Thursday 31 December 2020

Latest 100 62 films I've watched

From January 2020 to December 2020 

Normally I create a list of 100 latest films I've watched, but now I want to highlight how shitty my film-viewing has been this year. 
In bold: films that I consider good. 

1/ Three Days of the Condor (1975)
2/ Emma (1996)- Gwyneth Paltrow- again
3/ The Seventh Veil (1945)
4/ The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)
5/ Bring Back the Bush (2020)
6/ Booksmart (2019)
7/ 기생충 (Parasite- South Korea- 2019)
8/ Lady Macbeth (2016)
9/ 三度目の殺人 (The Third Murder- Japan- 2017)
10/ Raising Arizona (1987)
11/ Unsolved: The Man with No Alibi (2018)- 6 episodes
12/ Unsolved: The Boy Who Disappeared (2016)- 8 episodes

13/ Casualty- series 34, 43 episodes
14/ My Cousin Vinny (1992)
15/ The Love Witch (2016)
16/ Riten (The Rite- Sweden- 1969)
17/ Stacey Dooley Investigates: Spycam Sex Criminals (2020)- twice
18/ Jerry Maguire (1996)- again
19/ Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (Portrait of a Lady on Fire- France- 2019)

20/ The Addams Family (1991)
21/ Friday Night Dinner- series 6, 6 episodes
22/ The Age of Innocence (1993)- again
23/ A Room with a View (1985)- again
24/ 霸王别姬 (Farewell My Concubine- China- 1993)- again
25/ Galaxy Quest (1999)
26/ Top Secret! (1984)
27/ চারুলতা (Charulata- India- 1964)
28/ Emma (2020)
29/ Jojo Rabbit (2019)
30/ 影 (Shadow- China- 2018)
31/ Rebecca (1940)
32/ 地獄門 (Gate of Hell- Japan- 1953)
33/ Sherlock Holmes: Dressed to Kill (1946)
34/ Sherlock Holmes: The Woman in Green (1945)
35/ Sherlock Holmes: Terror by Night (1946)
36/ Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1942)
37/ キッズ・リターン (Kids Return- Japan- 1996)

38/ Ocean's 8 (2018)- again
39/ Dolor y gloria (Pain and Glory- Spain- 2019)
40/ The Festival (2018)
41/ The Souvenir (2019)
42/ Knives Out (2019)- again
43/ The Dark Mirror (1946)
44/ The Heiress (1949)- again
45/ Gaslight (1944)- again
46/ 怪談 (Kwaidan- Japan- 1965)

47/ 무영검 (Shadowless Sword- South Korea- 2005)
48/ Uncut Gems (2019)
49/ Undercover with the Clerics: Iraq's Secret Sex Trade (2019) 
50/ Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold (2017) 
51/ 葉問 (Ip Man- Hong Kong- 2008) 
52/ 葉問2:宗師傳奇 (Ip Man 2: Legend of the Grandmaster- Hong Kong- 2010) 
53/ 葉問3 (Ip Man 3- Hong Kong- 2015) 
54/ Den skyldige (The Guilty- Denmark- 2018) 
55/ Watchmen (2009)
56/ 葉問4:完結篇 (Ip Man 4: The Finale- Hong Kong- 2019) 
57/ Fighting with My Family (2019) 
58/ Spy (2015) 
59/ The Farewell (2019) 
60/ His Girl Friday (1940) 
61/ The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)- again 
62/ 도망친 여자 (The Woman Who Ran- South Korea- 2020)

Sunday 27 December 2020

Murasaki Shikibu, Cao Xueqin, Lev Tolstoy, and my top 10 novels

If you’ve been reading my blog or following me on twitter, you may have guessed correctly that the 2 greatest novels I’ve read this year are: Genji monotagari, better known as The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, and Hong lou meng, also known as Dream of the Red Chamber, A Dream of Red Mansions, or The Story of the Stone, by Cao Xueqin

The 2 novels have quite a few things in common. Both are East Asian classics—The Tale of Genji is recognised as Japan’s greatest and most important novel, and Hong lou meng is one of the 4 Chinese classic novels though some people would argue that it’s the greatest novel from China. Both handle Confucianism and Buddhism, but the former is a Buddhist novel while the latter is a Taoist novel. 

Both are extremely long, Hong lou meng is much longer than War and Peace, and both have a great scope with about 400-500 characters. The Tale of Genji depicts all aspects of the Japanese court during the Heian period: life at court, hierarchy, beliefs and lifestyles, exorcism, rituals, festivals, letter-writing, calligraphy, poetry, music, dance, incense-making, painting, gardening, fashion, Buddhist philosophy, marriage politics, double standards for men and women, etc. Similarly, Hong lou meng depicts everything about Chinese society in the 18th century: festivities, funeral rites, customs, cuisine, medicine, drinking games, card games, music, poetry, classic literature, painting, architecture, gardening, fashion, mythology, Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, polygamy, sexuality, human trafficking, corruption, etc. 

Both have a male character in the centre, but focus more on the surrounding female characters. Both have sympathy for women. However, Murasaki Shikibu’s novel follows Genji from birth to death, then moves on to the new generation, whereas a large part of Cao Xueqin’s novel focuses on the teenage years of Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) and the girls. 

Now you may ask, which one is better? I can’t really say. Murasaki Shikibu and Cao Xueqin have very different styles, and the 2 novels have different qualities.

The Tale of Genji is a psychological novel while Hong lou meng is more like a novel of manners, in which the characters are largely characterised through action and dialogue—in a way, Cao Xueqin writes like a playwright. Compared to Cao Xueqin, Murasaki Shikibu has a more beautiful style, exquisite sensibility, and a melancholic tone—the entire novel is pervaded by a sense of mono no aware, and one of the main themes of the novel is transience and the uncertainty of life. Her novel may have more emotional depth. Out of all the writers I’ve read, Murasaki Shikibu and Tolstoy are the two I think are best at handling death—no one else comes close. The difference is that Tolstoy mostly focuses on the person who is dying while Murasaki Shikibu also writes about it but writes more about the impact of death on other people—death of a beloved or family member as a transforming experience. She doesn’t kill off characters to serve the plot as most writers do—every single death has significance. 

Compared to Cao Xueqin, she is also a more visual writer, especially in her descriptions of nature. Everyone who reads The Tale of Genji is always conscious of its beauty, on every page. 

The qualities of Hong lou meng are a different kind. It is a rich, diverse book—Cao Xueqin seems to write about all kinds of people, of both sexes, and from different classes of society. While Murasaki Shikibu focuses on a handful from her large cast of characters, Cao Xueqin treats nearly 40 characters as major, and there are many pairs who appear similar but they are all distinct and memorable. The former focuses more on depth and writes about a much longer span of time, following the main character from birth to death to his descendants, while the latter focuses more on breadth. We know Genji much better than we know Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu), but as a whole the characters in Hong lou meng are better-realised, more vividly real, more colourful, and more diverse. The novel is especially striking in its sympathy for women and humane portrayal of servants.  

Like War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Hong lou meng has an expansive scope but at the same time has great attention to detail. Like Tolstoy’s novels, it has a vividness and naturalness that feels more like life than a work of art, and every single character, even the most secondary and unimportant ones, feels like a real person. I expect that Cao Xueqin’s characters would stay with me the way Tolstoy’s characters have stayed with me over the years. 

Cao Xueqin is comparable to Tolstoy in his humanity, in his compassion and true sympathy for everyone. In terms of psychological depth, Tolstoy is much superior—he is unsurpassable, while the characters in Hong lou meng are largely conveyed through action, dialogue, and occasionally monologue, though Cao Xueqin also characterises them through poetry. Tolstoy is superior in terms of style. 

However, Cao Xueqin has his own qualities. He is no preacher, no moralist—his presence is not felt in the text. He is no sexist—Hong lou meng has a wide range of female characters, and the most intelligent, excellent characters in the novel are girls. 

Above all, Hong lou meng has supernatural or dream elements and the real/unreal theme. There are also supernatural elements in The Tale of Genji, mostly ghosts: the jealous and vengeful spirit of the living Rokujo Haven is one of the most powerful images I’ve encountered in literature, especially when the Rokujo Haven herself is not aware of any anger or resentment, suggesting that Murasaki Shikibu is aware of the gap between conscious and unconscious feelings. Hong lou meng goes even further in its dream elements: the novel is framed as the story of the stone, which comes to earth as Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu), so there’s a real/unreal theme that runs through the entire novel and there are many magical elements such as the Land of Illusion, the Buddhist monk and Taoist priest, the Mirror for the Romantic, the double, ghosts, demons, and so on. These elements add another layer of meaning to the novel and elevate it beyond a social novel or a family novel. My favourites are the story of Giả Thụy (Jia Rui) and the mirror, and the encounter of the 2 Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu).

To me, Hong lou meng and The Tale of Genji are not just my best reads of 2020, but they’re the best over the past few years, and I do think that they’re on a par with the finest works of Western literature. To be honest, most novels would appear small and narrow next to them. 

And yet in the West, they’re often neglected. 

Updating my top 10 favourite novels (order changed on 18/5/2022): 

Anna Karenina by Lev Tolstoy

War and Peace by Lev Tolstoy

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Hong lou meng by Cao Xueqin 

The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu 

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton 

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert 


Here is Kenneth Rexroth on The Tale of Genji and Hong lou meng

“When I was a kid, I used to read novels by sets: Tolstoy, Conrad, James, Dostoevski, Turgenev, Zola, Flaubert. They weren’t one book at a time, but a whole world that would envelop me for months and from which I would emerge into real life with the strange outlandish feeling of someone back from years abroad. One Chinese novel can do this to you, sweep you away out of sight of home and self, and lose you for a week or more in its own pullulating verisimilitude.

