Story of the Stone, Red Chamber - Read along, Part II

TalkAncient China

Join LibraryThing to post.

Story of the Stone, Red Chamber - Read along, Part II

This topic is currently marked as "dormant"—the last message is more than 90 days old. You can revive it by posting a reply.

Edited: May 31, 2011, 5:17pm

Welcome to Part Two of the Dream of the Red Chamber / A Dream of Red Mansions / Story of the Stone read-along that continues with chapter 61. Please find the thread to the first sixty chapters here.

Spoiler alert: The chapter under discussion will be indicated, so don't read further if you like a spoiler-free world. Please also refrain from discussing events beyond the chapter, as I intend to keep my veil of ignorance regarding the plot and characters. Feel free however to enlighten me regarding Chinese customs, history etc.

Chapter 61 Cracking eggs and heads

Chapter 61 continues with tales about the servants' anarchy caused by the Imperial funeral and Xifeng's miscarriage. Aunt Liu fends off the demands of a little boy and then, in the kitchen, Yingchun's maid asking for eggs. Apparently, there is an egg scarcity. Aunt Liu only has an emergency reserve of ten eggs for making sauces. She scolds the inner garden girls for being spoiled brats not knowing about the costs of goods. To add a bit of sting, Aunt Liu reminds the maid that her mistress would be of secondary priority anyway. The maid, with scarlet face, shouts back with gossip about another unjust event. Aunt Liu reminds her of the difficulties of her job. Pleasing all those mistresses is hard, especially as they are unaware of the practical realities.

The maid doubles the stakes by telling her mistress Ssu.chi about it, who storms into the kitchen. Aunt Liu gives in and steams some eggs. When these are served, Marie-Antoinette-like Ssu.chi just dumps them on the ground.

Wu-erh goes to Happy Red Court to present some pachyma flour to Fang-kuan. Her low status prevents her from simply entering. She hands the flour to Hsiao-yen with explanations about its origins. On the way back, Wu-erh is challenged by Mrs. Lin who accuses her of thievery. The party marches over to Tanchun who directs them to Ping'er where the affair catches the ear of Xifeng. She orders forty strokes for Wu-erh and her mother, and also to send them away. Wu-erh pleads with Ping'er who, because of the late hour, assigns her to confinement, watched by elderly women.

The next day, Team anti-Liu and Team pro-Liu lobby their cases. Baoyu and Ping'er discuss how to settle the matter quietly. To protect the face of the different parties, Baoyu proposes to play the fall guy. Sensibly, he wants to inform the real culprits that their bad acts have been observed. As always, the dark spirit behind it was Concubine Zhao. Poor Tanchun, always troubled by the bad behavior of her mother.

While Team anti-Liu is already jockeying for Aunt Liu's job, Ping'er wisely solves the matter. When she reports it to Xifeng, the latter intends a crazy collective punishment for all maids. Fortunately, Ping'er convinces her to keep her hands off the matter and let Ping'er deal with it.
Wow, Xifeng is a mean woman with snap judgment, high entitlement and no sense of justice. The Red Queen of the Red Chambers ...

Edited: Mar 18, 2011, 3:34pm

> 143. I don’t know if the treatment of women was always that strict in individual cases. Given the practical nature of Chinese culture, why waste so much talent? “Women hold up half the sky”, Mao used to say. Certainly the situation is different now. In Hong Kong few people can afford a mortgage on even a shoebox sized apartment on one salary. I would say that applies to most people living in the cities.

In Northeast Asia most import brides are from Vietnam, a country that has had quite a lot of Confucian influence on its upper class culture. As I read in the paper when in Taiwan, these marriages often end in disappointment, among others because the Taiwanese husbands are not as rich as expected, and the import brides cannot support their family as much as they had liked (see again the practical expectations). Many imported brides in the West come from Southeast Asia, which is altogether different in this respect. In Sumatra, the 6 million Minangkabau people manage to combine conservative Islam with a matrilinear culture, where basically all equity is owned and passed down via the female line. In Java, women are probably not completely equal to men, but they have carved out a significant niche for themselves, with complete autonomy over running the household. According to Architectuur & Stedebouw in Indonesie, in the 19th century (i.e. during the late Qing) the lady of the house would negotiate with a (usually Chinese) contractor about the construction of a house. I have seen quite a few cases where poor Muslim families simply paid the education of the oldest children, independent of the matter if they were daughters or sons. The younger sons simply had bad luck.

I thought you had finished The Geography of Thought, given your recent review on this website (which I gave a thumbs up). I would not have a set of virtues for Westerners, and would certainly not base it on either the Catholic church or the Heidelberg Catechism. However, in The World of Chinese Gambling, the casino consultant Desmond Lam gives a ranking of 40 of values of the modern Chinese. I have selected a few:

1. Filial piety
2. Industry
3. Tolerance
4. Harmony
5. Humbleness
6. Loyalty to superiors
12. Moderation
13. Self-cultivation
21. Sincerity
36. A close, intimate friend

However, values change across time. Again, in Japan the preference for sons has been replaced by a slight preference for daughters. When I worked in Singapore in the mid ‘90’s, my female colleagues were very insistent that divorce was against Asian values. It was indeed rare, expect among the Malays. Now it is moving into Southern European territory.

Mar 20, 2011, 6:38pm

The Geography of Thought ends what should have been its starting point. Earthquakes excepted, geography is fairly stable. Cultures are not. Nisbett even notes the different behavior of Hong Kong Chinese and Asian-Americans who are able to switch between cultures but fails to let go of his binary framework.

In reality, we live in and among overlapping subcultures that mix and adapt. In our daily life, we play different roles and integrate into different cultures, e.g. driving on the "wrong" side of the road while in the UK, not recycling when in the US, two or three kisses on the cheek, ... . Integrating different cultures is not easy (for both sides). When it fails, it fails disastrously (many if not most recent terrorist masterminds have a background of failed cultural integration). Superman/Clark Kent is the tale of Jewish adaptation/blending in to life in America. Nisbett's conservative mission to seek the differences closed his mind to the possibilities in searching for integration and adaptation mechanisms.

In Riding the Iron Rooster, Paul Theroux said that Chinese gambling is all about luck which is different from chance. It isn't true gambling if probabilities rule the outcome. In my ignorant interpretation, Chinese gambling is a sort of conspicuous consumption. It is an irrational bet to escape the steady Confucian accumulation cycle. The saddest form of Asian gambling still is the Japanese Skinner box called pachinko.

Five-fold happiness is great but suffers from an unhandy format. Fascinating how important homophones are for connotations. What about a companion volume about the four-fold miseries?

Returning to the long chapter 62, Baoyu's birthday party.

Chapter 62 It's my birthday and your and yours and yours too

The chapter starts with the blowback of the failed ousting of the Liu family. Mrs. Chin Hsien received nothing for the bribes for her job as a cook she didn't get. Ssu-chi lost face in her power struggle, as did concubine Zhao and her thievish maid Tsai-yun. Being part of the wrong team hurts in a guanxi world.

Oblivious to all of this, Baoyu enjoys his birthday party which triggers a never ending series of bowing and thank-yous. Curiously, they only discover now that Baoyu, Ping'er, cousin Hsiu-yen and Pao-chin share the same birthday. This realization quadruples the bowing and thanking.

After Baochai's secret revelation to Baoyu that the thieving is more widespread than he thought, the partying goes on in a banquet with drinking games. The main intent is on getting drunk. Tipsy Hsiang-yun wanders off to sleep in the garden where she is discovered by the rest. In the interim, Tanchun resolves another squabble with the servants, wisely deferring it till the mistress returns.

Meanwhile, Baoyu returns home to find Fangkuan snacking. With his natural appetite, he joins her, only to have to eat again with the girls. "As bad as a cat", Xiren scolds him with a laugh. Qingwen is not that happy about Fangkuan's special treatment and puts her in her place. She, in turn, is checked by Xiren. The pecking order must be maintained.

The girls playing on the grass results in dirtying the skirt of poor Xiangling. Quick-thinking Baoyu finds a perfect solution. He offers Xiren's spare skirt to Xiangling, so that no loss of face occurs. After this courteous act, Baoyu reverts to boyish behavior, playing in the mud.

Mar 30, 2011, 6:12pm

Chapter 63 A birthday party and a funeral

The chapter starts with Baoyu's secret night pyjama? birthday party. The family compound is apparently under Fort Knox surveillance rules. Mrs Lin and others check on night patrols whether the gates are securely locked - which still doesn't prevent the youngsters from sneaking around. Mrs Lin makes a nightly courtesy call/check on Baoyu. Having seen her off, Baoyu and co. let their hair hang out and strip to undergarments. Baochai and Daiyu are invited over to join the drinking games. Tanchun, Li Wan, Baochin, Xiangling come too and all play a fortune telling drinking game while Fangkuan is singing. Baochai, once again, needs to point out the naughtiness of their actions. The party breaks up quite early at a quarter past eleven and the guests depart. The inhabitants of the Happy Red Court continue their drinking until they are very drunk and go to sleep during the fourth watch (Fangkuan even passes out).

The next day, Ping'er checks in and Baoyu discovers a birthday card from Miaoyu. Baoyu intends to consult Daiyu on drafting a stylish reply but finds an even better consultant, Hsu-yen who has lived alongside the nunnery for many years. She helps him draft an erudite reply.

Wily Fangkuan indulges in the Chinese variant of playing Indians: She dresses as a boy and is given a tribal name by Baoyu. The other actresses are quickly converted too. The Jias even have some tribal slaves who do work as grooms outside the inner compound.

The general merriment is disturbed by death: Jia Jing is dead from drinking an elixir he mixed himself (suicide or accident?). Madame Yu handles the funeral preparations like a champ. The Jias petition the Emperor to return home to attend the funeral. The petition is granted and they hurry home. While the mourning preparations are underway, Jia Rong displays lewd behavior towards his family members and shockingly flirts with the maids. His excuse offered: Other family members are lewd too. Sic transit ...

Apr 7, 2011, 6:16pm

Two books with strong Xifeng-like female characters have distracted me from Red Chamber: Amy Chua's The battle hymn of the tiger mother (its German title, The Mother of Success is much better) and Paul Midler's Poorly made in China. In a nominally patriarchic world, the real power lies with the matriarch (giving it a very Mediterranean flair with outward machos who are tame at home).

Another interesting aspect is the front-loading of relationships we see so often in Red Chamber. A large initial investment is followed by growing disappointment and neglect. See the sorry state poor concubine Zhao has to live with. Both marriage and contracts are seen as points of departure whose standards only have to be maintained according to the power relations of the parties (sort of like a Newt Gingrich or John McCain marriage).

The interesting question is what keeps a woman in her position? Can somebody like concubine Zhao actually improve her position (she certainly tries and pushes any way she can)? The following chapter foreshadows the fall of Xifeng and a foolish marriage by her (blue-balled, given the complications of her miscarriage and the suicide of his mistress) husband.

Chapter 64 All in the family

While the funeral activities proceed, Baoyu's maids amuse themselves. Only dutiful Xiren keeps her affairs in order. Baoyu visits Daiyu who has written five emo poems about famous suicidal/murdered women.

Meanwhile, the funeral activities serve Jia Lian as means to flirt with a poor relation. Like all pre-20th century families, the Jias' free cash is sparse (despite their large assets). The relatively trivial sum of five hundred taels helps Jia Lian to go see his poor relation in the Ning Mansion. Jia Jung assists in arranging the details of this sorry marriage.

They plan to pay off her old marriage contract to a fallen family (the Changs) and set her up in a love nest outside the family compound. Having no fortune or position, Second Sister Yu has no prospect at improving her situation. A second class marriage may be better than none. The sorry state of concubine Zhao might counsel against the match. For Jia Lian, this easy marriage could prevent a better marriage if Xifeng should die from her complications.

Like two teenagers, Jia Lian and Second Sister Yu exchange nibbles of food and a handkerchief to test the water. Both parties like what they see. Jia Jung breaks the news to old Mrs. Yu. Jia Zhen had already agreed (Second Sister Yu had already had an affair with him too!), so the marriage proceeds. A twenty room house is bought and furnished. If they are so cash-strapped, how can they pay for it so quickly (and without Xifeng learning about this)? The Changs bought out, Xifeng remains the only obstacle before the marriage can proceed. The verses at the chapter ending hint at trouble ...

Edited: Apr 12, 2011, 12:45pm

> 3

It is always interesting to see how different people interpret information differently. You seem to see The Geography of Thought mainly in terms of a Western political debate about the Clash of Civilisations. Living and working among a group of Chinese I used it more to understand what was happening around me, as anthropological input. It has been a while since I read the book, but I do not recall it as a book that concluded that the twain (East and West) would never meet. I actually found Asian thought quite favourable vis-à-vis the over-valuation of the self that can be found in American thinking. You can be a master of our own destiny to some extent, but if you start your life in an Ethiopian village your chances are rather different than when you grew up in Greenwich CT. And most of the performance of a company on the stock market is due to general economic trends, not due to the inflated self-esteem of the CEO, to give just one other example.

Great that you enjoyed Five-fold happiness so much. I think you hit the nail on the head in your review about quite a few things, but I am not yet sure if you appreciate the reach of these concepts. One of my colleagues is of Chinese origin, but raised in the American Mid-West. He regularly calls himself “Chinese”, but I always call him a fake. The main reason is because he argues like Nisbett, and never brings up any of the five concepts of happiness in discussions. The pursuit of luck, prosperity, longevity, happiness, and wealth are subject of talk and thinking much more often among Chinese than among Westerners. Interior design, gambling, the numerous doctor visits leading to endless amounts of medicine, the choice of food in a restaurant, etc. should all be seen in the light of improving luck, prosperity, etc. These values can all be quite individualistic, but are not necessarily so in a Confucian context. Prosperity is à priori in the eye of the beholder, but if you read the first chapter of China’s New Confucianism, you’d see that luck, happiness, and wealth should be shared with the in-group. Regarding old people, author Daniel A. Bell remarks that

Even the seemingly trivial fact that the senior Communist Party leaders dye their hair black can be traced to the Mencian idea that “white haired people” should be cared for rather than engaged in heavy work: still today it might seem strange for “white haired people” to have too many responsibilities.

In the first 30 years of its rule the Communist Party tried to root out Confucianism. Now a statue of the sage graces Tiananmen Square. The new order has become an old order, and Confucian values could not be obliterated anyway. In that sense the Communist Party follows a general Umwertung aller Werte regarding “Asian values”: were Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism seen as liabilities that kept the East backward in colonial days, since the 1990’s they are seen as assets responsible for East Asia’s rise. It is only a matter of time until this will happen with Islam.

The concepts of Five-fold happiness get particularly interesting if you combine them with what Desmond Lam calls “control illusion” in The World of Chinese Gambling. It starts all with the flip side of the overvaluation of the self in Western thinking:

Chinese people tend to have an external locus of control. … Those with high internal locus of control believe they have control over their own behaviour and environment. Those people believe they have considerable influence over the outcomes in their lives. Those with high external controls believe they are dominated by external forces such as gods, fate, luck or powerful others – factors that are beyond their control.

However, many do have the illusion that they can influence the five concepts of happiness by scientifically unproven ways, i.e. superstitions. Many of the symbols in Five-fold happiness are actually considered auspicious. And this applies to astrology (after many days claiming to be auspicious for marriage I asked if there were also auspicious days for divorce, but this was not considered funny), face reading, palmistry, feng shui, temple visits, food choice, the choice of names for children, the numerical code used for the corporate general ledger, lion dances in the computer room, menstruation (improves a woman’s chance at gambling), etc. I have yet to meet the second Chinese who does not believe in ghosts (the one exception my colleague from the American Mid-West). And please note that within this context my friends and colleagues have no more cognitive biases than the rest of us:

Consequently, I also take a different approach at gambling than you do. I consider it part of the Chinese Weltanschauung. The Chinese do not believe in social justice and most believe that you can influence luck by pulling the right strings. Gambling is part of day-to-day life on a much larger scale than in the West. I don’t think many Westerners gamble at weddings and funerals, or 2-3 evenings a week after working hours. In southern China, that is quite common in the form of mahjong. It nearly always involves serious amounts of money, otherwise it is not fun. Beyond that there are the all important Mark 6 (lotto), horse races, and illegal football betting. Gambling may also be an expression of individualism, just like belting out in a karaoke bar is. It is a form of winning that the Chinese seem more eager at that than, say, winning at sports, which few play (and they still have one of the highest life expectancies in the world). Desmond Lam gives various reasons for the proficiency of gambling, among others entertainment, “get-rich-quick”, and to learn about your friends in stressful situations. I would say gambling means definitely more to the Chinese than the “tax on stupidity” that is popular in this corner of the world.

