Illusion and the self: Honglou Meng, Wilhelm Meister, and Bildungsroman

Ning Ma

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


This essay offers a reading of the famous eighteenth-century Chinese novel Honglou Meng in light of theories about the European Bildungsroman and in comparison to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's novel Wilhelm Meister's Years of Apprenticeship (Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre), which was first published in 1795 and is widely regarded as the seminal example of the Bildungsroman narrative form. The purpose of this comparative exercise is not about imposing Western theories upon Chinese texts, but about discerning an intellectually obscured form of "modernity" from Honglou Meng and the social and cultural contexts around it. In general, my argument is that Honglou Meng is aesthetically analogous to the European Bildungsroman in that it likewise dramatizes a problematic incommutability between the self and society, and in this manner crystallizes a larger process of cultural displacement. Between Honglou Meng and Wilhelm Meister one can indeed observe a set of striking parallels that all serve to manifest this inner-outer divide, such as the protagonist's naïve idealism and artistic temperament, a social-lyrical binary that characterizes his romantic interests, and his mystified "enlightenment" process that combines a sense of irony and a sense of fatalism. Considering that the two books are closely coeval, these similarities are especially remarkable. Given the emergent thesis of a re-Oriented "early modernity" and concurrent scholarly movements toward "horizontal integrative macrohistories," attention to these structural resemblances between Honglou Meng and Wilhelm Meister-two literary landmarks in Chinese and Western narrative histories-can help pluralize theories of the Bildungsroman and the related question of the modern self beyond the European trajectory, while reconfiguring the implications of these regionally canonized works in transcultural terms.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)93-115
Number of pages23
JournalTamkang Review
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 1 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • Bildungsroman
  • East-west comparison
  • Honglou Meng
  • The modern self
  • Wilhelm Meister


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