How did a most important book discover in China?
A note about the anonymous writer of Dream of A Red Chamber
According to the first printed version published in 1791, the editor said the author was unknown. The book had been popular for twenty years or so before the printed version in 1791. It was first circulated in hand-written copies in temple fairs. People were willing to buy the scripts in very high price. It could be dozens of taels in silver. Why can the book be sold in such a high price? It must be that the book was so attractive and it was all about the very rich noble people’s life and was unknown to the public. And more importantly, people can copy it and sell it again in the same or even higher price. A million words were not easy to copy, however, even several chapters could sell a good price. There was no complete version of the book by then, but loose chapters. For the first twenty years or so, the book was popular among readers in the old Capital of China. People knew there were 120 chapters in the book from the index on the first chapter, but for a long time, there were only loose chapters for the first 80 chapters. The loose hand-copied chapters were sold in temple fairs, or even vendors on the street. It must be a lucrative business by then. However, someone determined to collect the complete chapters and print them. The last 40 chapters were finally found and pieced together. Then we have the 1791 version, then a better one in 1792 by the same first printers. From the beginning till the first printed version, no one knew who was the author of the book.
As a lucrative business, the hand-written circulation was continued for more than 100 years. It was sold as antiques for later collectors. People not only copied the chapters, they rewrote it, adding more vivid sexual description and putting on personal remarks. It was more welcome by the market then. One copier wrote in his remarks that Cao xue-qin was his nephew and he could “order” the author to alter certain places in the book. People believed him.
Scholars of the last century seemed not to think the author was anonymous. They would rather believe Cao Xue-qin who had been mentioned in the book as an editor, was the writer. But there was no prove of it. And the scholars were not in the position of a reader of the book, but analyzers of it. They could not feel the inner force from the story. They did not share the same feeling with the writer. They were busy at picking up external data from the huge volumes. That must be a hard work for them. Anyone who could feel the same with the writer, would believe, by the time of a highly authoritarian pressure in Ching dynasty, it was completely impossible to publish a book with such advanced thoughts at the time. Anyone would choose to omit his name to avoid being persecuted.
The scholars in China seldom doubted about the copiers. They believed them.
The most important scholar who had insisted the writer was Cao Xue-qin, was Hu Shi.
Hu Shi maintained that there were two writers. He had said the last 40 chapters were the work of the first printers, though it had no proof. Hu could not feel the inner spirit of the work nor he could see into the highly complicated structure of the work with some literature awareness. He was a politician more than a literature scholar. Yet his opinion was accepted until now.
He was deeply immersed in American thoughts and was honored by numerous American Universities. At least 35 Western universities offered honorary degrees to him. Most of them were awarded in the United States during the Second Sino-Japanese War period. It was strange, why the American people were so mush fond of him. Sometimes, Hu Shi would collect two honorary degrees at the same day. Yet seldom of the people in China doubt about the political intention in the move. The Chinese people still put the name Cao Xue-qin in the book as its author, both in Mainland China and Taiwan until today.
Actually this is quite a simple matter, however, the Chinese scholars had developed a subject called "redology".(The science to study Dream of Red Chamber?) Numerous books have been written about the book and its writer. It was a funny dispute for 300 years since.