Wandering Between Two Worlds

The Formative Years of Cao Xueqin 1715–1745

by Ronald R. Gray (Author)
©2014 Monographs 243 Pages
Series: Asian Thought and Culture, Volume 68


Wandering Between Two Worlds: The Formative Years of Cao Xueqin 1715–1745 is a biographical account of the first 30 years of the life of the eighteenth-century Chinese novelist who wrote Honglou meng (Dream of the Red Chamber). It covers Cao Xueqin’s life from his birth in Nanjing in 1715 to the time when it is roughly estimated he began to seriously write his massive work. The book attempts to provide a brisk but broad overview of the important familial, social, historical, literary, and intellectual influences on Cao and his decision to write Honglou meng. Wandering Between Two Worlds relies upon extensive interviews done with noted mainland Chinese scholars on the novel, such as Zhou Ruchang, Cai Yijiang, Duan Jiangli, Shen Zhijun, Zhang Qingshan, and Sun Yuming, during the author’s eight-year stay in China; recent research done by Western scholars on Qing dynasty literature, gender, qing, philosophy, and education; and insights from the burgeoning field of the New Qing history. This is only the second biography of Cao Xueqin’s life to appear in English, and the first to examine in detail his early life and to be written by a non-Chinese. It is intended for students of traditional Chinese literature and culture, as well as general readers interested in the novel and features a special foreword written by the distinguished redologist Zhou Ruchang.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Foreword by Zhou Ruchang
  • Introduction: The Problem of the Biographer.
  • 1. “Thanks to Imperial Favor”
  • 2. The Kangxi Emperor's Man on the Ground: Cao Yin and Neiwufu
  • 3. “Dressed in Silks and Delicately Nurtured”
  • 4. “The Embroidered Jackets Raid”
  • 5. “Buildings Rich and Elegant, People Lively and Numerous”
  • 6. “Career Worms”
  • 7. Reading and Rereadings
  • 8. “Stirred Feelings Find Expression in Sound”
  • 9. The Right Wing Imperial Clan School and the Dun Brothers
  • 10. Participating in the Social World: Poetry, Painting, Music, and Gardens
  • 11. The Question of Motivation
  • 12. “No Need for Some Self-Important Being to Commend or Publish It”
  • Series Index

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This study is the result of nearly a decade of research and discussions. I would first of all like to thank the many Honglou meng scholars I have met in China for patiently answering my many questions. I would specifically like to thank Prof. Duan Jiangli of Beijing Language and Culture University, Prof. Liang Guizhi of Liaoning Normal University, and especially Cai Yijiang, for their great assistance and hospitality. I am also very grateful to my former student. Li Li 李丽 for her help procuring material, her research, and her careful editing in spite of the fact she was also working on her thesis at the time. Thanks also to Robert Wyss of Ohio University’s OPIE program for providing useful comments about the manuscript. Hats off to Terence “Moping, melancholy, and mad” Allred for his very careful reading and editing. I owe a strong debt of gratitude to my mentor, the distinguished Redologist Zhou Ruchang (1918–2012), a great scholar and gentleman in the traditional Confucian sense of the term, who was always supportive and willing to discuss the novel during the 10 years I had the pleasure of knowing him. I am also very grateful to him for taking the time to write an introduction to this book several months before his died in spite of being in bad health. Moreover, I also appreciate the friendliness of Zhou’s daughter Zhou Lunling. Most importantly, a strong thank you to my wife, Kyongsook Park, who has had to endure years of me endlessly talking about Honglou meng, for her support, and excellent translation, editing, and formatting skills. Several grants from Ohio University’s Office of the Vice President for Research and the College of Arts and Sciences helped make the publication of this book possible. In addition, several Humanities Research Fund grants made it possible for me to make a needed research trip to Beijing in May, 2013 and to purchase materials. Finally, a special thanks to Dean Howard Dewald for telling me about this fund and giving support.

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China has four classical novels: The Three Kingdoms 国演义, Journey to the West 西Outlaws of the Marsh 水浒传,, and Dream of the Red Chamber 红楼梦. All Chinese know these works and never tire of reading them. Today, people use many different methods to study the characteristics and contents of these classics which have become part of the general cultural knowledge of educated people around the world.

It is very interesting to note that Cao Xueqin, the author of Dream of the Red Chamber, was a descendant of the famous Wei general and politician Cao Cao (155–220 A.D.). Cao Cao was the leader of the Wei Kingdom who eventually defeated the Shu and Wu kingdoms during China’s Three Kingdom Period (the novel The Three Kingdoms is based upon this period). Surprisingly, many readers are not aware of the relationship between these 2 individuals.

I understand that Mr. Ronald Gray is writing a book to introduce Cao Xueqin to Western readers. Cao should be recognized as a genius who was also a sage. He was a gifted practitioner of literature, poetry, poetic prose, calligraphy, painting, garden design, architecture, aesthetics, philosophy, history, ethnology, and other fields. His special talents and wide knowledge are clearly demonstrated in Honglou meng, which is a very rare work of genius, and has been translated into many languages.

