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“The Story of the Stone” by Cao Xueqin

The Story of the Stone is a classic and outstanding example of the Chinese literature of the end of the eighteenth century that has marked a significant period in the country’s cultural development. The literary work is a composition of multiple social, religious, moral, and psychological issues that reflect the Chinese’s life. It is traditionally assumed The Story of the Stone is analyzed from the perspective of the novel’s description of family relations and the Qing dynasty rule. However, this paper aims to argue that The Story of the Stone is a significant example of religious manifestations in social life. In particular, the novel illustrates the manifestations of the Chinese Buddhist tradition through the supernaturalism and temporality that are used to reflect the characteristics of Buddhism in Chinese social life.

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The novel under the title The Story of the Stone was written by Cao Xueqin in the middle of the eighteenth century. It is a large literary work consisting of five volumes of text that has become a literary masterpiece representing Chinese literature on an international scale. According to Lawal and Mack, The Story of the Stone is “a novel about family, its internal relationships, and its place in the larger social world” (147). Indeed, the plot deals with these issues that are delivered through the depiction of the characters’ lives and their interaction with each other. However, there is a deeper level of the novel’s implications serving a more significant role in demonstrating the shaping of the Chinese Buddhist tradition. The very intersection of supernatural and magical existence with the mortal world and rational social life exemplify the manifestations of Buddhism (Lawal and Mack146-147). Indeed, the Stone, which is a central figure of the novel, judging from the title, is taken to the world of mortal people to be subjected to suffering.

Indeed, the very depiction of Stone’s suffering in the mortal world as opposed to nirvana, and other characteristics of the Buddhist vision of the afterlife demonstrate that the novel aims at applying religious ideas to social life. The novel “begins with a triple framework of the mythic-fantastical, the earthly, and the metafictional,” outlining the three dimensions of existence that Chinese Buddhists face (Ying 4). The underlined opposition of the promised “brilliant, successful, poetical, cultivated” locality the earthly life was expected by the Stone and the experienced suffering the mortal world entails demonstrates the Buddhist vision of life (Lawal and Mack147-149). Personification and metaphor are used to create Stone as the character that embodies the religious theme. Thus, the author integrates the religious interpretations into the novel’s narrative using literary techniques of temporal shifts, metaphors, and personification.

Most importantly, the idea of the interpretation of the Chinese Buddhist tradition through the novel’s narration is observed through the characters that are presented throughout the novel and are created by the author to illustrate the collision of two traditions, namely Taoism and Buddhism. These characters are the Buddhist monk and a Taoist monk, who play a pivotal role in the novel. Indeed, these two characters transport the Stone to the mortal world and interpret it differently, thus exemplifying the “problematic of contradiction and constraint” (Ying 4). This problem is related to the failure of both monks to remain loyal to their religious beliefs, although “they stand as ethereal emissaries to warn the mortals of the folly of earthly attachment and deliver the ultimate wisdom of emptiness” (Ying 5). Conclusively, the novel illustrates the inconsistency of religious and philosophical beliefs of the Chinese Buddhist tradition of the time of the Qing dynasty due to its intersection with Taoism.

Works Cited

Lawal, Sarah, and Maynard Mack, editors. The Norton Anthology of World Literature. 2nd ed., W. W. Norton & Company, 2002.

Ying, Lei. “Between Passion and Compassion: The Story of the Stone and Its Modern Reincarnations.” Religions, vol. 12, no. 62, 2021, pp. 1-15.

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