Dream of the Red Chamber contains an extraordinarily large number of characters: nearly forty are considered major characters, and there are over four hundred additional ones. The novel is also known for the complex portraits of its many female characters.
The main character of the novel is the carefree adolescent male heir of the family, Jia Baoyu. He was born with a magical piece of “jade” in his mouth. In this life he has a special bond with his sickly cousin Lin Daiyu, who shares his love of music and poetry. Baoyu, however, is predestined to marry another cousin, Xue Baochai, whose grace and intelligence exemplify an ideal woman, but with whom he lacks an emotional connection. The romantic rivalry and friendship among the three characters against the backdrop of the family’s declining fortunes form the main story in the novel.
“Twelve beauties of Jinling” refer to the twelve excellent ladies in Dream of the Red Chamber, namely, Lin Daiyu, Xue Baochai, Shi Xiangyun, Wang Xifeng, Jia Yingchun, Jia Xichun, Jia Yuanchun, Jia Tanchun, Qin Keqing, Li Wan, Miao Yu, and Jia Qiaojie.
- Lin Daiyu (林黛玉; Meaning: Blue-black Jade)
Jia Baoyu’s younger first cousin and his primary love interest. She is the daughter of Lin Ruhai (林如海), a Yangzhou scholar-official, and Lady Jia Min (賈敏), Baoyu’s paternal aunt. She is sickly, but beautiful in a way that is unconventional. She also suffers from a respiratory ailment. The novel proper starts in Chapter 3 with Daiyu’s arrival at the Rongguo House shortly after the death of her mother. Fragile emotionally, prone to fits of jealousy, Daiyu is nevertheless an extremely accomplished poet and musician. The novel designates her one of the Twelve Beauties of Jinling, and describes her as a lonely, proud and ultimately tragic figure. Daiyu is the reincarnation of a flower from the frame story, and the purpose of her mortal birth is to repay Baoyu with tears for watering her in her previous incarnation. She dies of a broken heart after learning of the marriage of Baoyu and Baochai.
- Xue Baochai (薛宝钗; Meaning: Jeweled Hair Pin or Precious Virtue)
Jia Baoyu’s other first cousin. The only daughter of Aunt Xue (薛姨媽), sister to Baoyu’s mother, Baochai is a foil to Daiyu. Where Daiyu is unconventional and hypersensitive, Baochai is sensible and tactful: a model Chinese feudal maiden. The novel describes her as beautiful and intelligent, but also reserved and following the rules of decorum. Although reluctant to show the extent of her knowledge, Baochai seems to be quite learned about everything, from Buddhist teachings to how not to make a paint plate crack. She is not keen on elaborately decorating her room and herself. The novel describes her room as being completely free of decoration, apart from a small vase of chrysanthemums. Baochai has a round face, fair skin, large eyes, and, some would say, a more voluptuous figure in contrast to Daiyu’s willowy daintiness. Baochai carries a golden locket with her which contains words given to her in childhood by a Buddhist monk. Baochai’s golden locket and Baoyu’s jade contain inscriptions that appear to complement one another perfectly. Her marriage to Baoyu is seen in the book as predestined.
- Jia Yuanchun (贾元春;Meaning: First Spring)
Baoyu’s elder sister by about a decade. Originally one of the ladies-in-waiting in the imperial palace, Yuanchun later becomes an Imperial Consort, having impressed the Emperor with her virtue and learning. Her illustrious position as a favorite of the Emperor marks the height of the Jia family’s powers. Despite her prestigious position, Yuanchun feels imprisoned within the four walls of the imperial palace. She dies at the age of forty.
- Jia Tanchun (贾探春; Meaning: Seeking Spring)
Baoyu’s younger half-sister by Concubine Zhao. Extremely outspoken, she is almost as capable as Wang Xifeng. Wang Xifeng herself compliments her privately, but laments that she was “born in the wrong womb,” since concubine children are not respected as much as those by first wives. She is also a very talented poet. Tanchun is nicknamed “Rose” for her beauty and her prickly personality. She later marries into a military family on the South Sea far away from home.
- Shi Xiangyun (史湘云;Meaning: Xiang River Clouds)
Jia Baoyu’s younger second cousin. Grandmother Jia’s grandniece. Orphaned in infancy, she grows up under her wealthy maternal uncle and aunt who treats her unkindly. In spite of this Xiangyun is openhearted and cheerful. A comparatively androgynous beauty, Xiangyun looks good in men’s clothes (once she put on Baoyu’s clothes and Grandmother Jia thought she was a he), and loves to drink. She is forthright and without tact, but her forgiving nature takes the sting from her casually truthful remarks. She is well educated and as talented a poet as Daiyu or Baochai. Her young husband dies shortly after their marriage. She vows to be a faithful widow for the rest of her life.
