Cao Xueqin’s The Story of the Stone is revolutionary in that it questions the effectiveness of the educational system based on Confucian ideals that was in place in China at the time when the events of the novel occurred. In order to accomplish this, the text first postulates an idea borrowed from Buddhist tradition stating that the material world is an illusion, and that truth can only be sought by concentrating one’s attention on higher planes of thought and existence. The text then briefly introduces the Confucian education system, emphasizing that it is inefficient because it forces students to assume shapeless, conformist roles in the material world and keeps them from transcending this world in order to find truth. However, the narrative’s refutation of the Confucian system of education is not direct, often couched in words that actually seem to support and admire this construct. From a practical standpoint, this could be in order to protect the author from being reprimanded from the government, or it could be meant to contribute to the sense of convolution and obscurity pervasive throughout the entirety of the text in an attempt to exemplify the impossibility of finding truth in the material world. This indirect manner of criticism of the educational system is accomplished principally through an examination of Bao-Yu, who struggles to accept Confucian ideology, and his interactions with the other characters in the novel, who are principally adherents to the Confucian system.
First, the narrative explains that everything in the material world is nothing but a transient illusion. It does this both in its form and in its content. In terms of form, the narrative almost immediately emphasizes the impossibility of comprehension with the first line of the novel, which asks the reader, “What, you may ask, was the origin of this book?”. The narrative then presents a convoluted tale that hardly makes any sense concerning a certain stone and the desire of higher powers that it should “…take part in the Illusion of human life” (I, 53). Afterwards, the narrative concludes in satisfaction, “The origin of The Story of the Stone has now been made clear” (I, 51). In fact, the narrative has only served to make the origin of the story more muddled and obtuse. Meaning has been obscured, just as in reality it is impossible to see truth and be enlightened. Only in surpassing the material, in “…returning to the other shore,” a common Buddhist expression used in the text, can one gain enlightenment (I, 49). Finally, the text cautions before it begins to tell the story of the Jia clan, “I have not dared to add the tiniest bit of touching-up, for fear of losing the true picture” (I, 50). This disclaimer must be written facetiously, for it is impossible that a narrator of any text could tell an objective portrait of events of real life, simply because humans themselves view events subjectively. The narrator’s words, then, rather than assure the reader of the text’s validity, actually perform the opposite in alerting the reader to the impossibility that the text can recreate an accurate portrait of the reality it attempts to represent. Again, the form of the narrative emphasizes the impossibility of seeing truth in the material world.
The idea that form and reality are illusions in the human world is of course also emphasized through the actual content of the novel. The idea is introduced explicitly when a man named Zhen Shi-Yin, in a dream, sees a stone archway that reads “The Land of Illusion,” under which is written the couplet, “Truth becomes fiction when the fiction’s true; Real becomes not-real where the unreal’s real” (I, 55). The distinction between truth and fiction is indistinct, if it even exists at all. That which is fiction and that which is true is uncertain, always in conflict. In the material world, there is no constancy. After Shi-Yin wakes up from his dream and refuses to give his daughter to the Monk who comes to his door, the monk cries out a verse that warns, “Beware the …day, when all in smoke and fire shall pass away!” (I, 56) Later in the novel, Lin Dai-Yu writes a verse that contains the similar lines, “All, insubstantial, doomed to pass, as moonlight mirrored in the water or flowers reflected in a glass” (I, 140). Both of these phrases reflect the transience of the living world. Dai-Yu’s further illustrates the artificiality of those objects of which waking life are composed; illusory, like the images in a mirror. At one point, when Grandmother Jia asks what play will be performed next, she falls silent after hearing that it will be the South Branch, knowing “that The South Branch likens the world to an ant-heap and tells a tale of a power and glory which turns out in the end to have been a dream” (II, 81). Grandmother Jia has been reluctantly reminded that the glory of her family, like everything else in the material world, is not permanent and will come to an end; that, in fact, that the power that her family holds is illusory, worth no more than a dream, a fantasy. The narrative continues with many more examples illustrating the illusion of life and the impossibility of ascertaining truth in the material world, something which it claims the current standardized Confucian system of education fails to realize.
