Wednesday, January 21, 2015


For those who have not watched this adaptation of 'Hong Lou Meng' 《紅樓夢》or, 'A Dream of Red Mansions' - a 36-episode drama adaptation produced by China Central Television (CCTV) in 1987, you can check it out if you are in the mood for some pretty high quality retro Chinese tv productions. Also known as 'Dream of Red Chamber', this show is adapted from the 18th century classic literature. The novel is also known as Shi Tou Ji 《石頭記》or, 'The Story of the Stone'.

I am feeling a bit more cultured today lol and will devote a post to this fabulous adaptation.
You can catch it on Youtube with English subtitles, although with some typos and lost in translation hiccups, it is sufficient enough to understand. Watch it HERE.

Also, people are saying that only the cut version of the drama is available for some reason, so there are abrupt parts in the show which might lead to some head scratching unless you have read the novel. I am not sure why they decided to cut it, since 36 episodes are barely enough to cover a 120-chapter novel.

Anyhow, my first encounter with 'A Dream of Red Mansions' was in the 1980s, I was a little girl and didn't understand what was going on, however I was quite enamoured by the eye-candy so it left a deep impression. It was aired on Saturdays. Granted I have never watched China-made productions besides 1986's Journey to the West (read about my blogpost here), this particular one stuck throughout the decades. Maybe it was the music, or the enigma back then about the lead character.... I couldn't convince myself he was a boy even when they called him Brother Bao “寶哥哥” lol. Also his girly hairstyle and jade necklace threw me off since the girls (and there were many!) wore similar ones, so that was really confusing until I asked my dad if he was male or female.

I decided to rewatch it last year after recalling my late father had purchased the dvd set several years ago. Hong Lou Meng is one of the 4 Great Chinese Classical Novels, the other 3 being:
- 14th century's The Water Margin Shui Hu Zhuan 《水滸傳》,
- 14th century's Romance of Three Kingdoms San Guo Yan Yi 《三國演義》
- 16th century's Journey to the West Xi You Ji 《西遊記》
My father also purchased Romance of Three Kingdoms dvds, directed by the same Mr. Wang Fulin. I only caught a few bits and pieces of the drama, one day I will sit down and properly watch it when I can separate my attention span from work lol. I also own 1998's Water Margin from my aunt; an absolute favourite back in secondary school - also watched it twice on tv (not the remake!).
About A Dream of Red Mansions:
Written by Cao Xueqin 《曹雪芹》(born 1715 or 1724 - death 1763 or 1764)  and published posthumously in 1791, 'Shi Tou Ji' (later retitled as 'Hong Lou Meng') is believed to be a semi-autobiography of his life experiences and a dedication to the women in his life. The author did not complete the novel before he passed away and it was said the manuscript drafts that contained the endings were lost. The first 80 chapters are canonised Cao's work.

Cheng Weiyuan's 《程偉元》 & Gao E's 《高鶚》 additional 40 chapters (to complete the story) is the most published version although a large number of Redology scholars agree that Gao E's ending was not what Cao Xueqin had in mind. There are still debates whether any parts of Gao E's 40 chapters contained a few of Cao Xueqin's original scripts or if they were all Gao's telling.

Hong Lou Meng is considered the pinnacle of Chinese classic literature, unfortunately the true ending to this masterpiece will always be a mystery.

The story follows the domestic on-goings and eventual demise of the aristocratic Jia clan; with strong allegorical, philosophical and metaphorical overtones. The book accurately details 18th century Chinese elite's lifestyle and its social structures, etiquette, religion, culture and arts.
Baoyu and Daiyu
Jia Baoyu《賈寶玉》 is the central character, heir apparent to the Jia clan and the main story arc covers his interactions with his numerous female companions and romance with Lin Daiyu《林黛玉》, his sickly cousin. Lin Daiyu is his soulmate, but his family prefers the robust & pragmatic Xue Baochai《薛寶釵》. Daiyu symbolises individual pursuit of freedom, while Baochai symbolises conformity and social order.
Xue Baochai, played by Zhang Li
Other plots include feasts, funerals, marriages, poem clubs, family strife, servant squabbles, finance issues and politics. The men in the family (besides Baoyu) are portrayed as less capable than the women or having no control over their lusts. Another main character in the story is Wang Xifeng《王熙鳳》, Baoyu's prickly cousin-in-law who manages the household and finances.
Wang Xifeng, played by Deng Jie

My favourite character is Tanchun 賈探春, Jia Baoyu's half sister. Other than being born to a badly behaved concubine and holding a low status in the family, she has spunk and is highly capable - she has a better hand at managing the household finances than Wang Xifeng. Her ending is unfair for a character of her calibre, but then that is what the book is about: Everything good must come to an end. Lives are short, good times end quickly.

