One of the central characters in the Qing-era novel Dream of the Red Chamber, Lin Dai Yu occupies an outsized role in Chinese pop culture. Her story is famous: Orphaned by her mother at age 6, Lin Dai Yu grows up sickly and weak—but intensely smart.
A master poet, she falls in love with a young Chinese nobleman named Bao Yu. But their fate is already sealed. Destiny has decreed that Lin Dai Yu will pay for his love with tears.
“I would be nothing like her,” the narrator of Four Treasures of the Sky promises herself. “I would never let myself die of a broken heart.” So begins a journey that spans continents, as the narrator confronts her identity as a Chinese woman—both within China and on the foreign shores of the United States.
Released this past April, Four Treasures of the Sky is Zhang’s debut novel, a tour de force that the New York Times hails as “engrossing.” Born in China and raised in Mississippi, Zhang wrote the novel in part to address a lack: Relatively few depictions of the 19th-century American West captured the day-to-day experiences of Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans.
As her heroine adopts disguises to survive in her new surroundings, Zhang captures some of those experiences: that of the kidnapped child, the prostitute, the mine-town laborer and finally the advocate, agitating against the anti-Chinese discrimination that was so widespread at the time.
But her narrator isn’t alone on her adventures. As she hides the identity she was born with, she starts to see a vision of Lin Dai Yu before her—a beautiful, temperamental figure that protects her and beckons her home to China.
Now, as San Francisco Opera prepares to stage its own adaptation of Dream of the Red Chamber, Zhang speaks with the opera company about how her novel is intertwined with that classic of Chinese literature—and why her heroine’s search for identity mirrors her own.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Can you tell me about how you first encountered Dream of the Red Chamber?
ZHANG: Yeah, it was through my grandmother. She, for most of her life, was a school teacher and then—I believe—a principal and ultimately a superintendent.
So she's always had this interest and background in literature and scholarship. And of course Dream of the Red Chamber is one of China's Four Great Classic Novels. So she, more than anyone, was very familiar with this book and honestly obsessed with it. She read it at least once a year and based a lot of her philosophy around the teachings of the book.
Whenever I would go back to visit her in China, she would always try to lecture me on the teachings of the book. And at one point, I remember she sat me down in her bedroom and was just trying to tell me the beginning of the story, as best as she could.
So my first encounter with it was just hearing about the story of the stone that eventually is reincarnated as [the young Chinese nobleman] Bao Yu. And I remember thinking that that was so interesting. And eventually we reached the point in the story that I think everyone knows and that is the sensational aspect of Dream of the Red Chamber, which is the tragic love story between [the poet] Lin Dai Yu and Bao Yu. So that was my first encounter with it.
SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: You talked about your grandmother, how she would lecture you on the philosophy of Dream of the Red Chamber. And I wonder: What was the philosophy she tried to impart upon you?
ZHANG: I'm kind of ashamed to say that I don't remember. You know when someone is lecturing you in this way? I, at least, was very resistant to it. I was very resistant to actually hearing what she was saying.
I just remember being so standoffish towards it, which is what makes me coming back to the book in this way now—having read it myself and having really gotten into the character of Lin Dai Yu and having brought her into my book—all the more ironic or bittersweet.
SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: You came to the name Dai Yu for your main character as an impulse. It wasn't necessarily a thematic choice at first, but then it became one. Can you explain to me how that idea developed—to have your heroine in dialogue with this really classic, archetypal figure in Chinese literature?
ZHANG: You're right. At first, it was kind of a placeholder for me. I just needed something. And Dai Yu was at the top of my head, just because I had been hearing so much about it from my grandmother.
Eventually, as we get through the first part of the novel and she [the heroine] is faced with all these difficulties, I realized I had to give her almost a companion. Something to hold onto. One of those things was calligraphy, that she could use as a guiding light. But another thing was a way of coping that was very specific to her. And so I thought, “Why not just bring in the person that she's named after?”
SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: For someone like me who has not read Dream of the Red Chamber—which is, like, 3,000 pages—I just get a sense of [Lin Dai Yu] being this kind of pristine, idealized woman, this icon of femininity almost.
But there’s a point in your book where you stop and you say, “No, she can be whiny. She can be demanding. If she didn't die in the book, would she really be the heroine of it?” Can you talk to me about how you came to understand this character in a new way through your own writing?
ZHANG: Hearing about her from my grandmother—and even if you go online and read other people's descriptions of her—she does come across as all the things that you mentioned, you know?
