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The novel called The Story of the Stone, written by an outstanding Chinese writer, Cao Xueain is set around a traditional Chinese background of the eighteenth century. It brings out the major aspects of the accepted Chinese way of life; it touches the following spheres, which include literature, lifestyle, culture, and religion. Poetry was considered a subject that members of the prosperous families had to learn and follow in their daily activities.
Other themes in the novel that stands out relate to truth and reality. The author of The Story of the Stone, Cao Xueain, integrates his own reality with the story in the novel. It seems that he tells the story as he has experienced it on his own. However, he includes some additional material and facts that otherwise make it fictional. The prologue shows that Cao Xueain writes the book in memory of his childhood friend, though there are certain aspects about the novel that seems to be too fantastic to have been real, even in his time. He talks of divine forces and mystical gemstones that characters are born with and other divine stones that are incorporated into the body of human beings in a bid to see the world. For example, Xuequin (1996) states, “Now this block of stone, having undergone the melting and molding of a goddess, possessed magic powers” (p.47). Of course, these seem too fantastic to be true.
This means that the theme of truth, as depicted in the novel, is limited to what could possibly and rationally occur at some point in reality, and in this case, what could really have happened in the author’s childhood. The rest is part of fiction that is entwined in the story. Other than the personalities incorporated into the fantasy world created by the author, the rest of the characters are likely to have existed.
The hero of Shi Xiangyun is incorporated amongst 29 other main characters in the novel. This makes it easy to see why her significance in the book may not be given much airtime. But this kind of analysis is based on what Shi Xianyun appears to be on the face of the novel, and as far as a quick reading of it is concerned. However, her role is significant and this can be demonstrated alongside the themes.
The theme of reality versus appearance affects Shi Xiangyun in terms of what her life actually is like and the kind of person she appears to be on the outside. Xueqin (1996) says “Truth becomes fiction when the fiction’s true; Real becomes not-real where the unreal’s real” (p. 55). She is a cheerful person yet her circumstances betray this very nature. Shi Xiangyun is an orphan who finds herself amongst the children of wealthy men and women only after she becomes a ward of her uncle and aunt. Her guardians mistreat her by subjecting her to harsh labor late into the night, preparing items of needle work that are later on sold to add to the income of the family.
This theme may be looked at from two angles: from the point of view of the author and from the story itself. As far as the author goes, Shi Xiangyun may have well existed during the primary years of the author. But why did the author find it fit to mention her more than once in the novel? Could it be that he may have had a soft spot for her? If that is the position, then the question begs why. Shi Xiangyun may have impacted the author’s life in such a way as to make the conditions of the time bearable.
She was just an orphan amongst the sons and daughters of the rich and prosperous. Whereas all the conditions of her life seem to have been taking a backward toll, she remained cheerful. According to the way events unfold in the novel, she appears to have been very good company. It could also be that the author just enjoyed her company. In times of misery a doze of cheer and laughter is always welcome. Besides, cheerful people are always sought after for company and according to the novel, she appears to be the most cheerful of all characters.
The red chamber also stands out as a theme in the novel because it is an adapted title of the novel. It refers to the mansions that the daughters of the prominent Chinese families used to live in. In regard to Shi Xiangyun, it is significant because of her relations with her grandmother, Jia Mu. Although an orphan, Shi Xiangyun was a direct bloodline of one of the ruling families during the time of the Qing Dynasty.
In Chapter One, she is referred to as one of the Twelve Hairpins, one of the 12 beauties of Jinling. The Jia was her bloodline and the house under which she was born into. The Jia was a prosperous, influential and one of the aristocratic families in the Qing Dynasty. Although born poor Shi Xiangyun was considered one of 12 excellent ladies of this house.
The significance of Shi Xiangyun as one of the Twelve Hairpins is well captured by the author where she fails to demonstrate the traits expected of other polished women of her class and background. She was quite the exact opposite of what was required of her. For one, she was a tomboy. She adorned male attire and looked really good in them. The clothes fitted and suited her so well that at one time she even fooled her grandmother after she adorned the same and passed as a boy (Xueqin 101).
Shi Xiangyun was born a woman but did everything else that the men were allowed to do in that society. She drank and in fact in Chapter five, she gets so intoxicated that she passes out. Such behavior then was considered unbecoming of a lady. Shi Xiangyun was the exact opposite of her other first cousin, Xue Baochai.—who was equally beautiful to Shi Xiangyun but more lady like to her. In this regard, Shi Xiangyun’s character brings the attention of the readers the imperfections of the traditions and customs that are handed down from generation to generation. Shi Xiangyun was born to fit into the prescribed roles laid down by her society but her conduct clearly was a mark of rebellion to this culture.
Shi Xiangyun’s continuous visits to the Jia mansion could be attributed to her jolly character. The novel depicts her as—and as already discussed above—a cheerful person whom every persons wants to associate with. She was tactless and could say more than was welcome; but her little jokes quickly neutralized the ill effect and countered any hard feelings that she may have caused. Her lively character and her ability to quickly get along with the crowd make her desired company.
Perhaps it was her sealed fate that sent her to the mansion. After all, she was a Jinling and much as her guardians had reduced her to a pauper, at the end of the day hers was the story that ended happily ever after. She was able to conquer her misfortunes to become one of the most admired women of her time.
The state of her fate is further sealed by the fact that her gold kylin linked her to Baoyu and Baochai. At the time of his birth, Baoyu had a tiny piece of luminescent jade in his mouth. This jade contained similar inscriptions as those on a locket that was owned by Baochai and Shi Xiangyun’s gold kylin. Both Baoyu and Baochai were considered symbols of greatness and greater things to come. Shi Xiangyun’s golden kylin was a symbol of the great things to happen in her life and thereafter—eventually considered one of the excellent women of the Jia Family.
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Shi Xiangyun does play a significant role in the novel and her part cannot be ignored. Hers was the case of the phoenix that rose from the ashes to command a respectable place in society. Even though her conduct was rebellious to the culture of the society she was born into, she was able to be herself and get respected for it.
Xueqin, C. The Story of the Stone. London, England: Penguin Group, 1996. Print.