1/ Chapter 9 is hilarious. Tiết Bàn (Xue Pan) goes to school only because he hears that there are lots of males of a certain age, and uses money and connections to have several guys to himself; Giả Bảo Ngọc (Jia Baoyu) and his new friend Tần Chung (Qin Zhong) go to the same school and somehow get involved with 2 flirtatious guys who are “friends” with him and get tangled up in their conflict.
Homosexuality or bisexuality is openly depicted in Hong lou meng—a level of openness I didn’t quite expect. But then the novel is open about sex in general—see chapter 5 and chapter 12.
Recap: Tiết Bàn (Xue Pan) is brother of Tiết Bảo Thoa (Xue Baochai) and so far the arsehole of the story, who previously beats a man to death over a servant now named Hương Lăng (Caltrop), who is actually Chân Anh Liên (Zhen Yinglian).
2/ This society is all about money and personal connections. Some people can get away with anything.
On a low level, the sons in rich families such as Tiết Bàn (Xue Pan) or Giả Bảo Ngọc (Jia Baoyu) are completely spoilt and if anything goes wrong within the family, it’s their servants who get punished.
On a higher level, we have seen earlier that Tiết Bàn (Xue Pan) beats a man to death but gets away with it and suffers nothing whatsoever because he’s from the Tiết (Xue) family. Each government official in a local area has a list of untouchable families. The only one who gets punished here is the man who sells Anh Liên (Yinglian), and the family of the dead man do nothing more because all they want is money for the funeral.
Because everything is about money and personal connections, we see Lâm Đại Ngọc (Liu Daiyu) leave her old father at home to live in the capital with the Giả (Jia) family, we see father of Tần Chung (Qin Zhong) plan to rely on the in-laws to get his son to the private school, we see the poor Già Lưu (Grannie Liu) come to pay respects to Vương phu nhân (Wang Furen) and kowtow to the 20-year-old Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng), etc. But not just that—they don’t have the same rules for everyone, the rules vary according to the person’s wealth and social position and personal connections and all that.
In chapter 9 for example, there are conflicts between the guys because of the fickleness of Tiết Bàn (Xue Pan). However Giả Thụy (Jia Rui), who acts as a substitute teacher, cannot blame him and instead directs his resentment towards the 2 flirtatious guys Hương Lân and Ngọc Ái (Darling and Precious in David Hawkes’s translation), and when Hương Lân (Darling) and Tần Chung (Qin Zhong) complain about Kim Vinh (Jokey Jin) starting a ridiculous rumour about them, he sides with Kim Vinh (Jokey Jin) but cannot openly rebuke Tần Chung (Qin Zhong) and therefore singles out Hương Lân (Darling) as the troublemaker.
Afterwards Giả Tường (Jia Qiang) at the same school sees that Tần Chung (Qin Zhong), the brother-in-law of his best friend, get verbally abused and tangled in some stupid rumour so he wants to step in to help, but then Kim Vinh (Jokey Jin) and Giả Thụy (Jia Rui) and that lot are friends with Tiết Bàn (Xue Pan) and everything might reach chú Tiết (Uncle Xue) so things would be awkward between them, so he doesn’t know what to do. In short, it’s like there’s no right or wrong—everything is about money and personal connections.
This whole trouble becomes a fight and turns everything into chaos. Giả Thụy (Jia Rui) doesn’t want it to become any bigger and has to fulfil Giả Bảo Ngọc’s (Jia Baoyu) wish by persuading Kim Vinh (Jokey Jin) to apologise, but that isn’t enough—Giả Bảo Ngọc (Jia Baoyu) insists on a kowtow, and because of the Giả (Jia) family and pressure from all sides, Kim Vinh (Jokey Jin) has to kowtow to Tần Chung (Qin Zhong) for spreading a lie.
Kim Vinh (Jokey Jin) mumbles to himself afterwards:
“‘Qin Zhong is Jia Rong’s brother-in-law: it’s not as if he were one of the Jia clan. He’s only an external scholar, the same as me; and it’s only because he is friends with Bao-yu that he can afford to be so high and mighty…’” (Ch.10)
See how he’s not mad at Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) for forcing him to kowtow, but angry at Tần Chung (Qin Zhong) because socially they’re just the same. Now look at his mother’s connection.
“‘… Look at the job we had getting you into that school. All the talks I had with your aunt and the trouble she went to to see Mrs Lian about it. Suppose we hadn’t had their help in getting you in there, we could never have afforded a tutor…’” (ibid.)
He has to swallow it up because he’s able to go to that school only because his aunt, wife of Giả Hoàng (Jia Huang), gets the favour from Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng/ Mrs Lian).
Psychologically it all makes sense, however. It makes perfect sense that Kim Vinh (Jokey Jin) would be angrier at Tần Chung (Qin Zhong) than at Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu), just as it makes perfect sense that the spineless Giả Thụy (Jia Rui) would pressure him into kowtowing just so the whole thing would blow over.
Cao Xueqin’s characters are all believable and vividly real.
Reading Hong lou meng is similar to my experience of reading Truyện Kiều—I recognise and enjoy the literary merits but at the same time find lots of things utterly annoying. I didn’t even like Kiều.
3/ This is a picture of privilege and there is somehow a sense of waste: there is lots of partying, eating, drinking… and each person in the Giả (Jia) family has several servants. In the mansion there are something like 300 people living, and Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) or Đại Ngọc (Daiyu) going from one part of the mansion to another needs to be followed by 2-3 servants.
If servants in Jane Austen’s novels are often kept in the background, servants get attention in Hong lou meng.
So far the 2 who seem most interesting are Tập Nhân (Aroma), servant of Giả Bảo Ngọc (Jia Baoyu) and also his first lover in the real world, and Bình Nhi (Patience), servant of Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng).
There are some other memorable ones such as vú Lý (Nannie Li), who eats and drinks everything; Tiều Đại (Big Jiao), who drinks horse’s urine in his youth to save water for his master and now can get away with behaving badly and curses everyone including his young masters and mistresses when he’s drunk…
That is partly the appeal of Hong lou meng: there is a great range of characters of different classes in society, and they are well-drawn and vivid and all distinct.
4/ I imagine that Western readers, who are used to structured plots, might find many details unnecessary and many scenes superfluous and the story dragging on. Chapter 11 is one where nothing seems to happen and not much advances the plot, in stark contrast to the packed and eventful chapter 9.
Reading Hong lou meng is like watching Chinese costume dramas, which go on and on but draw you in and keep you engrossed in the story. Each chapter ends on a cliffhanger.
5/ After the uneventful chapter 11, chapter 12 about Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng) and Giả Thụy (Jia Rui) is hilarious, utterly hysterical till that gross detail about excrement.
Chapter 12 mentions again Thái hư ảo cảnh (The Land of Illusion) from chapter 5 and has “chiếc gương Phong nguyệt bảo giám” (A mirror for the romantic). It is an excellent and unforgettable chapter and Hong lou meng is at its best, its most enjoyable and exhilarating, when the novel moves to the world of dreams, the land of illusions, and Cao Xueqin again brings up the theme of real/ unreal. The basic plot of Hong lou meng is the plot of a family novel or social novel, but Xueqin elevates it to something higher, something more sophisticated.