Jia Bao-yu is the protagonist of the classic Chinese novel, Dream of the Red Chamber, written in the 18th century. He is one of the first characters in Chinese Literature to be truly deep and multifaceted, having the same type of psychological realism that would be present in the Russian novels of the next century.

Although Jia Bao-yu is the marginal protagonist or perhaps even hero of the novel, the novel (as is common in Chinese literature) has a large cast of characters and an episodic structure, so Bao-yu's may be only in the margins of the action for chapters at a time.

In the mundane portions of the novel, Bao-yu is the heir to a wealthy family that has on the whole fallen into decadence. Only Bao-yu's father, the stern official Jia Zheng lives a righteous, productive (if somewhat unfeeling) life. He wants to steer his son away from the whoring and gambling that the other members of the family indulge in. However, Bao-yu does not wish to become a Confucian scholar, instead spending all of his time playing games and writing poetry with his female servants and female cousins, Lin Dai-yu and Xue Bao-chai. Unlike the other men in the family, Bao-yu's interest in women is not based on lust and possesiveness, but rather on his genuine interest and concern for them.

Despite his giving personality and insight into human nature, Bao-yu is hardly a saint. He is given to sudden mood swings and inexplicable despondency, and often takes it out on those around him with mean comments.

Although Bao-yu is in love with both of his female cousins (which was perfectly acceptable in China at the time) and would probably be sent into an arranged marriage with one of them, his temperment is more in tune with the poetic, melancholy Dai-yu then the energetic, career oriented Bao-chai. However, late in the story he is forced into an arranged marriage with Bao-chai, which apart from driving Dai-yu to death of heartbreak helps convince Bao-yu of the futility of earthly life. However, to fulfill his father's wishes, he studies and passes the official examinations, but immediatly afterwards follows a mysterious Taoist Priest and Buddhist Monk into Nothingness.

All of this mundane action can be explained with the framing story of the book, which explains how the Goddess Nuwa repaired the vault of heaven with 36,500 stones, but had one left over. This stone, the Stone that the builder refused, now sentient, would be reincarnated several times on earth to learn about human folly. And this, of course, was Bao-yu. Bao-yu is the Stone, and is even born with a piece of jade with a mysterious inscription in his mouth. Bao-yu's fate is tied up with this jade, and when he loses it late in the story, he is reduced to virtual idiocy. He regains the jade right before he passes out of the world.

In very few books that I can think of can the author succesfully portray the central character as both the human, all too human participants in day to day affairs as well as being a great spiritual entity. That Cao Xueqin can do so is not due to the fact that China was still a country that had a strong literal belief in such myths, but due to his greatness as a writer.

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