As a result of the indirect manner in which the narrative, for whatever reason, critiques the Confucian education system, there are several instances in the text that actually seem to support this manner of schooling. For example, when Bao-Yu dreams that he enters the world of a fairy called Disenchantment, she chastises his behavior in the waking world, adding, “My motive…is to help you grasp the fact that, since even in these immortal precincts love is an illusion, the love of your dust-stained, mortal world must be doubly an illusion. It is my earnest hope that, knowing this, you will… change your previous way of thinking, devoting your mind seriously to the teachings of Confucius and Mencius and your person wholeheartedly to the betterments of society” (I, 146) In fact, the fairy Disenchantment’s plan (and that of Bao-Yu’s parents) is carried out, as Aroma, Bao-Yu’s handmaid, becomes his sexual companion, in an attempt to rid him of his more human urges at a young age so that he may henceforth devote his entire being to the study of Confucius. Here, then, the teachings of Confucius claim at least that love is an illusion, even if they do not make the same claim about every aspect of the material world. In addition, when Bao-Chai commends Dai-Yu’s sense of humor, she invokes Confucius in her explanation, saying, “The secret of Frowner’s sarcastic tongue is that she uses the method adopted by Confucius …she extracts the essentials from vulgar speech and polishes and refines them, so that when she uses them…each word or phrase is given its maximum possible effectiveness” (II, 335). It is not unsurprising that Bao-Chai compliments Confucius, since, like the majority of the characters in the novel, she adheres to the conventional system of education in place. However, this incident is interesting in that the text does not present any sort of refutation to this claim about the superiority of Confucius, as it does elsewhere in the text using techniques such as argumentative responses from Bao-Yu. Perhaps the most striking incident where the Confucian system of education actually seems to be approved of is when Bao-Yu himself, giving advice regarding proper worship of the dead to one of the actresses in the troupe visiting the Jia residence, he says, “Spirit money is a superstitious invention of modern times: you’ll find nothing about it in the teachings of Confucius” (III, 133). However, despite this apparent transformation, it is evidently short-lived, as for the remainder of the novel Bao-Yu continues to struggle with Confucian ideology and eventually becomes a monk. This advice can thus be dismissed as an attempt to try to convince not only the actress, but also himself, of the validity of Confucian thought; an attempt that does not seem to succeed, when taking his character for the duration of the novel into account.
One aspect of the Confucian system of education that is critiqued is the idea of self-cultivation, through such activities as stone and fan-collecting, as a means of developing a superior moral sense that isn’t present in the curriculum of the schoolroom. While the concept itself is ideal, the narrative questions whether or not this habit of self-cultivation really accomplishes its stated aim, citing an example to prove its doubt. Patience tells a story about Jia She, who as a means of self-cultivation collects fans. When he hears of a man called Stony who owns an exquisite number of fans but refuses to sell them, he uses his power to get Stony in trouble with the government, then is able to obtain some of his property as a gift, including the collection of fans (II, 454-455). The moral caliber of Jia She seems, at least in this instance, to not have been improved much by his habit of collecting fans, and in fact seems to have been worsened by it. His self-cultivation has not at all helped him to transcend the pettiness of mortal existence and live in enlightenment, but rather further tangles him into the less profound plane of existence.
In addition to this fault, another drawback of the current system is that its structure promotes conformity, and conformity is condemned in the narrative as a means by which people are blinded by the material world, and do not allow themselves to transcend their surroundings in order to find truth. At the very beginning of the novel, the stone who encounters the monk says of romance tales of older days, “The trouble with this last kind of romance is that it only gets written…because the author requires a frame-work in which to show off his love-poems. He goes about constructing this framework quite mechanically…what makes these romances even more detestable is the stilted, bombastic language—inanities dressed in pompous rhetoric, remote alike from nature and common sense and teeming with the grossest absurdities” (I, 50). The narrative is evidently disgusted with the conventional fashion in which stories have traditionally been told. As a result, the intrigue of Story of the Stone itself is certainly more convoluted and complex than that of many of these older stories, and its language is anything but stale and “stilted”. The narrative also takes several opportunities to invert traditional renditions of symbols, as when the traditional imagery of the jade girl and golden boy is reversed when Bao-Chai displays her gold pendant to Bao-Yu, in return for being able to examine his special jade (I, 190). Unconventionality, then, is considered by the narrative a means of innovation and originality. The Confucian education system, however, does not permit creativity, locking its students within a rigid conformist framework. The best example of this is the notorious Octopartite essay that Bao-Yu is forced to prepare for as a component of his studies.
The Octopartite essay, a required and much-dreaded component of the Confucian system of education that consists of a highly-standardized, rigidly-formatted composition, is criticized by the narrative through the character of Bao-Yu as stifling the innovation and originality of students. After his family has forced him to resume his studies at the family school and his preparation for this essay, Bao-Yu exclaims to Dai-Yu in dismay, “…those hypocritical Octopartite essays, which they have the nerve to call ‘Propagation of Holy Writ’, are nothing more than a shoddy way of worming themselves into a job….not content with botching together a few classical tags, they try to hide the fact that they haven’t got a single original idea of their own by churning out a lot of far-fetched….passages..and then pride themselves on having been ‘subtle’ and ‘profound’!” (IV, 52). As expected, Bao-Yu is upset at the restrictions that this essay places upon his own sense of creativity and innovation. Dai-Yu, however, argues, “…I looked at a few and remember thinking that some were quite well thought out and sensibly written. One or two were even quite subtle, and had a certain delicate charm…it’s silly to run them all down” (IV, 52). Dai-Yu makes a valid point that it was possible, with much skill and practice, to make a truly innovative work out of the structure of the Octopartite essay. However, these exceptions do not mask the fact that many such compositions were not, in fact, original, but rather conventional and benign due to the necessity that they adhere to such a rigid structure.
