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Zhou Ruchang: 65 Years of Devotion to The Dream of The Red Chamber

chinadaily 2013-10-31

Jing Mei

(Born in Tianjin, Zhou Ruchang was China's leading scholar of the classic novel The Dream of the Red Chamber. In addition, Zhou was an accomplished poet, calligrapher and expert on traditional Chinese literature. He wrote more than sixty books during his lifetime. His masterpiece New Evidence on The Dream of the Red Chamber is considered a landmark in the history of redology1 and a groundbreaking work in modern redology (It's a term referring to the academic study of the classical novel The Dream of the Red Chamber, a work so multi-layered and allusive it has spawned its own field of scholarship. ).

On the evening of May 31 when I was reading at home, I received a phone call from a Beijing Daily editor who told me: “Did you know that Mr. Zhou Ruchang passed away?” At the end of last year, we planned a special report on Zhou, but were delayed due to various reasons. I lost no time to call the Art Research Institute of China from which Zhou had retired and they confirmed that he had died, aged 95, at his home at midnight. How things changed! Our original plan for interviewing him became a pity forever. Early the next morning, I called Zhou Ruchang's daughter Zhou Lunling for further details. Lunling told me that he died mainly because of his old age. Zhou had begun to feel unwell ten days before his death, but he did not care about it at all. On May 23, he even dictated the 12-point framework of his next book, tentatively titled Understanding the Dream of the Red Chamber in My Dream. On the evening of the 30th, he was planning his new book, his mind still clear. He always thought that he could accomplish more, but his health failed him. He had to leave the world with regret. “The good news,” his daughter said, “is that he was very peaceful. The five of us were all there.”

I extended my condolences to Lunling. “I know I should not be too saddened. But I'd always stayed close to my father and we had never been separated from each other. The idea that we are now separated by death is just too hard to accept…” said Lunling, her voice choked with emotion. When asked about the funeral arrangements, Lunling told me that they had decided, in accordance with her father's last wish, that there would be no funeral service in order to let him leave in peace. I. Now freed from worries, I can devote myself to creation: career and achievements

Zhou Ruchang was born in 1918 in Xianshuigu, a town 25 kilometers away from the center of Tianjin. As a gifted child, he showed a talent for foreign languages soon after he was sent to school. When he was studying in Nankai Middle School in Tianjin, his English was already as good as his teacher's. Having been exempted from the entrance examination in the subject of English, he was enrolled in Yenching University in 1939 and studied in the Department of Western Languages and Literature. His graduation thesis, an English translation of Wen Fu (a classical Chinese work on literary theories), impressed the professors there including his foreign teachers. In an unprecedented gesture, they treated him to dinner and told him his thesis had been accepted in its complete form with unanimous approval. Later, he translated The Twenty-Four Categories of Chinese Poetry into English and British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley's Ode to the West Wind into Chinese in the style of Li Sao. When he was a child, his mother often read The Dream to him and it was also from his mother that he was able to see the manuscript copy of The Story of the Stone (It’s another name of the novel The Dream of the Red Chamber). But the person who led him to a serious study of redology was the renowned scholar Dr. Hu Shi. In 1947, Zhou Ruchang discovered a collection of poems written by Guo Min, a close friend of Cao Xueqin (the author of The Dream) in the library of Yenching University. (Dr. Hu had been looking for this book to investigate the life of Cao Xueqin for many years but had failed to find it.) Based on the six poems about Cao Xueqin in this poetic collection, Zhou wrote his first essay in redology, which was published in the then Republic of China’s Daily. On reading this essay, Dr. Hu wrote Zhou a letter, also published in this newspaper, which drew attention of academia. Later when Zhou Ruchang recalled this old memory, he was extremely grateful to Dr. Hu. “In his letter, he partially subscribed to my investigative research and reserved his opinion to the remainder. Young and impetuous, I responded aggressively to argue with him. ” During the period from the winter of 1947 to the next fall, Dr. Hu Shi wrote Zhou Ruchang six letters to discuss redology with him. In 1948, Zhou Ruchang asked Dr. Hu for the loan of his prized Jiaxu manuscript of The Dream (also known as Rouge Inkstone Comments Again on The Story of the Stone) and it was generously granted. Looking back on this past incident, Zhou Ruchang often said with emotion: “I was only a freshman at Yenching and Dr. Hu Shi dared to lend me such a precious manuscript!” During the summer holiday that year, Zhou Ruchang brought the manuscript home and his fourth brother Guchang, finding the manuscript turning yellow and easily damaged, was too concerned to flip through it. So the brothers spent two months copying the whole manuscript in black and red ink (The black is probably for the original text and the red for the comments made by Rouge Inkstone). Then they wrote to Dr. Hu and proposed that they should launch a new edition of The Dream best resembling the original work by collating the different versions extant, which included the Jiaxu manuscript, the Gengchen manuscript and the Qixu edition published by Youzheng Press, and they also suggested that the highly popular yet extensively falsified Chengyi version should stay out of circulation.

