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.