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

chinadaily 2013-10-31

I met Zhou Ruchang in the 1990s. When I first visited him at his home, his wife Madame Mao Shuren was still alive. I don’t know how we started it, but I do remember that Madame Mao told me that she disliked The Dream for the whole of her life. I felt it hard to understand at that time. Not until I got home did I realize that during all her life, The Dream was her only rival that was too strong for her to overcome and she had no choice but to live with it.

Zhou Ruchang regarded the study of The Dream as his life. Though nearly blind and deaf for decades, he remained passionate about the novel to the end of his life. It was said that Cao Xueqin was crazy to have spent 10 years on the creation of The Dream, but Zhou Ruchang was even crazier to spend 65 years on the study of the novel! Zhou Ruchang had been gradually losing his hearing since youth and even with the help of a hearing-aid, he was unable to hear unless someone shouted close to his ears. In 1975, he lost his sight in his left eye as a result of retinal detachment and he could only read and write with two high-power magnifiers superimposed on each other. During the subsequent years, he sat by a small and old folding table nearly every day and with his remaining poor eyesight, he noted down his thoughts on tiny pieces of paper that his daughter Lunling had cut for him. More often than not, the characters were so illegible that only his daughter, who had been his assistant for years, could recognize them. She would transcribe them first on paper and then tap them into a computer. With both eyes blind some years before his death, he had to turn to dictation to his daughter.

According to Lunling, Zhou once said in an interview in 2002: “I’m 84 now. Though I’ve experienced great joy and sorrow, I still have love for the world. It’s hard for a person like me to accumulate some knowledge. With my vigor and creativity, I can write an article of thousands of words in length nearly every day and my daughter often finds it hard to keep up with me. Now I’m working very hard with the remaining sight of just one eye because I have more to accomplish. I’ve accumulated a great deal of material over the past decade for the purpose of generating more achievements for future generations! ”

Age clearly did not damp his prolific output. In 2009 alone, he had a number of books published. These include Who Knows that Rouge Inkstone Was Shi Xiangyun?, The True Story of The Dream of the Red Chamber, Zhou Ruchang Edits and Comments on The Story of The Stone, both in traditional and simplified Chinese editions, and Appreciation of Poetry: A New Edition.

Appealing to a wide readership, The Dream has created a huge business today. In recent years, The Dream has given rise to an industry incorporating publications, movies and television, tourism, cultural activities and academic conferences. It is estimated that the overall business value of The Dream has amounted to billions of RMB. For many people, The Dream has become “The Dream of Gold” before they realized it.

Though viewed highly as one of the three leading authorities in redology (the other two were Hu Shi and Yu Pingbo), Zhou Ruchang lived his remaining years modestly in a small apartment in Chaoyang District, Beijing since 1979. This 60-square-meter apartment was equipped only with some old furniture. Blind and deaf, life for him was particularly difficult, but he was simply happy in his research. The only valuable thing in his apartment was a jade pillow. Lunling told us that he had slept on it for many years (which may also have something to do with his research of The Dream), be it winter or summer. When it turned cold, he would put a towel on it. He said the pillow helped him keep a clear mind.

The old gentleman was innocent in nature. With little exposure to social occasions, he was not good at dealing with people. Most of the time he acted like a child, but he knew his principles very well. Of late years, he stated many times that he did not like to be called a “redologist”. Neither did he like the term “redology”, which, according to him, had been vulgarized. He criticized current research of The Dream for its lack of depth and sustenance. Though dedicating his whole life to the study of The Dream, he always considered himself not talented and learned enough to understand the broad and profound classic.

Reading The Dream of The Red Chamber hundreds of times, I was so deeply touched every time/that I did not realize the creeping of coldness on spring nights. /When new understandings arose between the lines, I felt ashamed that my learning was still so restricted. /As valor is essential to a hero, I wish that as a scholar, I had the talent to offer a modest contribution. /Plain language can hardly convey the truth of my mind: never will I exchange my scholarship for millions of gold! This is a true portrayal of the great scholar, who exemplified the best traits of a traditional Chinese intellectual.

III. The Dream embodies the true essence of traditional Chinese culture:theories and mind

Based on 10 years’ textual research, Zhou Ruchang reached a conclusion of The Dream as follows: the novel is not simply a tragic love story. He believed that the reason that redology was listed with the studies of oracle bones and Dun Huang as the three most famous schools in modern Chinese studies lies in its global significance, and its role and influences on Chinese national cultural are beyond measure. “Scholars like Hu Shi stated that The Dream can hardly compare with world-class literature. I’ve always suspected what they meant by ‘world-class literature’. Today I still firmly believe that The Dream is a world-class literary piece!” said the old gentleman passionately. He even composed a poem to express this feeling: A literary wonder full of gifts and beauty, /The single book of The Dream has generated numerous thoughts. /An integration of history, literature, philosophy, and divinity,/The Dream embodies the true essence of traditional Chinese culture.