Thank you for making me aware of Poorly Made in China. It is generally accepted that East Asians have a higher preference for appearance over substance than Westerners. It is the basis for their “copy watch” and “copy bag” industries. A copy gives more face than some anonymous product. And Chinese corporations (and individuals, think gambling) do prefer “get-rich-quickly” schemes. China has been an unstable environment for more than a century, and most Southeast Asian countries have been so since 1941. I can recommend you New Asian Emperors for further reading. It is a pretty concise book that seems to aim at senior managers in Southeast Asia, albeit those that can raise more attention than is required for a Powerpoint presentation. Although it dates from the 1990’s, it covers such aspects as Confucianism in relation to the family, the importance of guanxi, the Chinese’s dominant control of information, the different modi operandi of Chinese and Japanese corporations, and Chinese business strategy vs. Mintzberg, and the disadvantages of the Chinese business strategy.

And lastly, regarding drinking games. They are a bit different than you may expect. The two major drinking games involve dice and the number of fingers. In both cases it is the loser who has to drink, usually a glass of beer, rice wine, or XO cognac. Although it is considered fun if everybody gets drunk, it is usually the idea to get others drunk first. Westerners find that puzzling at first.

Apr 12, 2011, 5:31am

Just a quick note, as typing the deserved longer response is awkward on my phone (on vacation in Manchester UK).

While I can easily construct a balanced scorecard out of the other 4 factors, luck does not seem to fit in there, being in my view an intervening variable to the other four. What is the relationship of luck an the (Western) goal of autonomy?

Gambling and drinking allow a temporary loosening of the stiff upper lipp without the risk of losing face (perhaps accounting for their popularity in UK).

Re superstition: The world is still a very medieval place ...

Edited: Apr 13, 2011, 1:56am

Maybe my formulation wasn’t always the clearest. My only excuse is that I just came back from a holiday as well.

I think you are right that luck is more an intervening variable to obtain the other four. That is probably why Vivien Sung speaks about “concepts” of Five-Fold Happiness. I do see the pursuit of luck as an often superstitious expression of the Chinese external locus of control (that being the root of their Weltanschauung). If you do not believe that you are the master of your own destiny and that you are not that autonomous in your accomplishments, you will sooner try other ways to influence the outcome of life, e.g. betting on a way to influence luck. If you do not believe in social justice (and I would consider the belief in the benefit of hard work a form of social justice), then again luck might be just the way to move ahead.

Despite being rich developed countries, neither Singapore nor Hong Kong have social security protection against unemployment. The citizens firmly believe their governments’ opinion that this would lead to wide scale abuse. Helping those with bad luck in this matter is not seen as important. Here the strong segregation between “in-groups” and “out-group” may also play a role. On the one hand you may not trust that people outside your relatively small group will not abuse the system, while you know that they will consider most other citizens outside their group and therefore do not need to restrain themselves. If this is really true, I do not know. If you look at housing in Chinese cities, you will find these places orderly and clean. Equivalent buildings in the West would be full of graffiti and litter. On the other hand, in public transport the Chinese can behave rather obnoxiously. But that even applies to the usually courteous Indonesians.

I would stay superstition is still everywhere, and used to be much stronger here early in the 20th century. It is also a matter of education. Looking at the middle classes of Chinese I found that they hardly followed the official religions, but that the superstitions were better survivors.

Enjoy your vacation in the Donguan of the 19th century.

May 1, 2011, 3:38pm

After the computer or the internet ate my comment mid-week, let's start again.

"Chinese people tend to have an external locus of control." With good reason, if one considers what happened to ordinary Chinese during the last 300 years. The incredibly stoic acceptance of misery the peasants exhibit in Peter Hessler's Country Driving reminds me of medieval Europe: "God has given and God has taken it away." Enterprising people can cheat on the margin. Cheating seems to be a national sport (cf. Germany vs. Italy and Japan vs. China on obeying rules and quality control). A perceived lack of actorship turns into an absence of personal accountability and responsibility.

The biography of the American founder of the Ever Victorious Army I read featured a cruel example of Qing superstition: He married a Chinese girl who was considered "unlucky" because her fiancé died before the marriage (opening the way for international cultural arbitrage). Maybe the superstition was warranted as her new husband died within a year of their marriage. To lose a fiancé may be a sign of carelessness ...

What is interesting in Dreams is the different level of religiosity shown. The private religiosity of Baoyu and some of the girls contrasts positively with the superficial ceremonies that some family members even abuse for flirting. A lot of Chinese religion and superstition seems to me formulaic, superficial and not deeply felt convictions.

The following chapter 65 is pure slapstick and very enjoyable to read.

Chapter 65 Love and marriage

Jia Lian installs his new wife and mistress Second Sister Yu in her love shack, together with her mother and sister. Jia Lian enjoys his newfound marital bliss away from the sick dragon at home. Five taels of silver for their upkeep looks like a good affair. Jia Jung seeks to profit from his insider knowledge in starting an affair with Third Sister who is actually smart and equipped with guile. With carrot and sticks. In a sexy show including wiggling her feet, she shows them the potential merchandise but refuses any samples. Jia Jung can only pick up the tab. Second Sister asks her husband to push Jia Jung to marry Third Sister - who hopes for a better outside match.

The rest of the chapter is spent on gossiping and dishing dirt on Xifeng and the rest of the girls. Dumbbell for Yingchun, Rose for Tanchun and Sick Beauty for Daiyu are not bad nicknames.

Edited: May 7, 2011, 11:33am

A high external locus of control seems quite common in East Asia, as is gambling. War and corvée have been regular factors in many places over the centuries. But German Bürgertum has suffered many wars also. I recognise the image you gave of Peter Hessler’s book. Although it is about Indonesia (again) and not about China, the anthropologist Gerben Nooteboom has written an excellent account of how farmers in Java try to cope with the various options they have to earn a living, and how community rituals affect them. In A Matter of Style, he describes how farmers are rational actors trying various risk/return strategies. And cheating with community rituals is one of the view possibilities to get ahead in villages with little money and high inflation. I highly recommend this book (a kind of “freakonomics of third world poverty”) for its humane outlook, and you can download it for free from the author’s homepage (it is in my review).

“International cultural arbitrage” was a common thing in (pre-)colonial Asia outside Japan. The Japanese forbade Westerners taking out the concubines when they left Japan; I do not know if that applied to Chinese traders also. In the rest of Asia the mingling of traders with local women was very common. After all, there are few better ways to learn the local language and customs. From India to Singapore you will still find Portuguese names among the “Eurasian” Indian looking middle classes. Lola Walser, if she’s still reading this thread, will appreciate The Social World of Batavia. It describes colonial Jakarta as a place where local and mestizo women could gain a pretty prominent position in colonial society. Few European women went there, so many Europeans started relationships with local women. The Europeans could not handle the climate very well and often died young. Their wealthy widows were sought after by new shipments of young men. This was not just for their wealth, but also because these women operated as power brokers among the colonial elite. After a few generations, the local elite clans were mostly mixed racially and culturally. This situation basically remained until the second half of the 19th century. At that time the monopolies of the trading companies were revoked and tropical diseases were better treated. The new influx of Europeans brought their own wives with them, replacing the elite's Creole lifestyle with a European one. The arrival of European women is generally seen as one of the causes for the growing segregation from the native population.

I would not know how to assess if Chinese religion is more superficial and formulaic than Western Christianity. The middle classes in modern outposts like Hong Kong and Singapore do not seem to be very religious. They follow the Western European pattern, rather than the pattern in America and the Islamic world, and this may support your classification. On the other hand, the Mainland government takes religion very seriously, and tries to remain very much in control of religious groups, no matter if it is Catholicism or the rather esoteric Falun Gong (Chang's book Falun Gong : the end of days gives you more details). The Chinese have a lot of choice when it comes to religion: traditional gods, Taoist gods, Buddhism, Islam, and in most centuries Christianity in various forms were all practiced throughout the Middle Kingdom. Too much choice usually does not make choosing easier, particularly if you allow yourself to mix gods from various religions. Polytheism is retreating against the Abrahamic faiths almost everywhere (except India, where that process has stopped). However, this East Asian flexibility also allows for the construction of gods that cater to specific needs. In The Rise of a Refugee God, you will find how an obscure god from the Mainland could become the leading “saint”, personifying the aspirations of waves of immigrants, just like the beatification of the last pope does for East Europeans. The refugee god’s temple is now the busiest in the region. As another example, I have written a short review of The Haunting Fetus, which deals with abortion in Taiwan. It describes a religious cult imported from Japan that helps people to deal with this modern phenomenon. It may look superficial and is certainly a source of income for some, but its flexibility can deal with various views and emotions.

May 8, 2011, 6:45pm

>10 mercure: So many books, so little time ... You will probably already have read The Mystery of Capital by the unfortunately named Hernando de Soto (people should refrain from giving their children with iconic names. I hope there are few to none Albert Einsteins and Abraham Lincolns living today.), if not you should. He talks about the importance of property rights and a functioning judicial system as major stumbling blocks for entrepreneurs in less developed countries. Peter Hessler has a nice example about the difficulties of a Chinese peasant entrepreneur's access to capital due to the inability to mortgage his land. Guanxi are but a tenuous substitute. Hessler attributes the Chinese rulers' fear about Falun Gong not to its content but its creation of (parallel) national social networks. He also shows the pragmatism of Chinese bureaucracies to adapt to local eventualities.

The next chapter works as a tragic play in the play about gender double standards.

Chapter 66

First, an outside account presents a less than flattering view of Baoyu: Vaut-rien or poetic gallant? Probably a bit of both, but in any case unsuitable for work, a domesticated version of Xue Pan.

As everything moves within small circles, Third Sister's marriage wish falls on an old acquaintance, the young actor who did not appreciate Xue Pan's advances. By a stroke of fortune, the young man and Xue Pan have mended fences when the young man saved Xue Pan from robbers on the road. China is a big small country. Jia Lian finds the two in the countryside and talks the young man into a marriage proposal to Third Sister. As a betrothal token, the young man hands over a pair of ancestral swords (Wouldn't that constitute an enormously bad omen? I think I read somewhere never to gift knives in Asia because of the bad karma the pointy things cause.). A second mistake is informing Xue Pan about his second marriage. It will only be a matter of time before he passes on the information to Xifeng (who has been successfully kept out of the loop).

The young man returns to the mansion to ask Baoyu about Third Sister. The hasty acceptance of the proposal obviously troubles him. Naive Baoyu's allusion to the great beauty of Third Sister and her appearance in male company triggers the young man's red alarm. He suspects the worst about his fiancée's morale (not totally wrong, see the sexy dance in the prior chapter) and calls the wedding off. He even wants his heirloom swords returned.

Now, the loss of face is complete and all exits are blocked. Third Sister chooses the honorable if gruesome escape of public suicide with one of the heirloom swords. The young man, having insulted the Jia's a second time and being directly responsible for her death, takes the less hurtful but career ending path of becoming a monk.

The only one slightly profiting from the affair is Jia Lien who no longer has to provide for the supernumerary Third Sister. Xue Pan's tongue will certainly result in his punishment too.

The transformation from slutty dancer/drinking mate to virtuous maid in chapters 65 and 66 is a bit strange to me. It is not clear how far the drinking party went sexually, Third Sister certainly wasn't a saint or under the same restrictions as the Jia damsels. It is another example of the extreme double standard in sexual matters in patriarchal societies.

Edited: May 9, 2011, 2:11pm

So many books, so little time… But hopefully some more people read your thread, and maybe some people find inspiration for reading background information. Although I am wondering if there are still others reading this, given the limited number of reactions we seem to get.

I have not read de Soto’s book, but am somewhat familiar with his ideas. E.g. I recently finished Niall Ferguson’s mildly interesting The Ascent of Money, that spends some 4 pages on de Soto’s proposal to give the poor property rights, so they can mortgage their houses for loans to become entrepreneurs. De Soto estimated the value of the global poors’ real estate is around USD 9.3 trillion. According to Ferguson the theory did not work in practice in Peru and Cambodia. Relatively few managed to secure loans and in many cases developers and speculators bought out – or threw out – poor residents:

It is not owning property that gives you security; it just gives creditors security. Real security comes from having a steady income.

There is some truth in that, but starting entrepreneurs rarely have a steady income, and mortgaging your house only makes sense if you can invest it in a way to generate more income somewhere down the line.

I am not so sure if the rule of law is really that necessary for society to move ahead. I know it is currently a very popular theme, among others with people like Niall Ferguson. The rule of law as we know it is however a very Western concept and strongest in the Anglo Saxon world, which is currently the noisiest intellectual corner of the world. However, many "tigers” have grown rich despite being corrupt, one of the characteristics of a dysfunctional rule of law.

In this article Jagdish Bhagwati claims that

the cost of corruption will vary with the specific policies. The cost of corruption has been particularly high in India and Indonesia, where policies created monopolies that earned scarcity rents, which were then allocated to officials’ family members.

Such “rent-creating” corruption is quite expensive and corrosive of growth. By contrast, in China, the corruption has largely been of the “profit-sharing” variety, whereby family members are given a stake in the enterprise so that their earnings increase as profits increase – a type of corruption that promotes growth.

Basically, Asian economies have always functioned without a rule of law as we know it. However, large institutions and particularly banks are probably more vulnerable and more in need of the rule of law than rural China. That is why they work out of Hong Kong and, particularly, Singapore, the cleanest spot in Asia. In another article on the same site (I cannot find it back however), someone claimed that stability in practices is more important than the rule of law in itself. I can appreciate that argument. A revolving door of new bureaucrats, either because of coups d’état or elections in corrupt countries, could be more harmful to investor trust than corruption itself.

Peter Hessler may have used Kellee Tsai’s Capitalism without democracy : the private sector in contemporary China as background documentation for his book. The difficulties of getting loans and the interest and “commissions” paid can indeed be staggering by our standards. Interest rates over 20% or 30% seem quite common if you are not a big business linked to the government. Keep in mind however that micro credit organisations elsewhere often charge 20% also. Likely such rates are easier to digest in an economy that grows at a rate of 10% p.a.. I wonder what growth and inflation rates would be if small and medium seized enterprises were not charged such whopping rates. Interestingly, the authoress of Capitalism Without Democracy also claims that

Most of China’s formal institutional reforms have been in reaction to endogenous pressures – that is to dynamics in the private sector that were already occurring on the ground level in China. (…) The actual casual dynamics leading to elite level decisions arise from grassroots interactions among entrepreneurs and between entrepreneurs and officials. These exchanges have facilitated business practices that are usually informal, if not explicitly illegal, (…) which in turn attracted elite-level attention in sanctioning, post hoc, changes in the country’s economic and political institutions.

The book also outlines various coping strategies, regional differences in economic organisation (they affect the access to credit among others), informal forms of finance (e.g. Old Folks Associations investing their savings by lending money; not a bad strategy as interest rates on saving accounts are notoriously low), and the question if a capitalist bourgeoisie may overthrow the regime.

May 19, 2011, 7:57pm

>12 mercure: I wouldn't worry about readership too much. It is a strange fact of the internet that lurkers vastly outnumber posters. My writing is largely intrinsically motivated. Any readers (and responses) are only a highly welcome plus.

Alois Schumpeter has written about the cleaning effect of competition in politics (or in the Ferguson quack-speak the Western "killer app" of competition - in contrast to sand-boxed apps, institutional, legal and cultural changes are rarely independent).

Chapter 67 Gifts and gall

The house is still in shock from Third Sister's suicide. Baochai reacts rather coldly - always the realist. To change the mood, her mother advises her son to give a dinner to his employees as a reward for a successful business trip, from which Baochai has received many gifts which she distributes liberally around the house. She is especially considerate with gifts to Daiyu. This backfires as it triggers Daiyu's nostalgia and another round of weeping about her loneliness and poverty. Even Baoyu can't cheer her up, so he takes her along to thank Baochai. Even Concubine Zhao receives presents but gloating too much, she is smacked down by Lady Wang.

Meanwhile, Xiren checks in on Xifeng, smelling a scandal in the making. Xifeng and Ping'er discuss her husband's secret marriage. Inquisition time: Xifeng grills the servants who fearing Xifeng more than her husband spill the beans about her husband's secret actions. Xifeng is angry about the betrayal and indecency. She clearly wants revenge ...

May 22, 2011, 5:44pm

Chapter 68 I will strike down upon thee with furious vengeance

Xifeng waits until her husband is away on a business trip, before she enacts her revenge. Firstly, she vists Second Sister in her house and bullies her to come back to live in the mansion. Well, not exactly the mansion but in the garden. Xifeng replaces her own servants with one's who do Xifeng's biding and under orders to mob Second Sister. Why did Second Sister agree to all of this? She was quite crafty in negotiating the marriage deal. Now, she has given up control all for the sake of decorum. One can now better understand the frustrations of Concubine Zhao, Xifeng is quite the bitch!

