Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Red Chamber



"An epic reimagining of the Chinese literary classic, Dream of the Red ChamberTHE RED CHAMBER tells the story of three women in an aristocratic household in 18th-century Beijing.   Daiyu is an impoverished orphan adopted into the household who falls in love with Baoyu, the brilliant, unpredictable heir to the family fortunes.  Despite his love for her, the family betroths Baoyu to his cousin Baochai, who hides her own desires under a dutiful exterior.  Meanwhile, the young matron Xifeng struggles to protect the family from financial ruin, even as her husband spurns her for her inability to bear a child.  Linking the three women’s fate is the jade, a mysterious stone found in Bayou’s mouth at birth, which seems to foretell a strange and extraordinary destiny for him and the entire family."


The Story behind The Red Chamber By Pauline Chen
Although born of Taiwanese immigrants to the United States, as a child I spoke only rudimentary Chinese; my parents were of a generation who believed that teaching children a foreign language would inhibit their ability to learn English. Instead I grew up reading Austen, the Brontes, Tolstoy, and Dickens. At Harvard I studied the Classics, with a special interest in Latin poetry. I came upon Chinese literature later, and quite by accident. A Taiwanese friend showed me an eleventh-century Chinese poem. As she translated it, line by crystalline line, a door opened into an undreamed world of new literary forms, philosophy, and aesthetics.

Fascinated, I began the long journey of learning classical Chinese. It was in graduate school in East Asian Studies that I discovered the canonical Chinese novel Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin. The story of brilliant and talented women whose lives were constricted by lack of physical freedom and opportunity (aristocratic Chinese women were confined to Women’s Quarters, where men were allowed only limited access), the novel resonated with my own family’s history: my two grandmothers were both illiterate, and my mother had struggled to gain access to the education her brothers received. More than twenty-five hundred pages long, the book was structured far more loosely than a western novel, linking hundreds of characters and meandering through years of mealtimes and naps, parties and chats. And yet, tracing with exquisite care the inner worlds of characters from princesses to maids, and unearthing the depths of feeling and disparities in power beneath the most everyday interactions, Dream of the Red Chamber more closely mirrored my experience of life than any work I had previously read.

Teaching the novel to undergraduates at Oberlin College, I came to realize how the vast majority of American readers, even if they had known of the book, would be discouraged from reading it by its length and unfamiliarity. I began to write a version for western readers, translating Dream of the Red Chamber not merely into another language but into another form, that of a contemporary western novel. Moreover, Cao’s original ending had been lost, and the final third of the novel as it now exists had been written by another hand after his death. Haunted by a sense of incompletion, I needed to finish the story for myself.

My first drafts succeeded only in being abridgements. I had to allow myself greater freedom to depart from the original plot to distill what I found most compelling about the work: an elegiac awareness of the illusory and evanescent nature of human life; also the excruciating conflict between female friendship and romantic love that occurs when women intimates become rivals for the same man. To these two central themes, I added a question that gripped me as a modern reader and writer: in a culture where women’s opportunities and movements were ruthlessly restricted, in what ways could they shape their own destinies? 


About the Author
Pauline Chen started her career as a lawyer, but was sidetracked by her love of literature. After completing a Ph.D. at Princeton, she moved to Ohio in 1996 to teach Chinese language, film, and literature at Oberlin College. When her son was born in 2000, she quit her job to stay home, writing every morning before the rest of the family awoke. Her first book, Peiling and the Chicken-Fried Christmas, was a novel for children about a Taiwanese-American family in Ohio. THE RED CHAMBER is her first novel for adults.  


For more information on "Dream of the Red Chamber" see also:
Dream of the Red Chamber
Review at A Scribble of Writers





Most Beautiful Princess - Grand Duchess Elizaveta Feodorovna

Christina Croft talks about "Most Beautiful Princess – A Novel Based on the life of Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia".


In the early hours of the morning 18th July 1918, two carts left the small Siberian town of Alapaevsk and followed the Sinyachikhenskaya road to a disused mine. There, soldiers alighting from the carts, ordered eight blindfolded prisoners - six men and two women - to walk forwards and, striking their heads with rifle butts, forced them one after another into the waterlogged shaft. Having hurled hand grenades after them into the pit, the soldiers assumed their task was complete and were about to leave when to their amazement the sound of singing echoed from beneath the ground. From a ledge nineteen metres below a woman was singing the Russian Orthodox hymn: ‘Lord Save Your People.’

Some weeks later as the First World War drew to its bloody conclusion across Europe, battles still raged for control of revolutionary Russia. With the arrival of the White Army in Alapaevsk, the bodies were recovered from the mine: five grand dukes, a companion, and two middle-aged nuns. By the side of the incorrupt body of one of the nuns lay an unexploded grenade, on her breast an icon of Christ.