It is this total verisimilitude which differentiates the greatest Chinese novels from the Japanese and puts The Dream of the Red Chamber in a nobler class than Genji. The Japanese novel is a universe of exquisite sensibility. It is concerned with the most profound moral issues ever undertaken in any work of fiction, and implicitly with philosophical issues utterly beyond the grasp of any European novelist. It handles all this with breathtaking skill. But it is possible, immediately, to say these things about it. They are patent. You are unaware of anything like this in The Dream of the Red Chamber until the week after you have laid it down. You are always aware of the vertiginously beautiful style of Lady Murasaki. In The Dream of the Red Chamber, you are unaware you are reading, and nobody remembers who the author was. It is the difference, on a much lesser plane, between Walter Pater and Theodore Dreiser. Dreiser is horribly crude, but Pater is barbarous. I am afraid Dreiser is the better stylist. In Genji they eat but seldom, drink a little, but never move their bowels. In the Chinese novel, as in the gardens of Italy where the nightingale sings in the blooming pomegranate, the odor of the night soil of ten thousand years is never out of your nose.

[…] The Dream of the Red Chamber is the better novel because it is the truer, the more profoundly humane. Genji is true and profound and humane and beautiful, too, but we are not all able to identify ourselves with the insouciant demigod who dips souls from Hell through ten million reincarnations, just, as it were, for fun. On the other hand, there is no question but that we too are part of that astronomical mass of living human beings made of real flesh, sweeping past forever like stardust, and that if we are wise, we will take it easy, like the resting stone and the falling stream.” (source

Saturday 26 December 2020

Why you should read Hong lou meng aka Dream of the Red Chamber

Perhaps you have heard of Hong lou meng by Cao Xueqin, better known in English as Dream of the Red Chamber, A Dream of Red Mansions, or The Story of the Stone. Perhaps you think of reading it but hesitate because of its daunting length and unfamiliar culture? Or have little interest because outside China very few people seem to have read it? You’re missing out. 

Here’s why you should. 

1/ Significance: 

In Chinese literature, Hong lou meng is one of the Four Great Classic Novels, together with Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Water Margin (aka Outlaws of the Marsh, Tale of the Marshes, or All Men Are Brothers), and Journey to the West (aka Monkey). Many people would even say that Hong lou meng is the greatest Chinese novel. 

In the West it is not much read, but I myself think it is one of the greatest novels in the world, on par with the finest works of Western literature such as War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Moby Dick, Middlemarch, Lolita, and so on. Kenneth Rexroth, American poet, translator, and critical essayist, thinks that The Tale of Genji and Hong lou meng are the 2 greatest novels in the world, in the whole history of literature.  

2/ Scope: 

Hong lou meng is usually published as 120 chapters, about twice the length of War and Peace. However, only the first 80 chapters were written by Cao Xueqin, the last 40 chapters have been disputed for years—could be written entirely by Gao E, drafted by Cao Xueqin and redacted by Gao E, or written by someone else and edited by Gao E. I personally believe it’s the last possibility and only read the Cao Xueqin chapters (after reading 81-85). 

Even then, it’s a long book with great scope and about 400-500 characters. 

3/ Range of characters: 

Hong lou meng has a wide range of characters, belonging to different classes of society, from Imperial Consort and members of the palace all the way to servants and maids. The novel depicts lots of different types of people, and the characters feel real and are all distinct. 

Placed next to the vast world of Hong lou meng, most novels would appear small and narrow. 

4/ Depiction of female characters and sympathy for women: 

The novel is rich and diverse in its portrayal of female characters, and Cao Xueqin seems to have lots of sympathy for the lives of women in 18th century China, from Imperial Consorts to servants and slaves, from concubines to their daughters, etc.

The most intelligent, poetic, and excellent ones in the story are girls—in a Confucian society, where women are considered inferior to men and only boys can go to school and take exams, in the private poetry club, the best poets are girls and the central male character Giả Bảo Ngọc (Jia Baoyu) always comes last.

My favourite character in the book is the vivacious, forthright and open-hearted tomboy Sử Tương Vân (Shi Xiangyun), followed by Giả Thám Xuân (Jia Tanchun), a clever daughter of a concubine, a fenghuang born in crows’ nest. 

5/ A striking and fascinating anti-heroine:

Next to the lovable and interesting girls, who are all different, Cao Xueqin also creates one of the most compelling, complex, and unforgettable bitches I’ve encountered in literature: Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng).

He creates a character who is cruel, malicious, ruthless, jealous, cunning, and manipulative, but at the same time also depicts her as clever, capable, and extremely fascinating and compelling, and gives her depth—she is despicable, but there are moments the reader cannot help sympathising with her or admiring her. 

6/ Depiction of servants:

While servants seem to be invisible or only have secondary roles in lots of classic Western novels, the servants in Hong lou meng don’t get any less attention from Cao Xueqin, and they’re all complex individuals. Some of the most likable characters in the novel are servants—my favourites are Bình Nhi (Ping’er/ Patience) and Tình Văn (Qingwen/ Skybright). The lead servants or senior maids are all different and complex. 

This doesn’t mean that Cao Xueqin is on the side of servants against the masters and mistresses. This is a vast world, and he writes about all kinds of servants: gossipers, flatterers, thieves, hot-tempered ones, wanton ones, greedy ones, lazy ones, unreliable ones, those who try to take advantage of the household, those who try to intimidate a soft or inexperienced mistress, those who get special treatment and fear nothing and curse the entire master family, etc. 

7/ Poetry: 

There is lots of poetry in the novel, lots of references to classical Chinese poetry. Poetry is also a means of characterisation. 

8/ Dream elements and the real/unreal theme: 

The characters are very realistic, but Hong lou meng is more than a social novel, family novel, or novel of manners—it has a frame story of a Sentient Stone left behind by Nuwa when she mended the sky, and the stone now wants to come to earth to experience life. It is reincarnated as Giả Bảo Ngọc (Jia Baoyu), who is born with a jade in his mouth, hence the name. 

At the beginning of the novel, these couplets appear: 

“Truth becomes fiction when the fiction's true;

Real becomes not-real where the unreal's real.” 

(David Hawkes’s translation)


“When false is taken for true, true becomes false;

If non-being turns into being, being becomes non-being.”

(The Yangs' translation, which I think is better).

The real/unreal theme runs through Hong lou meng, and there are also lots of dream elements that add more layers of meaning to the novel.  

9/ Frankness about sexuality: 

I know you’re paying more attention now—in Hong lou meng, you can find homosexuality, bisexuality, grooming, masturbation, a wet dream, and this line: 

“Whether we fuck arseholes or not, what business is it of yours? You should be bloody grateful we haven’t fucked your dad.” 

(I won’t say which chapter this is from).  

10/ Understanding of Chinese culture in particular and East Asia in general: 

Hong lou meng depicts everything about Chinese society in the 18th century: festivities, funeral rites, customs, cuisine, medicine, drinking games, music/ theatre, poetry, classic literature, painting, architecture, gardening, fashion, mythology, Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, bribery, superstitions, etc.

It’s no wonder that people often say that Hong lou meng is the novel to read if you want to understand Chinese culture, values, and mindset: Confucianism, hierarchy and order, filial piety, relationships, women running the household, etc. 

To someone like me, it’s a feeling of familiarity—I understand the culture, hierarchy, and manners, and recognise lots of types of people in it. 

What then are the tips for reading Hong lou meng? Similar to my tips for reading The Tale of Genji: draw your own family tree, create your own character list and make notes, etc. Regarding translation, if you read it in English, there are only 2 complete English translations and the more highly acclaimed one is the Penguin Classics one by David Hawkes and John Minford. 

Here is a list of my blog posts about Hong lou meng (note that I had some issues with it at the beginning, but adjusted myself to the book and came to love it after some time): 

Chapter 1, language, names. 

2-4, the Jia family, first impressions. 

5-8, the dream, fate, ugly aspects of Chinese culture. 

9-12, the kowtow, servants, the mirror.

12-15, death, the funeral, Wang Xifeng.

16-18, the writing, Jia Yuanchun’s visit.

19-23, 2 kinds of hierarchy, characterisation, lesser children.

24-27, servants’ names, demons, Daiyu.

28-31, feigned humility, proxy novice, melodrama.

31-34, Xiangyun, Baochai, Daiyu, Skybright.

35-38, fate, reflection, poetry club.

39-44, Jia Mu, gender, the lower classes, jealousy.

45-48, horny men, Chinese culture and poetry.

49-51, newcomers, linked verse, girls vs women vs men.

52-53, Cao Xueqin’s humanity, Ning-Rong, textual problems.

54-56, clichés, servants, Xifeng, 2 Baoyus.

57-60, Daiyu, actors, servants’ hierarchy.

61-63, Patience, flowers, 2 worlds in the novel.

64-67, 13-15, funerals, horny men and women, Taoism.

67-70, multiple wives, jealousy.

71-72, appearances, Xifeng’s illness, Suncloud and Sunset.

73-74, 3 Spring girls, timing issues.

75-78, Miaoyu, Skybright, the firing.

79-80, Xia Jingui, Sun Shaozu, Cao Xueqin chapters. 

