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Bringing Order to Chaos in Dream of the Red Chamber

07 Dec 2017Essay Samples

In one volume, Dream of the Red Chamber provides a summary of the three thousand year span of Chinese literary civilization. All major literary modes (poetry, drama, classical essay, vernacular fiction, etc.) and genres (shih, tz'u, sao, fu) of the period are represented within its pages. As a result, the work stands in its own cultural field as the major works of Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Joyce do in theirs. According to Andrew H. Plaks, Dream of the Red Chamber, is, like our own western classics, an "encyclopedic compendium of an entire tradition in a form that itself serves as a model against which to judge works of less imposing stature" (11). This Chinese treasure can be likened to European classics, as both are seminal works, however, Dream of the Red Chamber's methods of recording its mythic material differs greatly from its western counterparts.

Anne Birrell offers a summation of these differences when she tells us that, "because China lacked a Homer or a Hesiod, a Herodotus or an Ovid, who recounted myth and shaped its content and style, early Chinese myth existed as an amorphous, untidy congeries of archaic expression" (18). In other words, Chinese myths like the ones found in Dream of the Red Chamber, lack the ordering voice of a central narrator, and are instead fragmented and non-linear.

In effect much of the criticism surrounding these works attempts to impose some type of order to the narrative chaos. This paper will also endeavour to create a loose structure for parts of Dream of the Red Chamber, by exposing themes and archetypes that are repeated throughout the text and which serve as structural principles within the novel. The most common themes are those of conflict and union, and the narrative archetypes which support them are found in the ying-yang formula, what Plaks refers to as "dual interrelation" (43).

Before looking closely at the myths presented in Dream of the Red Chamber, it would be of value to define the general workings of myth in the Eastern literary tradition. The Chinese term for myth, shen-hua, almost exactly co-incides with one of the many contemporary Western definitions of myth as sacred narrative. Birrell tells us that "Shen” means 'god,' 'divine,' 'holy,'; hua means 'speech,' 'oral account,' 'tale,' 'oral narrative.' (2). In this respect, the second part of the Chinese term, hua, is like the original meaning of the word mythology, which Batto designates as "an imaginative or fictitious story, much like [a] fable a fabulous tale" (Batto 5).

Today all are generally in agreement that the basic definition of myth is 'account,' 'tale,' 'story,' or 'narrative.' For Bronislaw Malinowski myths serve to explain the workings of the cultural context out of which it is written. He calls this myth-making agenda a "sociological charter." By this Malinowski deduced that society's infrastructure was mirrored in mythic narratives. As a result, the represented culture drew a better understanding of its origins and its culture by being embodied in mythic narratives. For instance, westerners still believe in the genesis myth even though Darwin's theory of evolution has done much to disprove its validity. We cling to the only tale that discloses our origins because it provides us with a sense of community, a founding society that unites us to the rest of humanity.

Chinese myths, like those found in Dream of the Red Chamber, also attempt to provide its archaic society with a cultural foundation by explicating beliefs, collective experiences, and values. For the purposes of this analysis I will focus on the workings of Chinese myth as a literary device, and dwell on aesthetics and literary forms. This is best undertaken comparatively, for by drawing out the western myth-making conventions we can get a clearer understanding of the eastern literary aesthetics. Critics like Northrop Frye have isolated specific archetypal patterns in western mythology, and have used these mythic archetypes to "provide the main outlines and the circumference of the verbal universe which later occupied literature as well" (33).

Archetypes in mythic texts are narrative patterns that repeat themselves and order the shape of the work. The actual identification of these forms, of course, differs from author to author. Some talk about the movement from separation-initiation-return, while others relate patterns "of expulsion and integration, fall and rise, rise and fall, confrontation and mortal combat, death and resurrection." (Plaks 15). In the Anatomy of Criticism Frye goes as far as to outline total cycles of archetypal movement, of which each individual myth presents only a small part. As a result, Frye's use of the Aristotelian term "mythos" in reference to such units of narrative shape "tends to become synonymous with the concept of literary archetype as a whole" (15).

