Film Music: Scores for ‘Dream of the Red Chamber’ by Cao Xueqin

A scene from ‘Dream of the Red Chamber’

Dream of the Red Chamber is a classic romantic novel set in the waning days of the Qing dynasty in the mid-18th century. Considered one of the four masterpieces of Chinese literature, the novel was set to film in a 1987 TV adaptation. Composer Wang Liping (born 1941) was chosen to compose thirteen musical scores for the 36-episode series. In a recent interview, Wang, who graduated with a degree in composition from the prestigious Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, recalls the feelings he had after he was selected.

“The story is told too slowly. I found it tedious at the start because there’s no drama. However, the more I read on, the more I liked it. It’s a tragedy but it’s full of beautiful sadness.”

To do justice to the emotions of each of the novel’s character, Wang composed the scores without reading the script as he wanted to envision his own version of the story. “The emotions have to be cohesive and private,” he said. “I just read the novel over and over again, and I came up with the tempo that Cao Xueqin (the author of the novel) set.”

After four and a half years of work, Wang finished composing the 13 original music scores for Dream of the Red Chamber. When the series premiered in 1987, all his compositions, especially Song of the Red Bean and Flower Burial Elegy became instantly popular.

Here are excerpts of the poem Flower Burial Elegy, that Wang set to music


Excerpts of the poem/lyrics

Blossoms fade and fly across the sky,
Who pities the faded red and scent that was?
Softly the gossamer floats over the spring pavilions,
Gently willow fluff wafts to the broidered screen.
I in my chamber mourn the passing of spring,
No relief from anxiety my poor heart knows;
Hoe in hand I step through the portal,
Loath to tread on the blossom as I come and go.

I long to take on wings and fly
With flowers to the ends of the earth and sky.
And at earth’s uttermost bound,
Where can I find a fragrant burial mound?
Shall I shroud in silken bag the petals fair
And bury them in the earth to mingle there?
Pure they come and pure they shall go,
Not ever sinking to oblivion below.
Now they are dead, I come to bury them today.
Who can divine the date when I shall pass away?
Men laugh at my folly in burying fallen flowers.
But who will bury me when in my last hours?
Spring departs and flowers wither by and by.
This is the when beauty must grow old and die.
Once spring is gone and beauty is dead, alas!
Who will care for the fallen bloom and the buried lass?

Here are two renditions of the song, the first in flute and guzheng, and the second sung by well-known singer, Tong Li.

Further study

Dream of the Red Chamber is not the easiest novel to follow given its intricate and overlapping plots covering both domestic and more overarching political and philosophical themes. For a guide on what the novel is about, see

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