Cao Xueqin’s Story of the Stone is a classic in Chinese literature, showcasing the life and exploits of the wealthy Jia clan during the feudal era. Through Cao’s depiction, the reader is afforded a glimpse into the customs and lifestyle of the time. Chinese mode of thought is depicted as it occurred in daily life, with the coexisting beliefs of Confucianism and Taoism. While the positive aspects of both ideologies are presented, Cao ultimately depicts Taoism as the paramount, essential system of belief that guides the character Bao-yu to his eventual enlightenment.
As was the case in China, Cao depicts the two forms of belief existing alongside one another, and not necessarily practiced exclusively to one another. Confucianism involves the concern for worldly affairs and order within a rigid social hierarchy, with importance placed on filial piety and family relations. Daoism is a way of thought that encompasses ideas of transcendental worlds of spirit through observation of simplicity, a comprehension of natural law and order, and a desire to lead with compassion, rather than force.
These beliefs are all presented early in Story of the Stone. In the beginning, it is a Buddhist monk and a Taoist who discover the stone. Though he initially considers ignoring the stone because of its perceived loose moral values and questionable content, the Taoist Vanitas is soon convinced of the worth of the story by the stone’s insistence that others may learn from the message, and thus avoid the same pitfalls that befell so many in the Jia clan. “My only wish is that men in the world below may sometimes pick up this tale… and in doing so find not only mental refreshment but even perhaps, if they will heed its lesson and abandon their vain and frivolous pursuits, some small arrest in the deterioration of their vital forces” (Cao, 50). After publishing the work, Vanitas experiences a Taoist transformation.
Confucian ideology is presented early in the text as well. In Chapter Six, we see a distant relative coming to the household to seek financial help. Despite their estrangement and lack of contact in recent years, the family is generous and Xi-feng presents Grannie Liu with silver. Here the Confucian filial obligation to family is highlighted. In the Confucian system, such a system of virtuous relationships provides structure and order to an otherwise chaotic society. Xi-feng’s actions demonstrate the importance to which Confucian values were held in this period.
In contrast to Confucian beliefs, which seek understanding through obligation to duty and family, Taoism provides a better platform for personal betterment and spiritual awakening. In the fifth chapter, when Bao-yu is summoned to the Land of Disillusion, his fairy-overseers explain their concern for him, because as they see it, he the last possible chance for redemption of the family. They are concerned that Bao-yu’s sexual curiosity is getting in the way of his studies and...