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 use 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. 


  1. Hector Cruickshanks24 November 2020 at 22:20

    I just discovered your blog through Patrick Kurp's Anecdotal Evidence and I've been enjoying reading your old posts. I share many of your interests (filmmaking, literature, jazz, cinema, especially Bergman) and quite a few of your opinions! Your posts on Vietnamese literature are very interesting. Have you ever thought about translating Vietnamese poetry? There seem to be very few translations into English. I'm an English poet working on my first book and I'm interested in translation, especially from languages that don't really get their due on the world stage. If you would be interested in collaborating on some translations from Vietnamese with me we could exchange email addresses and have a chat about it!

    Also, have you seen The Scent of Green Papaya? Very beautiful, underrated film by the French-Vietnamese director Tranh Anh Hung. Has one of the best soundtracks I've ever heard too - by the excellent French-Vietnamese composer Tôn-Thất Tiết.

    1. Oh hi. Welcome to my blog. Glad you enjoy it.
      I'm not sure about translating Vietnamese poetry, because I never translate anything. I'm not confident enough.
      But I'll think about it.
      Are you on Twitter by any chance?
      I haven't seen The Scent of Green Papaya. So far I've only seen one film by Trần Anh Hùng.

  2. Hector Cruickshanks25 November 2020 at 01:51

    Glad you'll think about it :) If you have a go you might find your confidence increases, and you can't do worse than a lot of translations out there which don't seem to be written in English but 'translaterese'!

    I'm not on Twitter! I am on Facebook, but I almost never use it except the messenger app. Mostly these days I just use WhatsApp and email. There are too many political crazies on social media and half my friends seem to have gone insane! I can't be bothered arguing with people who don't want to discuss things in good faith.

    Which Trần Anh Hùng film have you seen? I hope not I Come with the Rain because that one was quite bad! I have Cyclo and The Vertical Ray of the Sun on DVD but haven't watched them yet.

    Your old post about underrated films has got me thinking about what my own list would contain. Perhaps you'd be interested in reading mine. Our lists don't overlap except for Kubrick's The Killing, but I haven't seen most of the films on yours - sadly, the only Mizoguchi I've seen is Ugetsu monogatari, which I love!

    1. I know what you mean.
      Add me on facebook then. I'm at
      The Trần Anh Hùng film I've seen, sadly, is Norwegian Wood. HAHAHAHAHA.
      I've seen quite a few films by Mizoguchi, and in certain moods even prefer him to Kurosawa. Ugetsu is great but he made other great films. A Geisha is a film I like a lot but it's almost never mentioned anywhere, people only talk about Sansho the Bailiff or Life of Oharu or something.

    2. I've added you on facebook :)

      Oh no! I heard that one was bad as well. I don't know what happened to Hung - he made these beautiful early films, then took a break for nine years or so and came back making rubbish - completely different style. Don't let it put you off seeing The Scent of Green Papaya!

      I prefer Ugetsu to anything I've seen by Kurosawa, though I also love some of his films. So many unsung or unknown directors in Japanese cinema! Have you ever seen anything by Akio Jissoji?

    3. Hahaha the reason I've never been interested in his films is because of my mom. Vietnamese directors who grew up in the West may come back to Vietnam to make films but their films never feel Vietnamese.
      I haven't seen Akio Jissoji, no.

  3. The Scent of Green Papaya, if my memory serves me correctly, was actually filmed entirely on a soundstage in France, which is pretty remarkable. But I think you might not find this such a problem - the Vietnam depicted seems more like the memory of a place than a real place - nostaglic, dreamlike, with strangely clear focus on some things and vagueness about others. It certainly doesn't feel French! I know what you mean though - have you seen Three Seasons? That feels like a film made by someone with a weak sense of the place in which he set the film, the photography is nice but the stories feel imposed (and cliched). Mind you, a lot of English films depict an England I can barely recognise! Do you know, are there any good Vietnamese filmmakers working in Vietnam itself?

    Akio Jissoji was a New Wave director. Very strange films, with occasionally troubling subject matter, and a very distinctive visual style - among the most remarkable I've seen. Almost completely unknown in the West except to scholars, but some of his films have been released on DVD/Blu-ray over here recently. Same with Kiju Yoshida.

    1. "I think you might not find this such a problem - the Vietnam depicted seems more like the memory of a place than a real place".
      I still might. My mom says the accents in it are rather all over the place, and these things usually get on my nerves, haha.
      (I created lots of trouble for myself looking for the right actor for my graduation film).
      "Do you know, are there any good Vietnamese filmmakers working in Vietnam itself?"
      According to my mom, there are some good films, but it's very difficult because Vietnam is still a communist country, a single-party state, and everyone is kept in line, so it does stifle creativity. Vietnamese cinema has never had a free period like the 90s in Chinese cinema. Also film producers in Vietnam always prioritise entertainment movies, stuff that bring in money, and avoid heavy subjects, "boring" subjects, so it's difficult to make films.
      I'll try to see if I can find anything by Akio Jissoji.

    2. It must be dreadful to make films in those conditions. I'm always amazed so many good films were made in the Soviet Union, Communist Poland, Czechoslovakia etc even though quite a few of the greats were never released or were banned at the time.

      Of course, your penultimate sentence would apply to a lot of democratic countries too, alas.

      Look for Jissoji's 'The Buddhist Trilogy' boxset by Arrow films, has four of his films (despite the title).

    3. Definitely. It's amazing that Soviet Russia could produce Tarkovsky (till they forced him to leave, obviously).
      In Vietnam it's a combination of censorship and consumerism, so that's the worst.
      I rarely buy books or DVDs because we still rent and still move around, but I'll see if I can find his films somewhere else.


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