Monday 30 November 2020

Hong lou meng: chapters 39-44, Jia Mu, gender, the lower classes, jealousy

 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; Bão 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 Bão Nhị (Bao Er). 

Saturday 28 November 2020

Hong lou meng: chapters 35-38, fate, reflection, poetry club

 1/ In chapter 36, there’s a scene where Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng) has to report to Vương phu nhân (Lady Wang) about salaries and allowances, and it becomes obvious that among the servants there are different ranks and levels.  

One of the main strengths of Hong lou meng is that Cao Xueqin can see and depict people of different classes in society. Readers who complain about servants’ invisibility in, say, Jane Austen’s novels would be glad to see lots of servants in this novel, who don’t get any less attention from the author. Tập Nhân (Xiren/ Aroma) has a rather significant role in the Giả (Jia) family and in the story, and on a personal note, is also more likable than most of the mistresses. 

I once came across a Vietnamese article about, if the Giả (Jia) family could be compared to a large company, what lessons could be learnt from the 2 ideal workers Tâp Nhân (Aroma) and Bình Nhi (Ping’er/ Patience). 

2/ This scene reminds me, however, that Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng) doesn’t follow the advice from the ghost of Tần Khả Khanh (Qin Keqing) in a dream

3/ In chapter 36, before Bảo Thoa (Baochai), Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) suddenly screams while having a dream:  

“‘Why should I believe what those old monks and Taoists say? I don’t believe in the marriage of gold and jade. I believe in the marriage of stone and flower.’” 

The relationship between Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) and Bảo Thoa (Baochai) is “kim ngọc lương duyên”—he’s born with a jade in his mouth and she’s had a gold chain since childhood and they’re meant to be together in this life. 

The relationship between Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) and Đại Ngọc (Daiyu) is “mộc thạch tiền minh”—before this life, he was a sentient stone left over by Nữ Oa (Nu-wa) and she was a fairy flower called cây Giáng Châu (Fairy Crimson Pearl). That is the frame story of chapter 1—in previous life, he watered and gave life to the flower, so in this life she pays it back with tears (which is why she now cries all the time).  

These mythological elements add another layer to the novel and elevate it to another level. 

4/ Look at this line: 

“‘…What you have to remember is that Emperors hold their power from Heaven, and it’s unthinkable that Heaven should lay the huge responsibility of empire on any but the worthiest shoulders…’” (Ch.36) 

I know it’s a cultural thing and we’re talking about 18th century China here, but I still find that line irritating. 

5/ There’s a very interesting moment in this chapter. 

Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) talks to Tập Nhân (Aroma) and says some nonsense about death. Then he says: 

“‘Now my idea of a glorious death would be to die now, while you are all around me; then your tears could combine to make a great river that my corpse could float away on, far, far away to some remote place that no bird has ever flown to, and gently decompose there until the wind had picked my bones clean, and after that never, never to be reborn again as a human being – that would be a really good death.’” (ibid.)  

But then later, he comes to see a performer named Linh Quan (Charmante in David Hawkes’s version) and watches a conversation between her and Giả Tường (Jia Qiang). There isn’t much to that scene, but it’s an important moment for Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu)—for a moment, he gets drawn out of himself and sees something beyond himself, as he realises that Linh Quan (Charmante) loves Giả Tường (Jia Qiang). 

“It was a reflective, self-critical Bao-yu who made his way back to Green Delights, so bemused that he scarcely noticed where he was going. When he arrived, Dai-yu and Aroma were sitting in conversation together. He looked at Aroma and sighed heavily.

‘What I told you the other night was wrong,’ he said. ‘I’m not surprised that Father tells me I have a “small capacity but a great self-conceit”. I mean, that stuff about all of you making a river of tears for me when I die: I realize now that it’s not possible. I realize now that we each have our own allotted share of tears and must be content with what we’ve got.’” (ibid.) 

That is interesting. 

6/ In chapter 37, Giả Thám Xuân (Jia Tanchun) creates a poetry club and each member gets a name, so I have to keep a list. 

Lý Hoàn (Li Wan)=> Đạo hương lão nông  

Thám Xuân (Tanchun)=> Tiêu hạ khách  

Đại Ngọc (Daiyu)=> Tiêu tương phi tử

Bảo Thoa (Baochai)=> Hành vu quân 

Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu)=> Di hồng công tử 

Nghênh Xuân (Yingchun)=> Lăng Châu 

Tích Xuân (Xichun)=> Ngẫu Tạ 

Sử Tương Vân (Shi Xiangyun)=> Chẩm Hà cựu hữu 

7/ There isn’t much I can say about the poems because the Vietnamese translations aren’t always very good, and I think the poems by David Hawkes are a bit loose. My impression is that in the first set about hoa hải đường (crab flower in Hawkes’s translation), the poems by Thám Xuân (Tanchun), Bảo Thoa (Baochai), and Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) are roughly the same, only the one by Đại Ngọc (Daiyu) is different and appears original. I’m not sure why Lý Hoàn (Li Wan) thinks the one by Bảo Thoa (Baochai) is better—are we meant to agree? Are we meant to think that Cao Xueqin thinks the same? 

The poems that Sử Tương Vân (Shi Xiangyun) makes the next day also stand out. 

In the last scene of the chapter, when Tương Vân (Xiangyun) and Bảo Thoa (Baochai) are discussing subjects for the new set of poems, surrounding chrysanthemums, Cao Xueqin clearly makes this scene about Bảo Thoa (Baochai), about her intelligence and poetic talents. She dislikes clichés and the shackle of “an arbitrary rhyme-scheme” and seems to like to have freedom in poetry. But then she adds: 

“‘… But what am I saying all this for? Spinning and sewing is the proper occupation for girls like us. Any time we have left over from that should be spent in reading a few pages of some improving book – not on this sort of thing!’” (Ch.37) 

Freedom in poetry is one thing, in real life she is conventional—a perfect woman according to Confucian ideals. 

8/ Cao Xueqin may not write about characters’ thoughts the way Western novelists do, but he has another tool—Hong lou meng is full of poetry and the poems say something about their authors. This can be seen very clearly in the second set of poems, about chrysanthemums.

There isn’t much to say about the poems by Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu), as usual—Cao Xueqin gives the poetic talents to his female characters. The one thing that I find amusing is that one of the titles he picks is “Planting the chrysanthemums” and his poem has the image of watering the flowers, which is reminiscent of the stone-flower story.

The poems by Bảo Thoa (Baochai) are all right but bland, as she is. Here’s an example. 


The brush that praised them, eager for more tasks,

Would paint them now – for painting’s no great cost

When cunning black-ink blots the flowers’ leaves make,

And white the petals, silvered o’er with frost.

Fresh scents of autumn from the paper rise,

And shapes unmoving by the wind are tossed.

No need at Double Ninth live flowers to pluck:

These living seem, upon a fine screen stuck!” (Ch.38) 

Compare that to the sensitive and melancholic poems by Đại Ngọc (Daiyu). 


Since none else autumn’s mystery can explain,

I come with murmured questions to your gate:

Who, world-disdainer, shares your hiding-place?

Of all the flowers why do yours bloom so late?

The garden silent lies in frosty dew;

The geese return; the cricket mourns his fate.

Let not speech from your silent world be banned:

Converse with me, since me you understand!” (ibid.) 



Light-headed in my autumn bed I lie

And seem to chase the moon across the sky.

Well, if immortal, I’ll go seek old Tao,

Not imitate Zhuang’s flittering butterfly!

Following the wild goose, into sleep I slid;

From which now, startled by the cricket’s cry,

Midst cold and fog and dying leaves I wake,

With no one by to tell of my heart’s ache.” (ibid.)

Contrast that with the last poem by Thám Xuân (Tanchun): 


The feasting over and the first snow fallen,

The flowers frost-stricken lie or sideways lean,

Their perfume lingering, but their gold hue dimmed

And few poor, tattered leaves bereft of green.

Now under moonlit bench the cricket shrills,

And weary goose-files in the cold sky are seen.

Yet of your passing let me not complain:

Next autumn equinox we’ll meet again!” (ibid.) 

I mean, if you imagine a poem by Đại Ngọc (Daiyu) about the death of chrysanthemums, you’ll see the difference—it would obviously be gloomier. Well, we already have a scene of her in chapter 27, crying and reciting a poem about the dead flowers. Thám Xuân (Tanchun) seems to have a more accepting, serene outlook. 

I also like the poems by Sử Tương Vân (Shi Xiangyun), so here are all of them: 


Transplanted treasures, dear to me as gold –

Both the pale clumps and those of darker hue!

Bare-headed by your wintry bed I sit

And, musing, hug my knees and sing to you.

None more than you the villain world disdains;

None understands your proud heart as I do.

The precious hours of autumn I’ll not waste,

But bide with you and savour their full taste.” (ibid.)


