Meaning and Sympathy in the Hung-lou meng

Vol. 23 No. 2   6/1993   


Meaning and Sympathy in the Hung-lou meng


Angelina Chun-chu Yee 









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    Fiction scholars of New Criticism have held that in any reading of a novel. Three fundamental aspects come into play: the implied author’s message, the meaning of the work conveyed by the interaction of the characters as they come to life, and that interplay of these elements will yield a “total meaning” that may vary with sociohistoricial perspectives and individual taste. Sing the Hung-lou meng as a paradigm, I discuss in this paper the problematics and complexity of attempting to reach the “total meaning” of a text.

    It is a testimony to the profound richness of the Hung-lou meng that readers throughout the centuries have derived from it wide and varied eanings of doubtless validity from one angle or other. This may be attributable at least in part to the delicate balance of multiple points of view and values in the text. Many readers, with reason, take Pao-yu’s perspective as the novel’s center of consciousness, yet the stage is often taken over by other actors with dissimilar or even antithetical viewpoints. Though Pao-yu’s sentiments may claim the reader’s sympathy, the mediating consciousness of the supra-mundane world symbolized by the Jade serves as a constant reminder that all Pao-yu’s experiences have been foreordained. The text is 

ceaselessly deconstructing itself even as it constructs meaning, forcing the reader to defer and revise judgements constantly. While Pao-yu, Chia Cheng, and His-feng, for instance, may be seen as representing “ch’ing” (feeling), “li” (decorum), and “fa” (law) respectively, to the extent that they are not immune to the excesses characterized by Chia Chen’s world of lust, together they make up a largely amoral world which lacks a core of values. And readers’ perennial bipartisan quarrel, pitting Tai-yu against Pao-ch’ai, illustrates the effect of the shifting and counterpoise of values and 

perpectives. Ts’ao Hsueh-ch’in’s crowning achievement, embodied in the special appeal of Pao-yu’s personality, lies in his capacity to feel for large areas of human experience, not to judge. 

    The author’s philosophical negation of indulgence in sentiment and worldly care poignantly contrasts the love and sympathy with which he escribes the world of gracious living, poetry and feeling. The narrative hovers indeterminately between attachment and detachment, between love of life and it s renunciation. Hence the task of affixing a “total meaning” to a text of Hung-lou meng’s multivalence and polysemy is a self-defeating one. 



Author: Angelina Chun-chu Yee
Genre: Article