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  • Tea and Books: The Greatest Chinese Novel You've Never Heard Of
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Tea and Books: The Greatest Chinese Novel You've Never Heard Of

Tea and Books: The Greatest Chinese Novel You've Never Heard Of

Traditional Chinese culture has an interesting history with the form of the novel. Translated from Chinese, the word means “small words” or “small talk”, indicating that novels were inferior forms of literature compared to poetry, history, or calligraphy. It was assumed that only people of low taste read or wrote them.

It wasn’t just that novels were considered vulgar and shallow, it was also believed that reading novels was reckless - and possibly lethal.

The act of reading fiction was frivolous and damaging to the mind, as the mind would mistake fiction for reality. Young women were at risk of wasting away to nothing after reading novels, as they would be unable to separate the tragedy of the fiction from real life, and die of sadness. As a result, counter-culture formed around the printing and distribution of novels, and the government officially banned certain novels from the public.

During this time, The Story of the Stone (more commonly translated as Dream of the Red Chamber), was written and published, although no one can say exactly when. Since then, the book has become incredibly influential to mainstream Chinese culture. In fact, there are so many layers of meaning within the text, and so many mysteries surrounding its creation and publication, that there is an entire branch of academic study called Redology devoted to studying the The Story of the Stone in every aspect.

Truth Through Tea

The Story of the Stone was actually considered quite subversive when it was published. The central Jia family was a thinly veiled metaphor for the imperial dynasty, and traditional Confucian values were carefully criticized or outright mocked by central characters. Throughout the novel, the civilized practice of serving and consuming tea is used to reveal hidden feelings, or the true nature of otherwise respectable characters.

The Story of the Stone uses tea service to reveal hidden character traits.

By English: Sun Wen (1818-1904) 中文: 孙温 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

There is one scene in particular that illustrates the ability of tea to reveal hidden aspects within the characters, as well as demonstrating the author’s obvious knowledge and love of tea itself: the Green Bower Hermitage tea ceremony scene.

What is the Chinese Tea Ceremony? >>

The hermitage (or nun’s dwelling) lies within the Jia family’s vast gardens. Grandmother Jia, the matron of the family, is entertaining a distant relation from the countryside named Grannie Liu. Grannie Liu is unrefined, and ignorant of noble traditions. Her rustic charm and naivete entertains the Jia family so much they treat her with a feast and guide her through the gardens, stopping for tea at their hermitage.

The nun of the hermitage, Adamantia, was once a member of Chinese high society, before renouncing the world to become a nun. She still retains a forbidden taste for material wealth, as demonstrated by her knowledge and preference for only high grade teas, lavishly expensive teaware, and dedication to pure water. The text describes her tea service in detail:

It was a little cinque-lobed lacquer tea-tray decorated with a gold-infilled engraving of a cloud dragon coiled round the character for ‘longevity’. On it stood a little covered tea-cup of Cheng Hua enameled porcelain. Holding the tray out respectfully in both her hands, she offered the cup to Grandmother Jia.

‘I don’t drink Lu-an tea,’ said Grandmother Jia.

‘I know you don’t,’ said Adamantina with a smile. ‘This is Old Man’s Eyebrows.’

Grandmother Jia took the tea and inquired what sort of water it had been made with.

‘Last year’s rain-water,’ said Adamantina.

After drinking half, Grandmother Jia handed the cup to Grannie Liu. ‘Try it,’ she said. ‘See what you think of it.’ Grannie Liu gulped down the remaining half.

‘Hmn. All right. A bit on the weak side, though. It would be better if it were brewed a little longer.’

Grandmother Jia and the rest seemed to derive much amusement from these comments. The others were now served with tea in covered cups of ‘sweet-white’ eggshell china. (Xueqin, 312)

Adamantia has served Grandmother the tea in a lavishly decorated cup, with rainwater she has collected and saved from the year before. It is an obvious show of respect for her patron, but this respect does not apply to the humble Grannie Liu. When the tea is finished, Adamantia privately orders a maid to destroy the cup Grannie Liu has used, as she now views it as “contaminated”.

Adamantia's tea service reveals surprising character flaws

By English: Sun Wen (1818-1904) 中文: 孙温 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Though she is a nun, Adamantia still clings to the habits of her old life as a high class young woman and openly looks down on the lower class Grannie Liu. Perhaps this is because Grannie Liu, in her ignorance of fine tea, has mistaken a delicate flavor and lack of bitterness for being “on the weak side”. For Adamantia, this ignorance of tea is a serious character flaw, demonstrating vulgarity and lack of intelligence.

Like the integrity of the Jia family (who regularly thwart Confucian norms), Adamantia's devotion to Buddhism is hollow at the core. In a sense, she is far more devoted to tea than she is to living a devout life - and this lack of devotion eventually plants the seed of her downfall.

