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Wandering Between Two Worlds

The Formative Years of Cao Xueqin 1715–1745


Ronald R. Gray

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.
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5. “Buildings Rich and Elegant, People Lively and Numerous”


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“Buildings Rich and Elegant, People Lively and Numerous”

In chapter three of Honglou meng, Lin Dai-yu travels to Beijing via the famous Grand Canal. Shortly after arriving in the capital, she peeps through the gauze window of her sedan chair and is astonished to “see streets and buildings more rich and throngs of people more lively and numerous than she had ever seen in her life before.”1 Her perception was not unusual, most travelers (and Dai-yu is coming from the urban and cosmpolitan city of Yangzhou) to Qing dynasty Beijing were also amazed by the city. Even the exhausted and demoralized Cao family, coming from a cosmopolitan city like Nanjing must have found the capital imposing.2 Beijing, at that time had a population of over 700,000 ← 75 | 76 → people and was equal in size and population only to Edo, the Tokugawa capital of Japan. But it was unmatched by any other world capital in terms of the ← 76 | 77 → beauty and harmony of its geometrical design (Marco Polo compared the layout of the city to a giant chess board), diversity of its population, elegance of its imperial architecture, sophistication of its systems of administrative governance and food security, and the efficiency of its maintenance of public order. This meticulously designed city was based on geomantic and mythological principles and was considered the center of the Chinese empire.3 Wide and spacious avenues ran from north to south in...

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