Zhou Ruchang declared that The Dream is more than an autobiographical novel of the author. It is also a literary creation enabled jointly by the families of Cao Yin and Li Xun. The old theory held that Cao Xueqin composed only the first 80 chapters. But scholars like Zhou Ruchang believed that Cao actually finished the whole novel, but the manuscript of the succeeding chapters was lost for some reason. Following the clues provided by Rouge Inkstone in his/her comments, Zhou summarized his speculations on the lost chapters roughly as follows:

I. After Daiyu dies, Baoyu married Baochai, who also dies at an early age. Xiangyun is reduced to extreme poverty. Later Baoyu meets Xiangyun again and marries her.

II. The Bond of the Stone and the Wood refers to the marriage between Baoyu and Xiangyun, who are the protagonists of the whole story.

III. Daiyu is not the Crimson Pearl Flower who returns her gratitude with tears. IV. Cao Xueqin’s grandpa Cao Yin remarried a woman surnamed Li, who is Jia Zheng’s mother in The Story of The Stone. V. Rouge Inkstone was a woman, the second wife of Cao Xueqin, and the person on whom the character Shi Xiangyun is based. The Dream was created jointly by the couple. Rouge Inkstone’s comments are integral to the novel as a whole.

VI. Cao Xueqin was born in 1724 and died on Lunar New Year’s Eve in 1763. His ancestors came from Fengrun, Hebei Province.

VII. The prototype of the Grandeur Garden in the novel is the current Prince Gong’s Palace in Beijing.

VIII. The last 40 chapters continued by Gao E are pseudo graphs.

The television series of The Dream released in 1987 generally adopted Zhou Ruchang’s research results.

Passionate about The Dream, Zhou Ruchang was always open to different ideas towards the novel. That “the Prince Gong’s Palace is the prototype of the Grandeur Garden” is an important proposition of Zhou. In my own book Mist and Dream: The Prince Gong’s Palace, I’ve argued for a different opinion. But Zhou was by no means offended. When I visited him around New Year’s Day in 2004 with Yang Liuqing’s New Year Pictures, Zhou encouraged me with the same warmth as he used to, and cheerfully took a photo with me, holding the pictures in hand. (Zhou’s beloved hometown Tianjin is famous for the production of Yang Liuqing’s New Year Pictures.) IV. Cut off from my old ties, I’m the wild goose flying alone in the spring sunlight: Evaluation and reminiscence

Early that evening, I searched “Zhou Ruchang Dies” on Baidu, and got 195,000 results. Some of them are comments made by distinguished scholars.

Zhou Ruchang’s New Evidence on The Dream of The Red Chamber is like a necessary mountain for redology researchers. With one such book in his entire life, a person will be held permanent in the field. — Sun Yuming, Director of Redology Research Institute, Chinese National Academy of Arts.

Zhou Ruchang’s accomplishments in the field of redology have had no parallel up to this day. As a scholar of the New Culture era, Zhou Ruchang was one of the few living treasures. — Liu Mengxi, a redologist, a noted scholar on classical Chinese culture, and Director of Chinese Culture Research Institute. Zhou Ruchang was more than a redologist. He was also an expert on Chinese culture. His death marked a huge loss to Chinese culture. — Liang Guizhi, a redologist and professor with Liberal Arts College, Liangning Normal University

Some are messages left by friends from the Internet.

During his entire life, Zhou Ruchang was indifferent to fame and fortune. He was passionate only about Chinese culture and academic truth. Let us pay tribute to him!

Wish him a peaceful departure! Redology today is no comparison to that of the 1980s. A true redology researcher shall understand the essence of “being red”, that is, remaining indifferent to fame and fortune and constantly pursuing intellectual cultivation. This is totally different from the world of restlessness, hypocrisy, and heartlessness. I believe that more authentic “red” people will follow the example of this old gentleman, choose to stay away from relentlessness, and fight for a different destiny in order to find a purified spiritual world of their own.

He studied The Dream all his life and achieved abundantly. The Dream of the Red Chamber was also his own dream. He left himself there, together with his heart, his dream and even his soul!

So I called Lunling again. She was deeply touched by these comments. “I’ve got no time to read them online, but I’ve already heard about them. This afternoon a student of my father called from Chengdu, telling us that nearly all the local newspapers there published the news (of Zhou Ruchang’s death) and some even put it on the front page. I didn’t realize that my father had so many fans! We’re really touched, particularly by the fact that many of the fans are young people. If only my father had known it! That’s just what he wanted to see. He was always concerned about the future of traditional Chinese classics. If he had known that he had influenced so many young people, he would have been extremely relieved. ”

Lunling told me that Zhou was very weak in his last days. He ate and slept little, but was very aware. He always said that he had new ideas and understandings and he should write them down without delay. He often dictated a clearly-organized essay early in the morning after a sleepless night. Worrying about his health, his sons and daughters often suggested that he should not do so. But he would go mad by talking back: “My brain is in good condition. If you didn’t allow me to write, what else could I do?” In addition to Understanding The Dream of the Red Chamber in My Dream, he planned another book on the exposition of poetry in the Tang and Song Dynasties. A few years ago, he published a similar book Qian Qiu Yi Cun Xin which was incorporated into the reading list for members in state organs. He was greatly encouraged. So he decided to write one more such book. He had already catalogued the poem. But now, it could only be saved for memory.

(Jing Mei,reporter with Beijing Daily. )

(From Xinhua Monthly, No.15, 2012)

 (Translated by Hu Hong)

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