The second step of Xifeng's revenge falls on the Jias who have agreed and facilitated the marriage. Xifeng is willing to taint the family name and bring on a fake lawsuit. All to get back at her relatives. With liberal use of coins, Xifeng bribes Second Sister's former fiancé and a judge. Then she confronts and insults Madame Yu and Jia Jung in person. She bullies them into a confession and even turns a profit from extracting financial compensation. Most heinously, though, she pushes them into offering Second Sister and financial compensation to the former fiancée. If this plan succeeds, Xifeng not only gets rid of Second Sister, she will have punished her by sending her into a unwelcome and sullied marriage. To complete her vengeance, Xifeng goes to tell Second Sister the news herself. Only a fortunate return of Jia Lien can safe Second Sister now from Xifeng's fangs ...

May 31, 2011, 6:56pm

Chapter 69 Big Love, smothered to death

This chapter shows Xifeng at her worst. Who would win in a cage match: Marquise de Merteuil from Dangerous Liaisons (I love both the book and the film) or Xifeng?

Xifeng officially introduces Second Sister to the Old Dowager who checks out the important features of a Chinese woman: face (skin), hand and feet. Second Sister is also presented to the other women and thus adopted into the family.

At the same time, Xifeng continues to push Second Sister's former suitor into suing the Jias. He is reluctant, knowing that such an important family will strike back. His plea is rejected in court, and he is beaten up outside it. He doesn't give up yet. claiming that he never received the monetary compensation. They urge Second Sister to be sent to them, an outcome Xifeng would approve if it didn't also mean a complete loss of face for the Jia clan. Having pocketed quite some money, the Changs back down.

This poses a problem for Xifeng who hasn't solved her Second Sister problem and additionally faces a potential blackmail threat by the Changs about her double dealing. Xifeng orders her servant to kill Chang but her servant refuses to murder an innocent. He says to Xifeng that Chang is dead, but both know this isn't true.

Jia Lian returns home only to learn that his hidden marriage has been revealed and his bird introduced into the family compound. As a reward for his business acumen, Jia Lian receives a further concubine called Qiutong from his father. He now has to balance the relations between Xifeng, Ping'er, Second Sister and Qiutong.

While Jia Lian is on another short trip, Xifeng restarts her intrigue. Mobbing is the new approach. All the womenfolk except Ping'er gang up against poor Second Sister. Qiutong joins the fray with the additional twist that she considers herself superior even to Xifeng (a rather strange idea). Apart from Ping'er's food assistance, Second Sister has no friends and relations to escape from this dreadful situation. Jia Lian, who might have been the only one who really could help, has only eyes for his new concubine Qiutong. Giving up her own house truly was a bad decision. Second Sister dreams about her dead sister urging retribution.

Sick Second Sister is apparently pregnant. Out of cheapness, an incompetent doctor is called whose medication induces Second Sister to miscarry. Already the second miscarriage in the household. Inwardly, Xifeng is glad about the miscarriage while she feigns compassion and uses the occasion to berate Ping'er for being without child (although a Ping'er pregnancy would not fit into Xifeng's plans). Xifeng likes being mean. Her next hit is directed at Qiutong whose horoscope is said to be responsible for Second Sister's illness. Xifeng urges to have her removed from the compound. Qiutong complains to Lady Xing, Jia Lian's mother, who scolds her son and pushes the concubine to vent her anger at poor Second Sister.

Second Sister commits suicide by asphyxiation, swallowing a piece of gold. As always, the Jias spend lavishly on funerals, except Xifeng doesn't want to provide funds for the coffin. Ping'er secretly supplies some 200 taels of silver to Jia Lian. Instead of staying within this limit, he spends 500 taels on the coffin, thus further increasing the family debts.

The whole Second Sister courtship turned out as another terrible investment (cost of courtship and renovations, Xifeng's bribes, cost of medicine and funeral). Qiutong has just been promoted to target number one on Xifeng's hit list ...

Jun 5, 2011, 6:33pm

Chapter 70 Entangled Kites

A slow chapter after all that mayhem. Firstly, they bury Second Sister besides her sister well beyond the Jia family plot. Not a bad resolution given the trouble the Jias caused the two sisters. Next, after a short vignette about Baoyu's rowdy entourage, we learn that Baoyu isn't learning. He should have been practicing his writing but lags well behind. As usual, the girls chip in and help him out. Besides his own renewed effort, the girls produce faked writing exercises for Baoyu - letting the Chinese Ferris Buehler off the hook!

A question: How gendered is Chinese handwriting?

With all that murder and mayhem in the house, the Begonia poetry club had been neglected. They try to revive by a rebranding as the Peach-Blossom Society. Another date collision postpones that club's inaugural meeting. Finally, they get around to a poetry session. At a timed competition, Baoyu and Tanchun again reveal their mental slowness. Daiyu, Baochai and Baochin are lightyears ahead. After poetry, they engage in kite flying (at which Baoyu shows himself to be bad too). Daiyu cuts the chord of her kite, letting it fly off. Tanchun tries to follow but hers is entangled with a mystery kite. A third kite "good luck" joins the two entangled ones. All three chords end up cut and the three kites drift off - rather different than the Afghan kite battles in The Kite Runner. Afterwards, they return to their quarters.

Who is the mystery kite owner?

Jun 6, 2011, 5:31pm

I've somehow jumped ahead several chapters, but there's still no answer to that. At any rate, I'd guess that episode points to Tanchun's good (marital) future, although the clouds are gathering over Jias...

Edited: Jun 7, 2011, 1:04pm

"Killer-aps" as you mention in #13? Well, Ferguson shanghaied a new girlfriend, so he may feel a bit younger than you would expect from a Harvard professor. I am reading myself through Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s Buru Quartet of historical novels about Java at the start of the 20th century. Minke, the main character, is highly impressed by European science, medicine and work ethic. He also trusts the Europeans when it comes to property rights to his detriment. These are four of Ferguson’s six factors of why the West is ahead of most of the rest of the world (Minke also wanted equal treatment for women, just like Ferguson’s girlfriend). But Toer was a socialist, and thus a follower of a Western ideology. Like you I am equally sceptical about Ferguson’s points. They seem a little bit too much like the Anglo American strengths of the last 60 years. But I have not read his book, so I abstain from judgment.

Regarding face in #15, please note that “good luck face” is still considered an auspicious sign. The book The Essential Face Reading considers every part of the head as an indication of intelligence, luck, prosperity, health, etc. The book describes among others 14 types of noses and 12 types of lips. Beyond form colour or moles are also seen as indications.

In Hong Kong it is quite common to see people carrying a portrait of a potential spouse to a face reading expert. Reportedly, Shanghai is ahead of the curve:

Men get surgery too, of course, but not so much. It's often done to create large, thick auspicious earlobes - note Buddha's pendulous earlobes. They do it not for looks, but for luck.

Jun 8, 2011, 8:24am

>18 mercure: I am happy (and society in general is probably relieved) that these two have found each other and am awaiting the results of their Galtian experiment. If I look at the image projected by Ferguson in his newest TV documentary series, the signs of a man in midlife crisis are all there, starting with his penchant for unbuttoning his shirt to a level that was last cool during the 1980s.

His new book is now available in the library, but I don't think I can stomach his mix of truthiness and intellectual vacuousness. Just one example from the TV documentary: One of his "killer apps" is medicine. Much of Western imperialism, however, actually happened earlier under terrible medicinal conditions. The advent of proper Western medicine is only a late 19th/early 20th century phenomenon (and thus only relevant to the conquest of Africa). In contrast, Jared Diamond's "Germs" idea hits its mark. In poor countries, clean water and hygiene are more important than medicine. Perhaps hygiene is the better label. The current obesity wave shows that, despite ever increasing powers of medicine, public health is actually worsening.

Ferguson is a peddler of bad ideas (despite his total ignorance of macroeconomics, he is regularly given a platform in the US media to talk about economics). Among the offerings from the ever diminishing stable of fact-based conservative thinkers, I will probably read Fukuyama's Origins of Political Order first.

>18 mercure: Physiognomy is an interesting proto-scientific combination of reductionism (pars pro toto) to achieve a holistic means. A part (fractal) carries the full information (the "essence") of the total. Now wonder that classification mad societies love it. Biometric passports revive some of the societal slotting. Vienna is a great city for physiognomicy: While they (finally!) closed the ethnology museum's outrageous "race characteristics room" in the early 1990s, there are the wonderful character busts by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt in the Belvedere Museum and exhibits in the nearby museum of caricature.

The article you linked to includes a great expression: "a businessman, looking for a full-time wife". We are apparently back in Second Sister territory ...

Edited: Jun 8, 2011, 1:09pm

That result is on the way, and I wish them lots of happiness. Actually, I think I added Ferguson’s book Colossus to my wish list because of your positive rating and review. I have only read his book The Ascent of Money, and I cannot confirm it is proof of your statement that he is totally ignorant of the Dismal Science. It is quite a balanced book, actually. Before that I had seen titles like “How Britain Made the Modern World”, which is indeed roughly in the same category as “The End of History” or “The One Man That Peed In His Pants And Changed The Course of History”. But that is what sells in your average international airport bookstore, it seems. And I may want to read Fukuyama’s Trust.

With “Full Time Wives” we are back in second sister and second wife territory. Last week in the paper here was an article from the Beijing correspondent on how the Schwarzenegger and Strauss Kahn cases were received in China. Strauss Kahn was despised because of his aggression, but Chinese men were a lot more positive about Arnie’s case. He had had a longer term relationship and had maintained the mother of his child financially. As such he had behaved like a proper Chinese mandarin would towards a concubine. Bao Ernai is again a very common phenomenon in China. East Asian Sexualities has a chapter that is both sad and hilarious about how the wives of Taiwanese businessmen who work in China are transformed into “first wives”:

My research in Shanghai found that some Taiwanese wives had to seek comfort and strength in religious gatherings and bible readings which encourage women’s tolerance and forgiveness towards their husbands.

In the 1990’s the Hong Kong tabloid Apple Daily used to carry a weekly article discussing the qualities of a karaoke girl the way my newspaper describes a restaurant. Men could discuss the qualities of karaoke girls in the office in the presence of female colleagues without punishment.

Jun 9, 2011, 3:36pm

This mention of Hong Kong reminds me of something I saw today: in the subway station the current giant posters advertise flights to Hong Kong on Cathay Air--five or six posters of smiling Asian (presumably Chinese) girls. That's it, just the girls, the backgrounds are solid colour, there's no text except for the airline and destination. The ensemble blares comically: "Chinese pussy! Come and get it!"

Oh, JC--before I forget--if/when you ever run out of classical Chinese novels, do give Lin Yutang a try! His A moment in Peking I'm currently reading is a family saga beginning with the Boxer rebellion, in themes very much like the Dream of Red Mansions--which is referenced and discussed in several places (there always was, it seems, a Team Daiyu and a Team Baochai). The head of the central family, the Yaos, is a rich Taoist gentleman of unusually broad horizons (contrasted to the conservative Confucianists) and just as unusually sympathetic to his daughters. The cast is smaller than in The Dream, but the situations and locations more varied. Highly recommended.

Jun 9, 2011, 7:05pm

>21 LolaWalser: Thanks for the tip. Aren't you collectively experimenting whether I will soon choke on books or be buried under a pile of books? Despite being a rather speedy and dedicated reader my TBR pile grows much faster. Vita brevis ... I must say that I don't really care for either Team Baochai or Team Daiyu. Firstly, the prize isn't attractive at all. Secondly, I root for Ping'er and the maid du jour, the Chinese equivalent of a Star Trek red shirt.

>21 LolaWalser: I think you fell for a tasteless urban guerrilla joke campaign.

>20 mercure: "She says she regards having a child as an egoistic choice, motivated only by her wish to enrich her own life." Cunning nature tricks even the most egoistic into altruistic acts. Enrichissez-vous (adding some Tiger Mom (tm) parenting tips to the mix).

Re Colossus, I agree with Ferguson's view that empires have received a too poor reception for all their efforts in exporting civilization. Empires that are in for the long run (in contrast to say Leopold II's or United Fruit's quick exploitation) pour in huge resources into development and modernization that is never profitable to the empire itself, only to the ungrateful locals. Finding a good trade-off between preserving traditional cultures and importing modern technology is tough (Canada being the stellar example down to the century-long mismanagement of Ireland).

Ferguson is best at institutional history and worst when systematic thinking is demanded and testing his own ideas (his confirmation biases are huge). As he is now entrapped at Harvard, which serves as a bastion of entrenched orthodoxy similar to the medieval university of Paris - think Name of the Rose, independent thought is not to be expected any more. As far as economics is concerned, I don't believe he masters IS-LM or economic fallacies. Perhaps he and Mankiw could read an older edition of Mankiw's own textbook to learn about basic macroeconomics. As their positions and compensations depend on them not-knowing, this is unfortunately unlikely. If I remember properly, Fukuyama’s Trust is quite a shallow book, with him just joining a then popular concept wave.

Edited: Jun 13, 2011, 4:40am

21: Please check the Financial Times, Lola. There Cathay Pacific also presents some fatherly pilots. Anyway it is only advertising if you compare it to this newspaper article from 2004:

China's 33-million-member public sector is more meritocratic than it was in Mao's time, with rigorous exams required for many positions. But the notion of merit includes some traits that are basically genetic and others that seem highly subjective.

In Hunan province in central China, for example, women seeking any government jobs had to demonstrate that they had symmetrically shaped breasts. The requirement was dropped only in March, but only after a public outcry by women who had been denied jobs on those grounds.

When the government-run Nanchang Institute of Aeronautical Technology vets candidates for jobs as flight attendants for the national airlines, applicants are asked to parade on stage in swimwear. School officials said the bikini test was part of a comprehensive examination that also focused on general aptitude and proficiency in English.

22: Ferguson is a historian by training, not an economist. Still, the IS-LM model is a first year textbook subject in economics, so there is little reason why he would not understand it. The model is not part of The Ascent of Money however, so you could be right. It does not matter for the book. Ferguson tries to reach a mass audience and tries to bring economic history in a kind of anecdotal way as befits a BBC documentary. It contains no radical statements, unless you consider a long-term prudent money supply a confirmation bias for a supporter of the Republican Party. I did not know that fellow Mankiw, but if he has been G.W. Bush’s economics advisor, may Kuan Yin bestow her mercy upon him; he will need it. And I am going to check out his blog.

If Ferguson claims that long-run colonisation cannot be profitable, he is wrong. I am no master of British, French or Portuguese colonisation, but I know a bit of how the Dutch did it, among others from De waaier van het fortuin about the Dutch East Indies. Reading this book is like an MBA-course in long term profitability (over 700 pages in Dutch, so don’t bother for your TBR pile; I don’t think you will ask Ayaan Hirsi Ali to translate for you). This was not only the case during the time of the ever stingy East India Company, but most of all in the 19th century. The East India Company was instrumental in creating innovations like the stock market (as well as derivatives, there is nothing new under the sun), the joint-stock company, and the Amsterdam Exchange Bank, an earlier version of the Bank of England and very much beloved by Ferguson. Shareholders ranging from the Stadtholder to housemaids obtained a dividend of 18% per annum from 1630-1670 and of 10% per annum from 1680-1730. I doubt if Goldman Sachs management has ever generated so much shareholder value so consistently. It got better in the early 1800’s with the policy of a yearly “Profitable Balance”, that was enforced by law in later years. Main source of income was the Cultivation Programme forced upon Javanese farmers. Their 20% tax and other sources of income led to profit of 823 million guilders from 1831 to 1877 for the Dutch treasury. That was on average between 13% and 31% and frequently around 50% of government income.

Java avait été pour la mère patrie une vache à lait dont le gouvernement pressait soigneusement les mamelles

The Indies reduced government debt and various levies and delayed the introduction of income tax. If you take the train from Amsterdam to Rotterdam (via Harlem) or the the sea link into either city’s harbours, you do so because of this Profitable Balance.

The effect on Java was an increase in the population, reduced mortality rates (but also periods of starvation) and, indeed, massive improvements in infrastructure and increased local economic diversity.

After 1877 the “Profitable Balance”was mostly invested in the Indies. The liberalisation of markets led to the foundation or helped the growth of multinationals like Royal Dutch Shell, Unilever, BHP Billiton, and ABN/AMRO. The balance was now often used for imperial wars like the one in Aceh, which seems very much like a precursor of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. You may enjoy my review of the De Atjeh-oorlog.

