The Russians have Tolstoy. The Irish have Joyce. The English have Shakespeare. And the Chinese have…Cao Xueqin? Author of DREAM OF THE RED CHAMBER (varying translations have slightly different titles), his work has been incredibly popular since it was first published in the late 18th century and is still a cultural phenomenon in Asia today. This past year I taught English in China. All of the teachers knew the plot, several had read it multiple times (considering it is comparable to Proust in terms of length, rereading it is no small achievement), and some fifth graders were reading a dumbed down version. But despite this, it has never caught on overseas.
The frame story is…odd. I think there are some poetic connotations, but to a non-Chinese, a lot of these references are lost. A magical stone wishes it could experience life, so two priests give it a body so it can learn from human experience.
In an aristocratic family, an heir is born with a piece of jade in his mouth. This is Baoyu. Though readers do see him growing up briefly, the majority of the story is about him as a young adult in a love triangle between Daiyu (the one he wants) and his cousin Baochai (the one his family wants him to marry) as their family declines and falls out of favor. The book is so long, and there are so many other characters, that it is almost impossible to give a full plot summary. There are tons of side stories and despite the focus on aristocrats the book covers all areas of life.
Not all these plotlines are equal: sometimes readers will have to slog through a chapter or two, but it is always worth it. There is something for everyone: murder, love, tragedy, poetry contests, Chinese culture. That last one is especially important; this is practically an encyclopedia of 18th century China.
Interestingly, the book experiences a drop in quality towards the end. The legend goes that Cao Xueqin died before he could finish it and another writer, Gao E, tacked on his own ending.
One reason the book may never have taken off in the Western world is translation. The book is written in a special dialect, and it is impossible to bring into English the nuance that comes from writing in this special system. Numerous poems also dot the text, and in each case it is unfortunately obvious that something is lost in translation. But do not let this or the last point about the ending be a deterrent, as the work definitely survives these flaws.
There are a lot of different editions and translations available in English. The Penguin editions are the definitive English copies, but with each volume selling separately, it can be a pretty penny to go with those copies. I read the DREAM OF RED MANSIONS version available from Chinese Classics, offered as a four volume set for the reasonable price of $20. Perhaps this explains some of the translation issues, but this edition is still worth reading. If I have been harsh in listing the cons, it is only because there are too many pros to list. The Complete Review listed this as a contender for the “book of the millennium” title, and I agree completely. Though if you have the money/if your library has the copies, perhaps go with the Penguin version.