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Thursday, 24 December 2020

Hong lou meng: chapters 81-85, the last 40 chapters, characters' voices, the dream

1/ The first 80 of the 120 chapters of Hong lou meng were written by Tào Tuyết Cần (Cao Xueqin). What about the last 40

This has been a point of debate for years. The general view in Vietnam seems to be that the last 40 chapters were written by Cao Ngạc (Gao E) alone, whereas the general view among English speakers seems to be that they were Gao E working on a patchy manuscript by Cao Xueqin. John Minford, the translator of the last 40 chapters, which were volumes 4 and 5 of the Penguin edition titled The Story of the Stone (following 3 volumes translated by David Hawkes), thinks that the manuscript was written by Cao Xueqin, found by Trình Vĩ Nguyên (Cheng Weiyuan) and edited by Gao E, and these 2 volumes have Cao Xueqin and Gao E as the authors. 

It seems to be quite complicated and uncertain, and we just don’t know if Gao E wrote all of it himself, worked on Cao Xueqin’s manuscript, or edited a manuscript by someone else, and if he did work on Cao Xueqin’s manuscript, how much of it was editing and how much was rewriting, and whether there was a full outline to follow.

I’ve just reread David Hawkes’s introduction in volume 1, which has an interesting detail. He mentions Chi Nghiễn Trai (Zhiyanzhai/ Red Inkstone), one of the earliest and most important commentators on Hong lou meng, who apparently knew Cao Xueqin intimately and might have been around the same age as the author. 

This is what David Hawkes says: 

“… his references to future developments in the plot occurring after chapter 80 are almost invariably different from what is found in the last forty chapters of the Gao E version.

[…] Now, however, as new evidence comes to light, it is becoming more and more probable that [Gao E] was not [a liar and forger] – that he did only edit, not fabricate, the last forty chapters. Moreover, although the last forty chapters are not by Cao Xueqin himself, it is beginning to look more and more as though they were written by someone very close to Xueqin, probably a member of his family – someone who was familiar with his drafts and wanted a different ending but did not necessarily have any intention of passing off the new ending as the author’s own work.

The novel we read today, then, is an incomplete novel by Cao Xueqin in eighty chapters with a supplement by an anonymous author in forty chapters which, though in many respects not what the author intended and perhaps inferior to what he would have written, is nevertheless, because of the inside knowledge of the person who wrote it, a vastly better ending than any of that mushroom crop which sprang up once the commercial possibilities of a completed edition had been established.” (Volume 1, introduction) 

Hawkes’s view, if I understand correctly, is that Cao Xueqin more or less did finish the novel but some chapters were missing and at the end Red Inkstone was still waiting for him to fill in some poems, but it seems that the later part of the novel was lost or suppressed. This seems to clash with his own remark in volume 3 that the last 40 chapters are probably an earlier version of the novel, before some major revisions. 

Hawkes also says:

“From clues found in the commentaries and in the text itself, we can tell that Xueqin’s dénouement must have been far more harrowing than the somewhat bland ending the novel is given in Gao E’s version.” (ibid.) 


2/ Chapter 81 moves away from the stories of Hạ Kim Quế (Xia Jingui) and Tôn Thiệu Tổ (Sun Shaozu) and returns to Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu), who is now forced to return to school. 

Knulp Tanner, one of the people doing the read-along with me, was disappointed with the drop of quality in the chapter and no longer wants to continue. Something bothers me too—does Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) sound like that? Do his parents sound like that? The conversation between Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) and Đại Ngọc (Daiyu) seems a bit odd. 

But I can’t judge from just one chapter, especially when I began reading with lots of preconceptions.  


3/ Chapter 82 bothers me. 

There’s a scene where Tập Nhân (Xiren/ Aroma) thinks about her own future—she knows how to handle Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) as his concubine, but what if she becomes a second Vưu Nhị Thư (You Erjie) or Hương Lăng (Caltrop)? She starts worrying about Đại Ngọc (Daiyu), who she knows is suspicious and difficult, so she decides to come visit her. 

As they’re talking, Tử Quyên (Nightingale) the servant mentions Hương Lăng (Caltrop), so: 

“Aroma seized her opportunity:

‘Caltrop, did I hear you say? Oh, that poor girl! I feel so sorry for her! This new wife of Mr Pan’s is a Total Eclipse if ever there was one! She’s even worse than a certain person…’ Here Aroma held up two fingers, indicating the Second Young Lady of the household - Xi-feng. ‘This Mrs Pan doesn’t seem to care a bit what people think.’

‘That certain person was bad enough,’ said Dai-yu. ‘To think that You Er-jie is dead!’

‘I know,’ said Aroma. ‘They were both human beings, after all. It was only their positions that were different. Why did she have to be so malicious? It hasn’t done the family name any good.’