While the association of archetype and narrative "mythos" may do well when describing the western tradition, it need not hold true for other literature as well. In Chinese narratives, such as those found in Dream of the Red Chamber, the aesthetic impulses which drive the western literary tradition are absent. The linear forward thrust of beginning, middle, and end, what Frye calls "teleology," simply isn't there. On first sight the trouble with Chinese mythology appears to be a lack of systematic lay outs of mythical materials. Bodde tells us why it is so difficult to order and systematize Chinese myth: "These materials are usually so fragmented and episodic that even the reconstruction from them of individual myths - let alone an integrated system of myths – is exceedingly difficult" (370). Prusek agrees with this assertion and adds: In all its [Chinese art's] details are subordinated to general principles and harmonized to merge into a unified whole, so that instead of breaking up the a cultural unity they assist to strengthen it [however] if we turn to Chinese literature, we find nothing of the kind: the basic structure of Chinese works is the direct opposite of the homogeneity and continuity demanded by Hirt for an epic art" (11, 18).

The reader of Chinese myths is presented with the elements that characterize the mythologies of other cultures. Personifications of natural phenomena, supernatural beasts, monumental battles, a golden age, a great flood, a tare between heaven and earth are found in Dream of the Red Chamber. However, events when they occur are listed not recounted. As I have already stated mythology is a narrative, by definition the earliest example of narrative art. In Chinese texts we find a non-narrative quality. Figures are described more in terms of their final positions rather than by the means with which they attained their final position. Even combat is related in terms of a listing of strategies and a statement of outcome, rather than a dwelling on the fight itself.

Chinese mythology is not, however, without modes of systemization. As readers we have been conditioned to archetypes that move forward in linear patterns and not any other form of systemization. Andrew Plaks offers the notion that Chinese civilization has tended to draw upon formal patters that we traditionally associate with ritual, "balanced forces, periodic rhythms, and cyclical sequences as structural principles for artistic creation" (22). In effect, the non-narrative characteristic of Chinese mythology may be explained by the fact that its archetypal structures are re-workings of ritual relations rather than of mythical actions. The result is that mythical works in China are ordered by recurrent archetypes of system and balance associated with ritual. These patterns most often work in what Levi Strauss call "binary opposites," or what is referred to in China as the language of yin and yang dualism.

In works such as Dream of the Red Chamber there is an emphasis on qualities and relations, and states of being. Unlike the western conventions we have been conditioned to, Chinese myths do not order their narratives by expressing forms of motivation, action, and consequences. In this sense, when we speak of archetypes in Chinese literature we must look further than patterns of narrative action that have come out of the western tradition. In Plak's own words: “the apparent lack of logical development or dialectic progression must be reinterpreted with reference to an aesthetic system within which poles of temporal opposition are contained as complementing possibilities rather then antithetical forces”. (26)

So, like Prussek, Plak believes Chinese mythology does work towards system and homogenization, it is only disguised to western readers because our definition of system varies from those paradigms utilized by the Chinese.

The union of opposites as an archetype that effectively orders what is an otherwise asystematic narrative, is best portrayed in the marriage of Nu-kua and Fu-his. The reader of the Dream of the Red Chamber is confronted in the first chapter by the mythical figure Nu-kua. There she is presented in her most well known role as the repairer of the heavens with many coloured stones. The passages subsequently introduces Pao-yu as a super-human being who becomes the focus of the narrative thereafter. Nu-kua herself immediately is removed from view only to return during the last pages of the book. Aside from her heavenly reconstruction, we get no further information in the novel about her nature as a deity. Earlier materials, however, relate to this figure and shed some light on her archetypal importance in the novel. Nu-kua is best known for her repair of the heavens, as the creator of mankind from hand-fulls of mud, and as the inventor and the administrator of the institution of marriage.

The Tang author Li Jung (A.D. 846-874) presents the myth of this marriage. The sentence that tells us of this union is awkward and rather vague: "There were two people, Nu-kua, older brother and sister". The narrative relates how the brother and sister invoked God to sanction their bond and how permission was granted for what was the first marriage among humans. Like Adam and Eve, the first couple, who covered their nudity with a fig leaf, the brother and sister feel ashamed of their sexual difference after carnal knowledge of each other and hide behind a fan (Birrell 203). The fact that the roles of sibling and spouse overlap here indicates that the Chinese literary tradition is more interested in the relation of dual union than the dramatic plots which surround the notion of incest, as we find in the Oedipus myth.

I have concisely synthesized information pertaining to Nu-kua and Fu-his, however for scholars contending with original sources this endeavor is long and complex because of the various materials relating their myths. Isolating the possible archetypal patterns of meaning is difficult, as most are obscured by confusing details. When relating to these two mythic figures the focus should be on the cosmic marriage. Plaks notes that both Nu-kua and Fu-shi are individually acknowledged as instrumental in the institution of human matrimony, "she in the role of Kao Mei and he as the founder of the li-p'I betrothal practises" (37). Even more significant, the two figures are commonly represented in folkloric images as a compound image of husband and wife, and therefore the universal parents of mankind (37).