I would like to take this opportunity to express my long held feelings. I have many foreign friends who study Dream of the Red Chamber, but their interests and energy are focused only on the novel, and they pay little attention to Cao Xueqin as a person. This approach to literature is very different from the approach of the Confucian philosopher Mencius 孟子 (371–289 B.C.), who said that you cannot completely understand an author by only reading his books or poems, you also need to understand his life and background. That is why it is necessary when reading a book or chanting a poem to clearly comprehend the period in the writer’s life in which the work was written in. Mencius referred to this as “Making comments on public figures and social affairs.”

I want to emphasize this point in this preface: I know Mr. Gray is a scholar who is deeply interested in Cao Xueqin’s writings and life. He is particularly interested in the first 30 years of Cao’s life, before Dream of the Red Chamber was ‘born,’ and the special circumstances of this time. This period is very important. ← ix | x →

In my opinion, the Kangxi emperor’s (1662–1722) reign can be divided into three stages. During the first stage, he completely conquered China with military force. During the middle stage, Kangxi focused on developing Han traditional culture and used every means to promote the integration of Man and Han culture. And during the final stage, he suffered greatly because of the horrible political infighting among his sons over who would succeed him to the throne. In the end, Kangxi ruled China for 61 years, until theYongzheng emperor cleverly employed schemes and intrigues to usurp the throne. Consequently, when characters in Honglou meng state that they wish they could have “lived 20–30 years earlier,” this really means they did not live during this 30 year period of peace and prosperity, but rather during a time which seemed like “the end of the world.” This quote also directly refers to the 30 years before Dream of the Red Chamber was written.

This 30 year span extended from the time Kangxi began his famous tours of the south of China to around the time Yongzheng stole the throne, and the “big four political cases” occurred, when Yongzheng tyrannically ruled the country and viciously punished Nian Gengyao, Long Ke duo, Li Xu, and Cao Xueqin’s father, Cao Fu. This resulted in tragic changes to Cao Xueqin’s family’s status and future. It also deeply influenced Cao’s philosophy, sentiment, and perspectives on life, society, politics, morality, and culture.

Cao wrote in chapter one of his novel the antithetical couplet, “When false is taken for true, true becomes false; if non-being turns into being, being becomes non-being.” It encapsulates his strong sense of grief, indignation, and mental agony. But he also knew that he should carry out Kangxi’s wishes and wanted to write a book that fused together Man and Han culture.

Mr. Gray edited the English translation of my book Cao Xueqin’s New Biography 新传,1 and is now writing a biography of Cao’s early life. I believe his book will contribute to cultural exchange between China and the West.

I am old (94) and have lost my eyesight, so it is very difficult to write. But I would like to congratulate Mr. Gray on his undertaking with my short preface. Finally, I am reminded that Cao Xueqin was born in 1724, which was, like this year, the year of the Dragon. I hope people will remember his birthday. ← x | xi →

I am unable to write as much as I would like because of my physical condition and I find it difficult to sort out my ideas, so I will finish with the hope that Mr. Gray and readers will forgive me.

Zhou Ruchang
Chinese Ministry of Culture
Tenured Researcher Art Research Institute of China
Visiting Scholar University of Wisconsin
Luce Scholar, U.S.
Author of More than 50 books on Honglou meng
Beijing, February 17, 2012
(Translated by Kyongsook Park)

1 Between Noble and Humble: Cao Xueqin and the Dream of the Red Chamber by Zhou Ruchang, Edited by Ronald R. Gray and Mark S. Ferrara (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2009).

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The Problem of the Biographer

While the eighteenth century Chinese writer Cao Xueqin 曹雪芹 (1715–1763) is widely considered to be China’s greatest novelist, we unfortunately know very little about his life. This is the starting point for any biographical inquiry into it. In fact, virtually nothing about his relatively short and tragic life is clear or easy to document, and what we do know would hardly fill a page. As Miao Huaiming has sadly noted, “facts are scarce and some are contradictory, a huge gap forms between the desire to know and the lack of information about him.”1

A useful parallel can be drawn with the life of William Shakespeare (to whom Cao has been frequently compared). Like Shakespeare’s, heated debates and controversy swirl around even the most basic facts of Cao’s life.2 Both men kept no diaries and left no letters, and no manuscripts of their works exist written in their own hands; we are still unsure of what they looked like, of their religious beliefs, and of their sexuality; their works are plagued by complicated and contentious textual disputes, and questions have long been raised about whether they were even the real authors of some or all of their writings. Although we know more about Cao Xueqin’s family background than we do about Shakespeare’s, we know much less about Cao as a person than we do about Shakespeare. What little we do know about Cao mainly comes from a few poems and remarks written by friends and second hand comments. Because Cao was never a government official, his name does not appear on any official records nor on the Cao clan registry. Consequently, the simple fact is there is not enough material for a full or satisfactory biography of him.