What greater pleasure than the lute to strum

Or sip wine by your delicate display?

To hold the garden’s fragrance in one vase,

And see all autumn in a single spray?

On frosty nights I’ll dream you back again,

Brave in your garden bed at close of day.

Since with your shy disdain I sympathize,

’Tis you, not summer’s gaudy blooms I prize.” (ibid.)


The autumn moonlight through the garden steals,

Filtered in patches variously bright.

Flowers by the house as silhouettes appear;

Flowers by the fence are flecked with coins of light.

In the flowers’ wintry scent their souls reside,

Not in those frost-forms, than a dream more slight.

Even the gross vandal, squinting through drunken eyes,

Can, by their scents, the crushed flowers recognize.” (ibid.)

(All of these poems come from the David Hawkes translation). 

Đại Ngọc’s (Daiyu) poems may be better and deeper, but personally I think the ones by Sử Tương Vân (Shi Xiangyun) have more personality. 

9/ After the bland poems about chrysanthemums, Bảo Thoa (Baochai) writes a poem about crabs: 

“With winecups in hand, as the autumn day ends,

And with watering mouths, we await our small friends.

A straightforward breed you are certainly not,

And the goodness inside you has all gone to pot 

For your cold humours, ginger; to cut out your smell

We’ve got wine and chrysanthemum petals as well.

As you hiss in your pot, crabs, d’ye look back with pain

On that calm moonlit cove and the fields of fat grain?” (ibid.)

(This is David Hawkes’s translation, which for some reason is extremely different from the version in the Vietnamese text). 

Her harshness is coming out here.  

Thursday 26 November 2020

Hong lou meng: chapters 31-34, Xiangyun, Baochai, Daiyu, Skybright

1/ Legend is that if you mention Hong lou meng (Dream of the Red Chamber/ Dream of Red Mansions/ The Story of the Stone), you would probably be asked whether you’re team Lâm Đại Ngọc (Lin Daiyu) or team Tiết Bảo Thoa (Xue Baochai).

It’s too early to say but it’s possible I’m going to be that kind of annoying person who, when asked that question, would say Sử Tương Vân (Shi Xiangyun) instead. 

Like Đại Ngọc (Daiyu), she’s an orphan and has to be dependent on her relatives, and in fact, is forced to do embroidery and needlework into the night, but unlike the emo girl, she is cheerful and open-hearted and isn’t self-pitying. I also like that she’s forthright and direct, while Đại Ngọc (Daiyu) is always hinting or mocking or crying or giving Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) the silence treatment or threatening to die. 

The question is, are we really meant to like Đại Ngọc (Daiyu)? In chapter 32, we can see that Sử Tương Vân (Shi Xiangyun) and even Tập Nhân (Xiren/ Aroma) think she is temperamental and difficult, and prefer Bảo Thoa (Baochai). She also has a temper—so far she has cut up a bag she made for Bảo Ngọc (Baochai), cut to pieces the cord that he used to wear his jade, and even destroyed a fan that she thought was made by some random girl but which was actually made by Sử Tương Vân (Shi Xiangyun)! 

Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) puts up with that but verbally abuses his servant Tình Văn (Qingwen/ Skybright) for accidentally breaking a fan in chapter 31. 

2/ One Đại Ngọc (Daiyu) is bad enough—from about chapter 31, I’m starting to see Tình Văn (Skybright) as mirroring her. 

Đây là bài viết tiếng Việt về Hồng lâu mộng—Đại Ngọc và Tình Văn tuy 2 mà 1: 

Tình Văn (Skybright) also likes making snide remarks in front of Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu)—she resents the other servants Tập Nhân (Aroma) and Xạ Nguyệt (Musk) the same way Đại Ngọc (Daiyu) is jealous of Bảo Thoa (Baochai) and Sử Tương Vân (Shi Xiangyun). 

3/ The scene of Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) turning dumb and pouring his heart out to the wrong person in chapter 32 is quite ridiculous, I think. Do people do that?

4/ I’ve concluded that I don’t like Tiết Bảo Thoa (Xue Baochai) either. 

I’ve been told that the 2 main female characters of Hong lou meng represent 2 types of women, and Bảo Thoa (Baochai) is an image of common sense and pragmatism, and she is in many ways a perfect woman according to Confucian ideals but also too perfect and rather passionless. Is she Sense, and Đại Ngọc (Daiyu) Sensibility? 

My impression before these chapters was that she didn’t have much of a personality—compared to some other female characters, such as Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng), she rather pales in comparison and doesn’t really look like she’s part of the main trio of the novel (which I had always known before picking it up). 

In chapter 30, there’s a scene where the thoughtless Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) teasingly compares her to Dương quý phi (Yang Guifei) and she says something sarcastic back. But that’s not enough—she takes it out on a servant who gets on her nerves at that wrong moment. Then this happens: 

“Bao-yu’s rudeness to Bao-chai had given Dai-yu secret satisfaction. When Prettikins came in looking for her fan, she had been on the point of adding some facetiousness of her own at Bao-chai’s expense; but Bao-chai’s brief explosion caused her to drop the prepared witticism and ask instead what play the two acts were from that Bao-chai said she had just been watching.

Bao-chai had observed the smirk on Dai-yu’s face and knew very well that Bao-yu’s rudeness must have pleased her. The smiling answer she gave to Dai-yu’s question was therefore not without a touch of malice.” (Ch.30) 

You have to read the book to know what she says here, but here’s the reaction: 

“Her words touched Bao-yu and Dai-yu on a sensitive spot, and by the time she had finished, they were both blushing hotly with embarrassment.” (ibid.) 

Her personality comes out here—normally she isn’t temperamental and doesn’t hold a grudge, but she can be very sharp and sarcastic when she has to. 

However, the unpleasant side of her character is revealed a few chapters later, when she hears about Kim Xuyến’s (Jinchuan/ Golden) suicide and tries to console Vương phu nhân (lady Wang): 

“‘It’s only natural that a kind person like you should see it in that way,’ said Bao-chai, ‘but in my opinion Golden would never have drowned herself in anger. It’s much more likely that she was playing about beside the well and slipped in accidentally. […] There’s no earthly reason why she should have felt angry enough with you to drown herself. If she did, all I can say is that she was a stupid person and not worth feeling sorry for!’


‘I’m sure you have no cause, Aunt,’ said Bao-chai, ‘but if you feel very much distressed, I suggest that you simply give her family a little extra for the funeral. In that way you will more than fulfil any moral obligation you may have towards her as a mistress.’” (Ch.32) 

Of course she is consoling her aunt, without knowing the full circumstances of the servant’s dismissal, but isn’t that such a cold, ruthless way of thinking and talking? That is very cold. 

5/ I wonder what Western readers think about the violent beating in chapter 33. 

(There are violent beatings in Dickens but if I remember correctly, they’re not parents beating up their own children to near death, are they?) 

6/ One can say that Bảo Thoa (Baochai) is kind, like she tells Tập Nhân (Aroma) about Sử Tương Vân’s (Shi Xiangyun) circumstances and offers to help with the embroidery, but to me she isn’t especially kind—rather, she acts in a proper way, proper in the Confucian sense. Everything she does is proper and perfect, which is why to almost everybody she appears more likable than Đại Ngọc (Daiyu). Contrast their behaviours when they visit Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) in chapter 34—Bảo Thoa (Baochai) acts in a proper, ladylike way but shows little feeling, whereas Đại Ngọc (Daiyu) is the one with feeling. 

However we also see that Bảo Thoa (Baochai) is the pragmatic one because she brings medicine, whereas the crybaby comes empty-handed, does nothing useful, and only sits there crying her heart out, adding more misery to Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu). 

Whatever I say about Hong lou meng, I cannot deny that the characters feel very real and I discuss them as though they exist. 

Wednesday 25 November 2020

Hong lou meng: chapters 28-31, feigned humility, proxy novice, melodrama

1/ Chapter 28 funnily has Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) first lusting after a guy named Tưởng Ngọc Hàm (Jiang Yuhan), and then lusting after Bảo Thoa (Baochai).  

2/ One of the irritating things about Hong lou meng is that there are lots of formalities and lots of flatteries. Almost any scene that involves Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng) and someone outside the family has lots of flatteries. A lot of characters in the novel are insincere, dishonest, two-faced, or affected. 

There is also lots of feigned humility.

Look at this conversation earlier in the novel, between Giả Trân (Jia Zhen) and a doctor named Trương tiên sinh (Dr Zhang), who comes to visit the sick Tần Khả Khanh (Qin Keqing): 

“‘Yesterday Mr Feng was telling me about your great learning,’ said Cousin Zhen. ‘I gather that it includes a profound knowledge of medicine. I assure you I was very much impressed.’