This was the first time Dai-yu had heard Aroma gossip like this, and she began to suspect what was at the back of it.” (Ch.82) 

The translation is by John Minford. 

It doesn’t sound like Tập Nhân (Aroma) to talk like that, does it? Especially to someone like Đại Ngọc (Daiyu), who is a mistress and isn’t close to her. In the first 80 chapters, she never says any such things to Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) or even other servants—she is quiet and reserved, and would keep such thoughts to herself. 


4/ Đại Ngọc’s (Daiyu) dream, to me, appears quite crude and clumsy. 

The weakest dream Cao Xueqin writes is perhaps Vương Hy Phượng’s (Wang Xifeng) dream of Tần Khả Khanh (Qin Keqing), which is awkward as a warning and even more awkward coming from her. This is also a result of revisions because his original plan was that Tần Khả Khanh (Qin Keqing) would hang herself after the discovery of the affair, instead of dying after a long illness.

But if we look at the best dreams in Hong lou meng—the double in chapter 56, the Land of Illusion in chapter 5, Chân Sĩ Ẩn’s (Zhen Shiyin) dream at the beginning of the novel, or the dream-like episode of Giả Thụy (Jia Rui) with the mirror in chapter 12, which are all magnificent, the dream in chapter 82 appears clumsy and crude. It lacks the magical quality, the imaginative power of the best dreams in Hong lou meng, and looks contrived. 


5/ After the dream, there’s a bit of a long-winded sequence of Tử Quyên (Nightingale) and Tuyết Nhạn (Snowgoose) discovering the blood, then Thúy Lũ (Kingfisher) and Thúy Mặc (Ebony) coming, hearing the news, and coming back to tell Tương Vân (Xiangyun) and Thám Xuân (Tanchun), then the last 2 coming to visit Đại Ngọc (Daiyu) and then visiting the matriarch of the house. 

Sử Tương Vân (Shi Xiangyun) is my favourite character in Hong lou meng—she’s the most endearing character in Hong lou meng and whenever she appears in the first 80 chapters, she steals the scene. In this sequence, she doesn’t sound right—Tương Vân (Xiangyun) is meant to be open-hearted and forthright, not careless and stupid, and her reaction to the news from Thúy Lũ (Kingfisher) and Thúy Mặc (Ebony) and her later reaction upon seeing the blood don’t seem right, especially considering the more mature Tương Vân (Xiangyun) in the past 10 chapters or so. 


6/ My impression from these chapters is that whoever writes the final part of the novel must know the Chinese medicine and be familiar with the environment, the palace, perhaps even the people on which the characters are based, etc. Perhaps this is why these 40 chapters, despite their flaws, are more recognised and beloved than other sequels—and there are loads and loads of them! 

Chapter 83, I think, is better than 81 and 82. The final scene works well regarding Hạ Kim Quế (Xia Jingui) and Bảo Thiềm (Moonbeam)—when the Cao Xueqin chapters were cut off in the middle of their story with Hương Lăng (Caltrop), I thought Hạ Kim Quế (Xia Jingui) was vivid and had the potential to become a great character, and her depiction in chapter 83 follows up well. 

The part that bugs me is Bảo Thoa’s (Baochai) reaction—I can’t help thinking that the Bảo Thoa (Baochai) who can say something biting to both Bảo Ngọc (Baoyu) and Đại Ngọc (Daiyu) and embarrass them both in chapter 30 would not be so… nice? so soft? to a sister-in-law who is insulting her and her family and humiliating everyone. It may be argued that she wants to calm down Hạ Kim Quế (Xia Jingui) and not make the quarrel any bigger, but Cao Xueqin has written before that Hạ Kim Quế (Xia Jingui) many times tries to start a fight with her but she always keeps her in place. 


7/ Reading the book in Vietnamese, I can’t help wondering if the little things that bug me in these chapters are valid or I’m looking for them, with the authorship question in mind. But at the same time, look at chapter 84—would Vương Hy Phượng (Wang Xifeng) stay silent for the entire meal, not uttering a word, when she’s always flattering Giả Mẫu (Jia Mu) and dominating the conversation? Giả Chính (Jia Zheng) in these chapters also appears nicer—I went back to chapter 77, then looked at chapter 84 again, he now seems nicer, less impatient. 

In these chapters there’s also a redundancy and repetitiveness that I think Cao Xueqin would get rid of. 


8/ Chapter 85, however, works well, especially in the music scene and the Tiết Bàn (Xue Pan) trouble. I can see why David Hawkes says “although the last forty chapters are not by Cao Xueqin himself, it is beginning to look more and more as though they were written by someone very close to Xueqin, probably a member of his family – someone who was familiar with his drafts and wanted a different ending”. 

Would I continue? I’m not sure. Maybe. Maybe not. 


Anyway, Merry Christmas, everyone! 

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