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.