Geoffrey Fox

Reflections & Inquiries

A pavilion of not-to-be forgotten characters


The Pavilion of Forgotten ConcubinesThe Pavilion of Forgotten Concubines by Pim Wiersinga
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this multi-layered linguistic and literary adventure story, the characters of China’s most famous 18th century novel, Dream of the Red Chamber, intervene in the lives of the historical and invented characters brought to life by Pim Wiersinga in the latter years of the empire of Qianlong (25 September 1711 – 7 February 1799), sixth emperor of the Qing dynasty. In the present novel, the Dream of the Red Chamber has become immensely popular throughout China in incomplete pirate editions with presumably spurious additions. But, did author Cao Xueqin manage to complete his manuscript before his death at age 47 in 1763, and if so, how does its love story truly end? And how will that story, if the true version be known, affect the destiny of China? These are questions that still puzzle scholars today; they are burning issues for the characters of Pavilion.
The Emperor wants to add the authentic final version of the novel — if it exists and can be found —to his literary collection, but also to suppress it if, as he suspects, it celebrates the virtues of the much freer prior dynasty. His corrupt Grand Councillor Heshen hopes to sequester it for material gain and also to be sure no one publishes a version that will tarnish his and his clan’s wealth and reputation. Other readers, including Old Lady Chun Xiang, Mistress of the Pavilion of Forgotten Concubines, are merely desperate to know how the story turns out.
But what drives the novel’s heroine, Imperial Interpreter Second Class Lady Cao Baoqin, is a more literary, spiritual goal: to fulfill the aims of Cao Xueqin, who was her first lover, when she was a teenager and he in his forties, and to bring his story to the widest possible audience, in Mandarin and in the foreign languages of Europe. The Dutch diplomat, scholar and merchant Isaac Titsingh also becomes involved in pursuit of the manuscript when he meets and becomes enamored of the still-beautiful Cao Baoqin — both now in their fifties. Though his mission is to open commercial and cultural relations between the Netherlands and China and Japan, both Asian literature and his new lady-love seem to excite him far more.
The story of the pursuit of the manuscript, Baoqin’s escape from the pavilion and her further adventures is told entirely via notes, imperial decrees, and letters by the extremely literate, mulitlingual intepreter. Never do we overhear the characters speak directly to one another; the closest to dialogue are the introspective and reflective monologues in letters that Baoqin writes but then burns rather than send, embarrassed to tell us of her unwomanly desire to become a great novelist herself, and of her competing affections for the long-dead Cao Xueqin and the much-alive Dutchman.
What makes this story fascinating to readers today, even those of us not yet familiar with the Dream of the Red Chamber, is Pim Wiersinga’s use of this framework to illustrate how literature can re-invent the past, creating a vision that becomes the accepted “truth” — in this case of, dynasties and clans, and also his discussion (through the voice of the the Dutch diplomat) of how this empire’s view of itself as self-sufficient and superior to all other kingdoms and peoples, and therefore its rejection of foreign contacts and innovations, condems it to sterility and decay.
Also of great interest to those of us who care especially about language are the discussions (in letters between the Imperial Interpreter and the Dutchman) of the differences between a language written in thousands of ideographs, each summoning associated ideas, and one represented by a mere two dozen or so simple characters, an “alphabet”, whose symbols mean nothing in themselves.
Wiersinga has done an impressive job of research to introduce us to histories most of us had never suspected. And he has also taken the occasion to celebrate the rôle of his versatile and adventurous countryman, the quite amazing Isaac Titsingh (b. Amsterdam 1745, d. Paris 1812). Check him out in Wikipedia.

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