The Hong Lou Meng (紅樓夢) is one of the best known classics of Chinese literature, charting as it does the downfall of two great families and taking in its compass great swathes of Chinese history, philosophy and culture. Different titles were considered, however, as the author Cao Xueqin discusses in his introduction.
Hong Lou MengNames
The Story of the Stone
The introduction to the Hong Lou Meng combines the prosaic musings of an ageing author with a supernatural tale from the celestial realms. The stone in this title refers to a piece of divine masonry which, rejected for building purposes, becomes imbued with the text of the Hong Lou Meng itself, and later features in the story as a piece of jade found miraculously in the mouth of the mercurial main character of Bao Yu (寶玉) when he was born.
The Passionate Monk's Tale
In the supernatural opening to the Hong Lou Meng, the celestial stone, which contains the full text of the story, is discovered by a monk. After some back-and-forth, during which the stone itself convinces the holy man of the work's literary value, the monk is so convinced that he not only copies out the whole story in order to get it published, but he changes his name from Empty Daoist to the Passionate Monk.
A Mirror for the Romantic
A Mirror for the Romantic (風月寶鑑) is the title allegedly given to the work by "Old Kong Mei-xi from the birthplace of Confucius". This seems to have been the name for an earlier draft of the novel, subsequently discarded. One of the recurring motifs of the Hong Lou Meng is the idea of fiction vs reality; the mirror is an apt metaphor for stepping through the looking glass into strange worlds beyond.
A Dream of Red Mansions
This is the classic title by which the work is widely known. The red mansions, or sometimes 'red chambers' in the translated title does not refer to an opulent red room, but to the customary red plastered outer walls of buildings that signified grandeur. But hong lou was also used to mean specifically the dwellings of rich men's daughters. There is deliberate ambiguity in the title as to whether the dream is of the glories of wealthy houses, or of the beautiful refined women who lived within.
The 12 Beauties of Jinling
In his self-deprecating introduction, Cao Xueqin makes mention of the female friends of his youth and how each one was his superior in every way. The title "The 12 beauties of Jinling" refers to these women, fictionalised in the story so that they would not, "pass into oblivion without a memorial."