‘I am only a very indifferent scholar,’ replied Dr Zhang, ‘and my knowledge is really extremely superficial. However, Mr Feng was telling me yesterday of the courteous and considerate patronage of scholars which is traditional in your family, so when I received your summons I felt unable to refuse. I must insist, though, that I am entirely lacking in real learning and am acutely embarrassed to think that this will all too soon become apparent.’” (Ch.10) 

That’s quite annoying, no? 

In chapter 29, there’s a scene where the Giả (Jia) family meet Trương đạo sĩ (Abbot Zhang), a Taoist who becomes a Taoist on behalf of someone from the family (more on this later). After some chit-chat, the Taoist borrows the precious stone from Giả Bảo Ngọc (Jia Baoyu) to show some people then comes back with the stone and a tray of jewellery—about 40 pieces. 

“‘What have you been up to, you naughty old man?’ she said. ‘Those men are all poor priests – they can’t afford to give things like this away. You really shouldn’t have done this. We can’t possibly accept them.’

‘It was their own idea, I do assure you,’ said the abbot. ‘There was nothing I could do to stop them. If you refuse to take these things, I am afraid you will destroy my credit with these people. They will say that I cannot really have the connection with your honoured family that I have always claimed to have.’

After this Grandmother Jia could no longer decline.” (Ch.29) 

Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) suggests giving them to the poor, so this is the man’s response. 

“‘I’m sure it does our young friend credit, this charitable impulse. However. Although these things are, as I said, of no especial value, they are – what shall I say – objects of virtù, and if you give them to the poor, in the first place the poor won’t have much use for them, and in the second place the objects themselves will get spoiled…’” (ibid.) 

Again, does that kind of language not get on your nerves? 

3/ This is the line in David Hawkes’s text about Trương đạo sĩ (Abbot Zhang): 

“Cousin Zhen was aware that, though Abbot Zhang had started life a poor boy and entered the Taoist church as ‘proxy novice’ of Grandmother Jia’s late husband…” (Ch.29) 

The Vietnamese text adds an explanation that back then rich people/ people with some title couldn’t become a Taoist priest themselves so they got someone else to do so on behalf of them (their proxy) so they could get blessings/ good fortune.  

I’m sorry but that’s the most moronic thing I’ve ever heard. 

4/ In chapter 29, there’s a scene where Giả Trân (Jia Zhen) is mad at his son Giả Dung (Jia Rong) over a trifle, and then tells a servant to spit in his face!? 

5/ Out of the blue we are told that Giả Dung (Jia Rong) has a new wife, Hồ thị (Hu-shi). Where is she from? When did they get married? How long after Tần Khả Khanh’s (Qin Keqing) death? Nobody says.  

6/ Reading Hong lou meng is like watching a long, very long period drama. There must be moments even the most enthusiastic reader thinks to themselves, why can’t Cao Xueqin just summarise it instead of recording the entire conversation? The fight between Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) and Đại Ngọc (Daiyu) at the end of chapter 29 and beginning of chapter 30 is especially long and melodramatic. 

Hong lou meng could be a drinking game: take a drink each time Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) and Đại Ngọc (Daiyu) fight. By the end, I’d get a liver disease. 

7/ Chapter 31 has an interesting scene where people keep things unsaid and misunderstand each other. There’s also one in chapter 29, before the fight. Hong lou meng should have more of such scenes—more silence, more thoughts, more things kept unsaid. 

The scene is followed by this passage, however: 

“Dai-yu had a natural aversion to gatherings, which she rationalized by saying that since the inevitable consequence of getting together was parting, and since parting made people feel lonely and feeling lonely made them unhappy, ergo it was better for them not to get together in the first place. In the same way she argued that since the flowers, which give us so much pleasure when they open, only cause us a lot of extra sadness when they die, it would be better if they didn’t come out at all.

Bao-yu was just the opposite. He always wanted the party to go on for ever and flowers to be in perpetual bloom…” (Ch.31) 

Đại Ngọc (Daiyu) should learn about mono no aware. I don’t like her way of thinking—her negation of life. 

She’s still a child in these chapters though, so I’m going to pass that off as her being emo. 

8/ In these chapters, we see a bit more of Sử Tương Vân (Shi Xiangyun), the favourite grandniece of Giả Mẫu (Jia Mu). She and Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) are second cousins. 

She seems like a fun character. She is a tomboy and likes wearing people’s clothes, and once she wears Bảo Ngọc’s (Baoyu) clothes and gets mistaken for him by the grandmother. While I don’t see a character’s likability or relatability as a criterion of literary merit, I like that Sử Tương Vân (Shi Xiangyun) seems much more likable and doesn’t seem to have the pettiness of Đại Ngọc (Daiyu), who is always mocking somebody. Are we meant to like Đại Ngọc (Daiyu) as people say? I find her insufferable.  

Monday 23 November 2020

Hong lou meng: chapters 24-27, servants’ names, demons, Daiyu

1/ In chapter 24, 2 new servants are introduced. 

The first one is Uyên Ương (Yuanyang), a servant of Giả Mẫu (Jia Mu) the grandmother. She becomes Faithful in David Hawkes’s translation, but the name means “mandarin duck”, a symbol of fidelity and lifelong affection in Chinese culture (and also in Vietnamese and Japanese cultures).

What Hawkes does with names in Hong lou meng is that he goes for pinyin for all the characters who are not servants (the Yangs’ translation uses the Wade-Giles system instead), and loosely translates names of servants. 

Tập Nhân (Xiren) becomes Aroma but her name doesn’t mean that literally. Her real name is Hoa Trân Châu (I don’t know the pinyin)—Hoa means “flower” and Trân Châu means “pearl”. Because of her last name, Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) gives her a new name, with Tập Nhân (Xiren) meaning “assails men”, because it comes from a line of poetry. Here’s the line in Sino-Vietnamese: 

“Hoa khí tập nhân.” (Ch.3) 

In English: 

“The flowers’ aroma breathes of hotter days.” (Ch.3) 

That’s why her name becomes Aroma in Hawkes’s version. 

Another maid of Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) is Tình Văn (Qingwen). Her name, according to wikipedia, means “sunny multi-coloured clouds”. In Hawkes’s version, she is Skybright. 

It is quite messy so here’s my list of the main servants: 

Tập Nhân (Xiren)= Aroma 

Tình Văn (Qingwen)= Skybright 

Xạ Nguyệt (Sheyue)= Musk 

Tử Quyên (Zijuan)= Nightingale 

Tuyết Nhạn (Xueyan)= Snowgoose 

Bình Nhi (Ping’er)= Patience 

Hương Lăng (Xiangling)= Caltrop

Uyên Ương (Yuanyang)= Faithful

Thu Văn (Qiuwen)= Ripple

Bích Ngân (Bihen)= Emerald 

Dính Yên (Mingyan)= Tealeaf 

The last one is Bảo Ngọc’s (Baoyu) page boy. 

2/ The second servant introduced in chapter 24 is Tiểu Hồng (Xiaohong). There’s an interesting detail that is missing from David Hawkes’s translation as he removes an entire line about her name—her last name is Lâm (Lin) and her first name is Hồng Ngọc (Hongyu), but because the word Ngọc (Yu) in her name would clash with Ngọc in Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) and Đại Ngọc (Daiyu), so she has to change her name into Tiểu Hồng (Xiaohong), which means “little Hong”—“little Red”.  

Her real name means “red jade”. 

It is interesting to note that her name is very similar to another name: Lâm Hồng Ngọc (Lin Hongyu) and Lâm Đại Ngọc (Lin Daiyu). 

Đại Ngọc means “black jade”, the kind of thing women use to draw their eyebrows. 

3/ A few people have said that in The Tale of Genji, there is no evil. There is callousness, aggressiveness, force, kidnap, rape, jealousy, deceit… but no malice, no cruelty, no evil. There is revenge, but it is done by ghosts and spirits, not humans. 

In Hong lou meng, in contrast, there is lots of cruelty and malice, lots of falseness and hypocrisy, lots of jealousy and hate and pettiness. There is lots of pettiness and resentment in it, perhaps more than any other novel I have read, not only between the Giả (Jia) family and other families or between the members and in-laws of the family, but also among the servants. Vú Lý (nanny Li) resents Tập Nhân (Aroma), for instance. Thu Văn (Ripple) and Bích Ngân (Emerald) bully Tiểu Hồng (Crimson) for pouring tea for Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu), which she isn’t fit for (as she’s not one of his maids). 

The worst kind of pettiness is of course not between the servants as there isn’t much for them to gain or lose, “the competition” isn’t strong. The worst is between the family members themselves—a society that allows polygamy and has inequality and strict hierarchy naturally creates envy and resentment. 

I don’t think this means that Cao Xueqin has a harsh and negative vision of life. Rather, I think the novel reflects Chinese society—you see this kind of pettiness and malice a lot in Chinese films. 

