Monday, 9 November 2020

Hong lou meng: chapters 5-8, the dream, fate, ugly aspects of Chinese culture

1/ My last blog post about Hong lou meng wasn’t very positive, but chapter 5 is where things get interesting. As it happens, I like realist novels but like it even more when there is a spiritual aspect such as in the works of Lev Tolstoy and Murasaki Shikibu—in their works there is a sense of transcendence, a sense of something beyond material life. Something similar can be found in Hong lou meng—Cao Xueqin starts the novel with mythology and the story of the Sentient Stone, then tells the story of the stone on earth as Giả Bảo Ngọc (Jia Baoyu) and moves between the real world and the world of dreams. But even the real world is like a long dream. Everything returns to nothing. 

2/ In chapter 5, Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) takes a nap in the room of Tần Khả Khanh (Qin Keqing) and dreams that he meets a character that David Hawkes translates as “fairy”. The word “fairy”, I think, is the only option that David Hawkes has—the Chinese fairy is very different from the Western fairy (like the Chinese dragon and the Western dragon are completely different animals).  

You should google “tiên nữ” or “仙女” or “Chinese fairy” to get an idea. 

3/ For many years I have mostly read Western novels so it’s curious and funny to see that the East Asian classics I’ve read this year, Truyện Kiều and The Tale of Genji and now Hong lou meng, have lots of sex. 

There’s even a wet dream in chapter 5! 

Interestingly, the first time Giả Bảo Ngọc (Jia Baoyu) has sex is in a dream and it gets a lot more attention than when he does it the first time in the real world, with his servant Hoa Tập Nhân (Hua Xiren, called Aroma in David Hawkes’s translation). 

4/ Apart from Confucianism, which is the basis of the society that Cao Xueqin depicts, the 2 main philosophies in Hong lou meng are Buddhism and Taoism (Kenneth Rexroth has called The Tale of Genji a Buddhist novel and Hong lou meng a Taoist novel). I myself know next to nothing about Taoism. 

I expect that in Hong lou meng, I most likely would struggle with the same ideas that have caused me trouble in Truyện Kiều (The Tale of Kieu): Confucianism and the idea of fate and karma. That wouldn’t necessarily hinder my appreciation of the novel—I have to struggle with Christian ideas when reading Russian novels—so we’ll see. 

If in Truyện Kiều, Kiều meets the ghost of Đạm Tiên in a dream and gets told about her fate, in Hong lou meng chapter 5, Giả Bảo Ngọc (Jia Baoyu) meets a fairy from Thái hư ảo cảnh (The Land of Illusion) and happens to see the registers of Kim lăng thập nhị thoa (the 12 beauties of Jinling), which tell the fates of women in Jinling (now Nanjing), but he doesn’t understand them. He also listens to 12 khúc Hồng lâu mộng (the 12 songs of the suite “A Dream of Golden Days”) but again doesn’t understand them. That’s a lot more obscure and subtle, and more dream-like, than in Truyện Kiều. In Truyện Kiều, as I have pointed out, Kiều knows she has a bad fate and would meet Đạm Tiên again at Tiền Đường river, but has everything that happens been predestined as she believes, or does she, in her superstitious and gullible ways, follow and enact Đạm Tiên’s words? In Hong lou meng, Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) has seen the registers but doesn’t understand them, he doesn’t know his or anyone’s fate—he doesn’t even know he’s a reincarnation of a Sentient Stone. 

5/ In chapter 1, the character Chân Sĩ Ẩn (Zhen Shiyin) faces lots of family calamities and one day meets a mad monk and, upon understanding Hảo liễu ca (translated by David Hawkes as the Won-Done song), understands everything and leaves the world to join religion. Is that celebrated by Cao Xueqin? I’m not sure, it seems to be. But is it something to be celebrated when his daughter Anh Liên (Yinglian) has been kidnapped and is nowhere to be found and he leaves his wife behind to handle everything by herself? 

Or maybe it’s too early to discuss it and I have to return to this subject later. 

Anh Liên (Yinglian) reappears in chapter 7 as a servant under the new name Hương Lăng (Caltrop). 

6/ There are 4 girls named Xuân (Chun) in the Giả (Jia) family, meaning “spring”.  

The best way to see their relationship is to look at my family tree.

The oldest one is Nguyên Xuân (Yuanchun), meaning “first spring”, who is Giả Bảo Ngọc’s (Jia Baoyu’s) sister by about a decade. 

The other 3, who so far tend to be grouped together), are: 

Nghênh Xuân (Yingchun), daughter of Giả Xá (Jia She), and Thám Xuân (Tanchun), daughter of Giả Chính (Jia Zheng) and half-sister of Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu), from the Vinh (Rong) house


Tích Xuân (Xichun), daughter of Giả Kính (Jia Jing), from the Ninh (Ning) house.  