81-85, the last 40 chapters, characters’ voices, the dream

Comparing Cao Xueqin, Murasaki Shikibu, and Lev Tolstoy. 

Thursday 24 December 2020

Hong lou meng: chapters 81-85, the last 40 chapters, characters' voices, the dream

1/ The first 80 of the 120 chapters of Hong lou meng were written by Tào Tuyết Cần (Cao Xueqin). What about the last 40

This has been a point of debate for years. The general view in Vietnam seems to be that the last 40 chapters were written by Cao Ngạc (Gao E) alone, whereas the general view among English speakers seems to be that they were Gao E working on a patchy manuscript by Cao Xueqin. John Minford, the translator of the last 40 chapters, which were volumes 4 and 5 of the Penguin edition titled The Story of the Stone (following 3 volumes translated by David Hawkes), thinks that the manuscript was written by Cao Xueqin, found by Trình Vĩ Nguyên (Cheng Weiyuan) and edited by Gao E, and these 2 volumes have Cao Xueqin and Gao E as the authors. 

It seems to be quite complicated and uncertain, and we just don’t know if Gao E wrote all of it himself, worked on Cao Xueqin’s manuscript, or edited a manuscript by someone else, and if he did work on Cao Xueqin’s manuscript, how much of it was editing and how much was rewriting, and whether there was a full outline to follow.

I’ve just reread David Hawkes’s introduction in volume 1, which has an interesting detail. He mentions Chi Nghiễn Trai (Zhiyanzhai/ Red Inkstone), one of the earliest and most important commentators on Hong lou meng, who apparently knew Cao Xueqin intimately and might have been around the same age as the author. 

This is what David Hawkes says: 

“… his references to future developments in the plot occurring after chapter 80 are almost invariably different from what is found in the last forty chapters of the Gao E version.

[…] Now, however, as new evidence comes to light, it is becoming more and more probable that [Gao E] was not [a liar and forger] – that he did only edit, not fabricate, the last forty chapters. Moreover, although the last forty chapters are not by Cao Xueqin himself, it is beginning to look more and more as though they were written by someone very close to Xueqin, probably a member of his family – someone who was familiar with his drafts and wanted a different ending but did not necessarily have any intention of passing off the new ending as the author’s own work.

The novel we read today, then, is an incomplete novel by Cao Xueqin in eighty chapters with a supplement by an anonymous author in forty chapters which, though in many respects not what the author intended and perhaps inferior to what he would have written, is nevertheless, because of the inside knowledge of the person who wrote it, a vastly better ending than any of that mushroom crop which sprang up once the commercial possibilities of a completed edition had been established.” (Volume 1, introduction) 

Hawkes’s view, if I understand correctly, is that Cao Xueqin more or less did finish the novel but some chapters were missing and at the end Red Inkstone was still waiting for him to fill in some poems, but it seems that the later part of the novel was lost or suppressed. This seems to clash with his own remark in volume 3 that the last 40 chapters are probably an earlier version of the novel, before some major revisions. 

Hawkes also says:

“From clues found in the commentaries and in the text itself, we can tell that Xueqin’s dénouement must have been far more harrowing than the somewhat bland ending the novel is given in Gao E’s version.” (ibid.) 

2/ Chapter 81 moves away from the stories of Hạ Kim Quế (Xia Jingui) and Tôn Thiệu Tổ (Sun Shaozu) and returns to Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu), who is now forced to return to school. 

Knulp Tanner, one of the people doing the read-along with me, was disappointed with the drop of quality in the chapter and no longer wants to continue. Something bothers me too—does Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) sound like that? Do his parents sound like that? The conversation between Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) and Đại Ngọc (Daiyu) seems a bit odd. 

But I can’t judge from just one chapter, especially when I began reading with lots of preconceptions.  

3/ Chapter 82 bothers me. 

There’s a scene where Tập Nhân (Xiren/ Aroma) thinks about her own future—she knows how to handle Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) as his concubine, but what if she becomes a second Vưu Nhị Thư (You Erjie) or Hương Lăng (Caltrop)? She starts worrying about Đại Ngọc (Daiyu), who she knows is suspicious and difficult, so she decides to come visit her. 

As they’re talking, Tử Quyên (Nightingale) the servant mentions Hương Lăng (Caltrop), so: 

“Aroma seized her opportunity:

‘Caltrop, did I hear you say? Oh, that poor girl! I feel so sorry for her! This new wife of Mr Pan’s is a Total Eclipse if ever there was one! She’s even worse than a certain person…’ Here Aroma held up two fingers, indicating the Second Young Lady of the household - Xi-feng. ‘This Mrs Pan doesn’t seem to care a bit what people think.’

‘That certain person was bad enough,’ said Dai-yu. ‘To think that You Er-jie is dead!’

‘I know,’ said Aroma. ‘They were both human beings, after all. It was only their positions that were different. Why did she have to be so malicious? It hasn’t done the family name any good.’

This was the first time Dai-yu had heard Aroma gossip like this, and she began to suspect what was at the back of it.” (Ch.82) 

The translation is by John Minford. 

It doesn’t sound like Tập Nhân (Aroma) to talk like that, does it? Especially to someone like Đại Ngọc (Daiyu), who is a mistress and isn’t close to her. In the first 80 chapters, she never says any such things to Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) or even other servants—she is quiet and reserved, and would keep such thoughts to herself. 

4/ Đại Ngọc’s (Daiyu) dream, to me, appears quite crude and clumsy. 

The weakest dream Cao Xueqin writes is perhaps Vương Hy Phượng’s (Wang Xifeng) dream of Tần Khả Khanh (Qin Keqing), which is awkward as a warning and even more awkward coming from her. This is also a result of revisions because his original plan was that Tần Khả Khanh (Qin Keqing) would hang herself after the discovery of the affair, instead of dying after a long illness.

But if we look at the best dreams in Hong lou meng—the double in chapter 56, the Land of Illusion in chapter 5, Chân Sĩ Ẩn’s (Zhen Shiyin) dream at the beginning of the novel, or the dream-like episode of Giả Thụy (Jia Rui) with the mirror in chapter 12, which are all magnificent, the dream in chapter 82 appears clumsy and crude. It lacks the magical quality, the imaginative power of the best dreams in Hong lou meng, and looks contrived. 

5/ After the dream, there’s a bit of a long-winded sequence of Tử Quyên (Nightingale) and Tuyết Nhạn (Snowgoose) discovering the blood, then Thúy Lũ (Kingfisher) and Thúy Mặc (Ebony) coming, hearing the news, and coming back to tell Tương Vân (Xiangyun) and Thám Xuân (Tanchun), then the last 2 coming to visit Đại Ngọc (Daiyu) and then visiting the matriarch of the house. 

Sử Tương Vân (Shi Xiangyun) is my favourite character in Hong lou meng—she’s the most endearing character in Hong lou meng and whenever she appears in the first 80 chapters, she steals the scene. In this sequence, she doesn’t sound right—Tương Vân (Xiangyun) is meant to be open-hearted and forthright, not careless and stupid, and her reaction to the news from Thúy Lũ (Kingfisher) and Thúy Mặc (Ebony) and her later reaction upon seeing the blood don’t seem right, especially considering the more mature Tương Vân (Xiangyun) in the past 10 chapters or so. 

6/ My impression from these chapters is that whoever writes the final part of the novel must know the Chinese medicine and be familiar with the environment, the palace, perhaps even the people on which the characters are based, etc. Perhaps this is why these 40 chapters, despite their flaws, are more recognised and beloved than other sequels—and there are loads and loads of them! 

Chapter 83, I think, is better than 81 and 82. The final scene works well regarding Hạ Kim Quế (Xia Jingui) and Bảo Thiềm (Moonbeam)—when the Cao Xueqin chapters were cut off in the middle of their story with Hương Lăng (Caltrop), I thought Hạ Kim Quế (Xia Jingui) was vivid and had the potential to become a great character, and her depiction in chapter 83 follows up well. 

The part that bugs me is Bảo Thoa’s (Baochai) reaction—I can’t help thinking that the Bảo Thoa (Baochai) who can say something biting to both Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) and Đại Ngọc (Daiyu) and embarrass them both in chapter 30 would not be so… nice? so soft? to a sister-in-law who is insulting her and her family and humiliating everyone. It may be argued that she wants to calm down Hạ Kim Quế (Xia Jingui) and not make the quarrel any bigger, but Cao Xueqin has written before that Hạ Kim Quế (Xia Jingui) many times tries to start a fight with her but she always keeps her in place. 

7/ Reading the book in Vietnamese, I can’t help wondering if the little things that bug me in these chapters are valid or I’m looking for them, with the authorship question in mind. But at the same time, look at chapter 84—would Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng) stay silent for the entire meal, not uttering a word, when she’s always flattering Giả Mẫu (Jia Mu) and dominating the conversation? Giả Chính (Jia Zheng) in these chapters also appears nicer—I went back to chapter 77, then looked at chapter 84 again, he now seems nicer, less impatient. 

In these chapters there’s also a redundancy and repetitiveness that I think Cao Xueqin would get rid of. 

8/ Chapter 85, however, works well, especially in the music scene and the Tiết Bàn (Xue Pan) trouble. I can see why David Hawkes says “although the last forty chapters are not by Cao Xueqin himself, it is beginning to look more and more as though they were written by someone very close to Xueqin, probably a member of his family – someone who was familiar with his drafts and wanted a different ending”. 