4/ Chapter 25 has a rather silly scene with the demons possessing Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) and Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng), but the chapter is terrific with the reappearance of the Buddhist monk and Taoist priest that we have seen at the beginning of the novel. It is a marvellous scene, especially with the things they say about happiness and misery in life, and the briefness of life. 

The Vietnamese translation I think is much better than the English translation, not because of any fault of David Hawkes’s but because of the nature of the language. 

Without the supernatural elements and philosophical aspect, chapter 25 would simply be about a concubine harming others out of jealousy, reminiscent of Raise the Red Lantern, but there’s more. Hong lou meng is, as I said before, at its best, its most exhilarating when it moves to the world of dreams, the world of the supernatural. Cao Xueqin’s novel is much more than a novel of manners, or a family novel. 

5/ Cao Xueqin doesn’t refer to passing time in a clear, consistent way as Murasaki Shikibu does in The Tale of Genji, so sometimes he mentions a new season, a festival, or someone’s birthday, but it’s not quite clear how much time passes. We know in chapter 25, however, that 13 years have passed since the monk and the Taoist priest last met the stone, so according to the Chinese age reckoning, Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) should be 14. 

He drinks way too much for a 13-year-old though (I’m switching back to today’s system of age reckoning). What an alcoholic. 

That raises an important question however: how old was he when he first had sex in chapter 6, with Tập Nhân (Aroma)???    

6/ In these chapters we are introduced to Giả Vân (Jia Yun) and Phùng Tử Anh (Feng Ziying). The former is son of the 5th sister (in-law)—it’s not quite clear who that is—but the guy calls Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) uncle, even though he’s about 4 or 5 years older. The latter is a friend of Tiết Bàn (Xue Pan) and Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu). 

I expect both of them to become more important later on, especially between Giả Vân (Jia Yun) and Tiểu Hồng (Crimson). 

The people in this world don’t have much to do so they just play around and then look for people to bang. 

The mention of Tiết Bàn (Xue Pan) reminds me of something else—it’s strange how this guy has beaten a guy to death and paid nothing for it, and everyone in the family still treats him like nothing happened. 

7/ There’s a passage in chapter 27 that I found a bit confusing, in the conversation between Thám Xuân (Tanchun) and Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu). I had to look at the English version to realise that what looked like a mistake was not a mistake—Thám Xuân (Tanchun) talks like dì Triệu (auntie Zhao) is her auntie because she sees herself as daughter of Vương phu nhân (lady Wang) and doesn’t like the pettiness of her mother and her brother Giả Hoàn (Jia Huan). 

8/ There is a moving scene at the end of chapter 27 and beginning of chapter 28, of Đại Ngọc (Daiyu) sobbing among fallen flowers and reciting a poem about flowers and the fragility of life. Already saddened by the misunderstanding about Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu), she looks at the fallen flowers and thinks of her own orphaned lot, and her own death in the future.

This scene shows that Đại Ngọc (Daiyu) is not just over-sensitive and touchy over trifles, but she does have sensibility. The scene also truly establishes for the first time that she and Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) are very similar. Imagine someone else encountering her instead, like Tiết Bàn (Xue Pan)! Or Giả Liễn (Jia Lian). 

I should note though, that there’s some slight difference in tone between the Vietnamese text and the English text by David Hawkes. 

For example, in chapter 27, there is a scene where the girls are celebrating the festival and Đại Ngọc (Daiyu) is nowhere to be seen so Bảo Thoa (Baochai) volunteers to go look for her. However, on the way she comes across Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) and starts thinking, then she changes her mind and goes back without seeing her. This is what she thinks to herself about Đại Ngọc: 

“‘… And Dai-yu, at the best of times, is always so touchy and suspicious.’” 

This is the same line in the Vietnamese text: 

“‘… vả chăng Đại Ngọc tính nết nhỏ nhen, lại hay ghen ghét…’” 

The phrase “tính nết nhỏ nhen” means “petty, narrow-minded, small-minded”; “hay ghen ghét” means “jealous, envious, hateful”. The words here are much stronger, harsher. I don’t know which rendition of this specific line is closer to the original (though I think the 2 translations are based on different versions of Hong lou meng). 

On the way back, Bảo Thoa (Baochai) happens to overhear Tiểu Hồng (Crimson) and a little servant talking about Giả Vân (Jia Yun). As the 2 servants suddenly decide to open the door and Bảo Thoa (Baochai) doesn’t want to have some annoying trouble with them, she decides to create a false scent by pretending that she just saw Đại Ngọc (Daiyu) nearby. Here is what the girls say to themselves after she’s gone. 

“‘If it were Miss Bao that had heard us, I don’t suppose anything would,’ said Crimson, ‘but Miss Lin is so critical and so intolerant. If she heard it and it gets about—oh dear!’” (ibid.) 

This is the same line in the Vietnamese text: 

“‘Cô Bảo nghe thấy chẳng sao, chứ cô Lâm miệng hay xoi bói, bụng hay khe khắt, nghe thấy mà đi nói tung ra thì làm thế nào?’” 

If you think of using Google Translate for this line, forget it. You have to trust me when I say that the Vietnamese line says the same things but has a much more negative tone. The word “critical” is not a very harsh word—it can be a neutral word, and when it’s negative, it’s not as negative in tone as some other words such as “judgmental”, “scathing”, “censorious”, etc. The word “intolerant” can be a stronger word, but “hay khe khắt” in Vietnamese means “harsh, severe, stern” and has a more negative tone. 

Overall I think the Vietnamese text has more tone and voice in dialogue, especially when a character is being sarcastic. However, when we get to that scene at the end of chapter 27, the Vietnamese text didn’t make me like Đại Ngọc (Daiyu) more. Somehow the scene made me think of Kiều coming across the abandoned grave of Đạm Tiên and starting to cry, in Truyện Kiều—which is meant to depict her as sensitive but which makes her appear silly and sentimental. 

The same scene in David Hawkes’s text is much more moving.  

It’s odd. 

Saturday 21 November 2020

Hong lou meng: chapters 19-23, 2 kinds of hierarchy, characterisation, lesser children

On 13/11, I put aside Hong lou meng out of annoyance, then spent several days reading Naomi by Tanizaki. I returned to Cao Xueqin on 19/11. 

1/ I have written before that this is a society of strict hierarchy and order, but there are actually 2 kinds of hierarchy: social position (say, the emperor > aristocrats > servants) and age. A servant who has served for a long time is held in high regard and has certain authority among the younger generations of the master’s family, which can be seen in the way Giả Trân (Jia Zhen) and his family let the servant Tiều Đại (Big Jiao) get away with a lot (until he crosses the line and starts yelling about incest) or the way Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng) tries to respectfully soothe vú Lý (nanny Li) during her ridiculous tantrum. 

Another thing about (18th century) Chinese society that might intrigue Western readers is that women hold all the power within the family. The gender inequality is that boys have their education prioritised and can go to school and take exams, men can become a mandarin or some government official, men can get a title and have power in society, and a woman has to follow her father and then her husband and then her son (the 3 Obediences and 4 Virtues in Confucianism), but women hold all the power within the family and make decisions, including finances. That’s why people who come to the Giả (Jia) family ask for Vương phu nhân (Wang Furen), and Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng) manages everything in the house. 

This was the case in China and Vietnam historically, but it’s similar in Vietnam today as well: girls and women now get the same education and job opportunities as boys and men, but in the house, women still keep all the money and manage all the finances. That’s how you tell it with a Vietnamese couple in a restaurant—if the man pays, they’re not married; if the woman pays, they are.  

As for Japanese society, I know nothing about the 18th century but know from The Tale of Genji and The Pillow Book that there’s appalling gender inequality in the 11th century: boys get more of an education, men can go (almost) anywhere while women always have to hide behind a screen or at least a fan, men can learn and write in Chinese and write nonfiction such as history whereas women are barred from the Chinese script and the Chinese classics, only allowed to write in Japanese, and write fiction, which isn’t good enough for men. It is just ironic that over time it was women who dominated Heian literature and became instrumental in developing the vernacular Japanese. 

2/ I think I have figured out the way Cao Xueqin characterises his characters: he uses a few (opposing) strokes, like an action or image, to convey what kind of person a character is, and repeats the action or image. For example, vú Lý (nanny Li) is a greedy servant who eats everything she finds, even when something she comes across is left by Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) for Tập Nhân (Aroma), and always reminds people of what she did for Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu). Giả Liễn (Jia Lian) is a libertine who is nevertheless scared by his wife Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng), and she is a strong, shrewd woman who manages everything in the house but who is also a cold bitch—she has indirectly caused the deaths of 3 people but doesn’t seem to care. Giả Thụy (Jia Rui) is a spineless man, and appears even more foolish when he falls for Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng) and is made a fool of, without knowing it. Giả Bảo Ngọc (Jia Baoyu) is a spoilt rich brat and a weirdo who only plays with girls, but he doesn’t put on a façade and does care about people, whereas Tiết Bàn (Xue Pan) is an utter arsehole who doesn’t care about anyone and gets away with anything, including beating a man to death, because he’s rich. Lâm Đại Ngọc (Lin Daiyu), in contrast with her reputation in popular culture, is a petty whiny little bitch who always mocks someone or makes some snide remarks and then cries about everything like a wet jackfruit*

Cao Xueqin repeats the image or action multiple times across the novel, so Đại Ngọc (Daiyu) is always mocking people and then regretting it, or fighting with Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) and then bursting into tears, or Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) is always finding food gone and being told that vú Lý (nanny Li) has eaten it.  

