"Though plenty was left after death, he forgot to hold his hand back; Only at the end of the road does one think of turning on to the right track."
-- A couplet verse from Dream of the Red Chamber
40 X 17cm in Semi-cursive Script (行書)
Dream of the Red Chamber (紅樓夢)
, also known as The Story of the Stone (石頭記)
, is widely recognized as one of the best Chinese literary works in history (1
). Written originally by Cao Xueqin
(曹雪芹) in the 18th century, the novel describes and traces the downfall of the illustrious and aristocratic Jia (賈) family with Jia Baoyu (賈寶玉)
, the male heir of the family, as the main male character. Elegant words, beautiful poems and thought-provoking phrases frequently appear throughout the delicate and detailed plot with the main story deep and highly philosophical. The entire work is so highly regarded by many that it spawned "Redology"(紅學), the academic study of the Dream of the Red Chamber
). Personally, I believe this masterpiece matches, if not exceeds, any work written by Shakespeare.
This particular couple verse appears in Chapter 2 of the novel. The English translation of the verse presented here is extracted from the renowned Yang Xianyi's (楊憲益
) English interpretation of the Dream of the Red Chamber
) published between 1978-1980. Sinologist David Hawkes
had also translated the Dream of the Red Chamber
around that time, but Yang's translation of this verse, I believe, seems more accurate (see here
). Interestingly, it has been recently discovered that another venerable writer and translator, Lin Yutang
(林語堂), had also attempted to translate Dream of the Red Chamber into English (6).
"Though plenty was left after death, he forgot to hold his hand back;
Only at the end of the road does one think of turning on to the right track."
In my opinion, Dream of the Chamber is a cautionary tale for all, especially those who see worldly goods as their ultimate life-long pursuit. One theme of the tale contends power, authority and possessions can be washed away in an instant, and this verse serves as a preamble to this theme: when one is on top of everything, one often forgets to look back and be satisfied; by the time you lose everything due to endless greed, it is already too late. Hence, the verse is also a lamentation of the foolishness of mankind's obsession with possession, which is consistent with the overall theme of the book: worldly goods are of non-concrete existence, and so those who pursue them are foolish objects (蠢物, in chapter 1 of the novel).
Indeed, everything is merely an illusion as suggested by the couplet verse in the novel's opening chapter: "假作真時真亦假，無為有處有還無。" (When false is taken for true, true becomes false; If non-being turns into being, being becomes non-being. ——Translated by Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang). Note that Yang's translation here is again more accurate than the more popular David Hawkes' translation: "Truth becomes fiction when the fiction's true; Real becomes not-real where the unreal's real." The Chinese words "假" and "無" are key words in understanding the true meaning of this couple verse. "假" carries not only the meaning of "false" and "fiction" but also carries the meaning of "illusion" and "virtual (幻)". "無" carries not only the meaning of "non-real" and "non-being" but also carries the meaning of "non-concrete existence (虛)
", similar to the Buddhist concept of Impermanence
(無常). Taken together, the verse suggests that all things we experience on Earth are non-concrete illusions.
As an aside, author Cao Xueqin and translator Yang Xianyi both suffered immense tragedies in their lifetimes: Cao Xueqin lived in extreme poverty throughout his entire life due to Emperor Yongzheng (雍正帝) confiscation of his illustrious family's fortunes (7,8); Yang Xianyi and his wife Gladys Yang were labelled as "class enemies" in 1964 and "spent seven years apart in different jails" during the Communist Chinese Cultural Revolution (9). Impressively, the couple managed to complete the monumental task of translating the Dream of Red Chamber (which is notoriously difficult to translate into English due to extraordinary amount of Chinese cultural connotations throughout the entire novel) in these dire circumstances and published their work in 1978.
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