I also like Lin Daiyu's maid - Zijuan 紫鵑 and maybe... Granny Liu 劉姥姥 - the comic relief who repays her gratitude to Wang Xifeng later!

Back to the show:

36-episode Hong Lou Meng drama does not cover all chapters of the story due to budget and time constraints and many characters were not included. It is impossible to, as there are more than 700 characters in the novel!

In the later episodes, the plot deviates from the novel. Since Cao Xueqin did not write the last 40 chapters, the scriptwriters took some creative liberties to enhance their work, forgoing Cao E's version. The endings to the characters were based on consensus from Redology scholars who have analysed Cao's poems that prophesy the fates of the girls.

Therefore the timeline has changed, some of the characters' plotlines have changed, and the endings for the main characters are different. All I can say is the super-compounded tragedy is quite memorable for this adaptation. I think the writers were thinking this: take that all you future remakes, you can't one-up anything more tragic than this!
Poor, poor Baoyu.

It took 4 years and cost 6.9million renminbi to produce the film, about 190,000 rmb per episode, including building of an actual mansion set and landscaped gardens - now a tourist attraction. This is considered very low budget nowadays, however back in the 80s spending millions to produce TV work was considered too extravagant in China. Times have changed and China's modern drama can now cost millions to billions of yuan per episode!

The actors were trained in a cultural crash course at the Yuanmingyuan (Old Summer Palace) to make them as authentically 1700s as possible, such as learning calligraphy, music, painting, music, poetry, etiquette and studying the book.

The wages were very low for the cast and crew - the highest paid was the director who received merely 70 yuan (about US$11.00) per episode. 60 yuan for the leads (US$9.65) and the rest were between 20 yuan to 50 yuan... The salary rates were similar to Journey to the West's so maybe China's tv productions were like this back then. I believe each episode would take weeks to months to complete so 70 yuan-per-episode is hardly a living wage and having to commit to the project for 4 years even more so. However as all true art goes, the drama was not made for profit but purely to bring something faithful, beautiful and artistic to the screen.

The 3 main characters:

Jia Baoyu, played by Ouyang Fenqiang
Jia Baoyu doesn't like to study to the dismay of his strict Confucian father. Instead he prefers to hang out with his numerous female companions. He is flippant and flirtatious at times, not too smart but good looking, compassionate, prefers to read taboo books like 'Romance of the West Chamber' than studying the '4 Classics', and avoids social responsibilities whenever he can. He does not like to observe elite etiquette and prefers to treat his servants as equals. He is the apple of his grandmother's eye. His name means 'precious jade' and he wears the jade he was born with around his neck all the time, to his annoyance. He is predestined to marry Xue Baochai hinted early in the book, although his true love is Lin Daiyu.

Baoyu was performed by then 20-year-old Ouyang Fenqiang 欧阳奋强 who is currently a film director since 1989. Before this role, he was a sidelined actor under Emei Film Studio for six years; directors found it hard to cast him because of his baby face. With the recommendation of Deng Jie (who plays Wang Xifeng), director Wang Fulin sent him off to a screentest at Beijing and he went only because he could ride on a plane! Ouyang Fenqiang's personality is nothing like extroverted mischevious Jia Baoyu. He is known to be introverted, shy, not very confident at first that he could carry the role, and behaves older than his age (they likened him to an old man). He was encouraged and granted exception to mingle with his female co-stars in their dorms to bring out the playfulness in him. I consider his portrayal as the 'Thoughtful Baoyu' with an introspective gentleness.