Would I continue? I’m not sure. Maybe. Maybe not. 

Anyway, Merry Christmas, everyone! 

Wednesday 23 December 2020

Hong lou meng: chapters 79-80, Xia Jingui, Sun Shaozu, Cao Xueqin chapters

1/ Chapter 79 has 2 characters getting married. Giả Nghênh Xuân (Jia Yingchun) is the first one to leave the garden, marrying Tôn Thiệu Tổ (Sun Shaozu). 

2/ Tiết Bàn (Xue Pan) gets married to a young woman named Hạ Kim Quế (Xia Jingui). Cao Xueqin, I can’t help thinking, introduces her in a way I didn’t quite see him introduce other characters before in Hong lou meng—instead of slowly developing her and conveying her personality through action and dialogue, he sums up her family, upbringing, and personality in a way that makes me think of Jane Austen. This is an observation, not a complaint. 

3/ There is a significant scene at the beginning of chapter 80 that would be lost on readers of the Hawkes’s translation. 

The chamber wife of Tiết Bàn (Xue Pan), at the Tiết (Xue) family, gets the name 香菱 (Hương Lăng/ Xiangling), meaning “fragrant water caltrop”. In Hawkes’s translation she is called Caltrop.

In Hawkes’s translation, Hạ Kim Quế (Xia Jingui) changes her name to Lily, which is incorrect and makes the act lose its meaning. 

She changes her name to 秋菱 (Thu Lăng/ Qiuling), which means “autumn water caltrop”. 秋 (thu/ qiu) is a homophone of 丘 (khiêu or khâu/ qiu), meaning “mound” or “grave”. 菱 (lăng/ ling) is a homophone of 陵 (lăng/ ling), meaning “tomb”. 

This took some work—I had to compare 2 sources and also had to look at a Hán Nôm dictionary because the Vietnamese source made a mistake and the sources didn’t include all information, so give me a medal. 

Sources: (theo từ điển Hán Nôm của thivien, chữ đó phải là “khiêu” hay khâu”, không phải “khưu”).  

4/ In an earlier blog post I wrote about the jealousy of Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng) and compared her to Hoạn Thư in Truyện Kiều, the archetype of a jealous woman in Vietnamese culture. 

In the final 2 of the Cao Xueqin chapters, there’s another jealous woman: Hạ Kim Quế (Xia Jingui). Both of them use another woman to get rid of the one they hate: Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng) uses the new chamber-wife Thu Đồng (Autumn) to torment Vưu Nhị Thư (You Erjie), Hạ Kim Quế (Xia Jingui) uses her own servant that Tiết Bàn (Xue Pan) fancies, Bảo Thiềm (Moonbeam), to cause trouble for Thu Lăng (Qiuling). 

However, Hạ Kim Quế (Xia Jingui) has a very different personality and Cao Xueqin successfully creates another kind of jealous woman: a violent-tempered, overbearing, and quarrelsome woman who can push around a violent man like Tiết Bàn (Xue Pan), and even argues with her mother-in-law. 

5/ In the same chapter is another miserable marriage: Tôn Thiệu Tổ (Sun Shaozu) turns out to be a gambler, drunkard, and libertine. Other people, including Giả Chính (Jia Zheng), are against the marriage but Giả Xá (Jia She) goes ahead with it anyway, and now Nghênh Xuân (Yingchun) comes back in tears, but what can be done? 

Her real mother is dead, and Hình phu nhân (lady Xing) doesn’t care.  

Thus chapter 80 ends, hinting at worse things ahead. Nghênh Xuân (Yingchun) would perhaps be abandoned by her family, but the story of Hạ Kim Quế (Xia Jingui) is broken off here when she has the potential to become a great character. 


That’s the end of the Cao Xueqin chapters. I finished reading chapter 80 on 22/12, which means that it’s been 7 weeks since I started reading Hong lou meng. But I put it aside and read Naomi by Tanizaki for about 5 days, so the first 80 chapters took me about 6 weeks. 


Tuesday 22 December 2020

Hong lou meng: chapters 75-78, Miaoyu, Skybright, the firing

1/ It’s funny how in chapter 74, the Giả (Jia) family or mostly phủ Vinh quốc (Rongguo house) create so much ado about a little bag with some sexy image, as though they’re a very moral and proper family, chapter 75 describes much worse things happening in the family, mostly at phủ Ninh quốc (Ningguo house)—people drinking, playing cards, gambling, having male prostitutes, etc. 

2/ I don’t have much to say about chapter 76, about Mid-Autumn Festival. The most interesting part is at the end of the chapter, when Tương Vân (Xiangyun) and Đại Ngọc (Daiyu) leave the party to watch the moon and make some linked verse, before they’re unexpectedly joined by Diệu Ngọc (Miaoyu/ Adamantina). The other 2 have always been good poets, but the continuation of the poem by Diệu Ngọc (Adamantina) is particularly interesting. Look: 

“In golden censers figured incense burns;

Unguents in their jade pots coagulate.

A flute provokes the grieving widow’s weeping;

She craves some warmth her bed’s chill to abate.

Its cheerless hangings stir in the wind of autumn,

Its love-ducks mock a mistress without mate…” (Ch.76) 

Is that not curious for a nun? She has not truly renounced life. 

3/ In chapter 77, several servants are fired. Some other readers may talk about the partiality, unfairness, and cruelty of Vương phu nhân (lady Wang), who never manages everything in the household but once she gets involved, isn’t much kinder than Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng). 

But the things that stand out more to me are the reactions of Nghênh Xuân (Yingchun) and Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu). 

Vương phu nhân (lady Wang) is harsh and irrational indeed, but is Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) not passive and helpless, unable to help or defend anyone? Does he not, in a way, fail Huệ Hương/ con Tư (Citronella/ Number Four), Phương Quan (Parfumée), and especially Tình Văn (Qingwen/ Skybright)? Does he not appear spineless? He feels compassion, but does nothing, absolutely nothing to stop his irrationally stupid mother from kicking his servants out over some imaginary charges. He does nothing to help them stay, nothing to defend their name. He does nothing to save Tình Văn (Skybright).

Both he and his mother share the blame for her death the same way they both share the blame for the death of Kim Xuyến (Jinchuan/ Golden). He hasn’t learnt. 

The reaction of Nghênh Xuân (Yingchun) is understandable—she stands outside everything, she is an example of someone with no attachments. Come to think of it, she’s even more detached than Diệu Ngọc (Adamantina). 

4/ I note that in chapter 76, Đại Ngọc (Daiyu) hangs out with Tương Vân (Xiangyun) and feels lonely because Bảo Thoa (Baochai) is away and Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) is busy taking care of the sick Tình Văn (Skybright), and she doesn’t suit Nghênh Xuân (Yingchun) and Tích Xuân (Xichun) very well. 

These 2 Xuân (Chun) girls have a few things in common: both lack poetic talent and generally stand outside the poetry challenges; both worry about their reputation; both are indifferent to their close servants, ready to let them go. 

The difference is that Nghênh Xuân (Yingchun) comes across as meek and unassertive to the point of lacking a spine, while Tích Xuân (Xichun) comes across as cold and harsh.  

5/ After firing Nghênh Xuân’s (Yingchun) maid Tư Kỳ (Chess), who is at least guilty of something, and 3 girls from Bảo Ngọc’s (Baoyu) house for no reason, Vương phu nhân (lady Wang) in chapter 78 doesn’t like the looks of Giả Lan’s (Jia Lan) nurse. What’s wrong with this woman? Why does she dislike everyone pretty? She needs some good dicking. 

6/ I like Tình Văn (Skybright). She has a hot temper and, like Đại Ngọc (Daiyu), is often sarcastic, but she doesn’t irritate me the way that Đại Ngọc (Daiyu) does. One of the memorable images of Tình Văn (Skybright) is that she, terribly sick, stays up all night sewing and covering up a burnt part in a new coat of that stupid stone Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu). Does she absolutely have to do that? Not really. But she does it anyway, and tries to do it as well as she can. 

Another thing is that she’s not full of self-pity. Even in the last moment, she comes across as angry, rather than sorry for herself. Đại Ngọc (Daiyu) always cries, often gets passive aggressive, and always feels sorry for herself. As Tương Vân (Xiangyun) has pointed out in chapter 76, they have similar circumstances—both are orphans, both have to be dependent on relatives, both have no siblings, Tương Vân (Xiangyun) even has to do all the embroidery and needlework in the house while Đại Ngọc (Daiyu) never has to do a thing, but the former is open-hearted and cheerful while the latter always pities herself. 

Now look at Tình Văn (Skybright)—she’s also an orphan but doesn’t have relatives on whom she can depend, and she’s a servant; Đại Ngọc (Daiyu) is weak and often sick, but with Tình Văn (Skybright), Vương phu nhân (lady Wang) complains to Giả Mẫu (Jia Mu) that she’s been sick too often and now has to leave while having consumption. 

It is tragic, especially tragic because it is unjust. 

7/ I note that Cao Xueqin associates Tình Văn (Skybright) with the same flower that Đại Ngọc (Daiyu) gets in the drinking game in chapter 63. 

The scene of the elegy and invocation is moving. 

8/ It’s funny how, because Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) is a boy (and his son), Giả Chính (Jia Zheng) always brings him to see some guests and test his poetry, when Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) is always the one who comes last in the poetry club. 

Very early in the novel, Giả Chính (Jia Zheng) also tells him to suggest names for different parts of the garden, but as it turns out later, some of the good names come from Đại Ngọc (Daiyu).

