Until very recently, much of the literary scholarship on the eighteenth-century Chinese novel Honglou meng (The Story of the Stone or Dream of the Red Chamber) was centered on what was seen as the autobiographical nature of the work. Critics of the novel, especially those in China, tended to focus their attention on the life of the author, Cao Xueqin (d. 1763), believing the interpretation of the novel to be—to a large extent—hinged on a successful reconstruction of Cao Xueqin's familial relationships, especially with those members of the Cao clan such as Red Inkstone (Zhiyanzhai) who were the original audience of his manuscript. Yet, any literary work—even a truly autobiographical one—arises from its tradition. Its meaning will be better understood and its aesthetic values better appreciated when we consider it in relation to other works in that tradition. For our interpretation of Honglou meng, what is more pertinent is therefore not the author's personal ties to his relatives but the ties of the novel to its “relatives,” works that formed the literary context for its creation.

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