Lin Daiyu, perfomed by Chen Xiaoxu
Lin Daiyu is the cousin of Jia Baoyu. She moves into the Jia household after her mother passes away to live with her maternal grandmother - the family matriarch; her father dies a few years later. She is an only child and cuts a willowy, ethereal, sickly, melancholic and lonely figure. She is also hyper sensitive with sharp sarcasm, and cries often which does nothing good for her health. Despite being doted upon by her grandmother, she does not have a high standing in the Jia household. She is a master in poetry and intelligent, uninhibited, naive, and pursues the spiritual rather than material gains, thus she shares many similar values as Baoyu. Although she sometimes offends people with her words, her intentions are never malicious. She is hinted to be a reincarnated flower that repays back a divine attendant (hinted to be Baoyu) by shedding tears for him for an entire lifetime. She passes away from love sickness and possibly of a tuberculosis complication.
Daiyu was performed by Chen Xiaoxu 陈晓旭. This lady has attained somewhat of a cult status although she has only been in 2 tv series and then leaving showbiz. Encouraged by her friend in her troupe to try for the casting call for Lin Daiyu at aged 17 in 1983, she submitted a photo of herself with a self-composed poem titled 'I am a willow catkin' and a lengthy essay analysing the character of Daiyu. Unable to shake off the Lin Daiyu role in her subsequent tv series, she switched to an advertising career in 1991 and surprised many with her apt in business. When she was 31, she set up her own company and was worth billions by 2006. In 2007, she shocked the public by pursuing Buddhist nunhood, a few months later it was reported she had passed away from breast cancer. She was 41. My initial thought when I saw her was that she looked like she just stepped out of a chinese painting, she has that small small mouth, pale and very slim. Her natural disposition is that of a most melancholic-looking Daiyu ever.

Xue Baochai
Xue Baochai is another cousin of Baoyu. Beautiful, wealthy, sophisticated and tactful, she strictly observes feudal ethics, and constantly nags Baoyu to study and associate with officials for advancement in a feudal career. She seems to know many things, but seldom displays her knowledge, preferring to keep silent in her thoughts. She is highly diplomatic in her approach to everything, so everyone likes Baochai because she does not offend. Eventually even Lin Daiyu concedes to Baochai's perceived magnanimity. Without a doubt, between the choices of Lin Daiyu and Xue Baochai, the Jia family chooses Baochai to be Baoyu's wife. Her sole aspiration is to achieve a high feudal status and honour for her family, for as much as they may have riches, they have no power. When her imperial engagement falls through, she turns her attention to Baoyu instead. Whether she was an ideal feudal maiden and/or a product of her times, or if she was hypocritical, scheming and self protecting of material interests, is still up for debate. My opinion is that Baochai critics tend to be overly harsh to her, afterall Cao Xueqin had written her (and Lin Daiyu) as his ideal type of women. It is not easy to be Xue Baochai, I see some of her actions as self sacrificing for her family, albeit for less noble reasons.
Baochai is played by the beautiful Zhang Li 张莉. She was originally from the military performance troupe and had in mind the role of Zi Juan, Lin Daiyu's maid. The director felt she had the aura and personality of Baochai's elegance and thoughtfulness, and gave her that role instead. Zhang Li and Chen Xiaoxu are the closest friends out of the actors and remained so till Chen Xiaoxu's death. Preferring to maintain a low profile, she resides in Canada after having studied film-making, but switched to property investing in 1993.

I cannot recommend this show enough if you are interested in watching chinese classics. There are different TV versions (Hong Kong, Taiwan, the new China remake) but this version is the most painstakingly put together, exquisitely shot and full attention to artistry and beauty. The details, furniture, the jewellery (of course lol), right down their body actions makes me want to watch it again. Every time I watch it, I learn something new, either a detail in the background or something related to later events that I had missed earlier. Each episode is a chapter in the book, and I can't find any part of the script that was not important to the progress of the plot, that is.... no useless dialogue!

One thing I would have liked to see more was extra interaction between Baoyu and Daiyu, other than them bickering. But there is a massive amount of content and characters to cover in less than an hour, I guess that part had to be skimmed down to a minimum. Anyhow I don't like it when tv dramas drag out episodes just to milk time when we clearly get the picture already.

Can you believe this drama was initially panned by the media, Redology scholars and whoever didn't like the adaptation because Daiyu was not pretty enough (really?), or that she was too sorrowful than expected, or how the scriptwriters changed the plot or how it's against whatever political agenda they have? They were complaining so much the show was nearly taken off air... thankfully it didn't happen. The critics changed their minds when a movie adaptation came out and the comparison of what was considered true integrity to the original source became stark. Then there was another adaptation that wasn't up to par, so this 1987 version became labelled THE Classic, the best Hong Lou Meng screen adaptation yet. I'm glad they changed their minds because I loved it at first sight, even without understanding what was going on. In fact this show is so well loved now, it is always listed in those "Top Chinese Dramas Ever Made" topics, usually at #2 just behind "Journey to the West" (who can beat that show anyhow lol). Likewise, Chen Xiaoxu's Lin Daiyu is so synonymous with the actress, people are still thinking of her as Lin Daiyu 3 decades later.

