Portrait of Lin Daiyu, heroine in "A Dream of Red Mansions"

Portrait of Lin Daiyu, heroine in “A Dream of Red Mansions”

Among the very first things readers would want to know about a realistic novel is “when and where is the story set”. To the dismay of some, these questions are not answered throughout the whole text of “A Dream of Red Mansions”. Despite many discussions, speculations, and heated debates, scholars and readers throughout the centuries have not arrived at any definite answer: nobody knows when and where it happens.

a dream of red mansions

The First Edition in Print of “A Dream of Red Mansions”

In the first chapter the author clearly and defiantly lets us know he has no intention in setting the story in any time and space through the words of the Stone:

“If there’s no way of finding out the date, you can easily ascribe the tale to some time in the Han or Tang Dynasty. But since all novels do that, I think my way of dispensing with this convention and just dealing with my own adventures and feelings is more original. Why insist on a certain dynasty or definite date?…”

Illustration for “A Dream of Red Mansions”

Illustration for “A Dream of Red Mansions”

Ambiguities about time and space abound in the following chapters of the book, just to make sure we know the Stone means what he says.

In this article I would like to focus on the issue of time. Here are just a few evidences of the deliberate ambiguity:

  1. We find both descriptions of clothes and interior decorations which can be attributed to Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) Dynasty.
  2. There is no mentioning as to how old the main characters are. When there is some hint, it seems… unbelievable. Lin Daiyu is five years old when her mother dies, one year after she meets Jia Baoyu and she behaves like a young lady in love! – love at first sight, feeling jealous all the time if Baoyu show any kindness towards another cousin, etc. She also demonstrates discretion and appropriateness of a much more mature person when interacting with the many relatives in the aristocratic family.
  3. It is impossible to deduct their age from their clothes, accessories, or hairstyle either. These details seem to be deliberately omitted or misleading.
  4. No one knows the span of time of the whole story either. The experience, the emotional impact, and the up and downs of fate all seem like what would happen to a person in one life time. But the story really happens, if one marks all the turns of season, within 5-6 years only. Which means from age 6-7 to 12-13 our protagonist goes through all fortunes and misfortunes of love and life. Is it possible?
Illustration for “A Dream of Red Mansions”

Illustration for “A Dream of Red Mansions”

When I mentioned this to Giacomo, whose job includes developing theories about time as a special dimension, he was naturally fascinated. To his scientific mind, time is a dimension which, in his calculation, can be curved, shrunk, expanded, peeled, sliced, diced, and fried – no just kidding. Well, maybe I am not as much into kneading dimensions as him. I am more interested in author’s purposes of the omission of a definite historical setting and its social and spiritual significance. In my opinion, the worthwhile motives are:

  1. To avoid being caught by the Qing government for saying the wrong things.
  2. To defy the corrupted dogmas developed from, and much through misinterpretation, teachings of Confucius. In the story we see young girls and boys hang out together with holding hands, boy sleep in the bed of his young aunt, the hero play in girl cousins bedrooms all the time. These behaviors seem so unlikely in a highly conservative and dogmatic society, where parents would educate girls with stories such as a girl once chopped off her own arm after it being touched by a male, or a girl should marry to a man who has accidentally seen her exposed abdomen… But if these happened between children of 5-6 years, as implied in the story, what can you say?
  3. To draw more attention to the mystical implication of the story. The narration is indeed built on a mystical framework (to be distinguished from magic realism in western literature!). The love tale is actually experienced by a piece of stone left from the creation of the World. By deliberately blurring the sense of time, the author actually draws more attention to this aspect of the story – the fact that the story should be read as timeless, like a myth, for revelations and inspirations, while working the plots out in a perfectly realistic setting, taking advantage of the relatable sentiments of mortals just like us. This, to me, is the most important point.

These are just a few possible reasons I could think of for now.

The ambiguity of time and space is but one of the many mysteries contained in this novel. I am reading on with the keen eyes of a detective. 😉

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