As far as Fukuyama’s Trust is concerned, I am interested in the economic and social value of trust, which still seems to exist in Northern Europe and Australia, but seems lost in the United States. If you can recommend me a better book, I’d be obliged.

Edited: Jun 13, 2011, 4:57am

19: If you do not mind I would like to come back for a moment to your remark that

One of his "killer apps" is medicine. Much of Western imperialism, however, actually happened earlier under terrible medicinal conditions. The advent of proper Western medicine is only a late 19th/early 20th century phenomenon (and thus only relevant to the conquest of Africa). In contrast, Jared Diamond's "Germs" idea hits its mark. In poor countries, clean water and hygiene are more important than medicine. Perhaps hygiene is the better label.

Again, I have not read Ferguson, and I would not rate myself as an expert in the history of medicine (or a follower of Ferguson, heck I have only read one of his books). You are right that proper Western medicines are mostly a late 19th/early 20th century phenomenon, and that hygiene is at least as important, particularly for the poor. I just checked back in The History of Hong Kong, and the concern with hygiene was an important policy issue around 1870, when the first Chinese hospital was opened there, with water closets as a nouveauté. The British had great trouble convincing the Chinese of the benefits of greater hygiene. Additionally, health conditions are improved by surgery. In that field the West was ahead of, among others, the Chinese. Chinese traditional medicine was stuck in a world equivalent to Galen.

Pushing back the time frame back 30-50 years is important, as it brings medicine more in line with the introduction of technology in the colonies. Before the Industrial Revolution the Europeans were hardly anymore modern than the places they colonised, particularly in fields like science and medicine. Hence, not much of such a transfer could take place.

As an interesting critique of Ferguson, someone on Amazon pointed out that some of the areas in India where the British had stayed longest (Bengal, Bihar) are now among the most backwarded.

There are other ways of looking at the rise of the West, e.g. the importance of geographical factors in line with Jared Diamond (the availability of coal and iron to kick off the power of steam, for example), or the surplus created by silver from the New World (China’s trade surplus is nothing new if you look back 500 years) in The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy and ReOrient. These books are still on my wishlist (the first one seems best). What seems interesting in Ferguson’s argument is that he looks at the contribution of ideas (decentralisation of political and economic life, rule of law, free speech), or, if you will, core competences.

We may question if the core factors of the past will be the same in the future. Interestingly, in the Ascent of Money Ferguson advocates prudent economic policies. He does not seem to think that as an important factor (sorry, but I cannot write “killer (…)”) in this later book. The current shift of power from the West to the East is among others related to excessive borrowing, financial short-termism, and the neglect of industry over services, particularly in the Anglo Saxon countries as well as economic sclerosis (another form of short-termism) in large parts of Europe.

Jun 13, 2011, 6:31pm

>21 LolaWalser:+23 So the Cathay Pacific ad was real? Strange, here it would at least be fined if not worse (incitement to sex trafficking?) and probably trigger a boycott.

>23 mercure: We should probably move the non-book specific discussion to a separate thread. You could open a thread in one of the non-fiction groups.

As far as book recommendations about "trust" go, one has to distinguish different strands of trust. One is social capital (read Putnam - Bowling alone about the replacement of strong social ties (union, church memberships etc.) by weak ties. Then you should read a book about social graphs/networks (alumni associations). The Dunbar number is relevant here (his essays have been combined in a reader recently: How Many Friends Does One Person Need?). Another strand is cooperation game theory research starting from Axelrod's The Evolution of Cooperation to Paul Seabright's Company of Strangers: Natural History of Economic Life. Another aspect of trust is signaling of trustworthiness (branding!).

Mankiw's macroeconomics has been the best selling textbook about this topic. I wonder how he manages to partition his mind to the fact that his political statements are contradicted both in fact and in theory (as spelled out in his own book. The many shiny coins he earned and earns are certainly helpful to soothe the pain. Ferguson is not as bad as Mankiw. Still, I don't like his postmodern approach to cherry-picking facts.

All empires have a tendency to expand beyond marginally utile territories. The hard-nosed Dutch kept their empire lean and mean, giving up hopeless cases such as New Amsterdam quickly (the French would have fought and lost three wars over it). There is also a structural difference between trading empires (Phoenicia, Venice, Netherlands) with minimal footprints and conquering empires.

>24 mercure: The next chapter includes an interesting vignette about Chinese hygiene: Yuang-yuang relieving herself in the bushes of the garden. It is strange that the upper class didn't use chamber pots.

Chapter 71 Another birthday party and another storm in a teacup

The Old Dowager turns 80 (79 in Western counting) and all dignitaries come to pay their respect. The Jias have to cough up for another round of festivities, partly compensated by presents. The festivities take the attention away from the normal supervision of the servants. Probably suffering from low blood sugar levels, Madame Yu is seeking to nab some food. Instead of having servants fetch some (even declining Ping'er's offer), she sends out her own maid to collect some from the closed down garden. Two old servants set an example of surely customer service and repudiate all demands for service. Nominally, they report to the other Jia branch. Madame Yu then escalates the matter by informing Xiren and finally Xifeng. The old servants are to be tied up and whipped. This triggers another round of their daughters' asking for clemency. Lady Xing also gets involved, using the occasion to blame Xifeng who for once is innocent. Lady Wang finally speaks a Solomonic word and the two culprits are pardoned by the grace of the Old Dowager's birthday.

We learn that stoic Baoyu lives by a motto opposite to "carpe diem": Che sera, sera. Who cares about the future?

The chapter ends with Yuang-yuang in the bushes discovering the maid Ssu-chi and her male cousin.

Always trouble with the servants who left alone engage in nothing but mischief. The middle management of Xiren, Yuang-yang and Ping'er is obviously failing to control the household.

Edited: Jun 14, 2011, 3:26pm

The Cathay Pacific ad campaign in the Financial Times showed among others well-polished ladies in their late twenties in a flight attendant uniform expressing meaningless customer care buzzwords that you normally do not pay attention to. It was less “exotic” than the women in your average SQ-campaign, and nothing that confirmed a reputation equivalent to SPG's, as far as I’m concerned.

Only slightly off topic, I thought the article about Zhou En-lai in the FT worth sharing:

The effect of the French Revolution? "Too early to say." (…)The former premier's answer has become a cliché, used as evidence of the sage Chinese ability to think long-term - in contrast to impatient westerners. The trouble is that Mr Zhou was not referring to the 1789 storming of the Bastille in a discussion with Richard Nixon during the US president's pioneering China visit. Mr Zhou's answer related to events just three years before, the 1968 student riots in Paris (…).Mr Zhou's quotation fitted with the widespread western view of an "oriental obliquity" that thought far into the future and was "somehow profound". "Whereas, in China, you mostly hear that the leadership is short-sighted, radically pragmatic and anything but subtle," he said. (…) Mr Zhou's cryptic caution also reflected the murderous political climate in Beijing at the time, and the premier would not have risked passing judgment on the radical French Maoists involved in the Paris riots.

In terms of hygiene, traditional Chinese villages have communal squad toilets (segregated by sex) where some people loiter longer than you would expect given the smell. I cannot recall I saw toilets in the fabulous traditional peranakan houses I visited in Malaysia, but waste was collected in 19th century Hong Kong to be used as fertiliser in the fields across the border (and spreading diseases). Remember that Joseph Needham has described the Chinese invention of loo paper early in history (it is in Bomb, Book and Compass). In 1295 the Yuan ambassador Zhou Daguan reported his surprise about the lack of loo paper in the empire of the Khmer in A Record of Cambodia: The Land and Its People. Such a lack in Nanyang (i.e. the lands of the Southern Sea) still surprises modern Chinese I can report from personal experience.

And just to waste a large word on imperial overstretch before I become quiet again, I am sure you will find the book China Marches West irresistible. It is about China’s troubled dealings with the steppe people along its Western borders. These attacked the Middle Kingdom in fast raids, whereas the Chinese had to raise a regular army against them to occupy the land. These armies were further constrained by difficult provisioning in dessert areas where food and water were scarce. It took me a trip to Western China to realise that probably some 20% of the Chinese landmass had a Muslim majority population.

Jun 14, 2011, 4:03pm


Cathay Pac. ads: the sardonic comment was mine, JC, the ads were entirely without text (save for the name of the airline and "x flights to Hong Kong").

Regarding toilets and waste management generally, I am currently reading a history of medicine in the West (epidemics-urbanism connexion), and giving thanks for living in a relatively hygienic, odourless age. Or maybe I mean location.

Jun 14, 2011, 5:36pm

>26 mercure:+27 That is more in line with Cathay's image highlighting its focus on attention, the ultimate aphrodisiac.

>26 mercure: I am grateful for all your input on imperialism and love discussing it. Just the connection to the Red Chamber's captive birds is rather flimsy at best. China Marches West is on my TBR list, although I am not a particular fan of that hilly desert region. I prefer green landscapes and plenty of water. The travel descriptions by Peter Hessler and Paul Theroux have not enhanced my desire to visit. It is strange that the silk road stayed in service for so long, despite the fact that much of China's population lived and lives near the coast or the big rivers. I am more interested in the end of the treasure fleet. Good logistics was crucial to Europe and America's success. It will be interesting to note how China can connect its inaccessible hinterland to the world.

The FT justly mentions that the Zhou quote has become a cliché similar to Gandhi's quip about Western civilization. The Yoda/exotic wise old man effect in full force. Short-term follies are plentiful in China too.

>27 LolaWalser: I can recommend Dan Snow's hands-on BBC three part muck-omentary Filthy Cities (2011), which should be available in the colonies via satellite. Lucy Worsley's If Walls Could Talk The History of the Home (2011) is great too (one episode devoted to the bathroom). I love her accent (or speak impediment?). Her tie-in book is mostly cribbed from other books, so I await the paperback version.

Edited: Jun 15, 2011, 1:09pm

Oh, I had no intention to discuss imperialism here. It was just that you seemed to express some opinions that probably could be nuanced by suggesting some potentially important facts.

At the danger that China’s overseas trade is equally limited in importance for the Red Chamber’s captive birds, When China Ruled the Seas is the pop-history book about China’s Treasure Fleet. These fleets were sent only from 1405 until 1433. The Treasure Fleets were huge, and have not been profitable, but they did have some political impact in places like Java and Sri Lanka. They were meant more to enhance the standing of the empire, just like organising the Olympics does today. Zhongguo, the Middle Kingdom, had a concentric conception of the world, placing itself at the centre. Surrounding realms were supposed to pay tribute, with the ones closer paying more and getting more trading opportunities in return. In the long run, the trade of the coastal Chinese with surrounding countries was of greater economic importance. In Imperial China 900-1800 (a book that will keep you occupied for a week or two) F.W. Mote describes the importance of the Treasure Fleet as follows:

These voyages are the great anomaly. Their abandonment soon after the Yongle emperor died reflects the regularity in Chinese foreign relations.

The anomaly is that it was Emperor Chengzu who launched them. He was the emperor most obsessed with China’s Inner Asian land frontiers and, one might think, the least aware of China’s great potential for maritime expansion. (…) The expeditions reflected his curiosity, his personal desire for all that they brought to his court, from kowtowing kings to marvellous things. It was his high ministers and advisers who from the beginning resisted the project, and with his death they prevailed.

According to Mote

Chinese rulers and statesmen dealt knowingly with matters of fiscal administration without formulating anything we can properly call an economic policy. Chinese rulers and statesmen did not see their country as being in competition with other nations.

If you think about it, despite the presence of many Chinese and proximity, China has had limited cultural influence on Nanyang. The important countries of Southeast Asia (Champa, Khmer, Majapahit, Srivajaya) all got their inspiration from India rather than China, although both cultures were about equally developed and Nanyang traded with both places. There is no explanation for that as far as I know.

The sea routes also have had limited cultural influence on China compared to the overland Silk Road. Twice China was conquered by peoples from the grasslands and raids were even more frequent. Chinese soil lacks the selenium necessary to breed horses. As City of Heavenly Tranquility states, the Chinese difficulty in establishing a cavalry was like “one side always had a monopoly on tanks”.

Just as Moscow started out as the place where the Russians paid their taxes to the Mongols, Beijing owes its origins to the place where the Chinese came to deliver their tribute to their uncivilised neighbours. It was a terminus at the junction of two worlds, where a finger of the vast north China plain points north and meets a southerly extension of that great belt of rich grasslands that stretches as far west as the Carpathian Mountains.

The book also states the camel caravans to and from Beijing only ceased in 1909.

China now invests heavily in its Western provinces. There are excellent asphalt roads in Xinjiang province for example. Although its capital Urumqi is far from China’s economic centre, it is close to the new states of Central Asia. Like the Balkan there are many small minority groups in Xinjiang. There should be plenty of opportunities to trade goods from China’s factories with these landlocked places.

Jun 15, 2011, 6:23pm

>29 mercure: I was unaware about the selenium argument.

Where was the Dutch cavalry? Despite plenty of flat land, I am not aware of famous Dutch cavalry units. City boys and peasants do not make good horsemen. I cling to the strategic choice explanation: war horses have no dual use and require a gentry (thus, the Southern initial horseflesh advantage in the American Civil War). Imperial China produced bureaucrats not generals; and mostly cheap infantrymen. It also learned early that buying off enemies is much cheaper than any war (its conquests only happened during times of internal economic stress).

One interesting fact is that the great port cities in both India and China were founded/developed by the British, the Portuguese, the Dutch. The internal rivers were much more important to China than the seaboard. The open trading cities are also much more difficult to control.

Peter Hessler's Country Driving has a great nugget of information. Many villages (former garrisons) along the Great Wall have very xenophobic place names, e.g. Kill the Hu (barbarians).

Jun 17, 2011, 3:49am

As far as I know the Dutch founded no cities in China, unless you mean Tainan, which would be a tad politically incorrect. Also, there were hardly any Chinese on the island at the time. The first groups of Chinese were brought there when the Dutch “hired” workers for their sugar plantations.

I think that of all the proper colonies in the Chinese realm (like Qingdao and Hong Kong Island) and treaty ports, only Macau, Hong Kong and Shanghai were founded by Westerners. These three were also the most important cities for international trade on Chinese soil, with Hong Kong only gaining significance after 1949. The treaty ports only came around in the 19th century. Before that trade went through Macau and Canton, with some illegal trade via the harbours in Fujian province, or with junks travelling to places like Manila (which was governed from Mexico City, making the delivery of silver easy). According to Empire: How Spain Became a World Power, 1492-1763

In the peak year 1597 the amount of silver sent from Acapulco to Manila totalled twelve million pesos, a figure that exceeded the total value of Spain’s trade across the Atlantic.

The Chinese traded

their rich silks when they saw our silver, and also provided the islands with cattle and even ink and paper

The profitability of the China trade is seen as a cause for the lack of development in the early Philippines (the country that spent 400 years in a Spanish convent, and 50 years in Hollywood, as the saying goes). The trading season lasted just three months per year, after which “Manila relapsed into indolence”.

By the way, for some short info on the Treasure Fleet and lots about trade and development in the greater Indian Ocean I can also recommend the often quoted Trade and Civilisation in the Indian Ocean.

The Dutch cavalry? Ha, I think (modern) Chinese ladies are more interested in this opportunity. Actually, I wouldn’t know. It would be a question I should ask you. It is a matter of some importance right now, with the Dutch government proposing to sell all tanks and thus effectively ending the existence of the cavalry and moving the last remains to its own museum. I find it funny that you bring up culture here. Contrary to previous discussions, my first response would be related to geography. The Netherlands have nobility that indeed liked the cavalry (although on the other hand, I thought our peasant cousins in the Transvaal were pretty good horse men, which would somewhat falsify your theory). Still, if you think of it, almost all Dutch military leaders with mausoleums were admirals rather than generals. The only Dutch general of notice in Martin van Creveld’s Command in War is Maurice of Nassau.

Being surrounded by the great powers of Western Europe, the Netherlands are an accident of history. Rich because of its river deltas with access to the French and German hinterlands (Napoleon called it “une alluvion des fleuves français”), it was the territory the English, Prussians and French did not want the other party to own as it would destroy the balance of power. That was also the reason for the reunification with the Southern Netherlands at the Congress of Vienna and the return of colonies after the fall of Napoleon: it was supposed to make the Netherlands a stronger buffer state (luckily, French interference ended this in 1831 already). Being surrounded by far greater powers, the domestic army has always been defensive in character, and as of the 19th century the military were supported by a policy of strict neutrality equivalent to Switzerland’s.

