Immerse Yourself in 18th-century Beijing
By Pauline A. Chen
Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95, 400 pages
Set in 18th-century Beijing, The Red Chamber is a masterful tale of the Jia mansion and its inhabitants. The reader is immediately immersed in the less-than-perfect lives of Xifeng, Daiyu and Baochai. Xifeng rules the house with an iron fist, while Baochai stays silent on the sidelines. After her mother dies, Daiyu arrives at the mansion and is mesmerized and fearful of its splendor. Xifeng becomes involved in tasks unbecoming of a married woman, while Daiyu feels a forbidden love for her cousin.
During a political coup, the emperor is overthrown and the men of the family are immediately jailed, while the women are forced to move out of the mansion and find themselves living in poverty. The once rich and powerful family can find no one to help them. The women soon realize that they have few options and fear being bought and sold as slaves, maids or concubines. Their new reality and understanding changes everything.
Pauline Chen’s book is so detailed and well written that this reviewer felt as though she was living in the aristocratic household along with the main characters. The descriptions are amazingly graphic and meticulous. The story has twists and turns that kept this reviewer reading. This tale of friendship, duty and betrayal ends with a surprising, but satisfying, conclusion.
Reviewed by Seniye Groff