On reading Zhou Ruchang’s letter, Dr. Hu replied (on July 20, 1948): “I think your recent proposal of a collated version of The Dream is of foremost importance and it should be done by someone. Regarding its hard labor, no one was inclined to take this job in the past two decades. If you are to do it, I’ll provide you with the best assistance and convenience possible. ”

It was from that day that Zhou Ruchang embarked on his 60-odd-year journey in the field of redology that lasted until the end of his life. As Dr. Hu said, the whole project was just too strenuous. The research papers of Zhou Ruchang and his fourth brother were confiscated during the height of the Cultural Revolution because a neighbor of Zhou informed against him by saying that he was in touch with Dr. Hu Shi who then lived abroad and was writing anti-government papers. Very soon the accusation against him turned into a serious political case, arousing attention from different government sectors. With his home thrice searched, not a scrap of the brother’s books and research papers survived. They were tragically evicted from their house and the family of eight became homeless. After this unhappy experience, the brothers had to start again from scratch and finally “completed the book in genuine hardship”. However, the subsequent publication experienced years of setbacks before the massive 10-volume The True Story of The Stone (a collated edition of 11 different manuscript versions of The Dream, considered an unsurpassable edition in modern redology) was published by Haiyan Publishing House on May 1, 2004.

His dream was realized in the end. By that time, however, it had been 56 years since his impassioned proposal to Dr. Hu who had died by then (in the 1970s), followed by Zhou’s brother in 1993. With mixed feelings, Zhou Ruchang composed a poem which reads: It took me as long as 56 years to realize my dream. /I had worked hard and I felt proud. /During those catastrophic years, justice was overtaken by evil, /And injustice prevailed. / Now freed from worries, I can devote myself to creation. / I am fortunate, but I’m ashamed that I’m not learned enough. / Feeling lonely, I cannot help thinking of my lost brother. / Cut off from my old ties, I’m the wild goose flying alone in the spring sunlight.

When Zhou Ruchang published his first 400,000-word work New Evidence on The Dream of the Red Chamber (1953), he was a teacher at Sichuan University. It was said later that every member present at the Congress of National Writers and Artists got a copy of this book. Dr. Hu, who was living on the other side of the Pacific Ocean by that time, highly acknowledged Zhou in a letter to a friend: “This gentleman is my last yet most hard-working and accomplished disciple.” As an avid reader of New Evidence, China’s then new leader Mao Zedong mentioned this book twice in his essay Comments on Five Classical Novels.

In 1982, Zhou Ruchang published the article “What is Redoloy?” which states that redology consists of four categories, namely, the study of Cao Xueqin, the study of different versions, the study of the commentator Rouge Inkstone, and speculation of the lost chapters. This article triggered a huge debate among redology researchers which has continued to the present day. As an erudite and diligent scholar, Zhou Ruchang’s creativity extended beyond redology, for he was also versed in languages, poetic theories, ancient text annotations, poetry appreciation, and translation. With a profound knowledge of traditional Chinese classics, Zhou Ruchang produced abundant works to his credit. Since the publication of Fan Chengda: Selected Poems in 1959, he also published several other books on classical Chinese literature, such as Bai Juyi: Selected Poems, Yang Wanli: Selected Poems, Appreciation of Poetry, and Sui Hua Qing Ying (a collection of essays). Moreover, he was good at composing poetry himself. The noted scholar Qian Zhongshu once highly praised the rhyme of his poetry. In addition, Zhou Ruchang was distinguished for calligraphy. Though he humbly refused to call himself a calligrapher, he actually started to learn “Ouyang Xun” style since he was young and seriously practiced Lanting style after 20. His “Slender Gold” style, a fusion of strength and grace, was extremely elegantly mannered. Due to his failing eyesight, he was rarely engaged in calligraphy after 70. That’s why few of his calligraphic works still existed in the world now. Zhou was also great at Beijing Opera. It was said that on the stage of the then Yenching University, Zhou’s role as a Xiao Sheng (a young male character) won him numerous fans. II. “Never will I exchange my scholarship for millions of gold”:passion and integrity

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