Cao Xueqin - One of the China's Greatest Novelists
Cao Xueqin (曹雪芹) is the author of Dream of the Red Chamber, believed by many to be the greatest novel written in the Chinese language. His given name was Cao Zhan and his courtesy name is Mengruan. Cao belonged to a Han Chinese clan which later became part of the Plain White Branch of the Manchu Banners. Although forced into slavery to Manchu royalty in the late 1610s, his ancestors distinguished themselves through military service and subsequently held posts in officialdom.
Under the Emperor Kangxi the clan's prestige and power reached its height. Cao Xueqin's grandfather, Cao Yin (曹寅), was a former playmate to the Emperor Kangxi, and Cao Yin's own mother was the wet nurse to the infant Emperor Kangxi. Two years after his ascension, Kangxi appointed Cao Xueqin's great-grandfather, Cao Xi (曹玺), as the Commissioner of Imperial Textiles in Jiangning.
When Cao Xi died in 1684, Yin, as Kangxi's personal confidante, took over the post. Cao Yin was one of the era's most prominent men of letters and a keen book collector. By the early 1700s, the Cao clan had become so rich and influential as to be able to play host four times to the Emperor Kangxi in his six separate itinerant trips south to the Nanjing region.
When Cao Yin died in 1712, Kangxi, still in power, passed the office over to Yin's only son, Cao Yong (曹颙). Yong himself died in 1715. Kangxi then allowed the family to adopt a paternal nephew, Cao Fu (曹頫), as Cao Yin's posthumous son to continue in that position. Hence the clan held the office of Imperial Textile Commissioner at Jiangning for three generations.
The family's fortunes lasted until Kangxi's death and the ascension of Emperor Yongzheng to the throne. Yongzheng was much less tolerant of the debts the family chalked up in office. By 1727, after a series of warnings, he decided to confiscate the entire Cao clan's properties, including their mansion, and put Cao Fu under arrest. Many believe this purge was politically motivated. When Cao Fu was released a year later, the family, totally impoverished, was forced to relocate to Beijing. Cao Xueqin, still a young child then, followed the family in this odyssey.
Almost no records of Cao Xueqin's early childhood and adulthood survive. Redology scholars are still debating Cao Xueqin's exact date of birth, though he is known to be around forty to fifty at his death. Cao Xueqin was the son of either Cao Fu or Cao Yong. It is known for certain that Cao Yong's only son was born posthumously in 1715; some Redologists believe this son might be Cao Xueqin.
Most of what we know about Cao Xueqin was passed down from his contemporaries and friends. Cao himself eventually settled in the Western suburbs of Beijing where he lived the larger part of his later years in poverty selling off his paintings. Friends and acquaintances recalled an intelligent, highly talented man who spent a decade working diligently on a work that must have been Dream of the Red Chamber. They praised both his stylish paintings, particularly of cliffs and rocks, and originality in poetry, which they likened to Li He's. Cao Xueqin died some time in 1763 or 1764, leaving his novel in a very advanced stage of completion. He was survived by a wife and at least one son.
Cao Xueqin achieved posthumous fame through his life's work. The novel, written in "blood and tears", as a commentator friend said, is a vivid recreation of an illustrious family at its height and its subsequent downfall. A small group of close family and friends appears to have been transcribing his manuscript when Cao died quite suddenly in 1763-4. Extant handwritten copies of this work – some 80 chapters – had been in circulation in Beijing shortly after Cao's death and scribal copies soon became prized collectors' items.
In 1791, Cheng Weiyuan (程伟元) and Gao E (高鹗), who claimed to have access to Cao’s working papers, published a "complete", edited 120-chapter version. This is its first moveable type print edition. Reprinted a year later with more revisions, this 120-chapter edition is the novel's most printed version. Modern scholars generally think the authorship of the 1791 ending - the last 40 chapters - to be in doubt.