The Chinese admire Cao Cao

Summary of The dream of the red chamber

The golden era of the Qing Dynasty

The dream of the red chamber takes place in China in the first half of the 18th century, during the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). The Manchu people overthrew the Han Chinese Ming dynasty in 1644. After that, a brutal two-class society policy was initially established, including: the male Han Chinese were forced to wear the Manchu hairstyle - a shaved head with a braid. Over the decades, however, the new rulers adopted many of the cultural customs and political structures of their predecessors, including the Chinese civil service system with its famous state examination.

The time under the three emperors Kangxi, Yongzheng and Quianlong is considered the Golden Age of the Qing Dynasty. Under their rule, agricultural taxes were lower than ever before, new cultivation methods and technical advances of the pre-industrial age were exhausted and the fine arts were promoted. After a tough power struggle with his rivals, Kangxi's fourth son Yongzheng succeeded his late father to the throne in 1723.

Known as a strict Confucian, Yongzheng cracked down on corrupt state officials, but also used the purges to get rid of his political enemies. The first cracks appeared on the shiny surface of progress and increasing prosperity: more and more land and wealth were concentrated in the hands of privileged nobles and officials. Smaller landowners, farmers and textile workers became impoverished and revolts increased. Internal unrest, the rapidly growing population and isolation from the outside heralded the beginning of the end of the Qing dynasty.


In the Chinese original, the novel contains 120 chapters. 80 of them will be Cao Xueqin attributed to the remaining 40 has Gao E written, one of the two editors of the first printed edition from 1792. The late author's drafts, which are already very advanced, supposedly served as the basis for the end. Otherwise, the German translator argued Franz Kuhn 1932, "the Chinese should have a virtuoso technique of literary artificial plugging at their disposal", since there are no content breaks or stylistic differences between the two parts.

However, this view is controversial among modern literary scholars. Some even consider Gao's version to be a fake. Cao Xueqin has processed his own experiences in large parts of the novel: He came from a wealthy aristocratic family that was favored by the Emperor Kangxi. When the political tide turned, he witnessed the decline of his family and became impoverished. The relatively wealthy and privileged Gao E gave the story a weakened happy ending: The Kia family is rehabilitated and their wealth is returned.

Impact history

After the author's death in 1764, handwritten copies of the first 80 chapters made by family members in the last years of his life appeared. Contemporary readers were so enraptured that a lot of money was soon paid for the copies. Until the beginning of the 20th century the book was published anonymously, only then did the literary scholars identify Cao Xueqin as the author. The dream of the red chamber is considered to be one of the four great classical novels of China, indeed the summit of Chinese literature in general. Translator Franz Kuhn justified the unbroken popularity of the work by stating that it represented a kind of "life course for Chinese youth". The novel's tragic heroes are as well known in the Middle Kingdom as Romeo and Juliet are in the western world. Cao Xueqin is revered by many as "Shakespeare of China".

Even over the excesses of the communist cultural revolution has become The dream of the red chamber saved away. Many party officials criticized, including Mao Zedongs wife Jiang Qing, the “poisonous” influence that what they consider to be a romantic, reactionary-bourgeois fairy tale exerts on the minds of young people. But Mao himself admired the book and defended it against its critics. However, only a strictly anti-feudal, Marxist reading was allowed until his death. Since 1990 at the latest, the book has been recognized again for its aesthetic quality - and its commercial potential: A blockbuster television series based on the epic kept the whole of China in suspense. And in 1996 a “theme park for the eyes” opened its doors, where visitors can walk in the footsteps of the series characters.