How did a fairy-tale princess, granddaughter of Queen Victoria, cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm II and King George V, and sister-in-law of two Russian Tsars come to so terrible an end? ‘Ravishingly beautiful’, ‘saintly’, ‘enigmatic’, revered as a saint by the poor of Moscow, what drove the Lutheran daughter of Princess Alice to turn her into the Russian Imperial Grand Duchess Elizaveta Feodorovna, then ‘Matushka’ mother of the poor, and finally Holy Imperial Martyr Saint Elizabeth? Why did the gentle Elizabeth of Hesse-Darmstadt, described by one her admirers as ‘the most beautiful creature of God I have ever seen’, die of infected wounds and starvation in a mineshaft in Siberia?

These were some of the questions which prompted me to write: Most Beautiful Princess – A novel based on the life of Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia (link: http://www.amazon.com/Most-Beautiful-Princess-Elizabeth-ebook/dp/B004JXVVQG/ref=pd_rhf_dp_p_t_1 ), whose life was so remarkable that it amazes me that so few people have even heard of her.

At the age of nineteen, ‘Ella’ married Grand Duke Serge Alexandrovich, a younger brother of Tsar Alexander III. From the moment she arrived in Russia, she became the object of both adulation and gossip, as rumours of her unhappy marriage and the alleged cruelty of her husband swept across Europe, even to the ears of her doting grandmother, Queen Victoria. Highly-strung, domineering and obsessed with order, Serge’s strong reactionary views had made him many enemies in Russia, and Ella’s absolute submission to his whims led to speculation that he treated her as little more than a glamorous ornament. The fact that the couple remained childless suggested that the marriage remained unconsummated, and increasingly salacious stories spread through Russia and beyond. For twenty years Ella endured the slanders and, following her conversion to Orthodoxy, found comfort in the practice of her religion, her devotion to charitable causes, and her overriding determination to bring to bring about the marriage of her younger sister, Alix, to the future Tsar Nicholas II. Despite immense opposition from both families – and especially from Queen Victoria - Ella ardently believed that this marriage was meant to be and promised Nicholas that she ‘move heaven and earth’ to bring Alix to Russia. For six years she argued and cajoled and when at last the engagement was announced, she could take pleasure in the knowledge that she had virtually single-handedly engineered the match...which, sadly, was to lead to such tragedy in 1918.
 
In 1905, in the wake of the disastrous Russo-Japanese War, discontent spread through Russia bringing the country to the verge of a revolution, which would claim the life of Ella’s husband, by then the Governor General of Moscow. One afternoon as Ella was working on a Red Cross project in the Kremlin, she heard the sound of an explosion outside and knew at once that something had happened to Serge. Running out into the snow she discovered her husband literally blown to pieces and, though the guards tried to hold her back, she gathered the remnants of his body in her own hands and had what was left of him taken to a nearby monastery. After spending the night in prayer, she visited the prison where his assassin was being held captive, to assure him of her forgiveness and to find out what had driven him to commit such a crime. From then on, Ella’s life changed dramatically. After twenty years of stagnation in a glittering palace, she gave away literally all she possessed – her palaces, furs, cars, even her wedding ring – and, purchasing a piece of land in the poorest district of Moscow, built a hospital, orphanage and convent where she trained as nurse and personally treated the most abject of patients. Wandering at night through the slums and backstreets, she gathered the orphans and child prostitutes and provided them with a home. Her schemes for the improvement of housing for students and young workers and her tireless efforts on behalf of the poor soon led the Muscovites to revere her as a saint. Wherever she went crowds gathered to ask for her blessing and to kiss the hem of her garment as she passed, but, while she won the hearts of the poor, the rich could only gaze askance in horror. To the aristocracy her way of life was a scandal, demeaning to the Imperial Family; and further divisions arose between Ella and her sister, Alix, due to Ella’s opposition to the Tsarina’s guide and friend, Rasputin.The First World War brought further heartache for Ella and Alix. Though both worked indefatigably for the Russian wounded, they could not hide their German origins and were accused of spying for the enemy. Spat at or even stoned in the street, Ella continued her work with the poor, while desperately pleading with Alix to part with Rasputin whose constant presence was bringing the dynasty to disaster. Alix refused to listen to the warnings and in one bitter scene, told Ella to leave the palace. They would never meet again.
 
In the early months of the Revolution, the Communists were so impressed by Ella’s care for the poor that she was allowed to continue her work unimpeded but the Bolsheviks seized power in 1918, the days of the Romanovs were numbered. Ella’s cousin and former suitor, Kaiser Wilhelm pleaded with her to escape to Germany before it was too late, but she refused to abandon her orphans. At Easter 1918, she was arrested and taken to Siberia where, the day after the massacre of the Tsar and his family, she was murdered.

Several weeks after her death, when the bodies were recovered from the mine, Ella’s alone remained incorrupt. Even a year later when the coffins were transported to China, Ella’s body remained intact. In 1921 her elder sister, Victoria (grandmother of the present Duke of Edinburgh), had her body taken to the Orthodox Church on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem from where many miracles have been reported. Sixty years later, she was canonised by the Russian Orthodox Church and her statue now stands above the West Door of Westminster Abbey with those of other 20th century martyrs.

‘Most Beautiful Princess’ - based on my earlier biography of Ella, which was short listed for the Biographers’ Club Award in 2004 – is available in paperback and in Kindle, Nook and Apple format.

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