1/ There are some readers out there who love Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng), though I’m not sure why. So far she has played a terrible joke on Giả Thụy (Jia Rui), which humiliates him and damages his health and contributes to his death; she has indirectly caused the deaths of 2 other people without feeling any guilt, and had a female servant whipped 20 times merely for arriving late. In chapter 39, it turns out that she delays paying salaries to the servants because she puts them out on loan at high interest—not her own money, but the money to be paid to the servants. In chapter 40, she makes fun of an old and poor woman. In chapter 44, she beats up some servants, including 2 children.
Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng) may be funny and fascinating and a good talker, but she is cruel and ruthless, she is the despicable type who flatters her superiors and steps on her inferiors.
In terms of characterisation, this is one of Cao Xueqin’s most superb creations—I can see her right before me, she’s a type I absolutely loathe and despise.
2/ In these chapters, Cao Xueqin brings back the old countrywoman Già Lưu (Grannie Liu), so readers can see the Giả (Jia) family and the mansions through the eyes of an outsider, a poor woman. We can also see the differences between the 2 old women—they are roughly the same age but Giả Mẫu (Jia Mu) lives in riches and has no worries, whereas Già Lưu (Grannie Liu) at her age has to travel some distance and flatter a rich family in order to bring some stuff back to her own family.
On the one hand, Cao Xueqin depicts the rich, privileged life of the Giả (Jia) family, their extravagance and their wasteful habits, their condescension and disdain and their ridicule of the poor woman, who is 75 and actually older than the matriarch of the house. On the other hand, he depicts the old woman as servile and grovelling and dishonest and base.
3/ It becomes increasingly clear that Giả Mẫu (Jia Mu), the matriarch of the house, is old but isn’t very wise. She falls for Vương Hy Phượng’s (Wang Xifeng) charisma and lets her get away with anything; she spoils Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) and interferes with his parents’ discipline (I’m not talking about the beating); she has favourites and tends to be partial, and among the younger girls, her favourite is the proper but cold and occasionally malicious Bảo Thoa (Baochai). Just look at her reaction when Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng) and Uyên Ương (Yuanyang/ Faithful) play a prank on Già Lưu (Grannie Liu). As the matriarch, she is seen as loving and kind, but she is emotionally weak, and this is a sign that she would let things go wrong in the family.
4/ I note that Già Lưu (Grannie Liu) sees a room full of books and assumes it to be a reading room of some boy, but it turns out to be Đại Ngọc’s (Daiyu) room; later she mistakenly thinks a beautiful room belongs to some girl, but it is actually Bảo Ngọc’s (Baoyu) bedroom.
5/ Look at the advice Bảo Thoa (Baochai) gives Đại Ngọc (Daiyu):
“‘So, you see, in the case of us girls it would probably be better for us if we never learned to read in the first place. Even boys, if they gain no understanding from their reading, would do better not to read at all; and if that is true of boys, it certainly holds good for girls like you and me. The little poetry-writing and calligraphy we indulge in is not really our proper business. […] As for girls like you and me: spinning and sewing are our proper business. What do we need to be able to read for? But since we can read, let us confine ourselves to good, improving books; let us avoid like the plague those pernicious works of fiction, which so undermine the character that in the end it is past reclaiming.’” (Ch.42)
“Those pernicious works of fiction” here refer to Mẫu đơn đình (The Peony Pavilion, or translated by Hawkes as The Return of the Soul) and Tây sương ký (Romance of the Western Chamber, or translated by Hawkes as The Western Chamber), which Đại Ngọc (Daiyu) innocently quotes at the drinking game, in front of everybody.
Bảo Thoa (Baochai) is insufferably conventional.
6/ Compared to other girls, Giả Tích Xuân (Jia Xichun) isn’t good at writing poetry but she’s a gifted painter. Giả Mẫu (Jia Mu) therefore “commissions” her to paint the garden to give the poor woman.