Next to location was the organisation of defence. It was centred on the province Holland, the richest and most powerful part of the Republic and later Kingdom. You could say that the province of Holland is a “green landscape with plenty of water”, that was put to use through the Dutch Water Line and later also the Defence Line of Amsterdam, which remained effective until the 10th of May 1940. The inundation of farm land is a great defensive tool for a small nation of shopkeepers, because it costs next to nothing in terms of space and money when there is no war. It was also very effective (except for the winter of 1794-1795 when the French invaded and all the rivers were frozen) until the Luftwaffe and the German field artillery made it obsolete.

The water lines are now an interesting bicycle tour. And yes, the province of Holland consists of mostly man-made land where nobility has had little or no role to play since the autumn of the Middle Ages.

Ms. Xifeng just whispers a question into my ear: does Austria still have a navy, like in the 1980’s?

Jun 20, 2011, 1:52pm

How interesting to chance upon the chapter summaries & the various observations here...

I've read《红楼梦》in Mandarin some time back and it might be time to revisit it; will go look for the translations. It'll take some time to catch up :-)

Louise P. Edwards has done some scholarship on gender issues in 《红楼梦》

Jun 20, 2011, 7:36pm

>32 yvkoh: Welcome to Singapore. I wish I could read it in the original. I fear the necessary time investment. Machine translation and character recognition advances so fast that my potential feeble efforts would be overtaken by Google & Co.

Louise Edwards' book is indeed a great read - but full of spoilers. My copy is waiting to be read instantly after we have closed the last page of Red Mansions.

>31 mercure: The Austrian navy has perfected its "stealth mode". The two remaining post-WWII Danube river patrol boats, Wikipedia informs me, have been assigned to future museum use (Crazy land-locked Switzerland still operates its own merchant fleet, currently ranked no. 70 in the world). Have a look at my new non-Red Mansions discussion thread.

Edited: Jun 22, 2011, 2:42pm

Singapore! Yesterday I was just explaining to a colleague how much I craved for good laksa, white pepper crab, and Sri Lanka crab curry.

Yesterday, I cleaned up my pc, and found a link to this page which lots of books about the things we are discussing (and a few books we have used). There also seems to be this magazine for anyone with the time to visit his local sinology faculty (it’s Brill again, JC).

Jun 21, 2011, 6:07pm

>34 mercure: Very interesting list with lots of intriguing titles (still no proper dedicated history book about the Three Kingdoms in English)! The print magazine is even surprisingly (unBRILLiantly?) moderately priced.

Chapter 72 Marriage bands and purse strings

Yuang-yuang keeps quiet about the young lovers. The girl directs her embarrassment into illness, the boy doesn't take any chances and bolts off. Yuang-yuang restores the girl's spirit, then visits Xifeng's (who is asleep suffering from Menorrhagia which can cause anemia). After a chat with Ping'er, she meets muddle-headed Jia Lien who asks her about the status of gift - which has already been transfered to his household. As we later learn, the Jias are actively pawning many of their valuables. Inventory control is both important and difficult. The real question of Jia Lien, however, is about money. He needs 2.000 to 3.000 taels for presentation gifts (a huge sum, considering that the maids earn 2 taels a month!). Jia Lien asks Xifeng to assist in getting the money. She agrees (under the condition that she can divert some of it for her purposes). It's a bit rich for Xifeng to shame Jia Lien with a reminder about her good dead girlfriend Second Sister.

On another front, Xifeng plays matchmaker for her servants, seeking to arrange a marriage for a servant's drunkard son. Xifeng also orders to reduce her outside loans to improve the clan's liquidity. The Jias are living beyond their means - pawning off their heirlooms to pay for their frivolous lifestyle. The next order of business has Xifeng handle the extortion by a leeching nobleman (who asks to Jias to expand his loans which he has no intention to repay). Xifeng can only mitigate the amount but not decline due to face. Finally, the Jias are thinking about saving (but in the wrong place: personnel is quite cheap, their conspicuous consumption and feasts are the major cost items!).

The servant maid which is to be betrothed to the drunkard is naturally not enchanted by this idea and seeks information from Concubine Zhao, always a source for mischief. Naturally, the concubine discovers another slight, this time it concerns prospective concubines for the sons of the family.

Edited: Jun 22, 2011, 2:50pm

He needs 2.000 to 3.000 taels for presentation gifts (a huge sum, considering that the maids earn 2 taels a month!).

Even today, the costs of a maid in Singapore or Hong Kong may be just about EUR 350 per month, plus food, medical insurance and one ticket home per year for a 6-day working week.

If you look at China’s Gini coefficient of income inequality (and I have taken the UN measure) than at 47 it is closer to Argentina’s (50) than the United States’ (41), not to mention France’s or Belgium’s (33). Some blame this on the difference between countryside and villages, but at 43, Singapore’s and Hong Kong’s Gini coefficient are also very high. Hofstede’s power distance may be a better explanation. The opportunities for corruption in such a large country with a one party regime may also influence the outcome.

The Jias are living beyond their means - pawning off their heirlooms to pay for their frivolous lifestyle.

Of course such behaviour happens everywhere. However, the book Asian Godfathers mentions somewhere that the Chinese fear a “three generation gap”: wealth built by the first generation is lost by the third generation. That is somewhat pessimistic compared to here, where people claim that it takes three generations of affluence to reach the upper classes. Recently one of my Hong Kong friends mentioned that such a process is happening: young affluent Honkies behave decidedly spoiled and lazy. I cannot judge if this happens more often in China than in Europe, but in a recent interview in National Geographic Lee Kuan Yew stated that he liked immigrants from China, because they were “hungry” and kept his compatriots and his country sharp. Chinese often talk about “the good life” without the guilt of Calvinism. Particularly Taoism would be an influence here. Can yvkoh help explain?

Jun 22, 2011, 11:46pm

Thank you for the kind welcome, jcbrunner & mercure; warm greetings from the sunny island of orchids and laksa.

Scholar-officials took a dim view of commerce (see 士农工商 -- or the four occupations) -- this contributed to a certain view of money.

There’s a term for “young affluent Asians who behave decidedly spoiled and lazy”: 草莓族. In the long run, unsound parenting & unintelligent political education will produce either conformism or cynicism -- or a debilitating mixture of the two.

Chinese often talk about “the good life” without the guilt of Calvinism. Particularly Taoism would be an influence here.

Yes, there’s been scholarship on comparative concepts of happiness.

Coming from a mongrel sort of society, I can’t speak confidently of an over-arching modern Chinese concept of eudaemonia from personal experience. Even religion’s a mixed pot in Singapore, with Christianity influencing certain sectors of society strongly. But there’s convergence on fundamental needs: We need to feel secure, emotionally and materially; we need to feel part of a community, to give and receive from family, neighbours and friends; we need to feel competent, that we’re not useless, are effective in chosen tasks; and -- perhaps this is open to debate in some societies -- we need to think we’re masters of our destinies to some degree and not living behind masks.

Lee Kuan Yew stated that he liked immigrants from China, because they were “hungry” and kept his compatriots and his country sharp

Yes, there’s that thrift, discipline and work ethic of migrants seeking a better life (similar to Weber's Protestant work ethic?). Going beyond that, there’s developing a sense of intrinsic motivation. One danger’s tying self-worth too strongly to spending power -- there’s been a rash of books on affluenza, status anxiety, and similar.

Ah, but let us return to the hothouse flowers of feudal China on the verge of decay. Beyond the statistics and appearances one needs beauty, the promise that life beyond is so much more worthy of reflection and so much more absorbing than whatever baser elements have come home to roost. :-) Am looking forward to renewing my acquaintance with the aesthetic charms of 《红楼梦》

Jun 23, 2011, 6:19pm

>37 yvkoh: yvkoh, I'd be interested in hearing what constitutes the book's aesthetic charms.

Is it the poetry? The socially constrained love? I must admit that (as a non-Chinese speaker) my main enjoyment lies in the social class drama (as laid out in the Communist foreword), the plights of the maids and servants faced with a decadent upperclass (cue BBC's Upstairs, Downstairs/Downton Abbey or Mann's Buddenbrooks).

Edited: Jun 25, 2011, 8:33am

The structure and beauty of the language; the care given to structure and beauty. Language in its different literary styles – narrative, dialogue, antithetical couplets, and of course the verses and their imagery. 紅豆詞, for instance, which has been set to music.
Also see秋窗風雨夕

There are the novel’s tensions, symbols and structures – innocence and experience, reality and utopia, realism and idealism. Characters are conceived in pairs – opposites, doubles, complements, with an interplay of comparisons and contrasts. There’s the “clean” maidenly world within Prospect Garden’s protective walls with its beauty, wit and talent, and the unclean masculine world beyond – ineptitude, corruption and concupiscence. The girls, immortalized in the celestial Registers and mourned in songs in the Land of Illusion, enjoy a privileged connection to the supernatural realm – the men are placed in far more mundane settings, from a local merchant’s wineshop gossip to Jia Yucun’s travesty of justice and Xue Pan’s lawless arrogance. At the same time, Xifeng, the woman of practical affairs, is set in contrast with Baoyu – poetic ideal vs practical reality – pacificity, poetry and feeling vs ambition, thirst for power, duplicity.

The rules and hierarchies of society outside are suspended in a garden-centred Qing literati culture – yet the garden-dwellers’ futile attempt to live in the springtime of the present and the garden’s inevitable ruin. Baoyu and the girls are physically and figuratively walled in, secluded from yet mired in the real world, yet the garden’s promise as a haven of young innocence starts from an untenable position as its foundations are those of the vices and quicksands of officialdom.

There’s a series of concentric circles: Baoyu at the centre of the poetic world, with the larger spheres of Red Delights, Prospect Garden, the Houses of Rong and Ning, and the world beyond surrounding him. At another level the novel is more than a backdrop to Baoyu’s love but also tells the story of a family’s decline and fall. There’s the counterpoint of the Jia family’s intrigues, internecine squabbles, marriages and deaths. You can see this contrapuntal construction from the start, with the novel’s multiple beginnings.

Jun 25, 2011, 7:46am

>39 yvkoh: Great post, thank you. I will try to devote more attention to the different localities of the novel (from the sancta sanctorum of the garden (though used by the servant's for hanky-panky and Xifeng's near rape/botched affair) to the uncouth world beyond the compound. It is an interesting parallel that in Europe at around the same time, Marie Antoinette looked for a similar bucolic escape. Rousseau sought to escape the strains of city life in suburbia (while the peasants went the other direction trying to free themselves of the toils of the soil).

Jose Carreras sings Red Beans. I have to look out to taste some sweetened red beans. Poetry about staples seems only to occur if they are flavored.

Jun 25, 2011, 4:02pm

That is all very interesting (hello, yvkoh!)

The gardens are metaphors for paradise in so many disparate cultures, Islamic, Asian or Christian. I wonder if the Chinese viewed them with the philosophical depth of the Japanese?


I looove red bean paste sweets--especially wrapped in mochi. Sadly-oddly, none of my Western friends share this taste...

Jun 26, 2011, 10:17am

Looks yummy.

Chapter 73 Trouble in paradise

Poor Baoyu is triggered into nightly cram session of reading and memorization trying to catch up on his studies. Rigid memorization skills for the win. His support troop of attendants (providing teas and snack) is ill-organized and maids start to collapse within hours. Caring Xiren isn't the best manager either. Baoyu finally calls off the show and feigns illness, though Ferris Bueller he is not.

Being up at night, the maids notice the servants roaming around in the garden and their gambling. While they catch nobody during the night, management is sufficiently frightened to root out these practices that result in financial waste and security breaches. The ringleaders of the gambling servants are severely punished and dismissed (a nice side-effect is a headcount reduction).

We also learn about the difficulties of a mistress to servant relationship, as in any principal agent situation, the agent has much leeway to inflict harm upon the principal. Lenient Yingchun, at a low rung in the family pecking order, is mistreated by her servants who also steal her goods. Revealing these acts would cost Yingchun a further loss of face. Thus, she is caught in a downward spiral of mistreatment. Her other servants escalate the matter in public. All the other girls rush in, Daiyu once again comments tactlessly, while Ping'er tries to coach Yingchun to stand up for herself. Without success, as the chapter ends on an interruption.

In a vignette, a dumb maid stumbles upon a satchel with pornographic/erotic? embroidery in the garden (probably left by one of the gamblers?). Despite being nearly fifteen years old, she fails to connect the dots. A truly Victorian ignorance about sex? Dumb and innocent sounds like a winning combination for the abstinence education crew.

Gambling, pornography and theft - sounds like the final days of the garden of Eden. When will they be expulsed?

Edited: Jun 27, 2011, 12:49pm

>>40 jcbrunner:: Such a happy song. There's this Milosz poem about strawberry jam and vodka.

红豆 in Chinese literature usually refers to inedible red seeds though.

>>Hi LolaWalzer, I'm not sure. I'm afraid I'm not familiar with Japanese philosophy and gardens other than what's in tourist guidebooks for Kyoto...

>>42 jcbrunner:: O Rose thou art sick.

Thanks for the entertaining summaries. I've to admit the first time I read Hong Lou Meng as a teen I fell heavily, droolingly asleep & couldn't get past the first few chapters.

Edited: Jun 27, 2011, 1:34pm

> 37 and 39:

warm greetings from the sunny island of orchids and laksa.

Orchids? Unlike Thailand I never associated Singapore with orchids very much, or it must be a new nickname for the country’s elegantly dressed women. It would be as poetic as “strawberry generation”.

You have a great library, particularly also about Southeast Asia. Your library made me want to combine a trip to East Coast Seafood Centre with a visit to Select Books soon. It would be wonderful if you’d have some reviews on your library page.

In terms of Chinese concepts of happiness, I checked your link, but it did not lead to any book or paper, would you know any? I just looked it up in A Short History of Chinese Philosophy, but this is all happiness at quite an abstract level. Commentary on the Taoist Chuang Tzu explains that

Only he who makes no distinction between himself and other things and follows the great evolution, can really be independent and always free.


But those whose happiness lies within the finite sphere will certainly suffer limitation. Though they are allowed to make excursions, they are not able to be independent.

The Neo-Confucianists saw morals and institutions as a development of this natural state.

If I map this on the story up to chapter 73, in terms of achieving happiness, they are indeed doomed.

Edited: Jul 4, 2011, 3:28am

Having read the first arc of Wild Swans, the Jias appear to be much less dis-functional than the Xias. Practices such as a daily morning kowtow and "If you are married to a chicken, obey the chicken. If you are married to a dog, obey the dog." are not the best way to happiness. It is interesting to note that the author in the new foreword considered the highly class-conscious British society an almost class-less society from a Chinese point of view.

(Edit: Corrected a touchstone gone wild - why should it choose a book with barely 150 owners instead of one with 4.500?)

Edited: Jul 4, 2011, 1:57am

You probably meant to connect to another book titled Wild Swans?

Jul 4, 2011, 6:22pm

Chapter 74 Nobody expects the Chinese inquisition

While Ping'er is still trying to resolve Yingchun's servant problem quietly, Xifeng wants to get rid of management responsibilities (I think she likes power too much to relinquish control). Her troubled husband pesters Xifeng again about money. This time, apparently, his mother demands another 200 taels. Out goes Ping'er's golden necklace to the pawnshop. Jia financial planning is atrociously short-term and cash-oriented (similar to credit card customers with large balances).

The next problem marches straight in. Lady Wang in her best Tipper Gore impression wants to sniff around the house to root out pornography. Firstly, she accuses Xifeng (and her husband) of being the satchel's owner. Mortified, Xifeng turns red (quite a feat given her anemia) and at a loss for words, but recovers fast, giving a good explanation why it is unlikely to belong to her. Next, Xifeng proposes to increase surveillance in the garden and use the occasion to fire some maids - which they can't given the loss of face a limited staff would cause the family.

Slowly, a storm troop of matrons is building up. The first target of their rage is Baoyu's maid Qingwen whose main cause of offense is her beauty and smartness. Poor Qingwen, unwell and unkempt, is sent for and receives a verbal lashing. Lady Wang wants her to be dismissed. Exit poor Qingwen. Xifeng is too weak to defend her. Lady Wang plans an evening raid on the locked-down garden.

After supper, they start searching the servants' quarters but find nothing truly incriminating. Next, they turn Baoyu's house upside down, humiliating Qingwen in the process. No luck there. Daiyu is next where they only find some of Baoyu's stuff. Defiant and forewarned Tanchun is next. She makes quite a scene (and informs us that the Jia allied Chen clan has been raided by the government - instead of raiding the garden, they'd better get their house in order.). One of the matrons escalates by pulling Tanchun's lapel and is boxed on the ears by Tanchun in turn. The raid continues at Li Wan's (also ill - they should rename the garden the hospital ...) and Xichun's where they, at last, find some incriminating evidence: One maid stocked valuables for her brother there. Finally at Yingchun's they discover a love letter to Ssu-chi, the lovebird discovered by Ping'er some chapters ago. Xifeng reads the letter aloud to the matrons assembled causing the maid's grandmother, one of the leaders of the inquisition, a loss of face. Karmic justice! The maid is put on suicide watch.

