The Dream in Nanking

Duncan Campbell translates a passage from the garden historian Tung Chuin 童寯 on speculation regarding the inspiration for Prospect Garden 大觀園, the site of so much of the action in the novel Dream of the Red Chamber.

The Garden and The Dream

With reference to the great eighteenth-century novel Dream of the Red Chamber 紅樓夢, also known as The Story of the Stone 石頭記, Yuan Mei had once made the claim that ‘Prospect Garden is in fact my own Garden of Accommodation’ 大觀園余之隨園也. Three generations of the family of the author of this novel, Cao Xueqin [曹雪芹, 1715-1763?], had indeed lived in Nanking, in service as the Commissioners of the Imperial Textile Manufactory. When dismissed from this post in the Sixth Year of the reign of the Yongzheng emperor [1728], the family had moved to Peking. Cao Xueqin was between five and fifteen at the time, and so, around twenty years before work on the Garden of Accommodation commenced, the Cao familywere already living in the capital. Twenty or so years later Cao Xueqin was already dead; during this forty-year-long period, he only spent the period between the autumn of the Twenty-fourth Year of the Qianlong emperor [1759] and the Double Nine Festival of the next year in Nanking, as the Private Secretary to Yinjishan [尹繼善, 1696-1771], the Governor-General of the provinces of Kiangsi and Kiangsu. Yinjishan was also Yuan Mei’s patron, and so in all likelihood Yuan knew Cao Xueqin personally, perhaps even having invited this ‘Princeling Xueqin’ to attended one of his literary parties. After all, by this time the Garden of Accommodation had existed for almost a decade. And obviously, Cao Xueqin would have been even more familiar with the West Garden situated within the compound of the Governor-General’s headquarters.

Having spent so much of the rest of his life in Peking, Cao Xueqin would have been familiar also with the habits of the upper class families of the capital, whilst through personal experience or the tales of his family members, he would have had a good understanding of both the customs of the south and the manner of daily life there, thus being able to bring the south and the north to bear in his novel. In Chapter Two of the novel, we are told that, to the east and the west, the two mansions of the Ning-guo 寧國 and the Rong-guo 榮國 sides of the family in Stone City were connected with each other, and that behind the mansions lay a flower garden. The next chapter describes Lin Daiyu’s 林黛玉 arrival in the capital, and tells also of the flower garden of the Ning-guo family to the east and that of Rong-guo family to the west. Prospect Garden 大觀園, the construction of which is told about in Chapter Sixteen of the novel and which involved the dismantling of the structures to the east of Rong-guo mansion and the extension of the Ning-guo mansion’s existing All-Scents Garden 會芳園, must be situated in Peking, therefore, the overwhelmingly northern Chinese background of the novel proven also by the use of the dialects of the north-east and of Hebei Province, along with the presence in the rooms of heated raised beds or kangs and so on. At the same time, however, the architectural style of a number of the structures found in the novel, or certain of the plantings, could only be found in the Kiangnan 江南 region, along with dialect usages that derive also from this southern Chinese area, thus illustrating the fact that Prospect Garden really was ‘Earth’s fairest prospects all are here installed 天上人間諸景備,[1] the extent to which the realm described was a product of the author’s imagination. Were this not to be the case, then aspects of the plot of the novel would defy explanation.

For instance, Hu Shi [胡適, 1891-1962] argued that whereas the mansion of the Zhen 甄 family was all along in the south, that of the Jia 賈 family was in the capital. And yet Grandmother Jia occasionally lapsed into Nanking dialect.[2] Critics have pointed out that as the book is, after all, a dreamscape, whatever contradictions or sins of omission or inconsistencies or disjunctions that it may perpetrate, such infelicities are deliberate used by the author to create the imaginary and illusory world of the novel; it is part of the way in which he creates something out of nothing, hides the real [zhen 甄/真] and expresses truth in the false [jia 賈/假].

Over the years, the novel, subject also as it has been to the introduction of typographical errors as it was printed and reprinted, to the author’s own carelessness, to deliberate distortion in order to avoid unpleasantness, suspicion or taboo, has nonetheless managed to delude generations of readers into thinking that it was a realistic account and that Prospect Garden actually existed as it was described. An example of this fallacy is the short introduction by Fumingyi 富明義 to a poem he wrote about the novel, which reads as follows: Cao Xueqin produced the Dream of the Red Chamber that he had written, in which he gives exhaustive record of all the splendours of dissipation and luxury, his ancestors having been the commissioners of the Kiangning Imperial Textile Manufactory, and so when he talks about Prospect Garden, what he is actually describing is the previous incarnation of the present-day Garden of Accommodation’.[3]

In his Selection of Poems and Words of Congratulations on the Occasion of my Eightieth Birthday 八十壽言詩選, Yuan Mei included ten poems by Fumingyi. The first line of the seventh poem reads: ‘The Garden of Accommodation is on the former site of Red Chamber’. This accords perfectly with Yuan Mei’s own claim that: ‘Prospect Garden is in fact my own Garden of Accommodation’. Of course, in that too he confuses the respective sites of the two gardens, thus ignoring both geography and chronology. In actual fact, the connection between the two gardens is an indirect one; that is, once the Sui family had taken possession of the Cao family’s Little Granary Mountain flower garden it later reverted to Yuan Mei, and that, as he wrote his novel, Cao Xueqin based his description of Prospect Garden on the aristocratic gardens that he had visited in Peking as well as on memories of the Garden of Accommodation that he had visited whilst he was serving in Nanking. He recreated them in a somewhat exaggerated manner. The Garden of Accommodation was real; Prospect Garden was false. Led astray by their curiosity, not only have readers failed to investigate the matter, but they have indulged in fanciful and far-fetched archaeology. This is not the only instance of such ridiculous phenomena in the world of letters.


[1] As stated in Chapter Eighteen of the Dream of the Red Chamber. [Translator’s Note: As translated by David Hawkes, The Story of the Stone, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973, vol.1, p.356.]

[2] In Chapter Three of the Dream of the Red Chamber we read: ‘You don’t know her’, said Grandmother Jia merrily. ‘She’s a holy terror this one. What we used to call in Nanking a “peppercorn”. You just call her “Peppercorn Feng”. She’ll know who you mean!’ [Translator’s Note: Again as translated by David Hawkes, The Story of the Stone, vol.1, p.91.]

[3] For which, see Wu Enyu’s 吳恩裕 1959 Eight Notes on Cao Xueqin 有關曹雪芹八種. Fumingyi was a Manchu. His residence, the Villa Surrounded by a Stream 環溪別野, was built on the site of the former garden for Taking Pleasure in Goodness 樂善園. After the 1911 Revolution, this garden was renamed Flower Garden of the Three Princelings 三貝子花園 and is, today, the site of the Beijing Zoo. Wu Enyu’s work claims that the manuscript of the Dream of the Red Chamber was completed in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth years of the Qianlong emperor [that is, 1748-1749]. At that time, Cao Xueqin was living in Peking and work on the Garden of Accommodation in Nanking had just begun.