Sunday 20 December 2020

Hong lou meng: chapters 73-74, 3 Spring girls, timing issues

1/ Cao Xueqin drops some hints before, but it’s in chapter 73 that the garden is invaded and corrupted—no longer the perfect, utopian place it has been so far for Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) and the girls. 

2/ Thám Xuân (Tanchun) appears in the chapter, which is a good reason to mention a good essay I read the other day about her. 

Bài viết của Anh Nguyễn “Giả Thám Xuân: con phượng hoàng sinh trong ổ quạ”: 

In an earlier blog post, I said she’s a phoenix born in a crows’ nest, which is the way other characters see her—the word “phoenix” is not quite perfect. The bird is the fenghuang, a bird in Chinese mythology that is sometimes known as the Chinese phoenix though there aren’t many similarities between it and the Western phoenix (the same way the Chinese dragon is nothing like the Western dragon). 

The word phượng (feng) in Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng) is phượng hoàng (fenghuang) but the true fenghuang in Hong lou meng is Thám Xuân (Tanchun). Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng) is mostly street-smart and cunning, knowing how to flatter and manipulate, but she is shallow; Thám Xuân (Tanchun) is truly intelligent, educated, and wise.  

The image is reinforced when the girls play kites in chapter 70, and her kite is a fenghuang. 

This is something I have noticed myself, but the essay also mentions that Thám Xuân (Tanchun) is linked to the kite motif. It appears 3 times in the novel. 

The 1st time, there’s an image of a kite in her page in Kim lăng thập nhị thoa chính sách (The 12 Beauties of Jinling—official register). 

The 2nd time, when the teenagers write riddles for Giả Chính (Jia Zheng) to guess and hers is about the kite. 

The 3rd time, the kite-playing scene above.  

3/ Overall many girls in Hong lou meng are excellent. Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) always comes last. He’s forever the redundant stone.  

4/ Not all the girls are intelligent and interesting however—look at Nghênh Xuân (Yingchun). So far she’s been left in the background, now chapter 73 is her chapter. 

Thám Xuân (Tanchun) and Nghênh Xuân (Yingchun) are, I think, foils—both are named Xuân (Chun), meaning “spring”; both are daughters of concubines, but if the former is sharp, intelligent, good at poetry, shrewd, and assertive, the latter is soft, meek, slack, passive, boring, and spineless. The only good thing that can be said about Nghênh Xuân (Yingchun) is that she’s mild and nice.  

I like the way a servant describes her as so meek that even if you poke her with a sewing needle, she wouldn’t know to say ow. 

In this chapter, Cao Xueqin creates a single memorable image that can sum up everything about her—she fixes her gaze on a book to ignore the fighting going on around her, involving her. She stands outside everything. 

5/ There is a bit confusion about time.  

In chapter 66, the mandarin tells Giả Liễn (Jia Lian) to come back in October. Liễu Tương Liên (Liu Xianglian) returns in August. 

In chapter 68, Cao Xueqin doesn’t say which month it is, but Giả Liễn (Jia Lian) goes to see the mandarin and doesn’t come back till 2 months later. 

In his absence Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng) brings Vưu Nhị Thư (You Erjie) to the family mansions. I’m still not sure about the timeline, but Giả Liễn (Jia Lian) comes back and gets rewarded Thu Đồng (Autumn), the chamber-wife. Then in chapter 69 there’s a line about Vưu Nhị Thư (You Erjie) becoming sick due to stress and unhappiness after a month. 

In the same chapter she says to Giả Liễn (Jia Lian) that she has been there about half a year, and later he says to a doctor that she hasn’t had a period for 3 months. 

In chapter 70, Vưu Nhị Thư’s (You Erjie) funeral is at the end of the year. 

Now in chapter 73, it is August and Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng) says to Giả Liễn (Jia Lian) that it’ll soon to be her first death anniversary. 

The timeline of Hong lou meng is rather messy, I assume due to the various revisions (5, as Cao Xueqin says?) and stories he grafts onto the novel at a later stage. The Tale of Genji doesn’t have this problem—Murasaki Shikibu always mentions the month, even the date, so Royall Tyler can create a clear chronology and determine the characters’ age. The Tale of Genji doesn’t really have mistakes, except for the Rokujo Haven’s age at the beginning of the novel and some details in the odd chapters 42-44, which seem to be tampered with—the rest of the novel doesn’t have timing issues or continuity issues despite its length, scope, and complexity. 

6/ The episode about Vương phu nhân (lady Wang) and Tình Văn (Qingwen/ Skybright) in chapter 74 reinforces 2 things: 

- Tình Văn (Skybright) mirrors Đại Ngọc (Daiyu): both of them are compared to Tây Thi (Xi Shi), one of the 4 great beauties in ancient China, while Bảo Thoa (Baochai) is compared to Dương Quý Phi (Yang Guifei), another great beauty; both of them often get jealous and sarcastic, and have a short temper; both of them are not very popular, compared to Tập Nhân (Xiren/ Aroma) and Bảo Thoa (Baochai) respectively. 

- Vương phu nhân (lady Wang) may appear to be a kind mistress normally, but she can be very irrational, unfair, and cruel. See the case of Kim Xuyến (Jinchuan/ Golden). It’s not a surprise that she now goes nuts about Tình Văn (Skybright). 

7/ Chapter 74, as Knulp Tanner puts it, could be titled Much Ado about Nothing: people lose their shit over a little bag with some sexy image. 

It gives Thám Xuân (Tanchun) a chance to shine however, and she’s now one of my favourite characters. She is the most interesting of the Xuân (Chun) girls. I’ve liked her since she took over Vương Hy Phượng’s (Wang Xifeng) role to manage the household during her illness, and now she’s the only one of the young people who uses some strong words with Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng). How could you not love that? I also love the way she defends her maids, not allowing vợ Vương Thiện Bảo (Wang Shanbao’s wife) to humiliate them, nor herself.  

8/ Contrasted with her during the raid is Tích Xuân (Xichun), who is ready to throw her maid under the bus. 

I like the way Cao Xueqin puts many characters under the same situation—the raid—to characterise and contrast them. I don’t mind that he puts Đại Ngọc (Daiyu) and Nghênh Xuân (Yingchun) in bed and therefore out of the way, because I think his main point is to contrast Thám Xuân (Tanchun) and Tích Xuân (Xichun). 

Tích Xuân (Xichun) is the fourth of the Xuân (Chun) girls and so far has been in the background—the main thing we know about her is that she’s not very good at poetry but she can paint well. In this chapter, she comes across as very cold and selfish, especially in her treatment of the maid Nhập Họa (Picture in Hawkes’s version). 

At the same time, is it not understandable that she wants to break from her branch of the family, so as not to get involved in all the dirty stuff of Giả Trân (Jia Zhen) and Giả Dung (Jia Rong) and perhaps Vưu Thị (You-shi)? 

9/ Nghênh Xuân (Yingchun) is too weak-willed and passive to defend her maid Tư Kỳ (Chess). Tích Xuân (Xichun) is too cold to bother about her servant Nhập Họa (Picture). 

Saturday 19 December 2020

Hong lou meng: chapters 71-72, appearances, Xifeng’s illness, Suncloud and Sunset

 1/ In chapter 71, the Giả (Jia) family celebrate the 80th birthday of Giả Mẫu (Jia Mu), the matriarch. This means that unless there’s some confusion or mistake in the book about time (which isn’t impossible), the amount of time that passes between chapter 39 and chapter 71 should be more than 5 years.  

2/ I notice how nobody says much when Uyên Ương (Yuanyang/ Faithful) mentions the incident with Hình phu nhân (lady Xing) and talks about all the pressure on Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng). Thám Xuân (Tanchun) slightly changes the subject and they all talk about other stuff. 

I believe the action in this chapter is about 7-8 months after the Vưu Nhị Thư (You Erjie) thing. 

In this chapter we also see Bình Nhi’s (Patience) feelings. One of the kindest, most considerate characters in the novel is loyal to the cruellest, most malicious woman—I suppose that is her main flaw. 

3/ It’s said from the beginning but it was in chapter 53 that I started seeing that the Giả (Jia) family struggle financially and aren’t as rich as they appear. Since then there have been Lunar New Year celebrations, birthday celebrations, funerals, parties, all kinds of extravagant and wasteful things, then in chapter 71, the matriarch’s birthday celebrations span 9 days! Fucking hell. 

In chapter 72, Cao Xueqin sets up a scene of Giả Liễn (Jia Lian) asking for help from Uyên Ương (Faithful), followed by a scene of him discussing money matters with his wife Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng), showing how they struggle, how they try to grab money here and there to spend on festivities and celebrations and other extravagances in order to keep up appearances. Then in the middle of the conversation, a character comes in, saying that a eunuch wants to borrow some money. How does she react? 

“‘Daddy Xia […] sent me to ask you if you happen to have one or two hundred taels on you you could let him have just for the time being. He will pay you back in a day or two.’

‘Why talk of paying back?’ said Xi-feng genially. ‘We’ve got plenty of money, just help yourselves. Why don’t we just say that if we are ever short of money, we’ll come and borrow some from you.’

‘Oh, Daddy Xia also told me to tell you that he still hasn’t paid back the twelve hundred taels he owes you from the last two times, but he says he will definitely pay it all back to you by the New Year.’

Xi-feng laughed.