3/ In these chapters, Tập Nhân (Xiren or Aroma) becomes more interesting. She is servant of Giả Bảo Ngọc (Jia Baoyu), previously a servant for his grandmother Giả Mẫu (Jia Mu). Cao Xueqin gives her a backstory and creates more depth, especially in that scene in chapter 19 when Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) suddenly shows up at her house and she seems to have been crying, but denies it. 

Cao Xueqin also makes her more interesting when she gets annoyed in chapter 21, because so far Tập Nhân (Aroma) has seemed a bit too patient and kind, too perfect. 

He also gives Giả Kính (Jia Zheng) more depth. Before these chapters, Giả Kính (Jia Zheng) has been a grumpy, difficult father who more or less neglects Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) and then yells at him for everything. In these chapters, the author hints at something hidden underneath the surface:  

“Jia Zheng glanced up and saw Bao-yu standing before him. The lively intelligence that shone in the boy’s every fear, his almost breath-taking beauty of countenance contrasted strikingly with Jia Huan’s cringing, hang-dog looks and loutish demeanour, and Jia Zheng thought suddenly of his other son, Jia Zhu, his Firstborn, whom he had lost. He glanced at Lady Wang. Of the children she had borne him Bao-yu was now the only surviving son. He knew how much the boy meant to her. He thought of himself, too: ageing now, his beard already grey. And as he thought, much of his customary dislike of Bao-yu slipped away, so that for the time being perhaps only ten or twenty per cent of it still remained.” (Ch.23) 

(This passage in the Vietnamese version, saying the same things, is for some reasons much shorter. Jia Zhu is Giả Châu). 

Earlier in chapter 22, when the characters play a guessing game, Giả Chính (Jia Zheng) is unhappy because “all the girls’ verses contained images of grief and loss” and he wonders why “these innocent young creatures all produce language that is so tragic and inauspicious”. His way of thinking is certainly superstitious, making a lot out of the riddles about firecrackers and kites and so on, but it on the one hand foreshadows what would happen to the girls and on the other hand shows that he’s not as cold as he often appears. 

It was a good idea to put aside Hong lou meng and then come back to it, because I’m now enjoying it more.  

4/ Hong lou meng, like The Tale of Genji, is rich in its depiction of female characters, who are all very different. 

In chapter 18, at the poetry challenge by Giả Nguyên Xuân (Jia Yuanchun), and in chapter 22, when the characters talk about Zen koan, we can see that in the main trio of the novel, Đại Ngọc (Daiyu) and Bảo Thoa (Baochai) are both more intelligent and knowledgeable than Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu). 

There isn’t much I can yet about Bảo Thoa (Baochai), however. 

5/ As the trio grow up, there is more and more poetry in the novel. I can’t help feeling that I’m missing out on a lot, because the translators of the Vietnamese version generally turn them into poems in Vietnamese, but they’re not really Nguyễn Du or Bùi Giáng, are they? Then when I look at the English version by David Hawkes, his poems usually have some kind of rhyme scheme but his renditions often appear to be quite loose. So I think I do miss out on a lot. 

6/ Giả Hoàn (Jia Huan) appears in chapter 20. He is son of Giả Chính (Jia Zheng) by Triệu Di Nương (concubine Zhao)—brother of Giả Thám Xuân (Jia Tanchun) and half-brother of Giả Bảo Ngọc (Jia Baoyu). 

I’ve been told about him, but his behaviour in these chapters already shows that he would grow up to always be petty and jealous, to always have an inferiority complex because he’s not Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu), not the son of a main wife. Thám Xuân (Tanchun) has never seemed that way but I reckon it’s different between boys and girls. 

According to chapter 18, Thám Xuân (Tanchun) is more intelligent and poetic than Nghênh Xuân (Yingchun) and Tích Xuân (Xichun). Nghênh Xuân (Yingchun) is daughter of Giả Xá (Jia She) and a maid. Tích Xuân (Xichun) is daughter of Giả Kính (Jia Jing) and sister of Giả Trân (Jia Zhen). 

Some readers of Hong lou meng might race through the novel even without always knowing who’s who and how the characters relate to each other, but it matters a lot, especially in a society of strict hierarchy like the Chinese. It is of crucial importance that Giả Hoàn (Jia Huan) is born to a concubine for instance—he and Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) would never be the same. The same goes for Thám Xuân (Tanchun), who is “born in the wrong womb”, so to speak. 

It is of crucial importance too that Lâm Đại Ngọc (Lin Daiyu) comes from outside the capital and feels like an outsider, which is why she always makes some snide remarks and alludes to her inferior status among the girls in the house. 

7/ In chapter 23, Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) flirts with Đại Ngọc (Daiyu) for the first time using a line from Tây sương ký (Romance of the Western Chamber). 

Then later on in the same chapter, Cao Xueqin uses some lines from the play, which are melancholic and evoke the transience of life. This is a central theme in The Tale of Genji (mono no aware)—the difference is that in Murasaki Shikibu’s book, the characters think about it when looking at nature and observing the changing seasons, or thinking about their loved ones’ deaths, whereas here Đại Ngọc (Daiyu) thinks about it when hearing the songs the performers are practising. It is more cerebral and, I think, less affecting, especially when we have never got access to her mind at and after her father’s death. 

But let’s see what’s going to happen. 

*: this is a literal translation of a Vietnamese idiom to call those who always cry a lot. 

Friday 13 November 2020

Hong lou meng: chapters 16-18, the writing, Jia Yuanchun’s visit

1/ Cao Xueqin seems to be on a killing spree.

In chapters 12-15, he kills 4 characters. 

In chapter 16 alone, he kills another 4 characters. 

- A couple who kill themselves because of Vương Hy Phượng’s (Wang Xifeng) interference. This means that so far she has indirectly caused the deaths of 3 people. 

- Tần Nghiệp (Qin Ye), father of Tần Khả Khanh (Qin Keqing) and Tần Chung (Qin Zhong). He catches his son and Trí Năng (Sapientia/ Sappy) together, beats the shit out of his (currently sick) son, then randomly falls ill in indignation and dies.  

- Tần Chung (Qin Zhong). 

What did the Tần (Qin) family did to Cao Xueqin? Within a few chapters he wipes out their family. 

Luckily he skips the funeral in chapter 17.  


2/ Generally speaking, I like detail in literature—I tend to notice details. To borrow a metaphor from Himadri of Argumentative Old Git, most of my favourite writers are the type with small brush-strokes, such as Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, Flaubert, Murasaki, etc., contrasting with those using broad brush-strokes such as Dostoyevsky, Melville, Dickens, etc. Tolstoy for example stands out as a writer who sometimes paints with broad sweep, creating epic war scenes such as in War and Peace, but also uses small brush-strokes, capturing the subtlest shades and nuances in his characters’ feelings and expressions. 

In the works of these authors, details usually reveal something about a character (whether it’s the character being seen or the one observing), or paint a picture, or draw our attention to something important.  

In Hong lou meng, Cao Xueqin captures well the characters and their social positions and their relationship with each other, and the descriptions mostly convey the empty riches of the Giả (Jia) family, but there are also plenty of details that don’t seem to serve anything and don’t really paint much of a picture. Do I really need to know every time a character rinses their mouth or washes their hands? I don’t think so.  

3/ Hương Lăng (Xiangling or Caltrop) reappears in chapter 16, who has now been “possessed” by Tiết Bàn (Xue Pan). She’s the kidnapped girl—her real name is Chân Anh Liên (Zhen Yinglian). 

She and another servant named Tập Nhân (Aroma) are 2 characters I want to know more about. 

4/ Chapter 17 has more interesting descriptions, when Giả Chính (Jia Zheng) gives some guests a tour of the garden and the new building reserved for his eldest daughter Giả Nguyên Xuân (Jia Yuanchun) to come back to visit from the palace. Finally some nature! Some fresh air! 