Poor Xifeng is affected by all that stress and loses, again, a lot of blood. The doctor's prescription does not calm the family's fears. Meanwhile, Xichun's maid's story is confirmed. Nevertheless, Xichun insists on dismissing her, engaging in an ugly quarrel with Madam Yu. Xichun hints at a dark family scandal and Madam Yu's limited learning. Madam Yu rushes off.

The beautiful garden is a sick home: Many of the girls are serially ill. Family harmony and trust are broken, setting young against the old, mistress against servants. In 3K's opening line: "The world under heaven, after a long period of division, will be united; after a long period of union, will be divided." The Jia world looks like to crumble soon.

Jul 10, 2011, 6:15pm

Chapter 75 Trash talk inside and outside

Madame Yu drops in at sick Li Wan's for some old girl talk and a cosmetics brush-up. Li Wan herself doesn't use cosmetics, so her maids have to pitch in to provide them. The makeover is cut short by another visitor: Baochai announces that she will move out of the garden to care for her sick mother. To reduce housekeeping costs, Xiangyun moves out too. Speaking of the devil, she and Tanchun arrive to join the chattering. Tanchun snipes at Madame Yu but find common ground in dismissing Xichun's excentricity.

The chat ends when the girls disperse to freshen up for the Old Dowager's meal. Madames Yu and Wang wait on the Old Dowager, talking about the preparations for the moon festival. The girls appear and the Old Dowager makes sure to feed them. Given how eager they tuck in the food, it looks like some sort of rationing is already in effect. Stocks of quality white rice have run out. After a moment of embarrassment, more rice is sent for from Tanchun's.

When Madame Yu returns home, she notices Jia Zhen and Jia Rong partying with the jeunesse dorée. Xue "Stupid Lordling" Pan naturally is not missing out, as is Lady Xing's complaining younger brother "Foolish Uncle". Drunk Xue Pan enjoys fondling and bullying the young actor boys. Xing is in a bad mood because his sister is unwilling to hand him more money.

The next day, preparations for the moon festival start. After a feast, the families gather to drink, sing and gamble, trying to ignore the cold. They hear a grumbling from the family temple but the next day during the rites, all seems normal. Jia Zhen visits the Old Dowager in the Jung mansion. The terrace has been prepared for the moon viewing. The diminished number of Jia clients is made up by inviting the girls to the viewing. The moon viewing leads to another drinking game. Jia Zhen has to pay a penalty and tells a bad? joke about a man having to lick his wife's stinky feet which causes him to retch again and again (In Wild Swans, it is said that the bound feet caused permanent smelly infections). The company's laughter about the lame joke at least partly serves to patch this smelly truth.

Baoyu is next to pay a penalty and, at his father's insistence, produces a well received poem. His father offers him both a guarded compliment and a present. He isn't so mean, after all. After Jia Lan's poem, it is time again for a bad joke from the older generation. Jia She's joke takes a stab at the Old Dowager's partiality. Poor Jia Huan hands in an average poem which causes his father to lash out at him and Baoyu: "matchless, incorrigible pair". Jia She defends them. Their averageness fits the family's achievement. Seeing that the menfolk only spoil the fun, the Old Dowager sends them off to their party house. Now, it is time for the girls to relax.

Jul 12, 2011, 2:32pm

Lotus feet were indeed smelly, but

Rubbing, smelling, chewing, licking, and washing the feet were popular pastimes of lotus lovers, varying according to individual preference. (…) Love-intoxicated tiny-foot admirers might put the feet in their hands, on their shoulders, or hold them up to their nostrils

according to Chinese Footbinding. Others less attracted to the “odoriferousness” of bound feet used wine to offset the smell, claims the same book.

On a different level, I am reading Divorce in Japan now. Unlike the modern perception, Meiji Japan had a divorce rate only surpassed by “the United States after the 1970’s”. As such it is an interesting example of not-so-stable Asian values. I shall write a review when I am done with the book. I mention it here for its seven reasons for divorce given by a Confucian scholar. They might be interesting background information:

1. A woman shall be divorced for disobedience to her father-in-law or her mother-in-law
2. A woman shall be divorced if she fails to bear children, the reason for this rule being that women are sought in marriage for the reason of giving men posterity…
3. Lewdness is a reason for divorce
4. Jealousy is a reason for divorce
5. Leprosy, or any like foul disease, is a reason for divorce
6. A woman shall be divorced, who, by talking overmuch… disturbs the harmony of kinsmen and bring trouble to the household
7. A woman shall be divorced who is addicted to stealing.

Note that the husband’s parents are accorded first place, that the husband is not mentioned explicitly, and that the main aim of marriage is postulated to be producing progeny.

Jul 13, 2011, 5:08am

>49 mercure: Eeew, de gustibus non est disputandum.

On the understanding of women as property, divorce is best thought of as product liability. You can always return a non-performing/defective product at little to no cost. Having to be at the mercy of in-laws might be one explanation of the lowering inclination of Japanese women to marry.

Divorce causes a loss of face but does not cut existential bonds. The important relationships are not lateral but generational. While not having a husband/wife is unfortunate (esp. lower status of a concubine), breaking the connection to one's ancestors is disastrous. In Wild Swans, the worst is being an orphan of unknown/illegitimate parentage. Wild Swans drives home the point about kin-based status.

In Red Mansions, Lin Daiyu is made to experience her "fault" of missing parents daily. Baoyu is about the only one who ignores this.

One brutal corollary of the relative importance of lateral relationships is concubines ganging up against the first wife. Xifeng turns into tiger, eliminating the competition. In Wild Swans, the unconventional story of the grandmother upsets the traditional family structure.

Edited: Jul 17, 2011, 6:33am

In Japan, Confucian ideals were particularly promoted for samurai and propertied commoners. They were not applicable to the common folk, who practiced cohabitation and “trial marriages”, leading to divorce rates of up to 40%, mostly in the first two years. A woman would return to her natal family and quickly re-marry. Japan was really different here, so just think of these reasons for divorce as something that would apply to Confucians, a culture more popular in China, please.

A woman who marries in China marries into her husband’s family and in-group. The ties to her natal family become looser. Traditionally, the second day of the Lunar New Year is for the wife to visit her natal family.

Muslim husbands are required to invest time, attention, etc. equivalently among each of their wives. In case of concubinage, the relationship is more asymmetric in principle (as will be most Muslim marriages with multiple wives, I presume).

Jul 21, 2011, 5:07pm

Chapter 76 High and low celebrations

The moon festival continues with the women only in attendance (who had been sheltered from male gaze by a screen). Do the girls enjoy themselves at this party? It seems to me that the only one enjoying herself is the Old Dowager. Jia She, mean joker in the last chapter, is touched by karmic revenge: On the way back home, he tripped and sprained his ankle. The Old Dowager dispatches his wife to care for him, leaving only a few women to party on with the Old Dowager. Listening to the tune of a distant flute, the spirit to partying dissipates. When Madam Yu tries to tell a joke, the party dissolves before she even gets to the punchline.

Clearing the debris of the party, the servants note that one porcelain cup is missing. They suspect Tsui-lu to have taken it but defer the search to the next day.

Meanwhile, Xiangyun and Daiyu enjoy their own poetry party near Concave Crystal Lodge (I love the Chinese Lego yin-yang signs for concave and convex, their forms turn the two girls into Beavis and Butthead). The two start a serious poetry rap session, critique included, until Daiyu sees a ghost. Xiangyun throws a rock. A stork flies away. Another surprise visitor steps out of the shadow, Miaoyu. At the nunnery, they warm up with a cup of tea. Already, some maids come looking for the two missing girls. Miaoyu, however, first wants to present her own poem, having just written down the poem of the two girls. Miaoyu joins the crowd of repressed feelings with her poem: "A maiden's feelings none but she can vent - to whom can she confide her nicety?" Then to bed. The two girls are restless and can't find sleep, though. Daiyu confesses her insomnia.

Jul 30, 2011, 2:34pm

Chapter 77 La Bohème meets Edward Scissorhands

The household mismanagement continues. The latest example is the provisioning of ginseng. Instead of a central dispensary, family members hoard stale ginseng. Isn't it crazy that ginseng costs so much more than its weight in silver? In the end, servants have to buy ginseng in the market via Baochai, spending another 70 taels the family can ill afford.

The next issue is the girl on suicide watch. Yingchun sends her away. She is frog-marched out of the compound. Even sympathetic Baoyu is unable to prevent her dismissal. Next victim of the Chinese inquisition is sick Qingwen whose wicked crime lies her beauty (a German take on the theme). Lady Wang first dismisses one maid to be married off. The same fate awaits the little actresses. Xiren and Sheyue receive a verbal lashing.

Later, Baoyu suspects Xiren of being the source of information. Xiren lets the matter drop, either out of politeness not wanting to contradict her master or because she is actually guilty. Baoyu tries another approach by invoking natural omen. Xiren dismisses this but has prepared a care packet for Qingwen to be smuggled out during the night. Baoyu too slips out to visit Qingwen, staying at relatives' of ill repute. Baoyu comforts her, brews her some tea and holds her hands. Apparently she has two-inch long nails! She cuts off two of them and presents them as a gift along with her bodice (exchanging the latter against Baoyu's inner jacket). The two are discovered but her relative has a prostitute's good heart, protecting them in their naivité. Baoyu returns home safely.

Having been robbed off his bed companions, Baoyu needs new assistants to serve him tea during the night. Xiren herself puts herself in the danger seat. During the night, Baoyu dreams of Qingwen's death.

The next day, Baoyu's father requests his presence and lauds him for his poetry skills. Meanwhile, Lady Wang's revenge against the little actresses backfires when they decide to become nuns. After an initial shock, Lady Wang consents, probably eyeing the headcount reductions. Saving the yearly direct costs of the maids' salary (2+2+1+1+1 times 12) pays the ginseng just bought.

Aug 2, 2011, 6:32pm

Chapter 78 Praising dead maids

The chapter starts with a Statler and Waldorf scene by Lady Wang and the Old Dowager. Soon, Xifeng joins the gossips. From Baoyu the topic shifts to Baochai moving out of the garden back to her mother's place. They invite Baochai over and ask her if anything bad caused her move. The real reason seems to be financial. Moving out of the garden means one less house to staff and run.

Baoyu returns with presents from his poetry session. Returning to his place, the maids notice that Baoyu wearing trousers made by Qingwen. He then questions the maids about Qingwen's death - an apotheosis: As flower goddess to the Jade Emperor, Qingwen is in command of the hibiscus. Her consumptive body has been quickly disposed of. She managed nevertheless to amass quite a wealthy collection of clothes and trinkets (valued at 300-400 taels). Seeking solace at Daiyu's, Baoyu only finds the place empty. He notices how many girls have departed.

His misery is interrupted by his father's wish for another poetry session. They discuss the noble death of a concubine general, the "Lovely General" - an unsuccessful Mulan who led her Amazones into a suicide charge against bandits. The "Lovely General" serves as the topic for a a poetry slam, starting with Jia Huan and Lan before moving on to the accomplished Baoyu. The poetry slam works like a jazz session with the participants interjecting and commenting on bits and pieces. Baoyu's poem is at the same time a tribute to Qingwen (whose giant finger nails would have made her a lousy warrior.)

Come nightfall, Baoyu composes an "elegy for the hibiscus maid" and performs a solitary memorial service in front of a blooming hibiscus. Suddenly, Baoyu hears a noice. Is it Chingwen's ghost?

Aug 14, 2011, 9:34am

Chapter 79 Love and marriage

The ghost turns out to be Daiyu. The two enjoy together the prickling of morbid poems. Baoyu has to return home, as he is required as staffage in the marriage preparations for his sister Ying-chun to a police commissioner from an allied family. The Old Dowager is not pleased about this match with a non-literati family.

While Baoyu contemplates in the now quiet garden, he meets Xiangling who informs him that Xue Pan is to be married too. He is marrying into money (from Osmanthus trees whose dried flowers can be brewed into tea). Xue Pan can assume the mantle of heir, as the Xias have no son. His spoiled future wife is quite a piece of work (not that party boy Xue Pan has shown better morals). Xiangling as concubine is faced with the prospect of a new mistress.

Baoyu falls ill again - for a whole month and is prescribed a further 100 days of rest. He is apparently strong enough to fool around with his remaining maids.

Xue Pan's bride starts her arrival with training her husband. She then tries but fails to extend her reign over Baochai (who has long learned not to be bullied by the presence of her brother). Unfortunate Xiangling is her next target.

Aug 22, 2011, 6:04pm

Last chapter of the second volume. The family's fortune is going downhill at an incredible speed. I wonder how they can hang on for another forty chapters.

Chapter 80 Buyer's remorse

Poor Xiangling has to endure another renaming. A rose is a rose ... While the new mistress stakes out her power claims, her husband starts lusting after her maid. His wife gives him implicit permission to paw her maid but plays Xiangling à la bande to interrupt them. Xiangling burst into the room just as Xue Pan and his maid were starting business. Shamed (she isn't his concubine), the maid runs outside, crying "rape". Xue Pan isn't happy with Xiangling who not only interrupted his conquest but also now stirred up the "rape" event. Instead of cooling off, having burned his feet with hot water, naked Xue Pan beats poor Xiangling.

Xue Pan's wife settles the "rape" case by switching her maid to concubine status. Xue Pan is happy with his new toy, while his wife bullies poor Xiangling. To make matters worse, a paper voodoo effigy is found. Xiangling is declared chief suspect. Xue Pan starts beating her again, when his mother comes in protesting. Aunt Xue reacts diplomatically, removing poor Xiangling to Baochai's place. Xiangling's health is severely affected: Anemic, she is on a path to death (where are her iron supplements?).

Deprived of her punching ball, Xue Pan's wife rages against her husband and his newly minted concubine. Xue Pan (and probably his wife too) feel buyer's remorse about their marriage. Naive Baoyu, finally somewhat restored in health, can see no fault in Xue Pan's wife, blinded by beauty.

The next day, during an excursion to a temple, Baoyu falls for the next snake oil seller, One-Plaster Wang whose one cure treats everything. Baoyu asks whether this plaster will cure a peculiar illness and wants Wang to guess what it is. The latter thinks impotency but is silenced by Baoyu's servant. Innocent (but not sexually inactive, the classic Abstinence works candidate) Baoyu fails to understand.

Baoyu is actually seeking a treatment to rein in the raging wife but even One-Plaster Wang's plaster does not help against that. He offers a Cure for Jealousy, a sugary pear juice (actually more of a recipe to stimulate digestion).

Meanwhile, newly-wed Yingchun is unhappy as well with her infidel husband. Marriage seems to be an occasion to madly "test-drive" all the new maids instead of establishing a Confucian pater familias. Poor Yingchun cannot escape as her father has already spent the bridewealth loan. Yingchun spends some time recuperating in the garden and at frosty Lady Xing's before she is called back.

Aug 28, 2011, 7:18pm

Chapter 81 Butterflies, fishes and a witch

Yingchun's marital misery affects girlish Baoyu the most. At the verge of a nervous breakdown, he wants to prolong his Peter Pan status. He is easily diverted by the girls fishing. Catching a two-inch carp cannot be called fishing. I hope they released it again. Baoyu next visits the Old Dowager hearing the story of the end of the witch who poisoned Baoyu and Xifeng on the orders of Concubine Zhao many chapters ago. Witchcraft was apparently a profitable business - only you shouldn't leave your tools of the trade around for others to discover. The witch is caught and sentenced. No witness means that Concubine Zhao cannot be charged.

Healthy and unoccupied, Baoyu is finally, finally sent back to the family school. His father is escorting him there personally and instills the teacher to drill Baoyu vigorously. Will this work? His first day at school, he is already given off the afternoon. The teacher sets up an assessment for Baoyu tomorrow.

Sep 21, 2011, 6:12pm

Chapter 82 Mimi and Rodolfo

Baoyu lingers around Daiyu, sipping tea and complaining about his return to school life. Rote-learning all that dead knowledge surely isn't enticing. Home again, he starts dipping into the Four Books but is soon distracted. Going to sleep with Xiren, he oversleeps. The teacher tries indirectly to explain Baoyu that his time of preparation is limited.

Meanwhile, Xiren checks in on Daiyu to groom relations with Baoyu's potential wife. An old maid delivers lichees and remarks upon Daiyu's good looks and match for Baoyu.

Daiyu herself worries about her future prospects. In a bad dream, she sees herself married off to widower. A Romeo and Juliet suicide scene follows. Baoyu's death wakes her up from the nightmare. Poor Daiyu, in an elegant redoubling to Baoyu's virtual blood loss, spits real blood.

