By Lauren Katz
Nestled between those “Student-Info” emails about pool hours and upcoming auditions, there sometimes hides an invitation to join a reading group. Those who don’t simply glance over it have the opportunity to enter a world of Chinese culture and literature that has captivated Kenyon students for the past six years.
Spearheaded by Associate Professor of Sociology and Asian Studies Anna Sun and Professor of Asian History Ruth Dunnell, a group of students and professors spend an every Friday from 4:15 p.m. to 5:15 p.m. in Evans Seminar Room in Timberlake House reading aloud to each other from Dream of the Red Chamber. This novel is not just any book; written by Cao Xueqin and translated by David Hawkes, the 17th-century Chinese classic is 120 chapters long and is split into five volumes.
Professors first mentioned the book when brainstoring for a new seminar, “What it Means to be Human in Asia.”
“Faculty members from the Asian studies department all recommended readings [for the seminar] … and I recommended a chapter from Dream of the Red Chamber,” Sun said.
After Sun’s presentation on the novel, the faculty realized they were hungry for more. Dunnell offered to organize a reading group in which they could finish the novel, and from there, the Dream Reading Group was born.
“You see scenes from everyday life, from marriage to death, from religious ritual to great banquets,” Sun said of the novel’s plot. “You hear about politics, economics, legal cases and also a lot of poetry-making.”
There seems to be something for everyone. While Sun is more attracted to the cultural aspects of the book, Dunnell is fascinated by the translation.
“The translation itself is an extraordinary work of art, which really makes you appreciate the challenges that face someone who is trying to bring a whole cultural world into a conversation with other cultural worlds where they don’t speak the same language,” Dunnell said.
Considering the wide variety of topics Xueqin covers in his novel, it is no wonder the readers were hooked. The group met every Friday for an hour starting in 2008. At the end of the spring semester of 2014, they succeeded in their goal of finishing all five volumes, despite the challenges of shifting group members— students graduated midway through the project, and professors went on sabbatical.
Sun, who went on sabbatical for a semester in 2011, did not let the distance stop her.
“When I was doing research at Princeton three years ago, I skyped in every Friday,” Sun said. “I bought a microphone for this purpose.”
Sun’s devotion to the reading group caught the attention of Joe Blundo from The Columbus Dispatch. He was interested in the idea that this group read only one chapter a day but fully intended to finish the book. At the time of his article’s publication in 2011, the group was only at Chapter 70 out of 120.
After completing such a large project, the dreamers felt unsatisfied with simply parting ways. In the end, they decided to start over with Volume 1, which began on Friday, Aug. 29, 2014.
As the group moves forward, the two leaders have few changes they wish to make. “I think my goal is to introduce our students to great works of art outside of the Western canon, in this case the greatest Chinese novel ever written,” Sun said. “It is a necessary part of a strong liberal arts education, especially today, to teach students that we share the same human values and concerns across cultures. And what better way to do it than through great works of art, such as a terrific novel?”
Dunnell’s goals concern the future and connect to the Kenyon curriculum.
“I have been trying to think of ways that I might be able to use the novel, or at least one volume of it, in a course … or [as] the centerpiece of a seminar,” Dunnell said.
Dunnell has high hopes for the future of the novel, but for now she enjoys the tradition of sitting down weekly and reading with a small group.
“Particularly in a world where everything is so rapidly changing, it seems to me so necessary for us to find places to root ourselves,” Dunnell said. “For anyone who establishes a relationship with a work of fiction, … you have something to hold on to and something to go back to. It’s comforting.”
At the end of the day, the relationship they’ve established with the novel seems to be the main reason for the group’s continuation. They found a tradition that they love, and they plan to keep the novel in their lives for a long time.
“I think it’s so important to do this,” Dunnell said. “Even though it becomes more and more difficult because the calendar keeps getting more and more crowded, I just want to push it all back and say, ‘No! This hour is mine!’”
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