A Lasting Impact

Later, Adamantia invites the main female characters, Dai Yu-Lin and Xue Bao-chai, into her personal chambers to share her best tea. Dai Yu-Lin asks if the tea was also made with last year’s rain water. Adamantia replies:

Oh! Can you really not tell the difference? I am quite disappointed in you. This is melted snow that I collected from the branches of winter-flowering plum-trees five years ago, when I was living at the Coiled Incense temple on Mt Xuan-mu. I managed to fill the whole of that demon-green glaze water-jar with it. For years I couldn’t bring myself to start it; then this summer I opened it for the first time. Today is only the second time I have ever used any. I am most surprised that you cannot tell the difference. When did stored rain-water have such buoyant lightness? How could one possibly use it for a tea like this? (Xueqin, 314-15)

Adamantia’s devotion to the purity of the water brewed for tea clearly denotes her belief that tea knowledge is a marker of intelligence and class. Within the novel, Adamantia considers both Dai Yu-Lin and Xue Bao-chai to be her equals, hence her surprise at Dai Yu-Lin’s inability to taste the difference between types of water. This is unusually arrogant, considering that both of the young women have a significantly higher position in the social hierarchy than Adamantia does as a nun.

In The Story of the Stone, tea knowledge is a sign of intelligence and integrity.

By English: Sun Wen (1818-1904) 中文: 孙温 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Even more unusual, Adamantia also allows the male heir of the Jia family, Bao-yu, to join them. As an unwed woman and nun, it is a double taboo for her to host a young man in her bedchamber. She even goes so far as to exchange some flirtatious banter with Bao-yu, foreshadowing an infatuation developed later in the book which in turn begins her tragic arc into ruin.

Still, Adamantia is not finished revealing her true self. After they have prepared the last brew, kind Bao-yu requests that Adamantia give Grannie Liu’s teacup as a keepsake, rather than destroying it. Adamantia considers, then replies:

Yes, I suppose so. Fortunately I have never drunk out of that cup myself. If I had, I should have smashed it to pieces rather than give it to her. If you want her to have it, though, you must give it to her yourself. I will have no part in it. And you must take it away immediately.

As a Buddhist nun, Adamantia should act in accordance to the Buddhist doctrine that all creatures are equal. Though Buddhist nuns renounce the world of their former lives, the enclosed space of the tea ritual reveals her true nature: Adamantia sees humble Grannie Liu as so polluted that she cannot stand the thought of drinking from the same cup. At the same time, she is willing to ignore the social code of conduct (as well as her own vows as a nun) to host an aristocratic young man in her own bedchamber, and offer him tea from her own cup. Though Adamantia is admired for her intellect and devotion, by making tea, she is now exposed as a snobbish and intolerant sycophant.

There are several other scenes depicting tea service in the novel, and all end with the reader being shown a hidden and forbidden aspect of a character previously thought of as above reproach. While not all characters display the same devotion to the details as Adamantia, appreciation of tea is seen as an indicator of intelligence and even integrity, while a lack of appreciation is an indicator of carelessness and even spiritual emptiness. If the novel really was based on the author’s life, it is safe to say that Cao Xueqin was a connoisseur.

In The Story of the Stone, a lack of tea knowledge indicates carelessness.

By English: Sun Wen (1818-1904) 中文: 孙温 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It is hard to underestimate the massive influence of The Story of the Stone on Chinese culture, even throughout the 20th century. After its publication, hundreds of critical essays and articles were written. It was one of Mao Zedong’s favorite books, and would later be used to establish the vocabulary of the new standardized Mandarin language. Everyday collectable goods like figurines, teapots, and snuff boxes dominated the Chinese marketplace in the 20’s and 30’s, and a 1987 television adaptation inspired Red Chamber resorts, hotels, and theme parks where you could dress as you favorite character. Ultimately, The Story of the Stone has a lasting presence in Chinese culture because it uses the the popular theme of forbidden love in an uncommon way to explore the conflict between duty and human nature. In a culture led by Confucian traditions that value duty above all, this conflict is both tragic and eternal.

If you are interested in Chinese culture, Chinese tea, or just like books, The Story of the Stone is a wonderful read. We are lucky today to have an excellent translation by David Hawkes, who takes special care in all aspects of the translation and provides helpful footnotes to clarify any specific information needed by the reader.

To fully immerse yourself in the world of 18th century China, try sipping one of the teas mentioned in the scene above. With crafting traditions passed down through generations, the same teas can be found on our shelves today. Liu An Gua Pian (called Lu An in the text) is a smooth and creamy green tea famous for its gentle earthy flavor. Shou Mei (or ‘Old Man’s Eyebrows’) is a delicate white tea with light notes of apricot sweetness.


Dillon, Michael - editor. Encyclopedia of Chinese History, 2017.. Pg 287-288.

See, Lisa. Peony in Love, 2017. Afterword and Bibliography, pg 276-277.

Zhan, Haiyan. “Tea in The Story and the Stone: Meaning and Function.” 2007, ICU Comparative Culture No.39 [2007], pp. 83-118.

Xueqin, Cao. The Story of the Stone, Volume Two: The Crab-Flower Club. Translation by David Hawkes. Penguin Books, 2012.

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Comments on this post (1)

  • Aug 25, 2017

    Thank you for this remarkable illumination of The Story of the Stone and cultural meanings. What a read. Amazing

    — walter

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