The characters are insufferable, however. Because this society is all about money and connections, there is so much flattery, so much insincerity and hypocrisy, there is also lots of feigned humility. There is something artificial, something false about most of the characters in Hong lou meng

An exception is the main male character Giả Bảo Ngọc (Jia Baoyu), who is seen as stubborn and a weirdo because he’s natural and doesn’t put on an act like the rest. He also seems to feel more about the deaths and weeps bitterly for a while after Tần Chung (Qin Zhong) passes away, though Cao Xueqin doesn’t dig deeper into his mind. 

The art of this chapter is quite lost on me because I don’t speak Chinese and don’t know classical Chinese poetry. It’s the same in chapter 18, when Giả Nguyên Xuân (Jia Yuanchun) comes back, renames parts of the building or parts of the garden, and creates a poetry challenge for the girls in the family. We get to see for the first time that all 3 main characters of the novel have talent for poetry. 

I get a vague idea that the names she picks are simpler than the ones suggested by Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu), and that the lines written by Lâm Đại Ngọc (Lin Daiyu) and Tiết Bảo Thoa (Xue Baochai) are better than those written by Lý Hoàn (Li Huan) and the Xuân (Chun/ Spring) girls, but that’s all. 

I sometimes think it’s a pity that in Vietnam we’re not taught chữ Hán (Chinese script, pronounced the Vietnamese way) and chữ nôm (the first Vietnamese script) anymore. 

5/ In chapter 18, Giả Nguyên Xuân (Jia Yuanchun), the eldest daughter of Giả Kính (Jia Zheng), has been away for a while at the palace and has just been promoted to Imperial Consort (called Imperial Concubine in Hawkes’s translation), and now gets leave to visit her parents. The family spend a long time building a place and a garden, decorating it, preparing the meals, buying 12 girls and preparing the songs and dances, just for a short visit. The whole thing comes across as extravagant, excessive, and wasteful. 

A more important thing that stands out for me is that Giả Nguyên Xuân (Jia Yuanchun) only has a short visit after being away for a while, but instead of being able to just chill with her parents and gossip with her siblings and cousins, she’s bound by rules and customs and has to sit there writing or reading poems and watching some performances. 

6/ The thing about Hong lou meng is that it doesn’t have much of a structure, a sense of momentum. The pace is very slow, the story drags, and reading it is to go along with the Giả (Jia) family, to live with them, to listen to their conversations and watch them to their things, etc. If the story is heading anywhere, it’s doing so very slowly, and the whole point of the novel is to live with the family.   

What saves Hong lou meng from tedium is the change in tone—some parts of the novel are hilarious, such as the scene at school (ch.9) or the episode of Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng) making a fool of Giả Thụy (Jia Rui) (ch.12). There are also supernatural elements. 

I think I should put the book aside and perhaps read something else for a while.

Wednesday 11 November 2020

Hong lou meng: chapters 12-15, death, the funeral, Wang Xifeng

1/ In chapters 12-14, there are several deaths

- Giả Thụy (Jia Rui), who has a desperate crush on Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng), wife of Giả Liễn (Jia Lian). 

- Tần Khả Khanh (Qin Keqing), wife of Giả Dung (Jia Rong) and daughter-in-law of Giả Trân (Jia Zhen). 

- A hoàn Thụy Châu (her maid Gem), who takes her own life by banging her head against a pillar, to follow her mistress. 

- Lâm Như Hải (Lin Ruhai), father of Lâm Đại Ngọc (Lin Daiyu). 

At the end of chapter 12, Cao Xueqin briefly describes the funeral of Giả Thụy (Jia Rui) and duly notes how much money each side of the family gives to the funeral, he then spends the entirety of chapters 13, 14, and 15 writing about the much grander funeral of Tần Khả Khanh (Qin Keqing). It’s perhaps too early for comparison but I can’t help thinking that Murasaki Shikibu is much superior to Cao Xueqin in her handling of death—just look at the way she writes about the deaths of Aoi, the Kiritsubo Emperor, Fujitsubo, the Rokujo Haven, Murasaki, and so on.

So far among the writers I have read, the ones I think are the best at writing about death are Tolstoy and Murasaki Shikibu. In The Tale of Genji, death is a transforming experience for the people left behind—each death has a profound impact on Genji and each one affects him in a different way. The deaths also make one think of the impermanence of everything and fragility of life. Tolstoy, in contrast, writes more about the experience of death—the feelings of someone approaching death, and he writes about it in a profound and deeply touching way that I find unsurpassable.  

Next to Murasaki Shikibu and Lev Tolstoy, Cao Xueqin’s writing about death seems superficial. He’s more interested in the funeral than Khả Khanh’s death (Keqing) or the subject of death, more interested in customs and rituals than people’s feelings and thoughts. Chapter 13 again is largely filled with dialogue, and then Cao Xueqin writes about how Giả Dung (Jia Rong) buys a title so he can have a grander funeral for his wife. 

2/ Following chapter 13, chapter 14 is about Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng) taking on the responsibility to arrange everything for the long funeral. She wants to be seen as capable and efficient. 

The ceremony with its preparations is extravagant and excessive—the funeral seems more prominent than the character Tần Khả Khanh (Qin Keqing) herself. The whole thing also appears very theatrical. 

 “Xi-feng walked slowly through the All-scents Garden until she came to the shrine in the Ascension Pavilion. As soon as she caught sight of the coffin the tears, like pearls from a broken necklace, rolled in great drops down her cheeks. A number of pages were standing […]. Xi-feng gave orders for them to begin and for tea to be offered up inside the shrine. […] In this Xi-feng now sat, and raising her voice to a shrill pitch, wept with abandon, whereupon the entire household, high and low, male and female, indoors and out, responded by breaking into loud and prolonged lamentation. 

Presently a representative […] begged Xi-feng to desist. Brightie’s wife poured out a cup of tea for her to rinse her mouth with, and when she had sufficiently recovered herself she rose to her feet once more, took leave of various members of the clan who were present, and went off to her office in the penthouse.” (Ch.14)  

I have to keep a rather long excerpt so you can see how shallow and theatrical it all is. Right after this show of mourning, Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng) goes off to her office to arrange matters and returns to her image of a strict and ruthless mistress—she even gives a female servant 20 strokes of the bamboo for arriving late. Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) appears more affected by the death, coughing up some blood, but Cao Xueqin doesn’t delve deeper into his feelings. 

3/ As a character, Tần Khả Khanh (Qin Keqing) doesn’t feature much. She is significant mostly because it’s her bedroom that Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) has a wet dream, and the first woman he has sex with is the fairy in the dream who shares the name Khả Khanh (Keqing).

In chapter 5, she doesn’t get as much attention as the evocative decorations of her bedroom. Once she’s dead, the funeral is much more prominent and takes up a lot more pages than her—it goes on and on and seems to never stop, spanning chapters 13 and 14 and 15, probably the longest funeral in literature. But the funeral isn’t about her as much as about the woman managing it—Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng). 

There isn’t much I can say about Tần Khả Khanh (Qin Keqing), except that, according to the shouting and cursing of the servant Tiều Đại (Big Jiao), she had an affair with her father-in-law Giả Trân (Jia Zhen). 

4/ Cao Xueqin also doesn’t enter the mind of Tần Chung (Qin Zhong)—we don’t know what he thinks or how he feels about his sister’s death. He doesn’t seem particularly affected. 

In fact, in chapter 15 after the rites at the temple, he first lusts for a young girl at the spinning wheel (lower class) and then flirts with a disciple at the temple, called Trí Năng (Sapientia and then Sappy in David Hawkes’s translation). He even forces himself on her afterwards. Does that look like someone in mourning to you? It doesn’t to me. 

5/ The death of Lâm Như Hải (Lin Ruhai) is announced to the Giả (Jia) family and they make some brief remarks but nobody seems to really care. Cao Xueqin keeps the focus of the story in Nanjing so I would have to wait till Lâm Đại Ngọc (Lin Daiyu) returns to see how she feels about her father’s death. 

It reminds me, however, that nobody seems to care much about the death of Giả Thụy (Jia Rui) either, except his grandfather Giả Đại Nho (Jia Dairu). Cao Xueqin says nothing about Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) and Tần Chung (Qin Zhong), who both know him. Even Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng), who indirectly causes his death, is indifferent. 

6/ The focus of these chapters is Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng), who is so far the most vividly alive female character, or even character in the novel. She is, how do I put it, a cold bitch. 

In the Chinese family, there is a clear hierarchy, even among siblings and cousins—people of the same generation. Let’s say Giả Mẫu (Jia Mu), the grandmother, is the first generation; in the second generation, the 2 surviving sons are Giả Xá (Jia She) and Giả Chính (Jia Zheng) in that order; in the third generation, Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng) is married to Giả Liễn (Jia Lian), son of Giả Xá (Jia She) by his official wife Hình phu nhân (Xing Furen). Giả Liễn (Jia Lian) has a daughter by a maid. 