So in that way, she almost feels not as accessible—like someone to be idolized because of that. But when I actually went and read the book—and granted, I'm reading an English translation of the book, so I'm aware that a lot will get lost in translation—my interpretation of her character was that she's actually, yeah, very whiny. She’s extremely sensitive and reactive. She can be very, very dramatic. And sometimes cruel.
But these are also the things that make her more human than the figure that I came to imagine via my grandmother's lectures or the summaries of her online. So I wanted to bring the less wonderful parts of her character more into play in Four Treasures of the Sky.
And it works out because Lin Dai Yu in Four Treasures of the Sky represents almost like this inner child part of Dai Yu [the novel’s heroine], that wants to go back to China and doesn't want to think about anyone else. Part of Dai Yu trying to come into her own—and part of her own internal journey—is really finding that separation from Lin Dai Yu or her inner child.
SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: When explaining Dream of the Red Chamber, so often you come across the comparison to Juliet from Romeo and Juliet. What is missing in that metaphor of Lin Dai Yu as Juliet?
ZHANG: I think one thing that is missing—that’s a big thing for me, at least—is when we think of Romeo and Juliet, we think of tragedy, of her drinking the poison and dying for her love.
And in making that comparison with Lin Dai Yu, we think of her as only the tragic character who's plagued by sickness and also dies for her love. We forget that she's also hilarious throughout most of the book. She plays tricks on people. She's a prankster. And she has all these other parts to her personality, like being one of the most accomplished poets—if not the most accomplished poet—of her time.
Thinking about your previous question about: Do we only love her because her story was sad and her story ended too soon? That's also a part of it. We look so much to the end that we forget everything else that came before.
SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: You talked about how your grandmother introduced you to Dream of the Red Chamber, but when did you first pick up the book?
ZHANG: It was a little after I gave [the novel’s heroine] that name. And then I decided, “Oh, wait, there's something here.” It's not just a name for her. If she has this name, she also carries the entire weight of this character and this character's history and significance in Chinese culture.
And so, if that's the case, then it becomes one of the main internal struggles and internal journeys for her—this question of, “How does she escape her name, this name that she actually despises quite a lot in the beginning?”
So that was when I was like, “Okay, Jenny. You can't just go in blind and pull a name from one of the most famous Chinese novels and not read it and do research on it. You have to come to the table having read the entire thing if you're going to go through this.”
SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: At the end of your book, you explain all the research that you did to put this book and its country-hopping story together. I wonder: Could you explain to me about how you got to learn, for example, the history of Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans in the West?
ZHANG: I started where I think anyone would start, which is looking for history books about this subject. And there were quite a few, but not as many as I would have hoped or would expect about a part of American history.
There were a few that I think I used the most: Driven Out by Jean Pfaelzer and The Chinese Must Go by Beth Lew-Williams. And those specifically detailed all of the instances of violence and discrimination and exclusion that Chinese immigrants faced in California and the Pacific Northwest.
But then there were other books like Ghosts of Gold Mountain or Gold Mountain Turned to Dust, that was a compilation of essays around Chinese immigrants’ experiences in Montana or Oregon or Idaho. And there were also books based specifically in San Francisco, in California. Judy Yung has this great book of firsthand accounts called Unbound Voices, and it focuses exclusively on Chinese women's experiences from the late 19th to early 20th century.
I also got a year-long subscription to JSTOR, the research database, and I just went and typed in every iteration of “Chinese immigrants in the West” that I could. And what I found was: Again, there's not a lot.
That was another aspect of the research process: just coming to terms with the fact that there isn't enough research around it. But I don't want to discount the amazing work that historians and scholars have done. It's just—when you look at it compared to other parts of American history—it doesn't feel like nearly enough.
SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Your grandmother has brought Dream of the Red Chamber into your life and you're bringing Dream of the Red Chamber into so many other lives through your own book. Why does Dream of the Red Chamber remain relevant to this day? What’s the staying power behind this kind of Qing-era romance?
ZHANG: It is a massive book. And I think it's the romance, of course, but it's also all the generations of family and all of the characters that fill out this book—and the tiffs that they have and the small quests for power. I think that's what makes it this almost infinite thing.
SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: You know that Dream of the Red Chamber is semi-autobiographical. How has your novel been a mirror for yourself? Obviously yours is not autobiographical, but how do you see yourself in its story?
ZHANG: Yeah, I would say that it’s this question of identity and this question of: How do you step into the person that you hope to be? That has always been something of interest to me. I guess you could call it a lifelong obsession.
And it’s this question of names and what they represent and how you are shaped and molded by your name, but also how you can turn your name into something of your own.
As a Chinese American and someone who has three names in various languages, I would say that's probably the most autobiographical part of the novel for me. It is questions of selfhood and self-actualization and identity.