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Review: A Dream of Red Mansions

Updated on July 17, 2016
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A Dream of Red Mansions is one of China’s four great classical novels, and is considered by many to be the best of historical Chinese fiction. Written by Cao Xueqin in the middle of the 18th Century under the ruling Qing Dynasty, the work is also commonly known by the alternate titles of Dream of the Red Chamber and The Story of the Stone.

Encompassing a sprawling cast of noblemen, maidens, courtiers, monks and servants — nearly forty main characters, with a supporting cast of almost five hundred others — the novel continues through 120 semi-autobiographical chapters, weaving a tale that conveys the rise and decay of the Qing Dynasty through the progress of a number of interwoven Chinese families. Along the way, the work embodies written vernacular Chinese as well as poetry and the Beijing Mandarin dialect, touching on aspects of Chinese painting, music, opera, mythology, medicine, cuisine, tea culture, Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism, to portray a rounded view of contemporary upper-class China and its culture.

For centuries the novel and its imaginative scenes and interactions have served as inspiration for countless artists and painters throughout China. This folio collects all 230 of the fine full-color brushwork paintings of Sun Wen. Assisted by Sun Yunmo (or, according to some sources, Sun Xiaozhou), Sun Wen completed these paintings from 1867 through 1903, during the latter days of the same Qing Dynasty under which Cao Xequin originally created the inspiring novel. Each of the original works of art was produced brush-painted on silk panels measuring 17” x 30” (43.3 cm x 76.6 cm), and all are noteworthy for their vivid colors, imaginative choreography, rich detail, and realistic depiction of period Chinese. Among the 230 panels appear more than 3,700 figures.

Sun Wen’s original silk paintings are currently held by the Lushun Museum in Lushunkou District, Dalian City, Liaoning Province, China. Due to their extreme sensitivity to light and humidity, the paintings are not displayed. It is therefore primarily through such a folio as this that the artwork has become known to the larger world.

In its printed and bound size, this folio reproduces Sun Wen’s artwork at 40% of its original size. Scenes are presented on rich cream vellum stock with sufficient precision and detail to display the actual weave of the original silk fabric panels. Accompanying each of Sun Wen’s paintings is a brief narrative synopsis of a portion of Cao Xueqin’s original novel describing the events behind the scene depicted.

As one leafs through this luxurious folio, one encounters a panoply of late Imperial Chinese images — dream sequences, demons, goddesses, nuns, nobles, beggars, raging fires, landscapes, interiors, wildlife, gardens, temples, funerals, battles, processions, banquets, trials, operas, marriages — all rendered in exquisite detail by the artist. The highly realistic figures display the full ranges of human emotion and interaction. The folio thereby provides a broad and meticulously rendered nearly-cinematic exposure to aristocratic life in the China of the late 1800s.

In sum, A Dream of Red Mansions provides an immersive experience of late Imperial China, one that entices, entertains and enraptures the reader, the historian, and the art lover alike.

This folio is a boxed, flexible hardcover book in landscape format, 10.5” x 13.5”, consisting of 233 pages, with introduction.

The folio is published by Better Link Press, New York, NY, Copyright © 2010 Shanghai Press and Publishing Development Company, and is available from Tuttle Publishing and its affiliates.

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