The text further indirectly supports Bao-Yu’s stance that the focus of the Confucian system of education is not on enlightening its students when it describes the family members who make the decision that Bao-Yu should return to the family school. Jia Zheng, Bao-Yu’s father, who is no scholar himself, says of finding a tutor for Bao-Yu, “’It so happens that only the other day a friend recommended…a widely-read scholar…but I have come to the conclusion that southerners are altogether too easy-going for the boys up here in the capital…Dai-ru, the present preceptor, may be rather a mediocre scholar, but he’s certainly an effective disciplinarian” (IV, 44). He thus explicitly admits that, to him, discipline and conformity to social structures, such as the Confucian education system, takes precedence over the genuine scholarly pursuit of truth. When Jia Zheng then calls for his son and chastises him on his previous study habits, he admonishes, “From today, I want you to forget all about your verses and couplets. You are to concentrate exclusively on Octopartite Compositions” (IV, 45). The verses that Bao-Yu reads are in no means un-literary, and in fact are often beautiful and original compositions, for example a the verses he reads by Qin Guan, not considered one of China’s best poets only because his poems do not treat ‘serious topics’ such as war and brotherhood (I, 127). Thus, Bao-Yu is not ignorant; he is in fact studious, but his choice of studies is not approved of by the rigid Confucian system of education, represented in the figure of his father, Jia Zheng. He is ordered by his father to lay aside his own studies in order to join the ranks of students who conform to the educational system imposed on them.
Bao-Yu throughout the novel attempts to break free of this system, finally achieving a form of enlightenment near the end of the novel, when he becomes a monk. Immediately before he converts, a monk visits Bao-Yu’s home, whom the latter addresses as ‘Father’ (V, 301). Although this is a polite and proper form of address for a religious figure, it is also possible that Bao-Yu has mentally replaced his own father, symbol of the rigid Confucian system he so despises, with this monk who represents his own idea of transcending the world of the material to seek truth. When spirit Bao-Yu, near the end of the novel, returns to the parallel fairy-world that has accompanied the material world of the Jia family throughout the novel, the archway that once read “the Land of Illusion” now reads “the Paradise of Truth”, with an inscription that says, “When Fiction departs and Truth appears, Truth prevails; Though not-Real was once Real, the Real is never un-Real” (V, 285). Hence, in defying the conventional education system, Bao-Yu has freed himself from the illusion of the material world and has discovered the Real. As mentioned earlier, popular Buddhist thought conceptualizes a man who has been enlightened as one who “returns to the other shore” (I, 49). It is said of Bao-Yu that “now that its destiny is fulfilled …they…will take it back once more to its place of origin” (V, 371). In defying the Confucian system of education, Bao-Yu has allowed himself to surpass the world of the material and become enlightened, despite having been criticized by the other characters and dismissed as foolish throughout the novel.
At the end of the novel, Bao-Yu has been enlightened and converted to a monk, while the rest of the characters remain constricted by the rigid system of belief imposed on them. It should be noted that this conversion is not treated in an entirely positive manner by the narrative. As a result of it, Bao-Yu becomes detached from reality to an unnerving, almost upsetting extent. For example, when his mother frets about Qiao-Jie, Bao-Yu tries to console her, saying “Mother, don’t distress yourself. Nothing will come of this scheme. Whatever happens is already written in Qiao-Jie’s destiny anyway, so please don’t try to interfere”. His mother responds with a furious, “Don’t be such an idiot!” (V, 326). Indeed, Bao-Yu’s newfound sense of detachment from the moral plane drives the others around him crazy and does seem to paint him out as a cold, unfeeling figure. Even after having freed himself from the restraints of the education system with which he has grown up, an unsettling quality still remains to Bao-Yu’s character. However, the couplet with which the narrative ends reinforces the impossibility of finding truth in the mortal world. “When grief for fiction’s idle words more real than human life appears, reflect that life itself’s a dream and do not mock the reader’s tears” (V, 376). Bao-Yu’s coldness is the necessary result of shedding the bondage of human attachments in order to surpass the unreal and illusory to be enlightened by that which is real. The Confucian system of education and attachments to which the rest of the characters adhere blinds them to the illusion of life; Bao-Yu alone, in his defiance of this tradition, has transcended the material world.
Cao Xueqin. The Story of the Stone, or the Dream of the Red Chamber. United States of
America: Penguin Classics, 1974
 Cao Xueqin, The Story of the Stone. Trans. David Hawkes (England, Penguin Books, 1973), 5 vols; vol. 1: 47