Ironically, Cao Xueqin’s novel, Honglou meng 红楼梦 Dream of the Red Chamber was not published until nearly 30 years after his death, and it was not until 1921, with the publication of the lengthy article, “A Textual-Critical Study of the Honglou meng” by Hu Shi, that Cao was finally conclusively identified as the author of the work.3 The implications of this discovery for ← xiii | xiv → studies of the novel were lamented by Haun Saussy in a famous 2003 article, “The Age of Attribution: Or, How the Honglou meng Finally Acquired an Author.” In it, Saussy argues that this discovery “caused Honglou meng studies to be buried under Cao studies, where they largely remain to this day except in certain countries where most reader’s unfamiliarity with Qing dynasty history makes a formal or thematic reading of the book a less tedious option.”4 Saussy’s aversion to Chinese scholars heavy reliance upon biographical approaches to the novel is also present in the writings of many Western scholars who usually carefully steer clear of biographical speculations about Cao.5 In contrast, biographies of Cao which assume that the novel is essentially a disguised autobiography continue to be quite common and popular in China.

In Shakespeare: The World as Stage, Bill Bryson caustically (but accurately) observes that because of the paucity of hard facts concerning Shakespeare’s life, investigators are basically left with only three possibilities: “To pick minutely over legal documents...to speculate...or to persuade themselves that they know more than they actually do ” As a result, “The urge to switch from subjunctive to indicative is, to paraphrase Alastair Fowler, always a powerful one.”6 While progress has been made in research on Cao’s family background thanks to groundbreaking work done by such scholars as Hu Shi, Yu Pingbo, Zhou Ruchang, Zhang Shucai, and Feng Qiyong, Bryson’s comment about Shakespeare is generally true and remains true of most Chinese biographical accounts of Cao’s life.

Traditionally, Chinese biographers of Cao Xueqin have relied upon the following types of evidence to document his life:

(1). The close study of existing governmental documents in the archives of the Palace Museum in Beijing and the National Palace Museum in Taipei relating to his family. These include the numerous regular and secret palace memorials submitted by Cao’s grandfather Cao Yin, his son Cao Yong, his posthumously adopted son Cao Fu, and Cao Yin’s brother-in-law Li Xu, to the Kangxi emperor, as well as Cao ← xiv | xv → Fu’s memorials to the Emperor Yongzheng, and the literary works of Cao Yin. Biographers have also scrutinized local government records and gazetteers, and Manchu and Cao clan genealogical registers.

(2). The close examination of comments, poems, and stories about Cao by close friends like Dun Cheng, Dun Men, and Zhang Yiquan, accounts of Cao’s life related to Yu Rui by older Cao family relatives, and analysis of long standing rumors about Cao Xueqin.

(3). Detailed analysis of the numerous remarks on the novel and Cao’s life written by the mysterious editor, confidant, and critic Zhiyanzhai (Red Inkstone) 月旨砚斋, and other individuals who made comments on manuscript versions of Honglou meng: Jihu sou (Odd Tablet) 畸笏叟, Songzhai 松斋,Changcun 常村, Meixi 梅溪, Xingzhai 杏斋, and Xutang 煦堂.

(4). Traditionally, it is common in Chinese literary criticism to read a literary work as an expression of Zhi or an author’s intent; therefore any literary creation is potentially seen as an autobiographical document. This is particularly true in the case of Honglou meng. Many Chinese biographers of Cao Xueqin continue to be mainly driven by the belief that the novel is heavily autobiographical and in large part concerned with depicting the life of its author. As a consequence, biographers minutely attempt to mine or “decode” the story’s possible allusions to actual occurrences in Cao Xueqin’s life, and ferret out his knowledge of nefarious doings in the Qing government or imperial family.7 ← xv | xvi →

(5). Imaginative or historicist reconstructions of his life.8

The purpose of this book is twofold. First, it attempts to offer a relatively brisk but comprehensive account of Cao Xueqin’s formative years. It takes him from his birth in 1715 to the age of 30, when he probably began to seriously write his massive novel. This account does not purport to be exhaustive but simply aims to broadly paint the social, historical, and familial influences which formed Cao and eventually led to his decision to write Honglou meng. It tries to give the reader a concrete feel for what he would have been socially, culturally, and intellectually exposed to during his time in Nanjing and Beijing. I will also contend that one of the things that made Cao Xueqin such a fascinating person is the fact that he was interested―in people, their daily lives and motivations, and all aspects of material culture. He was also intrigued with the subjects of systems of beliefs and knowledge, and on a pratical level, processes—how things were done or carried out in the world. His avid curiosity about these topics is clearly reflected in Dream of the Red Chamber.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (July)
gender philosophy dynasty literature
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 243 pp.

Biographical notes

Ronald R. Gray (Author)

Ronald R. Gray has degrees in philosophy from Brown University and the University of Colorado at Denver. He has published papers on Honglou meng (Dream of the Red Chamber) in Chinese and Western publications; guest co-edited a special 2005 issue of the Tamkang Review devoted to the novel; and is co-editor of Between Noble and Humble: Cao Xueqin and the Dream of the Red Chamber (Peter Lang, 2009) written by the noted Honglou meng scholar Zhou Ruchang. He lived in East Asia for 20 years and taught at universities in China, Japan, and South Korea. Gray currently teaches in the Department of Linguistics at Ohio University.


Title: Wandering Between Two Worlds