However, Cao Xueqin writes a scene in chapter 42 and makes it all about Bảo Thoa (Baochai)—a scene that shows her knowledge and understanding of painting. To me, she comes across as condescending at the same time, giving advice to everybody, from Sử Tương Vân (Shi Xiangyun) to Đại Ngọc (Daiyu) and now Tích Xuân (Xichun).
7/ In chapter 43, at a whim the old woman, I mean Giả Mẫu (Jia Mu), decides to hold a birthday party for Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng) and wants everyone to contribute, including the servants. Something stood out for me.
“‘The girls’ contribution will be only for form’s sake, any-way,’ said Grandmother Jia in reference to the row of figures sitting silently behind her on the kang. ‘I should think about the equivalent of a month’s allowance would be the right amount.’”
The allowance would be the salary, so she wants the servant to work that month for free to contribute to a mistress’s birthday party! Even though they would also have to work extra to prepare, and serve at the party. I’m sorry but what the fuck?
And because they are wasteful, Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng) wants to hire new singers even though they have a dozen singers living on the property.
Luckily, the person holding the party is not her but Vưu Thị (You Shi), wife of Giả Trân (Jia Zhen) and mother of Giả Dung (Jia Rong), so she secretly returns the money to the servants. She also sees and points out Vương Hy Phượng’s (Wang Xifeng) tightfistedness and insincerity.
8/ Chapter 44 has a scene that has a term in Vietnamese but no equivalent in English: the term is “đánh ghen”—“đánh” means “to beat up”, “ghen” means “jealous” or “jealousy”.
In Vietnam or China, a wife who discovers that her husband is cheating would beat up the mistress, not the husband. That is “đánh ghen”. Somehow a few Vietnamese websites I’ve found translate the term incorrectly as “making a scene of jealousy”, but it’s not just making a scene—it usually involves hitting, slapping, pulling hair, undressing and humiliating in public, and so on and so forth. Google the phrase and you’ll see plenty of images.
Giả Liễn (Jia Lian) is a type I’ve encountered before—a man who normally doesn’t dare to say anything to his wife but has affairs and talks shit about her behind her back. In this scene, I only feel sorry for Bình Nhi (Ping’er/ Patience), who does nothing wrong but gets dragged into it, and the 2 child servants that Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng) slaps several times.
9/ As a writer, Cao Xueqin doesn’t moralise, but we can tell that he has lots of sympathy for unfortunate and defenceless characters: orphans like Lâm Đại Ngọc (Lin Daiyu) and Sử Tương Vân (Shi Xiangyun); widows like Lý Hoàn (Li Wan), wife of Giả Châu (Jia Zhou); servants like Tập Nhân (Xiren/ Aroma), Bình Nhi (Ping’er/ Patience), and Kim Xuyến (Jinchuan/ Golden).
Cao Xueqin tends to show his sympathy through the main character Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu)—in chapter 19, we get to know Tập Nhân’s (Aroma) backstory; now in chapter 44, we get to know Bình Nhi (Patience) more deeply. Tập Nhân (Aroma) at least serves Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu), who is weird but sensitive, and she is appreciated by his mother Vương phu nhân (Lady Wang). Bình Nhi (Patience) has to “steer an even course between Jia Lian’s boorishness on the one hand and Xi-feng’s vindictiveness on the other” (ch.44).
In Hong lou meng, some of the most likable characters are servants.
However, that doesn’t mean that the servants and the other underdogs are full of goodness—Tập Nhân (Aroma) and Bình Nhi (Patience) are multi-faceted like anyone else, and both are excellent “workers” but their personalities and ways of working are different.
It also doesn’t mean that Cao Xueqin portrays all the people of the lower classes in a positive light. Già Lưu (Grannie Liu) is a counter-example; Bảo Nhị (Bao Er), the husband of the woman involved with Giả Liễn (Jia Lian), is another; and there are also plenty of characters of the lower class who are portrayed as servile, dishonest, and despicable.
Hong lou meng has about 500 characters, and they are all distinct.
10/ The final bit of chapter 44 says a lot about the character of Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng), Giả Liễn (Jia Lian), and Bảo Nhị (Bao Er).