Below are the 2 famous poems converted into classic hit songs from Dream of Red Mansions, the translation is half borrowed from online sources and my own translation to plain English. The 3rd one is from Tanchun's last scene.

Theme song 1 “枉凝眉” Brows Vexing in Vain. This song is symbolic to Jia Baoyu and Lin Daiyu's fates.

一個是閬苑仙葩, 一個是美玉無瑕
One was a flower from fairyland, one was a flawless jade,
If it were not fate, why should she meet him in this life?
If it was fate, why does their love come to nothing?
One sighs to no purpose, the other yearns in vain;
One is the moon's reflection in water, one is a flower in the mirror.
How many tears can one well from the eyes?
That they flow from autumn to winter, from spring to summer!


Theme song 2: “葬花吟” Burying Flowers Song. This song is symbolic to Lin Daiyu's eventual passing and her outlook in life. While others are busy celebrating the flowers and decorating bushes, she sneaks off and weeps over fallen flowers.

花謝花飛飛滿天 紅消香斷有誰憐?
遊絲軟系飄春榭 落絮輕沾撲繡簾
一年三百六十日 風刀霜劍嚴相逼
明媚鮮妍能幾時 一朝漂泊難尋覓。
花開易見落難尋 階前愁殺葬花人
獨倚花鋤偷灑淚 灑上空枝見血痕
願儂脅下生雙翼 隨花飛到天盡頭。
未若錦囊收艷骨 一抔淨土掩風流
質本潔來還潔去 強於汙淖陷渠溝。
爾今死去儂收葬 未卜儂身何日喪?
儂今葬花人笑癡 他年葬儂知是誰?
試看春殘花漸落 便是紅顏老死時
一朝春盡紅顏老 花落人亡兩不知
花落人亡兩不知 花落人亡兩不知!
Flowers wilt and fly about in the sky,
Who pities the loss of your fragrance when you die?
Floss flutters and drifts about,
Petals gently cling to embroidered curtains.
In three hundred and sixty days,
The blade of the wind and sword of the frost is severe.
How long can the flowers remain lovely,
Once loosed, the drifting is hard to track.
It is easy to see blooming flowers but hard to find when fallen,
Before the steps I sorrow.
Alone I lean against the hoe and secretly weep,
Splashed on your bough my tears are as blood.
I wish to have a pair of wings to fly,
After the flowers unto the farthest end of the sky.
At the farthest end of the sky, Where does the grave of your fragrance lie?
At the farthest end of the sky, Where does the grave of your fragrance lie?
Better to keep the remains in silk, To bury under the clean earth.
For pure you have come and pure you have left,
Is better than soaking in the foul ditch.
Now that the flowers are dead I hold a burial,
How can one tell when it is my time to die?
Others laugh at my burial of the flowers,
Another year who will be burying me?
At the farthest end of the sky,
Where does the grave of your fragrance lie? (x2)
As spring fails and flowers fall,
The bloom of beauty ages and wane.
One day when spring has gone and beauty has aged,
No one knows when both flowers and the beauty perish! (x3)


《分骨肉》“Separation of kin" for Tanchun's political marriage to a foreign war enemy.

Three thousand li traveling through wind and rain,
Leaving my home and kin behind.
I fear my remaining years are wasted away with tears,
Dear Father and Mother, do not worry for your child.
Since of old fortunes and failures has been predestined,
Partings and reunions does not mean we have not fate.
From now on we live in separate lands,
Let us take care of ourselves.
I am going now, be not troubled for me.


Unknown said...

Beautiful review, very helpful, thank you.

Anonymous said...

Is the series online to be seen? I read the English version of the novel in 2000and would love to see the series.

MichaelSBacon said...

This was a fantastic blog post. I learned so much I might otherwise never have known, because I don't read Chinese. I love this show so much, and it was great to know more about the making of it. I'm sad to hear about Chen Xiaoxu.