2019 Student-Faculty Fellows Program: North Central College

Understanding China through the Classic Novel Hóng lóu mèng

Mentors: Jinai Sun, Assistant Professor of Chinese and Stuart Patterson, Visiting Associate Professor and Chair of the Shimer Great Books School
Students: Sophie Juhlin, Andrea Du, Aiden Schadt, Madeline Derango, and Juliet Mathey

Project PDF

Project Abstract

Given the rapid, profound changes to life in China over the last four decades and the increasing importance of sustained intercultural communications, our project sought to understand better how the Chinese use their long cultural heritage to understand themselves today. We did so through researching the reception in China today of what is almost universally acknowledged as their greatest work of fiction, namely, Hóng lóu mèng, or The Dream of the Red Chamber (aka The Story of the Stone). Though written in the mid-18th century, this book seemed to us uniquely suited to our project, given its lasting reputation (in China) as an “encyclopedia” of Chinese life, so minutely does it portray the material, psychological, and spiritual being of its world and many characters.

We began by reading Hóng lóu mèng (in five volumes in English). While reading, the five Student Fellows each identified a specific theme in the novel that related to their career interests; in an illustration of the story’s scope, the chosen themes were: ethics and legal culture, discipline and education, garden architecture and philosophy, authority and managerial styles, and the social role of poetry. Student Fellows researched their themes in secondary sources, through online zoom meetings with scholars of Chinese culture, and with the help of Chinese university students who they met first on the WeChat app and then in Beijing when we arrived in mid-July, 2019. Altogether, we spent three weeks in China in three cities: Beijing, Nanjing, and Suzhou, each with intimate ties to Hóng lóu mèng and its author, Cao Xueqin. In each city, we discussed the novel over meals with host families, in scholarly symposia with elementary, high school and university students; in the offices of global entrepreneurs, and with professional interpreters in museums and almost daily site visits, including the Summer Palace and Grand View Garden in Beijing, Nanjing’s museum of the imperial exams and a pingtan concert in a café in Suzhou, among many others. 

During the last week of our trip, Student Fellows made a series of presentations of their findings to small groups of students and scholars, relating how their discussions with our many informants and visits to myriad sites had elicited detailed, often searching reflections on Chinese life. Overall, the Student Fellows discerned an ongoing effort to reconcile old and new, past and present, tradition and innovation, as Chinese look to works like Hóng lóu mèng as cultural touchstones in light of epochal changes in their individual and common lives. Over the last year, Student Fellows have made numerous presentations of their research, which they continue to refine through further secondary reading and feedback from audiences in schools and at conferences around the country.  https://jinaisunny.wixsite.com/chlm/home

Madeline Derang
The classic novel Hongloumeng, or Dream of the Red Chamber, has often been described as an “encyclopedia” of Chinese culture. Our team researched how themes in the novel relate to issues in Chinese life today in interviews with Chinese readers and visits to important sites in the novel’s history.

My research dealt with a topic often ignored by scholars, readers, and students: how the law of the Qing dynasty shapes the story of Hong Lou Meng. In fact, the author Cao Xueqin chose to dedicate an entire chapter to the murder trial of heroine Xue Baochai’s older brother Xue Pan. Still, despite its prominence in the novel, I have found little commentary on its role.  But a closer look at law reveals a great deal about the culture, social norms, and ideals of a country.  In general, the way laws are written – and the way they are enforced – are just important for understanding a culture as that culture’s music, politics, and theater.  In Hong Lou Meng, there are two major instances where law is explored: Xue Pan’s initial trial in Chapter 4 and Xue Pan’s second trial in Chapter 85, 86, 99, 100, and 119. These trials closely mirror historical trials from the Qing Dynasty, demonstrating that inherited power could lead to great corruption. A more general look at law in the novel reveals that uncodified customs and rules—forces such as Confucianism—have a far greater impact on the behavior of the characters, shaping their actions in a profound way.

My research in China revealed that these ideas captured in Hong Lou Meng not only were accurate, but also remain fairly consistent in Chinese life today.  Confucianism and other uncodified systems have a noticeable impact on people’s behavior and attitude in public, with many people unfamiliar with even the most basic laws set out by their country; however, in areas where Western influence has grown in recent years, there is a trend towards the recognition of codified laws and their legitimacy. 

 Andrea Du
楼梦 (Dream of the Red Chamber) is one of China’s Four Great Classic novels. The novel is often referred to as “the encyclopedia of Chinese culture,” which allowed our group to explore its themes and Chinese society together. I concentrated on education.

My reading of the novel and interviews together confirmed that Chinese have long placed a heavy emphasis on education. This puts a certain strain on families to ensure students’ successful academic futures. Due to large class sizes, teachers in modern day China have the main role of delivering academic content to students. This leaves family to teach discipline and “proper” behaviors. Even in different regions of China, similar ideological trends emerged with regard to beliefs about the roles of family, student, and teachers in education. However, the regions we visited are affected by varying outside influences, which results in variations of this basic ideology of education. Most of the beliefs about education are rooted in Confucian values, though the strength of such traditional values is more diluted in regions with more exposure to commerce with foreign countries. Students from Beijing were more defiant of authority, while students in Nanjing appeared to adhere to the rules more strictly. In Suzhou, we interviewed families that mentioned they believed that schools should place more emphasis on teaching students about their emotions and self-regulation. In line with these findings, differing parenting styles seem to be associated with expectations about what makes a good education, and similar regional differences in parenting attitudes toward discipline and “proper” behavior emerged in interviews in which I asked informants to discuss their views of characters in the novel, including the hero Bao-yu, a who many saw as a “problem” child, and his cousins Dai-yu and Bao-chai, both praised for their dutiful natures but distinguished as pessimistic and optimistic respectively.