‘Your Daddy Xia is an old fuss-pot, tell him. He really shouldn’t worry his head over such trifles...’” (Ch.72) 

Then she tells her servant to go pawn some gold necklaces to get money to lend the eunuch. I mean, what? 

Everything’s about keeping up appearances, everything’s about saving face. I don’t understand this mentality. 

4/ Chapter 72 has another allusion to Vương Hy Phượng’s (Wang Xifeng) heavy periods. Would this be the end of her? I have no idea. But if we look back, she has indirectly caused the deaths of 5 people: 

- A death relating to sex. 

- Suicides by a couple, which result from a forced marriage. 

- A foetus. 

- The concubine driven to death by her.

It’s all about love, sex, or reproduction. Wouldn’t it be poetic justice, in a way, if a menstruation-related disease were to be the end of her? 

Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) is meant to be the central character in Hong lou meng but the characters who appear the most seem to be Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng) and Đại Ngọc (Daiyu). 

5/ Cao Xueqin has depicted Giả Liễn (Jia Lian) to be an arsehole, but in one way he’s better than his wife. Vợ Lai Vượng (Brightie’s wife) asks for Thái Hà to be her daughter-in-law, he agrees to intervene but stops when he learns from someone else that the son is a drunkard and a gambler, whereas Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng) doesn’t give a shit and goes ahead anyway. 

He’s an arsehole in many ways, but still has something redeemable—he’s not as cold as his wife.  

6/ In Appendix II of volume 3, David Hawkes notes some confusion over 2 senior maids: 

- Thái Vân (Caiyun/ literally “Colourful Cloud”), called Suncloud by Hawkes. 

- Thái Hà (Caixia/ literally “Colourful Redcloud”), called Sunset. 

Hawkes believes that the 2 servants are meant to be the same girl and writes down the way he thinks the relationship between Giả Hoàn (Jia Huan) and Thái Hà (Sunset) or Thái Vân (Suncloud) develops throughout the chapters. Thái Hà (Sunset) disappears from the novel after chapter 72. 

“It seems to me self-evident that this is the story of a single maid, Sunset, who became Lady Wang’s principal maid after Golden’s suicide (Silver taking the place of Number Two). ‘Suncloud’ is simply an earlier version of the name, probably altered to avoid confusion with the ‘sunny clouds’ of the verses in chapter 5, which are there meant to symbolize another maid, Skybright (‘Fairweather Cirrus’).” (Appendix II) 

Golden is Kim Xuyến, Silver is Ngọc Xuyến, Skybright is Tình Văn. 

Confusingly, Thái Vân (Suncloud) is the principal maid of Vương phu nhân (lady Wang) in the last 2 dozen chapters. Hawkes argues:

“She survives there, I think, because she belongs an earlier version of the novel in which her character had not been developed—no love affair with Jia Huan, no quarrels, no sickness, no tragedy: her only role was to be Lady Wang’s maid, and she continued to fulfil it (since there was no reason why she should stop doing so) until the novel’s end.” (ibid.) 

But how does he know that they’re not meant to be 2 different maids? How does he know that Thái Hà (Sunset) is not the earlier name and Thái Vân (Suncloud) the later version? 

“The answer is that paired names like ‘Golden’ and ‘Silver’ represent sisters. In the Chinese such pairs of names have a common element. Thus Golden in Chinese is ‘Jin-chuan’, which means ‘Golden Bracelet’, and Silver is ‘Yu-chuan’, which means ‘Jade Bracelet’. If Lady Wang had had, besides Golden and Silver, a pair of maids called ‘Cai-yun’ and ‘Cai-xia’ (Suncloud and Sunset), they too would have been sisters. But Sunset’s younger sister Moonrise, who makes a brief appearance in chapter 72, has the Chinese name ‘Xiao-xia’ (‘Little Redcloud’). The common element in their names is not ‘cai’ but ‘xia.’ The name ‘Sunset’ therefore belongs to the ‘developed’ character and so represents the later version.” (ibid.) 

Golden is Kim Xuyến, Silver is Ngọc Xuyến, sharing Xuyến. Xiaoxia is Tiểu Hà, sharing Hà with Thái Hà (Sunset).

He makes a good case for the relationship with Giả Hoàn (Jia Huan), but I don’t really buy his argument about paired names. Bảo Thoa (Baochai) and Bảo Cầm (Baoqin) are cousins, not sisters. Nguyên Xuân (Yuanchun) and Thám Xuân (Tanchun) are half-sisters but the other 2 Xuân (Chun) girls are not sisters. Đại Ngọc (Daiyu) shares Ngọc (Yu) with Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu), Diệu Ngọc (Miaoyu/ Adamantina), and Hồng Ngọc (Hongyu), a servant who has to change her name to Tiểu Hồng (Xiaohong/ Crimson). 

Still, he might be right. In chapters 30, 61, and 62, Hawkes changes Thái Vân (Suncloud) into Sunset (Thái Hà). The Vietnamese text treats them as different girls, so Thái Vân is the one stealing stuff for Giả Hoàn (Jia Huan) and arguing with him but Thái Hà is the one being forced to marry some arsehole. 

Interestingly, I note that David Hawkes says the 2 girls are never together in the same scene or even the same chapter, whereas in the Vietnamese text, there are a few times Thái Vân and Thái Hà appear together. I suppose the Vietnamese translators decide to reinforce that they are 2 different girls. 

Thursday 17 December 2020

Hong lou meng: chapters 67-70, multiple wives, jealousy

1/ These chapters of Hong lou meng make me think about Truyện Kiều: both Giả Liễn (Jia Lian) and Thúc Sinh are terrified of their wives and get a concubine in secret; both Vưu Nhị Thư (You Erjie) and Kiều are soft, naïve, and gullible; both Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng) and Hoạn Thư are clever, shrewd women and extremely jealous and cruel. The name of Hoạn Thư has come to mean “a jealous woman" in Vietnamese culture. 

As I’ve read quite a bit about Hong lou meng and spoilt the book a bit for myself, I’m aware that there’s going to be another jealous woman in the novel. Can’t wait to see what she’s like. 

Without condoning anything, Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng) is in a different class—she is smarter, more scheming and calculating, and more artful. A crucial difference in circumstances is that Hoạn Thư is the lady in her own house, whereas Cao Xueqin’s character has to think of her reputation and has lots of people above her to consider (and manipulate). 

Hoạn Thư, hearing that her husband has secretly got a concubine, gets people to kidnap Kiều and forces her to become her slave. Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng) doesn’t do anything so crude, so primitive. Everyone else is dull and helpless next to her. 

These are such excellent chapters, full of fun. She is one of the best-written female characters, and characters, I’ve encountered in literature. 

2/ There’s no denying that Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng) is cruel, but in the earlier blog post I wrote that I was on her side because Giả Liễn (Jia Lian) is in the wrong—he secretly gets a second wife while in state mourning and family mourning; he also gets a second wife without telling his first wife, shortly after his first wife had a very bad, possibly life-threatening miscarriage and can no longer have children; he even talks about wishing she were dead… 

Cao Xueqin writes so well that I may sympathise and side with, even just for a brief moment, a character I find absolutely cruel, heartless, and two-faced. 

3/ Chapter 69 becomes more complex as Giả Liễn (Jia Lian) comes back from his work trip and his arsehole of a father adds fuel to the fire by awarding him with a chamber wife called Thu Đồng (Autumn). 

This is where I must pause to note that there’s a distinction between a concubine and a chamber wife (Hawkes’s translation): a concubine is officially married, such as Vưu Nhị Thư (You Erjie); a chamber wife is not, and not much above other servants, such as Bình Nhi (Ping’er/ Patience) and Thu Đồng (Autumn).

In Hong lou meng, Giả Xá (Jia She) and Giả Chính (Jia Zheng) and many other men have multiple wives, and Cao Xueqin throughout the novel has depicted the dynamics between the wives and between the children, especially in the case of Triệu di nương (concubine Zhao), who is always jealous and full of resentment. Her son Giả Hoàn (Jia Huan) shares her pettiness and meanness and is liked by nobody but her, while her daughter Giả Thám Xuân (Jia Tanchun), the phoenix born in the crows’ nest, is always embarrassed of her and has to be more watchful of her own words and actions than the other young people. She is an excellent and clever girl but her marriage prospects would be hampered by her status as daughter of a concubine.  

In these chapters, Cao Xueqin goes even further—it’s bad enough that several women have to share a man, imagine if you’re the concubine and the main wife is vicious, brutal and at the same time manipulative like Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng). Imagine the dark games she plays. Imagine how Vưu Nhị Thư (You Erjie) suffers. 

Not only so, Vưu Nhị Thư (You Erjie) has to live in a house where the chamber wife Thu Đồng (Autumn) is an aggressive little bitch, the mother-in-law Hình phu nhân (lady Xing) cares about nobody but herself, the matriarch is gullible and quite dumb, and the husband is a piece of shit who at first neglects her to spend time with the new one and later cannot do a thing to defend or protect her. The only one kind to her is Bình Nhi (Ping’er/ Patience) but there isn’t much she can do, as a servant. 

Vương Hy Phượng’s (Wang Xifeng) true colours come out here, especially in the last moments. There are some readers out there who adore her, but if they read to the end of chapter 69 and still feel the same, there is no hope. 

4/ I note that Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng) is dishonest in her prayer to Buddha. Nothing is sacred to her.  

5/ Now you would ask, what about the young people while all this is happening? Here is something curious. 