So in the hierarchy, Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng) is the highest and most important daughter-in-law of the third generation. She is also niece of Vương phu nhân (Wang Furen), wife of Giả Chính (Jia Zheng). Because the men are useless, she therefore is in charge of everything. 

As a character, she’s more vividly alive than the rest because she is exuberant, has a strong personality, and can often be vicious and cruel. But now I’ve seen her weakness—she always wants to prove herself as capable and is easily flattered. 

I don’t have much to say about the 2 main female characters yet, who are Lâm Đại Ngọc (Lin Daiyu) and Tiết Bảo Thoa (Xue Baochai). My impression so far is that Lâm Đại Ngọc (Lin Daiyu) is quite annoying as she cries a lot but also often makes snide remarks and seems mean, has an inferiority complex, and is prone to jealousy, but I expect these 2 characters to grow and change. 

Hong lou meng: chapters 9-12, the kowtow, servants, the mirror

1/ Chapter 9 is hilarious. Tiết Bàn (Xue Pan) goes to school only because he hears that there are lots of males of a certain age, and uses money and connections to have several guys to himself; Giả Bảo Ngọc (Jia Baoyu) and his new friend Tần Chung (Qin Zhong) go to the same school and somehow get involved with 2 flirtatious guys who are “friends” with him and get tangled up in their conflict. 

Homosexuality or bisexuality is openly depicted in Hong lou meng—a level of openness I didn’t quite expect. But then the novel is open about sex in general—see chapter 5 and chapter 12. 

Recap: Tiết Bàn (Xue Pan) is brother of Tiết Bảo Thoa (Xue Baochai) and so far the arsehole of the story, who previously beats a man to death over a servant now named Hương Lăng (Caltrop), who is actually Chân Anh Liên (Zhen Yinglian). 

2/ This society is all about money and personal connections. Some people can get away with anything. 

On a low level, the sons in rich families such as Tiết Bàn (Xue Pan) or Giả Bảo Ngọc (Jia Baoyu) are completely spoilt and if anything goes wrong within the family, it’s their servants who get punished. 

On a higher level, we have seen earlier that Tiết Bàn (Xue Pan) beats a man to death but gets away with it and suffers nothing whatsoever because he’s from the Tiết (Xue) family. Each government official in a local area has a list of untouchable families. The only one who gets punished here is the man who sells Anh Liên (Yinglian), and the family of the dead man do nothing more because all they want is money for the funeral. 

Because everything is about money and personal connections, we see Lâm Đại Ngọc (Liu Daiyu) leave her old father at home to live in the capital with the Giả (Jia) family, we see father of Tần Chung (Qin Zhong) plan to rely on the in-laws to get his son to the private school, we see the poor Già Lưu (Grannie Liu) come to pay respects to Vương phu nhân (Wang Furen) and kowtow to the 20-year-old Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng), etc. But not just that—they don’t have the same rules for everyone, the rules vary according to the person’s wealth and social position and personal connections and all that. 

In chapter 9 for example, there are conflicts between the guys because of the fickleness of Tiết Bàn (Xue Pan). However Giả Thụy (Jia Rui), who acts as a substitute teacher, cannot blame him and instead directs his resentment towards the 2 flirtatious guys Hương Lân and Ngọc Ái (Darling and Precious in David Hawkes’s translation), and when Hương Lân (Darling) and Tần Chung (Qin Zhong) complain about Kim Vinh (Jokey Jin) starting a ridiculous rumour about them, he sides with Kim Vinh (Jokey Jin) but cannot openly rebuke Tần Chung (Qin Zhong) and therefore singles out Hương Lân (Darling) as the troublemaker. 

Afterwards Giả Tường (Jia Qiang) at the same school sees that Tần Chung (Qin Zhong), the brother-in-law of his best friend, get verbally abused and tangled in some stupid rumour so he wants to step in to help, but then Kim Vinh (Jokey Jin) and Giả Thụy (Jia Rui) and that lot are friends with Tiết Bàn (Xue Pan) and everything might reach chú Tiết (Uncle Xue) so things would be awkward between them, so he doesn’t know what to do. In short, it’s like there’s no right or wrong—everything is about money and personal connections.

This whole trouble becomes a fight and turns everything into chaos. Giả Thụy (Jia Rui) doesn’t want it to become any bigger and has to fulfil Giả Bảo Ngọc’s (Jia Baoyu) wish by persuading Kim Vinh (Jokey Jin) to apologise, but that isn’t enough—Giả Bảo Ngọc (Jia Baoyu) insists on a kowtow, and because of the Giả (Jia) family and pressure from all sides, Kim Vinh (Jokey Jin) has to kowtow to Tần Chung (Qin Zhong) for spreading a lie. 

Kim Vinh (Jokey Jin) mumbles to himself afterwards: 

“‘Qin Zhong is Jia Rong’s brother-in-law: it’s not as if he were one of the Jia clan. He’s only an external scholar, the same as me; and it’s only because he is friends with Bao-yu that he can afford to be so high and mighty…’” (Ch.10) 

See how he’s not mad at Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) for forcing him to kowtow, but angry at Tần Chung (Qin Zhong) because socially they’re just the same. Now look at his mother’s connection.  

“‘… Look at the job we had getting you into that school. All the talks I had with your aunt and the trouble she went to to see Mrs Lian about it. Suppose we hadn’t had their help in getting you in there, we could never have afforded a tutor…’” (ibid.)

He has to swallow it up because he’s able to go to that school only because his aunt, wife of Giả Hoàng (Jia Huang), gets the favour from Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng/ Mrs Lian). 

Psychologically it all makes sense, however. It makes perfect sense that Kim Vinh (Jokey Jin) would be angrier at Tần Chung (Qin Zhong) than at Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu), just as it makes perfect sense that the spineless Giả Thụy (Jia Rui) would pressure him into kowtowing just so the whole thing would blow over. 

Cao Xueqin’s characters are all believable and vividly real. 

Reading Hong lou meng is similar to my experience of reading Truyện Kiều—I recognise and enjoy the literary merits but at the same time find lots of things utterly annoying. I didn’t even like Kiều. 

3/ This is a picture of privilege and there is somehow a sense of waste: there is lots of partying, eating, drinking… and each person in the Giả (Jia) family has several servants. In the mansion there are something like 300 people living, and Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) or Đại Ngọc (Daiyu) going from one part of the mansion to another needs to be followed by 2-3 servants.

If servants in Jane Austen’s novels are often kept in the background, servants get attention in Hong lou meng

So far the 2 who seem most interesting are Tập Nhân (Aroma), servant of Giả Bảo Ngọc (Jia Baoyu) and also his first lover in the real world, and Bình Nhi (Patience), servant of Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng). 

There are some other memorable ones such as vú Lý (Nannie Li), who eats and drinks everything; Tiều Đại (Big Jiao), who drinks horse’s urine in his youth to save water for his master and now can get away with behaving badly and curses everyone including his young masters and mistresses when he’s drunk…

That is partly the appeal of Hong lou meng: there is a great range of characters of different classes in society, and they are well-drawn and vivid and all distinct. 

4/ I imagine that Western readers, who are used to structured plots, might find many details unnecessary and many scenes superfluous and the story dragging on. Chapter 11 is one where nothing seems to happen and not much advances the plot, in stark contrast to the packed and eventful chapter 9. 

Reading Hong lou meng is like watching Chinese costume dramas, which go on and on but draw you in and keep you engrossed in the story. Each chapter ends on a cliffhanger. 

5/ After the uneventful chapter 11, chapter 12 about Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng) and Giả Thụy (Jia Rui) is hilarious, utterly hysterical till that gross detail about excrement. 

Chapter 12 mentions again Thái hư ảo cảnh (The Land of Illusion) from chapter 5 and has “chiếc gương Phong nguyệt bảo giám” (A mirror for the romantic). It is an excellent and unforgettable chapter and Hong lou meng is at its best, its most enjoyable and exhilarating, when the novel moves to the world of dreams, the land of illusions, and Cao Xueqin again brings up the theme of real/ unreal. The basic plot of Hong lou meng is the plot of a family novel or social novel, but Xueqin elevates it to something higher, something more sophisticated.     

Monday 9 November 2020

Hong lou meng: chapters 5-8, the dream, fate, ugly aspects of Chinese culture

1/ My last blog post about Hong lou meng wasn’t very positive, but chapter 5 is where things get interesting. As it happens, I like realist novels but like it even more when there is a spiritual aspect such as in the works of Lev Tolstoy and Murasaki Shikibu—in their works there is a sense of transcendence, a sense of something beyond material life. Something similar can be found in Hong lou meng—Cao Xueqin starts the novel with mythology and the story of the Sentient Stone, then tells the story of the stone on earth as Giả Bảo Ngọc (Jia Baoyu) and moves between the real world and the world of dreams. But even the real world is like a long dream. Everything returns to nothing. 

