Eroticism and Other Literary Conventions in Chinese Literature: Intertextuality in The Story of the Stone

by I-Hsien Wu


This book is in the Cambria Sinophone World Series, headed by Victor Mair (University of Pennsylvania).

The Story of the Stone, also known as Dream of the Red Chamber, is unquestionably the most beloved and most celebrated work of prose fiction in Chinese literary history. For two and half centuries, the novel has inspired a ceaseless flow of critical interpretation ranging from the allegorical, autobiographical, and bibliographical to the poststructural, forming a particular field of study called hongxue (“red” studies).

Building on the novel’s rich content and this vast scholarship, and using Julia Kristeva’s terms on intertextuality, especially her notions that every human being is nothing more than an intersection of preexistent discourses created by human language and text, and that reality can only be seized as a reconstructed fiction that exists through its relation to previous fiction, this book presents a new understanding of the novel. Eroticism and Other Literary Conventions in Chinese Literature examines how The Story of the Stone dramatizes human experiences by responding to previous literature, particularly those openly denounced by the novel’s internal narrator, the mythic stone.

While there has been much discussion about human lives and emotions presented in The Story of the Stone, the mainstream humanist scholarship often reads the text as a reflection of historical figures (e.g., the author of The Story of the Stone) or constructed (but “real”) persons. This book, however, argues that while the novel is centrally concerned with defining ren (human), it is equally involved in investigating wen (literature). Thus, the core tenet of The Stone lies in the intricate symbiosis between ren and wen, which gives rise to wenren (literati) and renwen (humanities), and even more to the wen that produces wenti (genre), wenhua (culture), and wenming (civilization)—an evolution that had concerned the Chinese literati for centuries but was fictionalized for the first time in The Story of the Stone.

How does The Story of the Stone utilize language and text to make meanings of the human lives it creates? How does The Story of the Stone exist through its relation to previous fiction? To answer these questions, this book argues that the mythic stone’s harsh critiques of historical romance (yeshi), erotic fiction (fengyue bimo), and scholar-and-beauty fiction (caizi jiaren) cannot be taken at face value. Instead, they signify The Stone’s anxiety of influence and allude to the nature of intertextuality. In this light, this book argues that the novel’s construction of lust shows its indebtedness to erotic literature; its making of romance is created through the use of drama as reading and as performance; in the protagonist’s confrontation with and final submission to social expectations, the novel wrestles with the portrayal of young literati in the scholar-and-beauty convention; and finally, following a genealogy of objects featured in literature to animate human lives, the mythic stone is created to question the convention of storytelling, not only in pre-existing fiction but also in the novel’s many previous lives in manuscript versions and printed editions.

This book is a must-read for anyone interested in The Story of the Stone, and for readers interested in novel, fiction, drama, and other literary genres and subgenres in Chinese literature.

Watch Professor I-Hsien Wu's speech about her book at the AAS Cambria Press reception (or read the transcript of her speech).


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