Here’s the English text by David Hawkes: 

“Bao-yu and the girls were privately concerned about Er-jie. Though none of them would venture to speak out openly on her behalf, they all of them felt sorry for her. Sometimes, when no one else was about, one or other of them would get into conversation with her.” (Ch.69) 

Here’s the Vietnamese text: 

“Chị em ở trong vườn như bọn Lý Hoàn, Thám Xuân, Tích Xuân đều cho Phượng Thư là có lòng tốt, chỉ có Bảo Ngọc, Đại Ngọc một số người lại lo thay cho chị Hai. Tuy họ không dám nói ra, nhưng trong lòng đều thương xót và thỉnh thoảng lại thăm nom chị ta.” (Ch.69) 

My translation of the Vietnamese text: 

“The sisters in the garden like Li Wan, Tanchun, Xichun all thought that Xifeng was kind, only Baoyu, Daiyu, and a few people worried about Erjie. Even though they didn’t dare to say it openly, they all felt sorry for her and visited her from time to time.” 

Is that not strange? I don’t know what the original says.

However afterwards, apart from Giả Liễn (Jia Lian) and perhaps Bình Nhi (Patience), the only one who feels grief is Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu). People die, life goes on, and the young people in the garden return to writing poetry and doing their things (like playing kites) in chapter 70. 

Cao Xueqin has done this before—a dramatic thing happens only to vanish away quickly, leaving barely any ripples in the later chapters. But this time I don’t think it quite works. The psychological abuse of Vưu Nhị Thư (You Erjie) takes place for a few months, it isn’t a sudden event like the thing with Kim Xuyến (Golden). Even though a few months pass, is it not cold still that the young people just move on with their lives as though nothing happened?  

Update: I’ve just read David Hawkes’s preface and appendices in volume 3. There seem to be lots of textual problems and continuity errors in chapters 64-69, mostly to do with Giả Liễn (Jia Lian) and timing. It’s possible that the story of Vưu Tam Thị (You Sanjie) is grafted onto the novel at a very late stage, without the timing issue being fixed. It’s rather messy. 

Wednesday 16 December 2020

Hong lou meng: chapters 64-67, 13-15, funerals, horny men and women, Taoism

 1/ The funeral of Giả Kính (Jia Jing) is similar to the one of Tần Khả Khanh (Qin Keqing) at the beginning of the novel: extravagant and wasteful, and much of it is insincere and theatrical. I’m now convinced that even though Cao Xueqin earlier bores readers to death describing all the minute details of a funeral for 3 goddamn chapters, he isn’t a fan of these funeral rites, which are essentially not about grief nor respect for the dead but about honour, wealth, and social status. Vietnamese people have the same mindset—a small, simple funeral doesn’t just make you look poor, it also makes others think you lack filial piety.  

Cao Xueqin tends to group the father and son Giả Trân (Jia Zhen) and Giả Dung (Jia Rong) of Ninh quốc (Ningguo) together, and the father and son Giả Xá (Jia She) and Giả Liễn (Jia Lian) of Vinh quốc (Rongguo) together, but all 4 of them belong to the same set of men: those who can’t keep it in their pants. Their behaviour during the funeral is disgusting. 

I can’t help noting the different ways the authors of The Tale of Genji and Hong lou meng write about horny men: Murasaki Shikibu, as a woman and especially a gentlewoman at court, exposes double standards and male entitlement but still has to write with a certain delicacy and subtlety, whereas Cao Xueqin doesn’t shy away from depicting them as animalistic, shameless, and utterly repulsive, with some rather gross details.  

2/ In an earlier blog post, I noted that Cao Xueqin reported Vương Hy Phượng’s (Wang Xifeng) miscarriage but didn’t write more about her feelings, as though it’s a non-event. 

I’ve now realised that instead of writing at length about it from the start, what he does is that he first mentions it and then slowly drops more details about it, so the incident turns out to carry a lot more significance and also becomes more tragic than I thought, especially in light of what her husband Giả Liễn (Jia Lian) is doing behind her back. He also appears a lot more callous and unfeeling. Cao Xueqin’s approach works well. 

Now, to my own surprise, I’m on Vương Hy Phượng’s (Wang Xifeng) side. 

3/ I love the way the masks of Giả Trân (Jia Zhen) and Giả Liễn (Jia Lian) are dropped: 

“… The two men were spellbound, and yet at the same time repelled. Her looks and gestures were all that inflamed concupiscence could desire; but her words and the very frankness of a provocation too brazen to be seductive kept them at bay.

And a poor pair they made of it in a situation where something other than carnal satisfaction was required of them. Not only was there none of that lively repartee that might have been expected of men who prided themselves on their gallantry; they could not produce so much as a single amusing remark between them and sat there, as the effortless flow of talk continued to pour out of her, fascinated but unresponding. Sometimes she abused them, called them names, said the most outrageous things to them. It was as though the roles had been reversed – as though she was the man and they were a pair of poor, simpering playthings whose services she had paid for. And when she had had enough of playing with them, she dismissed them ignominiously, bolted the door after them, and went to bed.” (Ch.65) 

What a fabulous scene. 

The woman in the scene is Vưu Tam Thư (You Sanjie). Her elder sister Vưu Nhị Thư (You Erjie) is the new secret wife of Giả Liễn (Jia Lian). These two are half-sisters of Vưu Thị (You-shi). 

We’ve always known Giả Liễn (Jia Lian) to be weak and scared of his wife, but Giả Trân (Jia Zhen) has had an affair with his daughter-in-law (now dead), tried something with his new daughter-in-law, and banged his sisters-in-law, so now this scene is delicious. 

4/ Both Hong lou meng and The Tale of Genji have horny men, but here’s something found in the former but not in the latter: horny women, wanton, promiscuous women. 

Hong lou meng doesn’t only have lovely girls, it depicts all kinds of people, all kinds of men and women. 

The Vưu (You) sisters are very vivid creations, especially the youngest—at least in chapter 65. This is one of my favourite chapters in the novel (some others are 1, 5, 9, 12, 50, 56, 63…). 

5/ Speaking of horny women and horny men, I can’t help going back to chapters 10, 11, and 13-15: now the affair between Tần Khả Khanh (Qin Keqing) and her father-in-law Giả Trân (Jia Zhen) becomes so obvious. Compare the father-in-law’s heartbreak to the husband’s indifference during her illness and after her death. 

A Vietnamese-language article I came across yesterday also pointed out 2 interesting details.  

The first one is about her servants:

“News was suddenly brought that Qin-shi’s little maid Gem, on hearing that her mistress was dead, had taken her own life by dashing her head against a pillar. Such rare devotion excited the wondering admiration of the entire clan. Cousin Zhen at once had her laid out and encoffined with the rites appropriate to a granddaughter and ordered her coffin to be placed in the Ascension Pavilion of the All-scents Garden side by side with Qin-shi’s.

As Qin-shi had died without issue, another of her little maids called Jewel volunteered to stand in as her daughter and perform the chief mourner’s duties of smashing the bowl when the bearers came in to take up the coffin and walking in front of it in the funeral procession. Cousin Zhen was very pleased and gave orders that thenceforth everyone was to address her as ‘Miss Jewel’ just as if she were Qin-shi’s real daughter...” (Ch.13)

Their Sino-Vietnamese names are Thụy Châu and Bảo Châu respectively. 

At the time I thought this detail was very odd but dismissed it as a weird Chinese thing (lol), but now that there have been several deaths and funerals in the novel, this appears quite unusual and weird. This is more than grief.  

Later, after the long, very long funeral rites: 

“Jewel, it seemed, refused absolutely to go back home, and Cousin Zhen was obliged to leave a woman or two at the temple to keep her company.” (Ch.15) 

Note too that Tần Khả Khanh (Qin Keqing) isn’t meant to die after a long illness. As everyone points out, including David Hawkes, the riddle and painting of Kim lăng thập nhị thoa chính sách (12 Beauties of Jinling—official register) and the song in 12 khúc Hồng lâu mộng (Dream of Golden Days song cycle) hint that she hangs herself, and her manner of death is apparently changed because pressure from Ky Hốt Tẩu (Odd Tablet in Hawkes’s translation), one of the two earlier commentators of the novel. He and Chi Nghiễn Trai (Zhiyanzhai/ Red Inkstone) knew Cao Xueqin intimately; he was older and seemed to have some authority over the author. 

Another interesting detail that the article mentioned was Vưu Thị (You-shi). She says lots of nice things to other people about her daughter-in-law when she’s alive and right after she’s dead, but “calls sick”, leaves all the funeral arrangements to Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng) and others, and hardly appears during this time. Is she really sick as she says, or merely pretends in order to avoid the funeral and avoid public scrutiny?  

6/ The development of Vưu Tam Thư (You Sanjie) in chapter 66 is a bit of a disappointment. The change to me appears abrupt and unconvincing. I may believe that Vưu Nhị Thư (You Erjie) is transformed by domestic life, by her love for Giả Liễn (Jia Lian), but her sister’s change doesn’t make much sense. It seems forced, almost like Cao Xueqin doesn’t know what to do about the character. 

7/ Liễu Tương Liên (Liu Xianglian) from chapter 47 reappears. I like that he says: 

“‘The only clean things about that Ning-guo House are the stone lions that stand outside the gate. The very cats and dogs there are corrupted!’” (Ch.66) 

He is, as Giả Liễn (Jia Lian) correctly says, cold. 

