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Truth becomes Fiction when the Fiction is True

In honour of Cao Xueqin, one of China’s greatest novelists

The reversal of real and unreal, of fiction and truth is the abiding theme in The Dream of the Red Chamber, a Chinese classic, and one of the most brilliant tragicomedies-of-manners ever written. As it turns out, the motto also pertains to author Cao Xueqin (1715 – 1763) himself.

We know Cao Xueqin to have composed most portions of his million-word novel; we also know that he, for mysterious reasons, never completed his lifework before he died. It befell to minor poet Gao E to write — or rewrite, or revamp, or polish, or tone down – those last forty chapters.

And why had the manuscript – of which the first eighty chapters had circulated for ages in hand-written form – been adorned by comments in vermillion ink by shady characters hiding behind pseudonyms such as ‘Red Inkstone’?

And why should a genius of letters tirelessly convene with friends, neighbours and next-of-kin to discuss each and every new instalment?

Such and similar questions gave rise to an entire branch of literary scholarship – both in China and the West – known as ‘Redology’, and disputes are raging to this day. Salient points surrounding Cao’s authorship issues are impeccably summarized by translator David Hawkes in the Preface of Volume I of the Penguin Edition.

As a novelist, I believe it was fear that presided over Xueqin’s ‘jolly’ family meetings.

It was fear why Xueqin’s family and friends colluded to curb him, as they dreaded the wrath of the Imperial Censorate.

It was fear that drove Xueqin’s posthumous editor to warp those last chapters – a gruelling confiscation of a once great household, when many of its members hanged themselves – into ‘deafening praises’ (David Hawkins) of the ruling dynasty.