Judging by my family tree, Tích Xuân (Xichun) is one generation below but I assume they are roughly the same age. 

Nguyên Xuân (Yuanchun) and Thám Xuân (Tanchun) are half-sisters, and they both are cousins of Nghênh Xuân (Yingchun). Tích Xuân (Xichun) is more distant. 

7/ Cao Xueqin/ the narrator only appears once in a while to remind us he’s there, and mostly appears at the end of every chapter to entice readers to read the next one. These lines are removed from the Vietnamese version. 

Cao Xueqin does tell, not only show, but doesn’t really comment on the characters or the action.

In chapter 6, there is a scene between Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng) and Già Lưu (Grannie Liu). The former is niece of Vương phu nhân (Wang Furen) and Tiết phu nhân (Xue Furen) and wife of Giả Liễn (Jia Lian), and takes care of everything in the house—she is sharp, well-mannered, shrewd, but also shrewish. The latter is an old woman who comes to ask for help, as a distant relative—she is mother-in-law of a guy called Cẩu Nhi (Gou-er). 

Through dialogue and manners, Cao Xueqin shows the huge difference in social position between the 2 characters, and also shows the hypocrisy of Già Lưu (Grannie Liu).

However, because the author depicts Chinese society as it is and I myself feel distaste for certain aspects of Chinese culture and tradition, a few things bug me—I’m talking about the Confucianism, about the hierarchy and order, about the sense that everyone has a place and must know their own place in society and in relation to others; I’m talking about the subservient and servile mindset, the kowtowing and grovelling behaviour of people towards their superiors. You see it in Chinese films. You see it in other Chinese novels. In Russian and other Western novels, there is class, there are poor people, there are servants and serfs, but you don’t really see such behaviour—not to the same extent. 

For instance, look at this moment when Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) meets and likes a guy called Tần Chung (Qin Zhong), brother of Tần Khả Khanh (Qin Keqing) and therefore a poor relative. He suggests that Tần Chung (Qin Zhong) join his private school, and this is the reply: 

“‘…if you are really of the opinion that I could be of some service to you, even if it’s only grinding your ink or cleaning your ink-stone, do please arrange it as soon as you can…’” (Ch.7) 

That is a small example. Here’s a more extreme one, look at this passage about a servant named Tiều Đại (Big Jiao)—the speaker is Vưu Thị (You Shi), wife of Giả Trân (Jia Zhen): 

“‘When he was young he went with Grandfather on three or four of his campaigns and once saved his life by pulling him from under a heap of corpses and carrying him to safety on his back. He went hungry himself and stole things for his master to eat; and once when he had managed to get half a cupful of water, he gave it to his master and drank horse’s urine himself…’” (ibid.)  

I mean, what? 

Vưu Thị (You Shi) is explaining why the servant now gets special treatment and behaves badly but people just ignore it. Then Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng) says: 

“‘I know this Big Jiao all right’, said Xi-feng, ‘and I still say that you are too weak. You ought to send him away. Right away. Send him to live on one of your farms: that would put a stop to his nonsense!’” (ibid.) 


Intoxicated and angry, Tiều Đại (Big Jiao) starts cursing everybody and even hinting at incest among his masters and mistresses, so the other servants force him into the stables and: 

“Terrified out of their wits at hearing a fellow-servant utter such enormities, the grooms and pages tied him up and stuffed his mouth with mud and horse-dung.” (ibid.) 

These aspects of Chinese culture are the reasons I was uncertain about Hong lou meng before I picked it up. I’m more into the story now, but still can’t help noticing these things. 

8/ Hong lou meng is filled with dialogue. There is lots, lots of dialogue. I’ve noticed that in quite a few places where it’s dialogue (direct speech) in the Vietnamese version, in the English version by David Hawkes it is indirect speech (usually when it could be 1 or 2 sentences). I assume these are Hawkes’s changes for some variation. 

We don’t really have much access to the characters’ thoughts. In chapter 8 for example, there’s a moment where Lâm Đại Ngọc (Lin Daiyu) makes some snide remarks to her servant and we are told that Giả Bảo Ngọc (Jia Baoyu) knows she’s indirectly mocking him but laughs and pretends not to notice and Tiết Bảo Thoa (Xue Baochai) ignores because she’s used to it, but her mother Tiết phu nhân (Xue Furen) makes some protestations. That lets us know what they think but it’s more about what they do—ignoring Đại Ngọc (Daiyu)—than about their thoughts. The characters come alive through action and dialogue, like in a play. 

I have seen a few people compare Cao Xueqin to Jane Austen, but Austen doesn’t only write about manners. She does write characters’ thoughts, and when she writes about people and interactions, she not only writes about what things are but also about what things are perceived to be—Jane Austen’s interested in prejudice and perception and delusion. 

Cao Xueqin writes like a playwright. 

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