Bringing China’s greatest novel to modern readers

Brown professor Dore J. Levy has spent more than three decades researching, teaching and writing about a complex classic of Chinese literature.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] —In the 1980s, when Dore J. Levy was a newly minted assistant professor specializing in Chinese language and literature, a colleague asked her to write for a conference what he predicted would be “a 20-minute paper” on an 18th-century Chinese novel. Levy wrote about Cao Xuequin’s “The Story of the Stone,” a 120-chapter classic of Chinese literature that she had first encountered as an undergraduate. That brief paper evolved into a book, “Ideal and Actual in ‘The Story of the Stone,’” published in 1999, and marked the beginning of Levy’s deep critical engagement with the novel — one that endures more than three decades later.

“I wandered in by accident and can’t get out,” said Levy, a professor of comparative literature and East Asian studies who has taught at Brown since 1981. “I just got caught. It’s a little like falling in love.”

To appreciate “The Story of the Stone,” which is known by several titles including “Dream of the Red Chamber,” Levy said, “You must imagine a work that has the critical cachet of James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses,’ the popular appeal of Margaret Mitchell’s ‘Gone with the Wind’ and is twice as long as the two combined.”

In the novel, which begins in a mystical realm called the Land of Illusion, a magical, conscious stone left over from a goddess’s repair of a hole in the sky is incarnated as a human boy in order to achieve enlightenment. To encourage his progress toward liberation from the emptiness of human attachments, Levy explained, a magic flower he loves is also incarnated as his female cousin.

“The purpose of sending him to experience the vicissitudes of a human life is to awaken him not only to the emptiness of the mundane world of emotional — especially romantic — attachment but also to the emptiness of longing itself,” Levy wrote in the first chapter of “Ideal and Actual in ‘The Story of the Stone.’”

The novel follows the boy’s journey and the fortunes of his aristocratic family, Levy said, and simultaneously represents three major belief systems. A Taoist priest and a Buddhist monk serve as the stone’s “godfathers” on his quest, while Confucian ethics pervade the text’s treatment of social and familial bonds.

While the novel is long — the David Hawkes translation that Levy prefers runs to five volumes — and features hundreds of characters, it is not the sheer size of the work that has engendered Levy’s career-long involvement with it.

Rather, it is Levy’s commitment to making Chinese art more intelligible to non-specialists, finding “ways of bringing Chinese literature into mainstream and doing comparative work between cultures where you can’t take intercultural influence for granted,” she said.

Bridging that cultural gap involves introducing the notion of lyrical aesthetics to readers accustomed to Western narratives, in which one event succeeds another to drive the plot forward.

In the Chinese lyrical tradition, a series of highly detailed and absorbing vignettes accumulate meaning and demand that each passage be read as if it were a line of poetry, Levy said, adding, “That slows me down a lot.” That mode of reading can be a new experience for many of her students at Brown.

The Chinese value the lyrical experience, “moments where time is stopped and you are there,” Levy said, while “narrative experience is vicarious. No matter how much you identify with the protagonist, you don’t confuse yourself with Nick Carraway in ‘The Great Gatsby’ or Ann Patchett’s narrators. You can sympathize with them, make heroes of them or adore them, but you don’t integrate with them.”

Another challenge for teaching “The Story of the Stone” to a non-native reader is that, as an uninflected language, Chinese has no numbers, gender or case.

“In a Chinese text, everything is relational,” Levy said. “You don’t conjugate a verb, and you have no idea when something happened or who did it when you don’t have that dynamic built in.”

Beyond adjusting to the language and the density of the lyric form, Levy’s work with “The Story of the Stone” requires that she understand the internalized assumptions of one culture and articulate them in terms of another — even when teaching to students in China, as she did in fall 2016 while in residence at NYU Shanghai.

“It was fascinating to be in a totally 21st-century environment and be in constant demand for insights about ancient China,” Levy said.

The demand came from both international and Chinese students in Shanghai, Levy said. Even Chinese students familiar with the novel needed guidance to overcome the inevitable cultural loss that occurs over two and a half centuries and understand the social, political and cultural realities of an 18th-century aristocrat.

Deepening the complexity of the novel is the fact that it is set during the second century of the Qing dynasty (1644 to 1911), China’s last imperial dynasty and a foreign one, led by the Manchus. Those ruled by it felt that their Chinese-ness was under constant threat, Levy said, and the book aims to be an encyclopedic compendium of Chinese culture as a whole, as well as an allegory of love and spiritual transcendence and an exploration of the nature of existence and function of art.

While these ideas can be complex for students, whether they are native Chinese or international students in China, or students at Brown, Levy said her attitude is consistent: “Anybody can understand this as long as somebody can explain this to you. I have students who don’t know what Buddhism is, but nobody’s born knowing this stuff. I explain it, so once it’s explained, it’s part of my students.”

In teaching her students how to read the work, understand the importance of the objects in it and read the language, Levy encourages her students to be fearless in asking questions. 

“There is no reason why Chinese literature should be less mainstream than Russian literature,” Levy said.

She added that “The Story of the Stone,” in its richness, offers something for everyone. Her own work on the text has explored the sociology of the family, poetry as social practice, and illness and medicine in literature, among other topics. Currently, she is at work on a book that explores the art objects in Xuequin’s story.

As someone who has worked to develop non-Western and Asian scholarship in the humanities at Brown, and who has chaired both the comparative literature and East Asian studies departments, Levy is pleased that Chinese is the third most-studied language at Brown, knowing that the works that undergraduates find engrossing can have a lifelong impact.

“Teaching in the humanities is rigorous,” she said. “With comparative literature, and when learning a foreign language, there is nothing like it in terms of opening up the world. Without encountering untranslatable words from another language, without learning a different language, we are shut into a cultural hegemony and ignorance. Cao Xuequin wrote this book in the 1760s and died thinking ‘I haven’t finished my book.’ Centuries later, people in a country he didn’t imagine are talking about it. To me, this is globalization.”