean all of his girl cousins, they all move into the garden and lived together and write poetry and lead this extraordinary idyllic life painting and drinking tea and writing poetry and having little flirtatious relationships with each other until the whole thing crashes but I mean that’s the dream, that’s the first half of the novel described in loving detail, every single you know moment is described. And they’ve all got endless numbers of servants, I mean I think he has 12 maids so to get up in the morning, I mean you know he can’t even brush his own teeth, I mean everything has to be done for him you know one maid’ll be putting on his underwear and the next one will be putting on his whatever, his jacket and so on and I mean it’s quite annoying really to read all this stuff after a while, you get a bit tired of it but I mean that was the lifestyle. And then crash and of course he wrote all this when he himself was in abject poverty remembering with great nostalgia, I mean it’s the most nostalgic novel ever written and the nostalgia for the past, the dream, the great dream of the past, of the glorious, the golden days when he lived in Nanking and was living in the lap of luxury and now there’s nothing left except you know the coal, the embers in the grate and a cold bowl of porridge and a ... almost finished bottle of wine, you know and where’s the next bottle coming from? That was light he was leading. So: There and then I resolved to make a record of all the recollections of those days that I could muster, those golden days when I dressed in silk and aged delicately, when we still nestled in the protecting shadow of the ancestors and heaven still smiled on us. However unsightly my own shortcomings might be I must not for the sake of keeping them hid allow those wonderful girls to pass into oblivion without a memorial. Reminders of my poverty were all about me, the thatched roof, the wicker lattices, the crockery stove but these do not need to be an impediment to the workings of the imagination.  So you see this fits in so perfectly with the environment I’ve been evoking of these Manchu bannermen. They were all part of the same scene, they were all friends, they lived this kind of, in this sort of dream world. And that little essay I read earlier on about the daydream you know am I awake or am I dreaming? This of course goes all the way back to the great Daoist writer, Zhuangzi, it’s one of the main themes that comes again and again and again in Chinese literature, you know and it’s about ... it’s ... runs through The Story of the Stone, it’s one of the big themes in the novel. Now another of these Manchu boys, Dun Min, the brother of Dun Cheng, wrote a rather charming poem which is just below what I’ve just read on page 11 in which he says ... he’s talking about his friend, Cao Xueqin, he’s talking about our author.  By emerald streams and dark-green hills winds the path, To the ivy-covered gate in the iridescent haze.His quest for poetry has taken him to lodge with the monk;To pay the wine-shop bill, he sells his paintings.  Yet another reference to his need to ... for wine, you see.  In the markets of Peking his proud songs tell of his sorrows; His tattered dream of Nanking recalls the splendour of past days.New grief and old pain in abundance, A proud drunken melancholy… That’s just a typical ... one of the poems written by his Manchu friends and apart from these Manchu friends you see the novel itself accumulated a lot of commentaries from his family members and it’s very interesting because one or two people now writing in China are starting to put these two things together which has never been done before and saying these commentators who had funny names like Redingstone or you know Old Crock, that’s what these commentators ... they love to give themselves funny names you know Half a Shoe or something like that. And then on the one hand they’ve got these people writing little notes in the margin of the hand-copied versions of the novel saying like oh my god, I remember Auntie So-and-so, she was just like that, he’s described her to the absolute ... perfectly you know I remember the way she used to talk over her afternoon tea, what a boring old lady you know that’s the kind of thing they wrote. So we got all this massive family annotations and we’ve got these Manchu bannermen and probably the people annotating, they were also bannermen because if they were part of Cao’s family they would have been bound to be. And you know it’s beginning to almost look like they might have been all part of the same scene and maybe they were even the same person, maybe ... ‘cause they’re always arguing about ... who is Redingstone, for god’s sake? A boy? A girl? An old man? A young man? But maybe he’ll turn out to be one of these boys, one of ... Dun Min or Dun Cheng, who knows? Because there’s an extraordinary coincidence in terms of the dates and so on. It’s one of the great mysteries of this novel. This novel generates endless amounts of mystery, it’s one of its great charms, you know and my theory, which again is completely unprincipled, is that the author was a very mischievous individual who deliberately left his novel unfinished in order to torment future readers and left a kind of half-finished ending tucked away underneath the nappies at home and with you know and his wife ... his widow found it later and they all cobbled together a final ending. And I think there’s a whole ... I think it’s one of the most extraordinary works of artifice ever to happen you know in the history of humankind. And he keeps talking about the secret message of his novel, he keeps tantalising his reader, you know. You don’t really understand what I’m on about because there’s a secret message there you know and don’t think you understand it because the minute you do you’ll be wrong, you’ll realise that you’re wrong. And the extraordinary thing about this novel is that it’s very playful, it’s very light, it’s very easy to read really and ... in Chinese, it’s written in vernacular Chinese, not in classical Chinese and yet it’s very ... and yet it’s very deep, it’s very, very ... it raises some of those recurring issues in Chinese culture about you know the nature of reality, the nature of human emotion and the nature of society and the relationships within a fam ... these huge themes all in one novel, 120 chapters long admittedly, with about 330 main characters and about another 500 minor ones so I mean it is absolu ... a sprawling great thing. And I’m going to end because I want ... I must end anyway because I’m just seeing on the computer here, it says 6:57, I can see very discreetly but I’ve almost run to the end of my time and I think we’re going to have drinks and snacks which is far more important. The ... in the present day there has been a wonderful scholar of this novel by the name of Anthony Yu, who sadly passed away nearly a year ago, and he came here a few years ago and delivered the most wonderful speeches and so on, and he has written about this novel I think better than any living ... well he’s no longer alive ... any person of this present age. And I want to conclude by mentioning him and by saying in his words you know you see ... from the bottom of page 14, the last paragraph there. The novel treats throughout its pages of the nature of passion and desire. It is a story that tries to tell the truth, it is ‘fiction that does not falsify’. Anthony Yu in his penetrating study of the novel quotes its concluding words, a quatrain whose author may have been either Cao Xueqin or Gao E, who edited the last 40 chapters, and these are the last four lines of the novel.  When grief for fiction’s idle wordsMore real than human life appears,Reflect that life itself’s a dreamAnd do not mock the reader’s tears. These are the last four lines of the novel and Anthony Yu comments on that, I think very poignantly. He says not to mock the reader’s tears is to avow both the potency and illusion of fiction and that, says Anthony Yu, that is great pity and wisdom indeed. And I’d like to leave you with those words because I think they’re very powerful. Thank you very much. [Applause] [end of recording]