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. 


  1. I've been wanting to read this book for the longest time. Would you recommend the penguin edition as a good translation? It seems to be the only one available.

    1. Hi,
      There are only 2 complete translations in English, & the Penguin one by David Hawkes & John Minford is highly acclaimed.
      It looks very good to me. I can't read the original but I can judge the English text against the Vietnamese translation.


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