Overall, my research revealed how the novel continues to serve as an important touchstone for parents, teachers and students as they all grapple with the enormous importance placed on providing and adhering to the conventions of a “good education.”

Sophie Juhlin
Discovering the intersection of gender and poetry in the classic Chinese novel Hongloumeng made a lasting impact on the direction of my study as a Student Fellow in China and in continuing my research back in the United States. From the cross-cultural connections I made with students and professors in China, I have been able to deepen my knowledge of Chinese literary culture, the history of Chinese poetry and its most important figures, and to assess the role of Cao Xueqin as a writer of authentic female characters. Though I encountered challenges in starting conversations about controversial topics on gendered experience and literature in China, my connections with students and peers in conversations about literature and history paralleled my findings on the women poets portrayed in Hongloumeng. By sharing information and literature upon my return, they were able to speak about their experiences indirectly and inform the cultural gaps in my own knowledge and research.

Since gaining this cross-cultural perspective, I am better prepared to serve my local literary nonprofit by insisting on a more inclusive conception of poetry and decentralizing the Western world in our community outreach. I am also consciously incorporating more diverse literature into my profession as a manager and salesperson in the independent bookstore industry. My research through ASIANetwork will lead to further presentations, workshops, and community engagement with literature and topics not often encountered by white Western readers. My research will also continue to develop in academic writing informed by modern American political and global issues. With this body of work, I hope to showcase Hongloumeng as an essential source for a study of Chinese literature and identity and as a valuable point of connection between China and the United States.

Juliet Mathey
To make a more comprehensible understanding of a society’s impact on the environment, we must first understand the relationship with the environment they have within their culture. Our Student Faculty Fellows project focuses on the Chinese understanding and values of literary gardens which often translate into actual physical gardens. The setting of Cao Xueqin’s Hong Lou Meng is Daguanyuan, the Grand View Garden, which has been described by Andrew Plaks as the ‘archetype’ for all Chinese literary gardens. A literary analysis of this garden, specifically in Chapter 17, when its elements are examined for the first time, becomes the foundation for my research. Initial examinations at this literary garden provide insight into the philosophical values that are expressed through the garden. These philosophical values become the key factor into understanding the Chinese societal relationship with the environment. After reading the novel, I conducted interviews with Chinese students, scholars, and professionals who could provide more understanding of elements in physical gardens. As Daguanyuan can be viewed as a kind of model of parts of the Summer Palace in Beijing or the Humble Administrator’s Garden in Suzhou, I also collected observations of these locations. I found architectural features to be the most prominent elements focused on by interviewees, such as the purpose of various bridges or the placement of natural components such as rocks or flowers. Further historical research into the architecture provided me with more insight into aspects of the environment that the Chinese value.

Through a literary analysis of Hong Lou Meng, interviews with Chinese students, teachers, and scholars, and literary reviews of articles focusing on Chinese gardens, my research provides a base understanding of the philosophical importance of the relationship of people and the environment in China, through the manifestation of gardens. The heart of this research focused on whether or not the Chinese garden can be viewed as a ‘paradise’ and if so, what ‘paradise’ means in a Chinese context. Though the answers are ambiguous, they can be used to arrive at even deeper questions on the Chinese relationship with the environment.

Aiden Schadt
We traveled to China in July and August of 2019 to study the attitudes of Chinese today toward the classic novel Hong Lou Meng, or Dream of the Red Chamber. This novel is one of the most important works for understanding Chinese culture today. While many scholars focus on topics like poetry or the garden in Hong Lou Meng (as two of the Student Fellows in our team did), I examined the leadership qualities of certain characters in the novel and compared them to modern management theories.

The main characters Wang Xifeng and Jia Mu, two women who are responsible for running the large household in the novel, served as my case studies. I chose these characters because they seem to carry the most influence in the family structure. By examining the relationships between these characters and the many maids who work in the household, as well as other high-level family members, it becomes apparent that the structure of the family is deeply influenced by Confucianism. Hierarchy becomes an essential theme in how the household runs and functions, though it is important that Jia Mu and Wang Xifeng are women and that each of them has a different style of management, the first being decentralized, the second being more strict, but based on the authority she gets from Jia Mu and her husband. Similar hierarchies and mixed management styles are found in the way much of Chinese society runs today, though there is a stronger emphasis on hierarchy within Chinese companies compared to most European or American companies. However, as China has gone through industrial and technological revolutions, hierarchy seems to become less important in these companies. Many of which have begun to “westernize” their management into a “flat” hierarchy, departing from the kind of relationships represented by Wang Xifeng’s style of management especially. Overall, my study shows the roots of Chinese management in Confucianism but its more recent adoption of Western styles, allowing me to better understand the complex Chinese style of management today.