Books That Changed the World: The Story of the Stone
From the Writ Large Podcast
Writ Large is a Lyceum original podcast about the books that changed the world. In each episode, host Zachary Davis interviews one of the world’s leading scholars about one book that shaped the world we live in—whether you’ve heard of it or not. These conversations look beyond plot summaries to unpack a book’s context, creation, and initial impact, and reveal its lasting influence on the ideas of today.
The 1750s are remembered as a high point of China’s Qing Dynasty: a time of power, prestige, and social harmony. But The Story of the Stone paints a different picture: one of harmful traditions, political corruption, and inter-generational conflict. Over 250 years later, it’s one of the most loved novels in Chinese literature, with dozens of adaptations and an entire field of scholarship dedicated to it. In this episode, Stanford professor Ronald Egan discusses the revolutionary story and its enduring impact.
From the episode:
Ronald Egan: First of all, the novel presents an extremely rich texture of life in an age which is, let’s face it, gone. This is the texture of life in Imperial China, when imperial China was at its height before Imperial China came to realize there were other civilizations and cultures beyond its borders that would in the 19th century begin to threaten it.
I’ve heard Chinese scholars say, and I think they are right, that this novel could not have been written 100 years later, because one hundred years later, now you’re in the era of the Boxer Wars with England. You’re in the era of the encroachment on Chinese borders by European colonial powers. The sense of pride, the sense of of confidence is already eroded, if not gone.
That reality had not yet appeared inside China at the time this novel is written. China is still immensely advanced, immensely proud, and immensely traditional. But in the world of that novel, not even an inkling of that has begun to appear. Another reason the novel is admired as much as it is is that all is not rosy in the portrait of China that this novel conveys. This novel is famous for being extremely candid, extremely honest, looking at the aspects of Chinese society that Chinese people at the time would have been troubled by. For example, there’s the unequal treatment of men and women. Without exception, all of the young daughters and female cousins in the family, as they turn 16 to 18 years old, one by one, they’re all married off by the grown-ups in the family. Without exception, these are unhappy marriages. In the world of the novel, arranged marriages were the norm. There was really no getting around it.
The novel goes out of its way to show that this is worse than the young people having no choice. It’s rather that the older generation who’s doing the arranging of the marriage makes these arrangements for the worst possible reasons.
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Ronald C. Egan is Professor of Sinology in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at Stanford University.