When Pauline Chen *96 began working on an adapted version of Dream of the Red Chamber – an 18th-century Chinese literary classic that fills an intimidating 2,500 pages in English translation – friends and colleagues had mixed reactions. Those who saw Chen’s work as an abridgement were OK with the idea, she said; those who viewed it as a rewrite were “appalled.”
But Chen forged ahead, telling the book’s central love story and sharing its keen social observations in a mere 381 pages. She hopes that The Red Chamber, published by Knopf last month, will bring the story to new audiences.
At the heart of The Red Chamber is a love triangle between a young man and two potential mates who are polar opposites – one “poetic, passionate, sensitive, and spontaneous,” Chen said, and the other “beautiful and submissive, cold and self-controlled.” In an interview with NPR, Chen noted that it bears some resemblance to Gone With the Wind.
The story explores themes of freedom and individuality in an era when arranged marriage was the norm. “In some ways, it provides a snapshot of life in that time,” Chen said. “It’s a monument to Chinese culture.”
Chen, who first read sections of Dream of the Red Chamber as a teenager, studied Latin poetry as an undergraduate at Harvard. She began to embrace Chinese culture after graduation, while spending a year in Taiwan, and at Princeton she earned her Ph.D. in East Asian studies, inspired in part by Professor Andrew Plaks ’67 *73 and his love of Chinese literature. “A major part of the intellectual journey that led to this book took place in the East Asian studies department at Princeton,” Chen said.
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