Not a dream adaptation?

It’s the most expensive Chinese TV show ever, but viewers are seeing red

Not a dream adaptation?

Red drama: young stars of the new show pose for the cameras

A Chinese Redologist is not, as you might guess, an expert on the country’s ruling Communist Party. Rather, it is someone who spends their professional life studying a novel entitled The Dream of the Red Chamber.

The five volume masterpiece – set in Beijing in the 18th century – has long been regarded as one of China’s four great classical novels (the others being The Journey to the West, The Water Margin and The Romance of the Three Kingdoms).

The plot revolves around a young nobleman Jia Bao-yu and the life of his rather large family, who live in two neighbouring mansions. Originally titled The Story of the Stone, it is thought to be a largely autobiographical account of aristocratic life in the late Qing Dynasty. Its author, Cao Xueqin wrote it after his own rich and prestigious family fell from grace, and he was reduced to poverty. As such it offers an engaging portrait of the way of life and social strata of the period.

First published in 1791, the novel bristles with lively personalities, satire and debauchery. And while the protagonist may be a man, the bulk of the key characters are women. In fact, in spite of the era’s patriarchal outlook, the Jia household is dominated by ladies, few of whom conform to weak and submissive stereotypes. In particular, the multi-tasking skills of Wang Xi-feng make her a role model for modern China’s female CEOs. The episode in which she is invited to overhaul the chaotic Ning-guo household could be included in any management handbook.

Cao’s novel may remind some readers of Jane Austen, others of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. But many Chinese compare it with Shakespeare. Aside from the first 50 pages (which are a slog), it’s a page-turner, with David Hawkes translation for Penguin the best edition for an English-speaker. But at almost 3,000 pages long, it’s little wonder that The Dream of the Red Chamber is rarely read in the West.

In China, on the other hand, the book has long been a literary staple, except during the Cultural Revolution when it was deemed undesirable for its ‘feudal’ content. That means that virtually every Chinese adult has a familiarity with the novel, and probably a view on its more famous characters and scenes.

So any director that has the audacity to film this ‘national treasure’ is knowingly entering controversial territory. That is exactly where Li Shaohong finds herself.

Her 50 episode TV dramatisation of the Chinese classic began airing nationwide last week – having previewed on Shanghai’s local cable network in July. At Rmb135 million, it is also the most expensive TV show produced in China, and took Li three years to make. It features more than 1,700 costumes, and to bring late Qing China to life (in high definition) it required the construction of over 90 sets. For banquet scenes, expert chefs were even brought in to ensure period cuisine was cooked appropriately.

To ensure she got it right, Li spent eight months working on the Red Chamber script. She then read it aloud in the presence of four Redologists, asking them for their interpretation whenever she was unclear on detail. Finally Li – whose previous work includes period drama Palace of Desire and thriller The Door – cast 300 actors.

So no effort spared, then. But the response to the adaptation has still been a predictable welter of criticism. The Beijing Morning Post reports that Li has even been labelled “an enemy of the people” with the further reproach that “Cao Xueqin would have committed suicide if he were alive”. Other areas for attack: heroine Lin Dai-yu is “fat and dull”, Wang Xi-feng “wriggles all the time” and that the series has a dreamy style that makes it seem like a “ghost story”. Topping it all, the opening episodes stoked controversy over scenes featuring homosexuality.

Taken together, the adverse comments have led to unfavourable comparisons with an 1987 TV adaptation. But the 55 year-old director – who says the undertaking felt like making 25 films – told the China Daily that she thinks her version will be accepted gradually. “You may not like it, but we worked very hard. It’s a serious work,” she commented.

As to the vitriol of some of her critics: “I have not destroyed the book. It is still there. It is a public treasure and that means everybody has the right to interpret it. People claim it as their own. How can I satisfy everyone?”

Li also defended the homosexual scenes as being true to the book, telling Southern Weekly: “Our principle is to be faithful to the original. For the love affair between Jia Bao-yu and Qin Zhong, some people like it, some don’t. This is the first time it has appeared in a TV show and it’s thanks to the relatively more open cultural environment after 30 years of reform.”

To be fair, not everyone dislikes Li’s version. Ma Ruifang, a professor of literature at Shandong University and executive director of the Chinese Society of the Dream of the Red Chamber (so presumably something of an expert), agrees that it is faithful to the novel.

Another unashamed fan is the China Daily’s columnist, Raymond Zhou, who says he’s watched 16 adaptations of the novel and thinks this by far the best. But Zhou admits that he is in a “small minority” in loving the latest version of Red Chamber. The problem, he says, is that the book is often beyond the comprehension of some of his compatriots. “This is China’s Hamlet,” he argues. “Experts have been arguing for a century about the hidden meaning of many details. The shortcut to screen success is to cheapen it to just another melodrama. Almost all earlier adaptations are just that. Li Shaohang wanted to do more and has thus offended public sensibility.”

As for Li, she notes: “This is the most exhausting project I’ve done, and the one with the most regrets. But it is still worthwhile. No director can say no to Red Chamber. For me to complete it is a big success.”

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