The picture of the garden is finally complete. Daiyu feels to weak to visit, so she is visited by the girls instead. The girls discover her blood-filled spittoon and are naturally shocked by her poor health. Decency requires all to not speak about the ill omen for Daiyu's future.

Sep 27, 2011, 7:05pm

Illness forms a large topic in many a novel. In Red Chamber, it now tends to overwhelm the narrative: Another chapter, another medical history.

Chapter 83 Women in pain

Patient no. 1, Lin Daiyu, continues on her downward trajectory. Tanchun and Xiangyun try to be courteous. Later on, Daiyu learns from Xiren that Baoyu felt her dream piercing his heart. Not really sick, Baoyu uses the occasion to take another day off. The next day, Daiyu's pulse is felt by the doctor who reasons that her clogged up emotions lead to tense pulses. Liver and spleen: Melancholy! The doctor prescribes thorowax root boiled with turtle blood. The medical cost lets Xifeng scramble for money, while the street gossip has picked up on the family's financial plight.

Meanwhile, the Imperial Consort isn't feeling well either. Only alive can she provide patronage for the family. The family is officially asked for a sickbed visit. While the four women selected meet the Imperial Consort, her male relatives are not allowed to such proximity and must wait outside.

In the Xue household, the bad vibes are still strong between the new mistress, her concubine, Baochai, her mother and their servant. Baochai and her mother complain (justly) about the noise, which only results in further noise, unfortunately heard by messengers. Aunt Xue cries out with chest pain.

With brittle Imperial connections, sunken public repute and dire financials, it will be difficult to turn the ship around. Perhaps Baoyu should marry a mega-rich merchant's daughter.

Oct 2, 2011, 4:29pm

Chapter 84 In want of a wife

Liver problems, it is for Aunt Xue. Baochai knows how to ease her mother's pain. The Imperial Consort recovers as well. Only poor Daiyu continues to ail. The chapter is about Baoyu growing up, though. His father discusses Baoyu's essays with him (finally doing some parenting!). While Baoyu improves his learning, deep down he doesn't want to become a scholar.

Meanwhile, the Old Dowager considers marriage prospects for Baoyu. Criteria are a good temper and being nice-looking, the human equivalent of a Golden Retriever. First, though, they gossip about the troubles of the Xues. Prospects for Baoyu are sickly Daiyu, a daughter of a rich merchant family named Chang who want their son-in-law to live with them. Lady Wang is opposed to this match (probably feeling socially superior). Then there is Baochai who fits the two criteria to the T.

Another maid is ill with epilepsy and requires expensive medicine. Baoyu's unfortunate half-brother Jia Huan makes a clumsy appearance spilling some of the expensive medicine. Xifeng curses him and his mother, Concubine Zhao who is without guilt, this time. Poor Jia Huan hides until discovered.

Oct 16, 2011, 6:09pm

Chapter 85 Good news and bad news

After all the misery, the Jias receive some good news. During a visit to the Prince of Peiching, it is rumored that Baoyu's father, Jia Zheng, is to be promoted. Baoyu receives a replica of his jade as a gift from the prince. (Hopefully, he will not lose it. Like the proverbial gun on the mantlepiece, that is a dangerous prop to insert into the story.) The man responsible for the promotion, governor Wu, tried unsuccessfully to call on Jia Zheng while they were away (does he wants a bribe/finder's fee?).

At home, Baoyu shows himself a terrible judge, abrogating any responsibility for unjust behavior among the maids. Xiren, meanwhile, ventures out to collect information about Baoyu's marriage prospects. She chooses the wrong place. Sickly Daiyu is out of the loop, Baoyu receives a letter from one of his sycophants but doesn't believe its content about the upcoming marriage. He tears the letter into pieces. The next day, the sycophant, Jia Yun, encounters Baoyu in the road and congratulates him on his father's promotion and the marriage. Baoyu is not amused. The promotion results in a day off from school for Baoyu.

At the Old Dowager's, the usual suspects meet, Xifeng teasing Baoyu and Daiyu. In two days, also Daiyu's birthday, uncle Wang sponsors an opera spectacle to honor his son-in-law's promotion. Most seem to have forgotten Daiyu's birthday, even Baoyu!

Amidst the visits and celebrations, Xue Ko stumbles in with a message for Aunt Xue: Xue Pan has been involved in another murder/manslaughter. This time, it won't be easy to escape punishment. The family discusses different strategies to handle the case: Bribing the magistrates, compensating the victim's family. Unfortunately, stupid Xue Pan confessed to something. Xue Ko, added by 500 taels, intervenes to rescue him. Xue Pan as head of the Xue family is an important man if the Jias continue with arranging a wedding between Baoyu and Baochai. Being given away by a convicted murderer would be bad karma ...

Oct 23, 2011, 6:09pm

Chapter 86 Justice for the 1 %

Choleric Xue Pan apparently killed an uppity waiter, so to use Strauss-Kahn speak, a servant affair. Xue Pan's judicial problems look to be resolved by greasing the magistrate and compensating the victim. The re-examination of the evidence is done in perfect OJ style. Doubts, doubts, doubts. Apart from the dead servant, nothing is certain and Xue Pan can look forward to being released.

First, though, the magistrate has to deal with the funeral of the Imperial concubine from the Jia family. Her recovery was only temporary. Given her terrible horoscope the Jia family knew about before her wedding it looks almost like a warranty case. Her death cuts an important connection for the Jias. Together with the botched criminal case, the future looks bleak.

Meanwhile, Baoyu enjoys himself with Daiyu who lectures him about lute notation (There is an essay by R. H. van Gulik "The Lore of the Chinese Lute. An Essay in Ch'in Ideology" which JSTOR safely hides from my access. Fortunately, other examples are easy to google.). The maids break up their tête-à-tête. When Daiyu receives an orchid as a present, it reminds her of her own mortality. Tears follow quickly.

Oct 30, 2011, 7:21pm

Chapter 87 Women on the verge of a nervous break-down

Daiyu's mood is not improved by the depressing secret missive she receives from Baochai. The stress caused by her sick mother, her brother and her bossy sister-in-law is affecting sunny and dutiful Baochai, who, isolated in the other house, has no-one to talk to. Sending this depressive letter might act as a talking cure for Baochai, it certainly isn't helping Daiyu to get better.

Daiyu at least has some company and comic relief supplied by Tanchun's ignorance as well as specially prepared food. Daiyu channels her grief into poetry and music.

Meanwhile, Baoyu enjoys another day off from school. He uses the free time to stalk the girls (who are resting). He sneaks up to Xichun playing a game with apprentice nun Miaoyu. She seems to have quite some feelings for Baoyu whom he cajoles in escorting her home. On the way, they listen to Daiyu's verses. Daiyu's lute string suddenly snaps. Miaoyu sees this as a bad omen, while Baoyu doesn't get it, as usual.

Unwittingly, Baoyu also triggers Miaoyu's nervous break-down. In delirium, she dreams about being abducted by robbers/suitors. The doctor's explanation for her break-down: Too much yoga and too much thinking.

With Miaoyu recuperating, Xichun expresses the wish to become a nun too.

Nov 14, 2011, 5:56pm

Chapter 88 The old and new queen bee

The devotional production for the Old Dowager's 81st birthday next year already starts in full gear. Fortunately, the dirty holy work can be outsourced. Nevertheless, some of the sutras to be copied are to be written by most household members and maids, well those that are actually able to write. Yuanyang instead has been collecting and setting aside individual grains of rice for sacrifice.

Returning home to the Old Dowager, Yuanyang watches her play a game with Li Wan. In barges Baoyu with some crickets he received from his school buddies. For someone to be married soon, he is still very childish not even a teenager. Having been praised by Baoyu, Jia Huan and Jia Lan appear too. The old and new Jia generation to behold. Li Wan and the Old Dowager tear up from mixed joy and sorrow.

A vignette shows Jia Chen's and Jia Lien's miserable management style of neglect and inconsistent interference. Jia Zheng's office in the Ministry of Works is a source of corruption too. Xifeng tries to shake up the men folk's mismanagement. She also advises one relation, Jia Yun, not to seek a corrupt government contract. He tries and manages to corrupt her maid instead.

Ping'er arrives with a wish from the convent for pickles and money. The sickly abbess wasn't sick enough not to see a nightly conspirative meeting at the abbey and is nearly strangled. Meanwhile, the superstitious maids are afraid of ghosts. Xifeng tries to calm them. No wonder that managing the crazies of the Jia mansion costs Xifeng's sleep. The troubles seem never-ending ...

Nov 20, 2011, 10:38am

Chapter 89 Winter is coming

Baoyu's father is occupied in restoring oder after a natural disaster. Baoyu naturally uses the opportunity to idle the time away. When the maids give him the overcoat mended by Qingwen, this triggers melancholical memories which Baoyu quiets by writing poems. Restored, he visits Daiyu who is copying sutras.

Later, Daiyu overhears her maids talking about rumors regarding Baoyu's secret engagement to a girl. This makes Daiyu plunge into depression again. She starts a regime of overwork (copying sutras) and fastening to hasten her demise.

Edited: Nov 28, 2011, 9:48am

A tangent on the translator Gladys Yang--twice in a single day I came across her, first in conversation, then in an unrelated read (Arthur Miller's account of staging Death of a salesman with a Chinese cast in Beijing in 1983: Salesman in Beijing).

She was British, married to a Chinese man she met in the thirties in England, was imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution, and on release became the moving force behind (for one) the line of Panda paperbacks issued by the Foreign Press Institute in Beijing. Miller describes meeting her and her husband (both were then in their seventies) and their VERY acid comments about the system. It must have been a heartbreaking life. She and her husband went to China AFTER the 1949 revolution, on the wings of idealism.

The Dream wasn't referenced by title, but Miller mentions her translations of "gigantic" Chinese classics. She was also responsible for first anthologies of modern women writers--not very enthusiastic about the talent, but hopeful.

Nov 30, 2011, 6:21pm

Miller in Bejing sounds intriguing. Someone in Beijing should try to interview some of the (probably vetted) audience of that play now about their recollections.

Chapter 90 Liaisons dangereuses

Daiyu nearly succeeds in killing herself by her hunger strike - all based on a false rumor. Quite accidentally and just in time, she overhears her maids refuting the rumor, reviving her will to live. "The way to happiness is never smooth", Daiyu takes a rather rough path (per aspera ad astra). Can one compare her situation to that of many of Hans Christian Andersen's heroines? I see many parallels in the two authors as well. Daiyu's suffering is only postponed: The old ladies have decided on Baoyu's marriage to healthy and relatively wealthy Baochai.

Xifeng is asked to play watchdog in the garden. An old clumsy servant is the object of her ire. The affair lets Xifeng discover that Hsing Hsiu-yen, fiancée of Xue Ko, is stoically suffering from shabby clothing. Ping'er is tasked with supplying her with better stuff, which she accepts after some polite remonstration. At the Xue's, there is both relief and shame about Xifeng's generosity. Xue Pan's unresolved situation causes further grief. Xue Po and Hsing Hsiu-yen are poor but much better behaving than their spoiled peers. Xue Po has to navigate difficult matters as Xue Pan's disillusioned wife seemingly has set an eye upon him, sending him food and wine. Does she want an affair? There is some woman giggling outside. What do you do, hot shot?

Nov 30, 2011, 7:45pm

Miller's book turned out to be much more interesting than I expected, in at least three ways: as an astute, observant account of the place at that time, a short while before China's opening; as a primer in hands-on stagecraft under bad conditions; and, possibly most interesting of all, as an essay in comparative psychology, as Miller struggles to understand and explain a myriad nuances about and to his Chinese cast--without knowing Chinese, and only one of them speaking English. The painstaking way he took with every gesture, the hundreds of unexpected ways of MISunderstanding, the efforts to communicate deeply--a marvel to behold. And the funny bits are very funny, for instance, how he had to fight to the end to make the actors accept playing as Chinese, without Euro-face (pancake and wigs, wigs, wigs); it would look like they reached agreement, and then they'd try to smuggle through some of the preposterous makeup again etc.

Speaking of Daiyu and her difficult, sensitive, complicated character--doesn't she strike you as modern, compared to characters in fiction from Communist China? I don't think it's just her class. Reading Miller's comments about the enforced "levelling" in Chinese society, it seems to me they also ablated a good deal of human psychology.

Dec 13, 2011, 7:02pm

>68 LolaWalser: A Suntory time. The most difficult part of communicating with Asians, I think, is the interference caused by "face". Using an indirect approach to check whether a message was not only heard ("yes") but also understood ("yes"), can be very tiring. A long time ago, I heard a lecture by a Korean philosopher whose words were translated from Korean to English to French and back where buckets of meaning were already lost in the part I could understand (ENFR/FREN), so that, comparatively, Yoda sounded like a language wizard.

I am decidedly not on Team Daiyu. Does she really express a range of behaviors? It seems to me that she switches only between lyrical and whiny mode (the Claire Danes range).

Chapter 91 Fortiter, fideliter, feliciter

The first part of the chapter tests Xue Ko's fidelity, tag-teamed by Xue Pan's wife and servant. Apparently, morning bedhead hair is enticing, but Xue Ko resists. Devoting their attention to Xue Pan improves the quality of life for the other members of the Xue household. Soon, Chin-kuei, in the absence of her husband and Xue Ko's fidelity, finds another boy toy, her supposed "brother". Aunt Xue demurs too quickly. Bad news for Xue Pan in jail: His case is kicked upstairs to the governor which increases the stakes (and the level of corruption necessary). Xue Ko is sent out again to redress the matter. Baochai strains herself while packing his things and loses consciousness. Strange indeed for sturdy Baochai. Fortunately, she recovers.

At last, a date for the wedding is set after the Old Dowager's birthday next year. Baoyu remains ignorant about the matter. Daiyu scolds him for not visiting sick Baochai (who is kept isolated from Baochai by both families). While Baoyu keeps asking (stupid) questions, Daiyu says something special: "When 'I' exists, so do others." Isn't this an opposite of cogito, ergo sum? I exist, therefore others exist too; man a social animal. Contrast this with the Western approach (contrast Whitman's I celebrate myself, which nominally also about others, is all about the me, me, me).

All the philosophy is really about the commitment of Baoyu to Daiyu. She tests him by asking him about Baochai. He replies indirectly that he is faithful to Daiyu (even after her death). This fatal moment is underlined by the caw of a crow (Will he break his promise thrice?).

Edited: Dec 14, 2011, 9:55am

The "face" in communicating with Asians is an overvalued factor. Asians are humans, just like all of us. Particularly Northeast Asians can be "nerdy", having grown up in tight-knit families and abused by years of rod-learning and overtime in cram schools. Southeast Asians are a lot more extraverted, always building relationships with others. You cannot trust institutions, but you can build on your fellow people most of the time. You have an empty battery in your mobile phone? Somebody on an Indonesian bus will lend you one within a minute. Middle class Indonesians find them somewhat embarrasing, but you may enjoy the documentary films by Leonard Retel Helmrich about a Javanese family in the slums of Jakarta (which still look middle class by Bombay standards). Mr. Helmrich used endless amounts of film and won many prizes with this work. If I am not mistaken, his Position Among the Stars will be Holland's candidate for the Oscar for documentary film this year. It is like a Story of the Stone of the urban poor.

The Financial Times ran this delightful article about the attraction of individualism for the aged in Shanghai:

Ms Fan’s neighbour, Yang Shiyong, 85, says he lived at home until his grandson married. Then the prospect of four generations living in Confucian disharmony sent him scurrying for an eldercare berth. Now he wakes about 3am, takes some light exercise, before tottering down to the public trading room at the neighbourhood stock brokerage where he joins knitting grannies and wagering grandpas who gather every afternoon to watch their stocks fall.

On the way there, Mr Yang meets a steady stream of old ladies exercising their dogs. Walking lapdogs is, of course, a staple activity of the elderly the world over, but Shanghai adds a new twist to it. Shanghai residents love to promenade in their pyjamas (albeit in the winter wearing padded ones that have probably never seen the inside of a bedroom). Their dogs, meanwhile, wear booties, a down jacket, or sometimes even a snowsuit. Retirement home operators are not the only ones looking forward to a grey-haired China: pet couturiers are happy about it too. And if Mr Yang is looking for romance rather than stock tips or canine comfort, he can nip over to Ikea, where there is a senior matchmaking corner in the cafeteria, complete with free coffee. With so much to do, who needs filial piety?

Dec 18, 2011, 6:29pm

>70 mercure: It is fortunate that Mr Yang doesn't need filial piety, as he doesn't get it from his family. They clearly kicked him out. The rising life expectancy crowds him out.