I can’t help wondering what Cao Xueqin truly thinks about the characters in the novel who join Taoism. People say that Hong lou meng is a Taoist novel; a Buddhist monk and a Taoist priest bring the stone to earth and keep an eye of the stone—Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu); Taoist texts such as Zhuangzi are mentioned, etc. but does it necessarily mean that he agrees with all the characters who follow Taoism? 

I think one can argue that he doesn’t agree with Giả Kính (Jia Jing), who renounces life, evades all responsibilities, and does nothing whatsoever in the house, and in the end swallows some toxic substance “in pursuance of his Taoist researches” (ch.63). 

But what about Chân Sĩ Ẩn (Zhen Shiyin)? And Liễu Tương Liên (Liu Xianglian)? Do they not seem like cowards who run away from life, especially the former? Or am I merely talking as someone ignorant of Taoist teachings?

8/ Tiết Bảo Thoa’s (Xue Baochai) reaction to the incident involving Liễu Tương Liên (Liu Xianglian) and Vưu Tam Thư (You Sanjie) is like her reaction to the Kim Xuyến (Golden) tragedy. She is considerate and nice to people around her, but is cold to those who are dead or gone. Even her brother Tiết Bàn (Xue Pan), one of the arseholes of the story, seems now to have more feeling than she does. 

Only Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) seems to have compassion. 

But what if Cao Xueqin’s point is to be like Bảo Thoa (Baochai), to accept things as they are and to let all things take their course? I don’t know. But this is something I can’t quite accept. 

9/ The part about Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng) at the end of chapter 67, I’ll leave to the later blog post. 

Monday 14 December 2020

Hong lou meng: chapters 61-63, Patience, flowers, 2 worlds in the novel

1/ In chapter 61, it becomes obvious that Bình Nhi (Ping’er/ Patience) and Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng) act as foils to each other. 

In an earlier chapter, Lý Hoàn (Li Wan) and some other characters jokingly say they should exchange places; an outsider wouldn’t be able to tell that Bình Nhi (Patience) is not a mistress, and it’s just unfortunate she’s not born to the right family; and how mean and petty Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng) would be, were she a servant. 

Normally Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng) always goes for a heavy punishment, which is also a warning to others, whereas Bình Nhi (Patience) handles all conflicts with both sense and compassion, and considers everyone involved. 

In the theft incident with Trụy Nhi (Trinket), she contrasts with the hot-tempered Tình Văn (Qingwen/ Skybright). But in the incident with con Năm (Fivey), daughter of thím Liễu (cook Liu) in chapter 61, Cao Xueqin clearly means to contrast her with her mistress—she is not only kinder but also more intelligent. 

2/ Chapter 62 is about birthdays: Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) shares a birthday with Bảo Cầm (Baoqin), Hình Tụ Yên (Xing Xiuyan), and Bình Nhi (Patience). Note that several people including the matriarch think that Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) and Bảo Cầm (Baoqin) are a perfect match, and he also seems to fancy her, but she’s engaged. Now it turns out that they have the same birthday. 

Nguyên Xuân (Yuanchun) is born on Lunar New Year, hence the name. 

Bảo Thoa (Baochai) shares a birthday with someone in January but there seems to be some continuity error because her birthday has been mentioned before without it being said to clash with anyone else’s.  

Đại Ngọc (Daiyu) shares a birthday with Tập Nhân (Xiren/ Aroma) in February. 

This is the lunisolar calendar by the way.  

3/ Chapter 62 has a drinking game (why do Chinese people have so many different drinking games?), and again the stars are Sử Tương Vân (Shi Xiangyun) and Đại Ngọc (Daiyu). There’s a striking image of the former in the chapter, a feminine image that is rather contrary to her tomboy style. 

Hong lou meng is apparently Cao Xueqin’s way of immortalising the girls he knew in his youth, and I think anyone who spends some months reading the novel would gradually feel like the characters or at least some of them are friends, and they would probably stay with you the way Tolstoy’s and Jane Austen’s characters stay with you. 

I may not identify with characters and do not see likable characters as a criterion of literary merit, but I’ve always liked well-written and believable characters. 

4/ I don’t quite understand the significance of the pants and Hương Lăng (Xiangling/ Caltrop) in chapter 62. 

5/ Chapter 63 has another drinking game—these kids drink a lot (readers of Hong lou meng are advised not to do the same). 

This game is fun: they sit in a circle and in the middle is a thing containing a bunch of cards; the first one throws a dice, gets a number, and counts from herself; the one being named draws a line, which contains a flower, a line of poetry, and a drinking rule; after following the drinking rule, she now throws a dice and counts to pick the next one, and so on. 

Because this is a great novel that is full of symbolism, nothing in it is ever random and without meaning. I’ve made a note of the girls and the flowers

Bảo Thoa (Baochai)=> hoa mẫu đơn (peony). 

Thám Xuân (Tanchun)=> hoa hạnh (almond blossom). 

Lý Hoàn (Li Wan)=> cành mai già (winter-flowering plum). 

Tương Vân (Xiangyun)=> hoa hải đường (crab-apple blossom). 

Xạ Nguyệt (Sheyue/ Musk)=> hoa đồ mi (rose). 

Hương Lăng (Xiangling/ Caltrop)=> hoa tịnh đế (purple skullcap). 

Đại Ngọc (Daiyu)=> hoa phù dung (hibiscus flower). 

Tập Nhân (Xiren/ Aroma)=> hoa đào (peach blossom). 

These all have meanings. The peony is the king/ queen of flowers in Chinese culture—it symbolises wealth, opulence, beauty, and high social status. 

Regarding Tương Vân’s (Xiangyun) flower, which is also the name of their poetry club, if you want to know what the flower looks like, I think it’s better if you search for the original word 海棠 (haitang) or the Sino-Vietnamese name hải đường rather than the English word. 

Hibiscus flowers are short-lived, so in Chinese culture they’re a symbol of delicate and fleeting beauty. 

Both plum blossoms and peach blossoms are the flowers of spring but Lý Hoàn’s (Li Wan) card says old plum blossom. On a side note, in Vietnam the symbol of Tết or Lunar New Year in the North is peach blossom and in the South is plum blossom. 

6/ Curiously it’s revealed in this chapter that Hương Lăng (Caltrop), Tình Văn (Skybright), Bảo Thoa (Baochai), and Tập Nhân (Aroma) are all the same age. 

I’ve somehow always thought the last one to be older. 

7/ The detail about Diệu Ngọc (Miaoyu/ Adamantina) in chapter 63 is rather telling. 

First of all, she is eccentric—“a monk no monk, a maid no maid” as her close friend Hình Tụ Yên (Xing Xiuyan) says. She is meant to be a Buddhist nun but seems to have one foot outside—her hair is still long, she joined the temple because of her illnesses rather than anything else, and apparently has not fully renounced life. 

Secondly, does she have a thing for Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu)? She sends him a birthday card. In an earlier chapter she gives him a branch but Cao Xueqin focuses the perspective somewhere else and we never know what they say to each other. Is this a hint of something going on? 

8/ The chapter has a passage that is removed from the Vietnamese text because many versions of Hong lou meng remove it, considering it unnecessary. It’s the one about Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) randomly dressing up Phương Quan (Parfumée) as a boy and changing her name into something that David Hawkes translates as Yelu Hunni, and later, Aventurin. The scene retained in the Penguin English version. 

I forgot to mention that Bảo Ngọc’s (Baoyu) building in the garden is Di hồng viện, the word “hồng” (hong) meaning “red”, but David Hawkes changes it into Green Delights because of the different connotations of the colours in Western culture. His name in the poetry club is therefore Di hồng công tử, which becomes Green Boy in Hawkes’s translation. 

9/ There is a death in the chapter, which again shows the insincerity and hypocrisy of their family members. The shameless horniness of Giả Dung (Jia Rong) is a lot worse than Tần Chung (Qin Zhong) earlier in the novel after his sister’s death.

That makes me think of a good essay I read yesterday: 

Bản tiếng Việt—“Hai thế giới trong Hồng lâu mộng” của Dư Anh Thời:

English text—“The Two Worlds of Hung-lou meng” by Ying-shih Yu:

According to Yu Yingshi, there are 2 worlds in Hong lou meng: the utopian world and the world of reality. 

The garden in the novel, Đại quan viên (Daguanyuan/ Prospect garden), is the utopian world. But if it is the utopian, idealised world, what is the relation between it and Thái hư ảo cảnh (The land of illusion)? He argues that the garden is “the shadow of the Land of Illusion projected onto the world of man”—these 2 worlds are one and the same.

Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) and the girls live and play in the garden, the utopian world, the world of goodness and sincerity and purity. Outside the garden is the real world, the impure and dirty world, the world of lust and competition and malice and cruelty. As Yu Yingshi argues, it’s not without reason that Đại Ngọc (Daiyu) earlier buries the fallen flowers within the garden, instead of throwing them into the water to flow outside the garden and become dirty. The girls are like the flowers—they should stay in the garden or they become dirty and contaminated. 

The entire essay is interesting and should be read in full. 

In these chapters, Cao Xueqin writes at length about Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) and the girls, and the moment he leaves the garden and writes about Giả Trân (Jia Zheng) and Giả Dung (Jia Rong), there is lots of falsity, lots of filth, and there’s just a strong sense of disgust, contrasting with the love and warmth and purity of the world in the garden.  

Hong lou meng has so many layers of meaning that reading it once wouldn’t be enough.