In 'Red Chamber,' A Love Triangle For The Ages Before most Chinese readers learned of Romeo and Juliet, they fell for Dream of the Red Chamber. The 18th-century novel follows a love triangle between a boy and his two female cousins. It's been called China's greatest literary work, and now a new adaptation hopes to introduce it to an American audience.

In 'Red Chamber,' A Love Triangle For The Ages

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If there's one book that proves romance is alive in China, it's "Dream of the Red Chamber." The novel was written more than two centuries ago, but it still has generations of fans in China today.

NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports on a new English adaptation that will introduce more American readers to a classic Chinese love story.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Before most readers in China learned of "Romeo and Juliet," they were captivated by a love triangle between a boy and his two female cousins.

PAULINE CHEN: This is the single most famous love triangle in Chinese literary history.

WANG: That was Pauline Chen.

CHEN: And I'm the author of "The Red Chamber."

WANG: The latest retelling of a classic Chinese novel called "Hong Lou Meng," or for English speakers, "Dream of the Red Chamber."

It's about a well-to-do family living in an old China when an emperor still lived in the Imperial Palace, marriages were arranged and romances between cousins were socially acceptable. The full English translation of "Dream of the Red Chamber" is more than 2,000 pages long and it features more than 400 characters.

But Pauline Chen has written a new adaptation that boils down the story to focus on that famous love triangle that just about everyone in China knows. Here's a Cliff Notes version.


WANG: Boy meets Girl Number One, then boy meets Girl Number Two, Boy likes them both but he's actually in love with Girl Number One. So spoiler alert: when the boy is forced into an arranged marriage with Girl Number Two...


WANG: ...tragedy ensues. Sound familiar? You know, it's kind of like this story...


WANG: ...or at least Pauline Chen thinks so.

CHEN: I do think that there's a strange resemblance to "Gone with the Wind."

WANG: There's no Rhett Butler to further complicate the love triangle of "Dream of the Red Chamber." But both novels follow the decline of an upper-class family. And Chen says both share a similar tension between their female protagonists.

CHEN: In "Gone with the Wind," Scarlett O'Hara is desperately jealous of Melanie Wilkes for most of the book because she loves Ashley Wilkes, Melanie's husband. But then by the end of the book, when Melanie dies, suddenly Scarlett realizes how much they have gone through together, and that her bond to Melanie is far stronger than what she felt for Ashley.

WANG: Chen says Scarlett and Melanie reminded her of the two main female characters of "Dream of the Red Chamber," characters that she says readers immediately connected with when the book was first published in the mid-1700s.

CHEN: So, some people liked Lin Daiyu and they loved her spontaneity, her expressivity, her passion. But some people hated her, because actually she's also very petty, and gets really angry, and always goes off in hissy fits over relatively small incidents. And then the other character, Baochai, is even tempered, kind, generous. So, I think right away, these two women represented kind of the two ways a Chinese woman could be.

SASHA GONG: You actually see Chinese traditional literature, you will see a consistent pattern of strong women and weaker men.

WANG: Sasha Gong heads the China branch of Voice of America. And she's read "Dream of the Red Chamber" so many times she can recite passages by heart. She first read it as a young teenager in China during the Cultural Revolution.

GONG: When I read it in the early 1970s or late 1960s, it was banned, but everybody still love it.

WANG: Everybody, including Chairman Mao.

GONG: Oh yeah, Mao loved it. Mao loved a lot of things. He banned everything.

WANG: Especially during the Cultural Revolution, when reading practically anything except Chairman Mao's Little Red Book became a political crime. But that wasn't the first time "Dream of the Red Chamber" was deemed a bad book to read. Before the Chinese Communist Party came into power and banned arranged marriages in 1950, parents would often tell their children to stay away from a book that seems to encourage romantic free will.

CHEN: And I think that that type of romantic love is an expression of individualism.

WANG: Again, Pauline Chen.

CHEN: And that even today China is a society in which Confucianism is still fairly important. And Confucianism is something that emphasizes roles based on hierarchies. And so I think still the idea of free love and free choice outside the family is something that's very compelling.

WANG: The Chinese government has longed stopped banning the novel. It's now held up as one of China's greatest literary treasures. But grandparents can be a different story.

CATHERINE CHEN: My grandma said it's not a good novel.

WANG: Catherine Chen is 24 and she's read "Dream of the Red Chamber" twice - first as a middle schooler in China - against grandma's wishes.

CHEN: She said it's dirty, that I shouldn't read, especially for like young girl like me. But I like it anyway.

WANG: And so have generations of readers in China - and now, maybe one day in America, too. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News.


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