Q&A: Pai Hsien-yung on Chinese Notions of the Afterlife and The Story of the Stone

The Story of the Stone (also known as Dream of the Red Chamber) is widely held to be the greatest work of Chinese literature. Embedded in the novel is a biting critique of imperial China’s political and social system. The narrative is cast within a mythic framework in which the protagonist’s rebellion against Confucian strictures is guided by a Buddhist monk and a Taoist priest. A Companion to The Story of the Stone: A Chapter-by-Chapter Guide, by Susan Chan Egan and Pai Hsien-yung, is a straightforward guide to this complex classic. In this Q&A, acclaimed fiction writer Pai Hsien-yung (Bai Xianyong) guides us through the mythic aspects and framework of the story.

Q: The Story of the Stone, also known as Dream of the Red Chamber, is widely lauded for its realistic portrayal of eighteenth-century Chinese society, yet it abounds with spirits, ghosts, fairies, and other unearthly beings. What are their roles in the novel?

Pai Hsien-yung: This novel operates on a realistic as well as a mythic level. The author encloses the main narrative—which traces the decline of the powerful Jia clan, over the course of which its young scion comes to realize that everything in life is ephemeral—within a mythic frame populated by supernatural beings from folk culture and popular Buddhism.

Q: What aspects of folk culture are featured in the novel?

PAI: The author draws heavily on traditional beliefs concerning the afterlife. In Chinese folk belief, a person has three components: the body, the hun (what Westerners might call “spirit” or “soul”), and the po, which makes the body sentient. When a person dies, his po dissipates, while his hun rises from his body. But the hun can also leave the body while someone is asleep, ill, or unconscious. Perhaps to accommodate other beliefs, it is sometimes said that a person has not one but three hun: one rises to heaven; one resides in the grave or the ancestral tablet and responds to prayers and food offerings; and one is reincarnated. The conviction that their ancestors’ spirits will keep an eye out for people as long as regular prayers and food offerings are made dates back to antiquity, whereas the concept of reincarnation did not enter the popular imagination until around the first century AD, when it was introduced from India along with Buddhism.

It is believed that some hun come back to haunt the living—to seek revenge, to suck blood from a living person, and so forth. In such cases they are called gui, usually translated as “ghost.” A beautiful female gui seeking sexual intercourse with male victims to absorb their life-giving semen has long been the stuff of male fantasy. Some gui are simply hungry because they do not have a family to feed them. The Ghost Festival on the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month is set aside every year for offerings to these pitiful hungry ghosts.

Benign spirits called shen (usually translated as “god”) and xian (translated as “immortal” or “fairy”) may or may not have previously been human beings. A shen is invariably powerful but could be quite ugly; a xian—especially a female xian—is usually strikingly attractive but may not possess much magical power beyond being immortal.

Q: How are the mythic realm and the mundane world held together in the novel?

PAI: The border between the main narrative and the framing device is permeable. It is quite marvelous to see how some of the characters manage to move back and forth without undue strain on our credulity. Consider, for instance, the captivating and gentle Qin-shi, who is depicted variously as a living person, an incorporeal spirit, and a spooky ghost, as well as a fairy.

We first meet Qin-shi in chapter 5. She invites the adolescent scion of the Jia clan, Jia Bao-yu, to nap on her bed when he becomes tipsy from wine consumed at a family gathering. In his dream, a fairy named Disenchantment tells Bao-yu that his ancestors have asked her to cure him of his “lust of the mind”—his boundless empathy for pretty girls—which threatens to render him unfit for a normal life. The fairy teaches him how to make love and gives him her younger sister Ke-qing as his bride. After the wedding is tenderly consummated, the newlyweds emerge from their bridal chamber to find themselves caught between beasts of prey and a ravine full of monsters reaching out to clutch at Bao-yu, whereupon he screams, “Ke-qing! Save me!” Out in the courtyard, Qin-shi is astonished to hear Bao-yu cry out her childhood nickname.

Eight chapters later, Qin-shi, who has been gravely ill, turns up early one morning at the bedside of Wang Xi-feng, her husband’s cousin and manager of the household, to bid her farewell and to warn her that the clan faces hard times in the years ahead. Her advice is to purchase as much property as possible around the ancestral burial ground, so as to ensure sufficient income for regular ancestral offerings and to sustain the clan school. Qin-shi helpfully points out that, as a charitable estate, the land would be exempt from government confiscation. Xi-feng awakes just in time to hear Qin-shi pronounced dead. It is not clear from the narrative if Qin-shi is dead by the time she appears to Xi-feng, nor is it clear that Xi-feng has not merely dreamt of her, but the idea that a departing hun may come to say good-bye is a common belief among Chinese.

By chapter 75, the clan’s fortune has declined sharply, but the Jia men continue their dissipated ways. While Qin-shi’s father-in-law is enjoying a feast in the garden with his wife and his four concubines, they hear a mournful sigh emanating from the foot of the garden wall, then the sound of a door opening and closing in the ancestral temple beyond the wall.

In chapter 101, Wang Xi-feng, walking alone at night, is accosted by a shadowy figure chiding her for failing to prepare the clan against hard times. Recognizing the ghost as Qin-shi, she flees and trips over a stone.

At the clan matriarch’s funeral in chapter 111, her loyal maidservant, aptly named Faithful, is wondering how she might kill herself rather than face an uncertain and perilous future when she sees, in the dim light of the matriarch’s inner room, a woman poised to hang herself with a sash. Realizing it is Qin-shi showing her how to end her life, Faithful weeps and proceeds to hang herself. The apparition then identifies herself as Ke-qing and tells Faithful that the fairy Disenchantment has appointed her to preside over the Tribunal of Love, a post she herself is relinquishing to return to paradise.

Q: Why do you suppose the author goes to the trouble of creating such a framing device?

PAI: The myth serves many purposes. It imbues the narrative with an aura of tragic inevitability. It illustrates the novel’s overarching theme: that people are highly susceptible to stories that fill their emotional needs and the line separating the real and the imagined is fuzzy. Above all, the myth drives home the Buddhist tenet that everything is ephemeral. The novel is semiautobiographical, and I do believe it is meant to be read partly as a tale of how a young man reaches enlightenment.

Pai Hsien-yung (Bai Xianyong) is an acclaimed fiction writer and a professor emeritus of East Asian languages and cultural studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His books include A Companion to the Story of the Stone: A Chapter-by-Chapter Guide (2021) Taipei People (1971) and Crystal Boys (1983). He has taught The Story of the Stone for decades and is the author of a popular three-volume guide in Chinese on which this book is based.

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