Unlike western myths dealing with human sexual relation, these Chinese modes do not afford their reader the dramatic acts of pursuit, ravishment, and refusal. In his essay "Romance as Masque," Northrop Frye reveals that mythic romance narratives in the western tradition are characterized by the "teleological plot" (148). This suggests that as a rule lovers move towards sexual fulfilment, an ambition that reaches its climax in the final scene, which is marriage or more significantly "a rebirth" (148). I would appear, therefore, that marriage in western traditions serves to bring a clean close to an archetypal structure; eastern conventions, however, have not felt constrained to describe the union of Nu-kua and Fu-shi in narrative terms.

What the traditional framers of Chinese myth seem to focus on in the legendary materials relating to Nu-kua and Fu-shi is not a documentary on the origins of marriage. Their interest lies in the formation of a union between two opposites, a convergence of contradictions that functions as an archetypal pattern of Chinese thought and art over the centuries. In other words, the marriage of Nu-kua and Fu-shi is a metaphysical one. Not only does it provide a bargain between opposites, it is a pact that suggests continued co-operation. It also suggests a promise of continued creation. However, most importantly these attributes signify the structural and functional principles of an orderly universe. The married couple embody the archetype of harmonious opposites signified in the Chinese notion of yin and yang. Plaks notes that Han commentator Kao Yu identifies Nu-kua as the "Empress of Yin," and that Pan Ku evaluates the effects of Fu-shi's institution of marriage as follows in the Po-hu T'ung: "Only when husband and wife were joined, so that the five elements were regulated, did the way of man become secure" (38). Again we are reminded of the harmonious compromise connoted by the yin and yang.

It is not the simplistic union of two male and female principles that is at issue here, but rather a specific relation that may be drawn from the yin-yang formula. In other words the yinyang serves as an archetype that connotes a variety of harmonious unions between opposites beyond the state of matrimony. Think of pairs of heaven and earth, or any formula that carries the same relation. The marriage of Nu-kua and Fu-shi is also responsible for the endurance of the universe. Their coupling of two opposing forces of nature, serves as the archetypal model which all emulate and desire to repeat. Nu-kua's repair of the dome of heaven with her many coloured stones, in Dream of the Red Chamber, now comes into focus. It is no longer an isolated random act of restoration, but a repair made by the custodian of union and harmony. Therefore, this act suggests the re-establishment of harmony of the universe after a temporary loss of equilibrium. Similarly, Plaks suggests that: the fusion of the five coloured stones for this purpose may reflect the harmonious ordering of the five elements necessary for maintaining this equilibrium, much like the corresponding orderly sequence of the eight programs ascribed to Fushi. (39)

The analogy between human marriage, aging, and reproduction and the functioning of the universe is, of course, an insight grasped by all myth making people. However, what I have hoped to exhibit with the assistance of the Nu-kua and Fu-shi myth is that as eastern and western cultures follow differing roads to display such a message, each method they harness is equally valid and interesting. Eastern myth-making traditions do use archetypes as a means of relating messages to the cultures of their time, and to subsequent societies. Even though they choose not to use narrative structures that focus on a chronological journey to a given message, as western cultures have traditionally done, does not suggest their means are unreachable. Perhaps eastern myths are more difficult to decode, however, this makes the rewards we gain all the more sweet.

Works Cited

  • Batto, Bernard F. Slaying the Dragon: Mythmaking in the Biblical Tradition Kentucky: John Knox Press, 1992.
  • Birrell, Anne. Chinese Mythology: An Introduction Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1993.
  • Bodde, Derk. "Myths in Ancient China" Mythologies of the Ancient World Ed. Samuel Noah Kramer. New York: Anchor Books, 1961. 369-408.
  • Frye, Northrop. Spiritus Mundi: Essays on Literature, Myth, and Society Toronto: Fritzhenry Press, 1991.
    • Anatomy of Criticism London: Penguin, 1957.
  • Plaks, Andrew. H. Archetype and Allegory in the Dream of the Red Chamber Princeton: Princeton UP, 1976.
  • Prusek, Jaroslav. Chinese History and Literature Czechoslovakia: D.Reidel Pub., 1970. 

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