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.