- Miaoyu (妙玉; Meaning: Wonderful/Clever Jade)
A young nun from Buddhist cloisters of the Rong-guo house. Extremely beautiful and learned, while also extremely aloof, haughty and unsociable. She also has an obsession with cleanliness. The novel says she was compelled by her illness to become a nun, and shelters herself under the nunnery to dodge political affairs. Her fate is not known after her abduction by bandits.
- Jia Yingchun (贾迎春; Meaning: Welcoming Spring)
Second female family member of the generation of the Jia household after Yuanchun, Yingchun is the daughter of Jia She, Baoyu’s uncle and therefore his elder first cousin. A kind-hearted, weak-willed person, Yingchun is said to have a “wooden” personality and seems rather apathetic toward all worldly affairs. Although very pretty and well-read, she does not compare in intelligence and wit to any of her cousins. Yingchun’s most famous trait, it seems, is her unwillingness to meddle in the affairs of her family. Eventually Yingchun marries an official of the imperial court, her marriage being merely one of her father’s desperate attempts to raise the declining fortunes of the Jia family. The newly married Yingchun becomes a victim of domestic abuse and constant violence at the hands of her cruel, abusive husband.
- Jia Xichun (贾惜春; Meaning: Treasuring Spring)
Baoyu’s younger cousin from the Ningguo House, but brought up in the Rongguo House. A gifted painter, she is also a devout Buddhist. She is the young sister of Jia Zhen, head of the Ningguo House. At the end of the novel, after the fall of the house of Jia, she gives up her worldly concerns and becomes a Buddhist nun. She is the second youngest of Jinling’s Twelve Beauties, described as a pre-teen in most parts of the novel.
- Wang Xifeng (王熙凤; Meaning: Splendid Phoenix), alias Sister Feng.
Baoyu’s elder cousin-in-law, young wife to Jia Lian (who is Baoyu’s paternal first cousin), niece to Lady Wang. Xifeng is hence related to Baoyu both by blood and marriage. An extremely handsome woman, Xifeng is capable, clever, humorous, conversable and, at times, vicious and cruel. Undeniably the most worldly woman in the novel, Xifeng is in charge of the daily running of the Rongguo household and wields remarkable economy as well as political power within the family. Being a favorite of Grandmother Jia, Xifeng keeps both Lady Wang and Grandmother Jia entertained with her constant jokes and amusing chatter, playing the role of the perfect filial daughter-in-law, and by pleasing Grandmother Jia, rules the entire household with an iron fist. One of the most remarkable multi-faceted personalities in the novel, Xifeng can be kind-hearted toward the poor and helpless. On the other hand, Xifeng can be cruel enough to kill. Her feisty personality, her loud laugh, and her great beauty contrast with many frail, weak-willed beauties of 18th-century Chinese literature. She makes a fortune through loan sharking and brings downfall to the family. She dies soon after the family assets are seized by the government.
- Jia Qiaojie (贾巧姐)
Wang Xifeng’s and Jia Lian’s daughter. She is a child through much of the novel. After the fall of the house of Jia, in the version of Gao E and Cheng Weiyuan, she marries the son of a wealthy rural family introduced by Granny Liu and goes on to lead a happy, uneventful life in the countryside.
- Li Wan (李纨; Meaning: White Silk)
Baoyu’s elder sister-in-law, widow of Baoyu’s deceased elder brother, Jia Zhu (賈珠). Her primary task is to bring up her son Lan and watch over her female cousins. The novel portrays Li Wan, a young widow in her late twenties, as a mild-mannered woman with no wants or desires, the perfect Confucian ideal of a proper mourning widow. She eventually attains high social status due to the success of her son at the Imperial Exams, but the novel sees her as a tragic figure because she wasted her youth upholding the strict standards of behavior.
- Qin Keqing (秦可卿)
Daughter-in-law to Jia Zhen. Of all the characters in the novel, the circumstances of her life and early death are amongst the most mysterious. Apparently a very beautiful and flirtatious woman, she carried on an affair with her father-in-law and dies before the second quarter of the novel. Her bedroom is bedecked with priceless artifacts belonging to extremely sensual women, both historical and mythological. In her bed, Bao Yu first travels to the Land of Illusion where he has a sexual encounter with Two-In-One, who represents Xue Baochai and Lin Daiyu. Two-in-One’s name is also Keqing, making Qin Keqing also a significant character in Bao Yu’s sexual experience. The original twelve songs hint that Qin Keqing hanged herself.