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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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9. The Right Wing Imperial Clan School and the Dun Brothers


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The Right Wing Imperial Clan School and the Dun Brothers

We last left Cao Xueqin beginning to search for a job. While male bondservants had to report for government duty at the age of eighteen, Cao did not, probably because he received a dispensation since his family was in disgrace.1 It has been speculated that he was a student for awhile in an exclusive school founded by the Yongzheng emperor located in Xian’an Palace for the children of members of the Imperial Household Department. There are also rumors that he may have worked for some time as a Biteishi, a secretary in a government agency, but was let go because of his difficult personality. But there is no strong evidence for either of these theories. There is little doubt that his economic situation during this period was quite precarious and that he felt great guilt over his inability to find a suitable position for someone of his background.2 Zhou Ruchang has argued that ← 181 | 182 → ← 182 | 183 → because of Cao’s privileged upbringing, “The only way he knew how to pull out of his misery was by begging for help from relatives and friends, and bearing the shame that came with humility.”3 Some scholars have maintained that although some of Cao’s relatives snubbed him (including his in-laws),4 he may have stayed with his famous cousin Prince Ping, who was married to one of Cao Yin’s daughters, until Ping’s...

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