2/ In chapter 5, Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) takes a nap in the room of Tần Khả Khanh (Qin Keqing) and dreams that he meets a character that David Hawkes translates as “fairy”. The word “fairy”, I think, is the only option that David Hawkes has—the Chinese fairy is very different from the Western fairy (like the Chinese dragon and the Western dragon are completely different animals).  

You should google “tiên nữ” or “仙女” or “Chinese fairy” to get an idea. 

3/ For many years I have mostly read Western novels so it’s curious and funny to see that the East Asian classics I’ve read this year, Truyện Kiều and The Tale of Genji and now Hong lou meng, have lots of sex. 

There’s even a wet dream in chapter 5! 

Interestingly, the first time Giả Bảo Ngọc (Jia Baoyu) has sex is in a dream and it gets a lot more attention than when he does it the first time in the real world, with his servant Hoa Tập Nhân (Hua Xiren, called Aroma in David Hawkes’s translation). 

4/ Apart from Confucianism, which is the basis of the society that Cao Xueqin depicts, the 2 main philosophies in Hong lou meng are Buddhism and Taoism (Kenneth Rexroth has called The Tale of Genji a Buddhist novel and Hong lou meng a Taoist novel). I myself know next to nothing about Taoism. 

I expect that in Hong lou meng, I most likely would struggle with the same ideas that have caused me trouble in Truyện Kiều (The Tale of Kieu): Confucianism and the idea of fate and karma. That wouldn’t necessarily hinder my appreciation of the novel—I have to struggle with Christian ideas when reading Russian novels—so we’ll see. 

If in Truyện Kiều, Kiều meets the ghost of Đạm Tiên in a dream and gets told about her fate, in Hong lou meng chapter 5, Giả Bảo Ngọc (Jia Baoyu) meets a fairy from Thái hư ảo cảnh (The Land of Illusion) and happens to see the registers of Kim lăng thập nhị thoa (the 12 beauties of Jinling), which tell the fates of women in Jinling (now Nanjing), but he doesn’t understand them. He also listens to 12 khúc Hồng lâu mộng (the 12 songs of the suite “A Dream of Golden Days”) but again doesn’t understand them. That’s a lot more obscure and subtle, and more dream-like, than in Truyện Kiều. In Truyện Kiều, as I have pointed out, Kiều knows she has a bad fate and would meet Đạm Tiên again at Tiền Đường river, but has everything that happens been predestined as she believes, or does she, in her superstitious and gullible ways, follow and enact Đạm Tiên’s words? In Hong lou meng, Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) has seen the registers but doesn’t understand them, he doesn’t know his or anyone’s fate—he doesn’t even know he’s a reincarnation of a Sentient Stone. 

5/ In chapter 1, the character Chân Sĩ Ẩn (Zhen Shiyin) faces lots of family calamities and one day meets a mad monk and, upon understanding Hảo liễu ca (translated by David Hawkes as the Won-Done song), understands everything and leaves the world to join religion. Is that celebrated by Cao Xueqin? I’m not sure, it seems to be. But is it something to be celebrated when his daughter Anh Liên (Yinglian) has been kidnapped and is nowhere to be found and he leaves his wife behind to handle everything by herself? 

Or maybe it’s too early to discuss it and I have to return to this subject later. 

Anh Liên (Yinglian) reappears in chapter 7 as a servant under the new name Hương Lăng (Caltrop). 

6/ There are 4 girls named Xuân (Chun) in the Giả (Jia) family, meaning “spring”.  

The best way to see their relationship is to look at my family tree.

The oldest one is Nguyên Xuân (Yuanchun), meaning “first spring”, who is Giả Bảo Ngọc’s (Jia Baoyu’s) sister by about a decade. 

The other 3, who so far tend to be grouped together), are: 

Nghênh Xuân (Yingchun), daughter of Giả Xá (Jia She), and Thám Xuân (Tanchun), daughter of Giả Chính (Jia Zheng) and half-sister of Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu), from the Vinh (Rong) house


Tích Xuân (Xichun), daughter of Giả Kính (Jia Jing), from the Ninh (Ning) house.  

Judging by my family tree, Tích Xuân (Xichun) is one generation below but I assume they are roughly the same age. 

Nguyên Xuân (Yuanchun) and Thám Xuân (Tanchun) are half-sisters, and they both are cousins of Nghênh Xuân (Yingchun). Tích Xuân (Xichun) is more distant. 

7/ Cao Xueqin/ the narrator only appears once in a while to remind us he’s there, and mostly appears at the end of every chapter to entice readers to read the next one. These lines are removed from the Vietnamese version. 

Cao Xueqin does tell, not only show, but doesn’t really comment on the characters or the action.

In chapter 6, there is a scene between Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng) and Già Lưu (Grannie Liu). The former is niece of Vương phu nhân (Wang Furen) and Tiết phu nhân (Xue Furen) and wife of Giả Liễn (Jia Lian), and takes care of everything in the house—she is sharp, well-mannered, shrewd, but also shrewish. The latter is an old woman who comes to ask for help, as a distant relative—she is mother-in-law of a guy called Cẩu Nhi (Gou-er). 

Through dialogue and manners, Cao Xueqin shows the huge difference in social position between the 2 characters, and also shows the hypocrisy of Già Lưu (Grannie Liu).

However, because the author depicts Chinese society as it is and I myself feel distaste for certain aspects of Chinese culture and tradition, a few things bug me—I’m talking about the Confucianism, about the hierarchy and order, about the sense that everyone has a place and must know their own place in society and in relation to others; I’m talking about the subservient and servile mindset, the kowtowing and grovelling behaviour of people towards their superiors. You see it in Chinese films. You see it in other Chinese novels. In Russian and other Western novels, there is class, there are poor people, there are servants and serfs, but you don’t really see such behaviour—not to the same extent. 

For instance, look at this moment when Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) meets and likes a guy called Tần Chung (Qin Zhong), brother of Tần Khả Khanh (Qin Keqing) and therefore a poor relative. He suggests that Tần Chung (Qin Zhong) join his private school, and this is the reply: 

“‘…if you are really of the opinion that I could be of some service to you, even if it’s only grinding your ink or cleaning your ink-stone, do please arrange it as soon as you can…’” (Ch.7) 

That is a small example. Here’s a more extreme one, look at this passage about a servant named Tiều Đại (Big Jiao)—the speaker is Vưu Thị (You Shi), wife of Giả Trân (Jia Zhen): 

“‘When he was young he went with Grandfather on three or four of his campaigns and once saved his life by pulling him from under a heap of corpses and carrying him to safety on his back. He went hungry himself and stole things for his master to eat; and once when he had managed to get half a cupful of water, he gave it to his master and drank horse’s urine himself…’” (ibid.)  

I mean, what? 

Vưu Thị (You Shi) is explaining why the servant now gets special treatment and behaves badly but people just ignore it. Then Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng) says: 

“‘I know this Big Jiao all right’, said Xi-feng, ‘and I still say that you are too weak. You ought to send him away. Right away. Send him to live on one of your farms: that would put a stop to his nonsense!’” (ibid.) 


Intoxicated and angry, Tiều Đại (Big Jiao) starts cursing everybody and even hinting at incest among his masters and mistresses, so the other servants force him into the stables and: 

“Terrified out of their wits at hearing a fellow-servant utter such enormities, the grooms and pages tied him up and stuffed his mouth with mud and horse-dung.” (ibid.) 

These aspects of Chinese culture are the reasons I was uncertain about Hong lou meng before I picked it up. I’m more into the story now, but still can’t help noticing these things. 

8/ Hong lou meng is filled with dialogue. There is lots, lots of dialogue. I’ve noticed that in quite a few places where it’s dialogue (direct speech) in the Vietnamese version, in the English version by David Hawkes it is indirect speech (usually when it could be 1 or 2 sentences). I assume these are Hawkes’s changes for some variation. 

We don’t really have much access to the characters’ thoughts. In chapter 8 for example, there’s a moment where Lâm Đại Ngọc (Lin Daiyu) makes some snide remarks to her servant and we are told that Giả Bảo Ngọc (Jia Baoyu) knows she’s indirectly mocking him but laughs and pretends not to notice and Tiết Bảo Thoa (Xue Baochai) ignores because she’s used to it, but her mother Tiết phu nhân (Xue Furen) makes some protestations. That lets us know what they think but it’s more about what they do—ignoring Đại Ngọc (Daiyu)—than about their thoughts. The characters come alive through action and dialogue, like in a play. 

I have seen a few people compare Cao Xueqin to Jane Austen, but Austen doesn’t only write about manners. She does write characters’ thoughts, and when she writes about people and interactions, she not only writes about what things are but also about what things are perceived to be—Jane Austen’s interested in prejudice and perception and delusion. 

Cao Xueqin writes like a playwright.