IKEA's match-making is a subtle effort to move these non-customers out of its shops to places with more privacy. I find the FT's condescending tone of the article vexing, e.g. the reporter labeling the dress pyjamas, despite the clear indication that these pyjamas are never worn in bed, is an example of a colonial attitude.

Chapter 92 Virtuous needlework and murderous love

Xiren, once again, tries to reform Baoyu and mold him into a good scholar. His answer is to take the next day off to participate in the Old Dowager's party. He at least shines in front of a younger relative, synthesizing a classic book about Chinese women. The Old Dowager cuts him off: "It is good when girls can read, but needlework is more important for them."

Missing from the party is Xifeng who has to deal with an unfortunate and unnecessary double suicide. True love is doomed in this novel.

Next we see a Chinese luxury goods merchant at work. Jia Zheng is playing Go (not draughts, as the Gladys translation strangely and incompletely translates). The merchant waits for the end of the game, before he displays his gadgets: A carved ebony screen, a clock, a mother pearl and a gauze curtain, all for the stellar sum of 20.000 taels. The liquidity challenged Jias have to decline to engage in conspicuous consumption. The merchant tells Zheng that their connection to the Imperial Palace (besides the Imperial concubine), former scholar Yu-tsun has been promoted again. Jia Zheng correctly identifies the Jia succession problem but doesn't try to remedy it.

Edited: Dec 19, 2011, 2:46am

Of course IKEA’s primary purpose is to give shoppers an experience that makes them open their purses. And 3-generation families in small houses do create stress that Westerners would mostly no longer accept. The costs of looking after the aged are asymmetrically distributed. Some of my Hong Kong colleagues were the only child that had not emigrated, simply because they were supposed to look after their aging parents. Also, keep in mind the extremely low birth rate in Northeast Asia. Most women work, and part-time jobs are a rarity. Looking after the elderly is simply tough.

There is nothing colonial about mentioning the pyjamas. They are called so in English, and in summer they are pyjamas:

In Shanghai, in particular, it is regarded as socially undesirable to make social visits without appointments in summer, in case the family is lounging around in their underwear to keep the heat at bay. But, wearing pyjamas to pop down to the shops or to communal loos hardly raises an eyebrow.

As China has become richer, the practice has only become more common: having a smart pair of pyjamas shows you can afford not to have to sleep in long-johns and string vests.

The Chinese government tries to crack down on the practice, because it is not considered modern. You may consider that “face” at work, you may also compare it to all the raised eyebrows you get when you sit on the grass in a park in Vienna.

Both are examples of the tremendous social change China is going through. When I first visited China in 1988, you would see men walk hand in hand with men. Going dancing meant ballroom dancing, and again, the couples were often same sex. Within five or six years it looked just like Hong Kong. Social change in China goes much faster than in e.g. India.

Dec 20, 2011, 3:30pm

>72 mercure: If owning a pair of pyjamas is a sign of richness, China still has much catching up to do. Shouldn't a pyjama be dirt cheap to buy in China itself?

I wouldn't consider Vienna a "keep off the lawn" place (see also Before Sunrise with the protagonists on the lawn of the Stadtpark). Instead, what one has to watch out for on the public lawns are the products of man's best friend. Some parks are veritable mine-fields.

What I find funny about Chinese public behavior is men carrying their girlfriends' purses or handbags - a ring is a lot less obtrusive marker.

Edited: Dec 21, 2011, 10:08am

I think price differences between Europe and China have largely disappeared for clothes. Of course it all depends upon the quality you want to buy. Given the Chinese love for conspicuous consumption, I would not be surprised if Burberry pyjamas were de rigueur on the Bund nowadays.

I have never noticed that Chiense men would carry their girlfriend's purses or handbags any more often than lao wai. Wedding rings are not part of a traditional Chinese wedding, although they are common among the Westernised Chinese of Hong Kong and Singapore. You can always impress a Chinese lady by giving her a "face" boosting expensive watch. As long as it is not an expensive antique watch that may still contain the "ghost" of the previous owner. And no clock, of course.

Doggy poo in the Stadtpark? O tempo'a, o mo'es!

Jan 1, 2012, 5:04pm

>74 mercure: The Stadtpark (now with a fully restored Johann Strauss statue) is actually quite clean, because it is mostly visited by tourists not locals.

Chapter 93 Troubles all around

All is not well in China. Life on the road is harsh and lawless. Even the Jias suffer from yamen's confiscations. It truly is a protection racket. The Jias' current weakness is getting exploited. Baoyu enjoys a day of theater sponsored by the Duke of Linan, where he admires an enterprising and free-spirited actor (not his parent's intended role model). Internally, the Jias are required to discipline their inattentive servants. The house is being to crumble ... Their allies in the South, the Chens are also not faring well. A man arrives to be taken into service with a transfer letter from them. Apparently the Chens have a Baoyu too, one who managed to redeem himself and grow up.

Meanwhile, another source of mischief is revealed. Jia Chin has been frolicking around with the novices of Water Moon Convent. Lai Ta has to clean up the mess. He removes the novices from the Convent to the mansion, intending to sell them off later. From actress to novice to servant/slave, these poor girls' lives are quite dramatic.

Ping'er tells the gossip to Xifeng but mixes up the name of the convent, thus reminding Xifeng of her shady dealings in chapter 15/16. Xifeng starts to cough blood, until Ping'er corrects the mistake. Having cleaned up the scandal, the Jias start thinking who might be behind the leak.

Jan 8, 2012, 7:04pm

Chapter 94 Whithered plants bloom, the compound is turned upside down

Lady Wang manages the repercussions of the scandal quite well, Only the sort of the poor novices' fate is unknown, despite her good intentions. The family, meanwhile, is engaged in discussing the important issues - such as the sudden blossoming of a withered crab-apple tree. Opinions whether this is a good or bad omen are split. The family celebrates the event with a feast and poems.

Occupied with his dandy wardrobe changes, Baoyu forgets to put his jade around his neck. When Xiren asks about it, the jade - Baoyu's most important possession - is gone. Xiren and the other maids become frantic about finding it. They know that they, not scatterbrain Baoyu, will be held responsible for the loss. After not so happy Happy Red Court, the lock-in and search are extended to the garden. Li Wan orders a strip search. Only Tanchun objects, but the search is futile.

Poor Huan is next in line to be interrogated. His mother, concubine Zhao, is not amused seeing her son in the line of fire again (probably mistakenly, this time). Baoyu intends to say that he lost the jade outside the compound. His mother rightly and sternly will have none of it. The search is extended to the compound. Both a fortune-teller and the nun Miaoyu are asked for hints to recover the jade. The fortune-teller offers the rather obvious clue that the jade may end up at a pawnshop. "Wonderful news", cries Baoyu's servant, claiming to have news about the jade.

Chapter 95 A jaded mind

Alas, the pawnshop's jade turns out to be just ordinary jade. Miaoyu's clue doesn't look helpful either:

"Ah! Come and gone without a trace
By the ancient pine at the foot of the Blue Ridge Peak.
To seek it, cross myriads of mountains:
Entering my gate with a smile you will meet again."

Isn't this a reference to the beginning of the stone's story? Only after death will Baoyu meet his jade again?

Daiyu does some sleuthing about the twin omen. While Baoyu is dejected, a bit of good luck is announced. Lady Wang's brother receives a promotion and will arrive in the city soon. The good news is followed by bad: The Imperial consort died. Preoccupied with the funeral activities, the family neglects to notice Baoyu's mental disturbances. Daiyu, usually quite helpful in restoring Baoyu's mistaken mind, refuses to visit him out of the mistaken impression that she is the one to marry him. Baochai, in turn, defers to her mother what has to be done (even scolds her for asking for her opinion!). Xifeng sends for the doctors who are unable to cure Baoyu, "behaving like a moron". The Old Dowager orders Baoyu transfered out of the garden to her apartment.

The large finder's fee for the jade attracts an impostor. Fortunately, the family recognizes that the jade is fake (Didn't Baoyu also receive a copy of his jade from a prince?).

Jan 29, 2012, 6:57pm

Chapter 96 Mens insana in corpore insano

Lady Wang's brother unexpectedly dies on the way to the Jias, killed by malpractice. Jia Zheng has to depart soon to fulfill his duty, despite a family in turmoil. The Old Dowager at 81 and Jia Zheng at 60 are concerned about the family's future, given Baoyu's state of mind (cue Queen Mum and daughter keeping Prince Charles away from the throne). With Xue Pan in prison, Baoyu demented and the mourning for the Imperial consort still ongoing, they plan a shotgun wedding between Baoyu and Baochai.

Xiren, delighted about her prospective mistress, informs Lady Wang about Baoyu's feelings for Daiyu. Lady Wang in turn informs the Old Dowager and Xifeng who have a plan of deception - fooling the fool: Baoyu is to be falsely informed that he is marrying Daiyu. Out of the loop, Daiyu stumbles upon the servant girl Numbskull who was punished by Xiren for blabbering about the marriage and now actually does the deed. Thunderstruck, Daiyu stumbles to Baoyu's place. Demented both, Baoyu and Daiyu look at each other. The situation is somewhat defused by escorting Daiyu home where she collapses, vomiting blood.

Daiyu's death would conveniently resolve the family's quandary ...

Edited: Feb 24, 2012, 9:08am

It seems JC has taken a little break from posting.

I was just reminded of this recent article in the FT about the modern attitude to love in China:

“I’d rather be crying in a BMW than laughing on the back of a bicycle,” is an oft-repeated sentiment. One online survey this week showed 15 per cent of women would not marry a man unless he already owned an apartment and a car.

This attitude is quite in line with Singapore's infamous 5's: cash, car, credit card, condominium and country club (and please note that a Certificate of Entitlement to own a car costs about EUR 4,000 per annum in the city state), the elementary requirements before a lot of women are rumoured to be interested in dating.

According to the FT, Valentine's Day is now the most popular Western "holiday" in China. It is one of the few times when Chinese couples go out for (extra expensive set meals of) Western foof in candle-lit restaurants, instead of TL-lighted food halls and local markets. As is often the case, Valentine's Day is all about giving and gaining face:

"A young man in Nanjing, eastern China, who plans to spend one fifth his monthly pay on a bottle of perfume for his girl, makes clear that he feels he has no choice:

“If I fail to give her a gift that compares, either in price or brand, with what other girls around her receive on Valentine’s Day, she will definitely be upset, even without saying it out loud,” he says, adding: “it’s worth saving up to make her happy”.

In my office women loved to receive presents on that day.

Although some take a more practical approach:

Some women apparently eschew the trappings of marriage altogether, and prefer to rent a boyfriend for Valentine’s Day – at least according to an article last week in the Dalian Peninsula Morning post (reproduced in China Daily) which found Valentine lovers for rent online for Rmb5,000 per day.

Feb 26, 2012, 6:31pm

Sorry for the interruption.

Well, diamond's are forever. Conspicuous consumption and signaling are part of the game of life. The young man from Nanjing can at least look forward to a time when it will be difficult to spend twenty percent of his monthly income on perfume.

Chapter 97 The happiest day of their life

It starts with a Chinese Little Mermaid arc, Daiyu being sick in bed, wasting away while her Prince Charming is prepped for his wedding to the proper girl. The rest of the clan has already written blood-coughing Daiyu off. The sneak wedding preparations are keeping the folks busy, especially as everything has to happen intra muros, fulfilling the barest minimum of protocol.

Demented Baoyu recovers some of his senses when he is (falsely) informed that he will be married to Daiyu. Baochai is not happy about the match either but, faithful daughter, acquiesces. The three teenagers have no control over their own lives and destiny. Baochai's brother, Xue Pan, is lucky: He is to be released from jail and only has to pay compensation for manslaughter.

Daiyu, meanwhile, burns Baoyu's handkerchief and her manuscript book, symbolically cutting her links to Baoyu. He has already lost his jade. Li Wan, who as a widow is barred from attending the wedding, supervises Daiyu and the garden, while the wedding ceremony is arranged. Poor Daiyu is dressed up for her approaching death (a coffin is also ordered), while Baoyu and Baochai dress up for the wedding. As a further tool to lull Baoyu, Daiyu's maid is tasked with escorting the bride.

The wedding ceremony passes without incident, until, in the bridal chamber, Baoyu removes the bride's veil - unveiling the deception. Demure Baochai! Shocked, Baoyu has to sit down, while Baochai is escorted to the bridal bed to recover herself. Baoyu is slow to accept the situation despite being double-teamed by Xifeng and the Old Dowager. Finally, he and Baochai go to sleep in their separate rooms.

His father, ignorant about the non-consumed marriage, says farewell to his mother and departs for his inspection tour, after both Baoyu and Baochai paid their respects, separately. After his father's departure, Baoyu relapses into a troubled state of mind.

So we have no reached the dramatic low point of the story where the "they lived happily ever after" seems impossible. While Baochai's earthly rival, just as in the Little Mermaid, is to be removed from play soon (I assume), it is hard to see how marital bliss, if such exists for the two above filial piety and duty at all, can ensue.

Mar 5, 2012, 5:14pm

Chapter 98 No such number, Orpheus

Bayou is still in stupor and barely presentable for the courtesy visit to his in-law aunt. Fortunately, en famille, it doesn't matter. A true catch, he isn't. Baochai the solid trooper starts to learn how to control her instable husband. She un-shocks him by revealing Daiyu's death, slowly helping him through the stages of grief to near normalcy (including a dream visit to hell where he is informed about two facts a) Daiyu does not reside there (but his parents will!) and b) hell only exists for those who believe in it (both deep and tautological; and there is still plenty of hell on earth).

Daiyu's death scene, when it is finally told post factum, is an anticlimax, happening at the same time as the wedding ceremony itself (cue Little Mermaid). She expires with Baoyu's name on her lips: "Baoyu, Baoyu, how ..."

All this stress makes the Old Dowager quite dizzy, apart from Lady Wang's heart troubles and Xifeng's miscarriage aftereffects. Lives goes on. Baoyu's marriage is finally to be consummated amidst festivities. Xifeng tells a joke to the stressed planning committee which is to be revealed in the next chapter.

Mar 10, 2012, 7:15pm


Life in China sounds awfully strenuous with all that face-losing & giving stuff. Don't they have any easy-going, non-striving, relaxed classes there?


it is hard to see how marital bliss, if such exists for the two above filial piety and duty at all, can ensue.

You'd be surprised (theoretically...) Moment in Peking was all about sacrificing passion for duty, and living well. I get the sense that this is a larger lesson in Chinese life, than merely a puritan attempt to control the most uncontrollable urges.

J-C, I thought of you because I procured another hefty Chinese tome--but stories this time, Pu Songling's Strange stories (translations vary, for touchstoning purposes let me try Strange stories from a Chinese studio and Chroniques de l'étrange--ok).

A book for another read, maybe?

Mar 12, 2012, 8:03pm

>81 LolaWalser: Strange Tales sounds marvelous (In Woman Wang, its social aspects are used to great effect). The Penguin edition looks fine and is cheap. The design of the Foreign Language Press looks rather austere. As the stories are quite short and independent, a sequential read along is, in my view, not the best option. I think we could organize a virtual seminar where participants choose and present aspects of one or two stories, e.g. one could compare and contrast a Chinese tale with one of Lafontaine's fables or Grimm's fairy tales. Another take would be a psychological or sociological analysis/interpretation. A comparison of the representation of ghosts in Asian cinema from Spirited away to The Grudge (original)/The Ring (original) and the book might be interesting too.

Food for thought, while I soldier on ...

Chapter 99 A foolish groom and a new broom, controlled by others

Perhaps it is a matter of translation but Xifeng's promised jokes are lame and rather awkward. Xiren and Baochai manage or learn to control Zombie-Baoyu. Only Baoyu's two marriageable sisters and widowed Li Wan remain in the garden.

Jia Zheng meanwhile stumbles into a problem in his new job in the province: How to be honest among thieves. Are we to believe that Jia Zheng has not been faced with rampant corruption in the Imperial administration? Almost all transactions presented up to now have seen sweeteners changing hand (e.g. Xifeng's commissions or Aunt Xue's "presents"). Jia's new subordinates, having "invested" into cash to get their new positions, they expect some form of additional compensation on the side (what the Greek call fakelaki). Jia Zheng defies his subordinates, ordering them to stay honest. Many quit, others grudgingly hang on to their job. Service quality and loyalty declines. After prompting from his servant Li, Jia Zheng enters in a tacit agreement of him not noticing Li handing the corruption business. A bad trade-off, as Jia is not offering patronage and still ultimately responsible for the corruption of his underlings.

Jia thinks about arranging the marriage of Tanchun to a man living away in Nanking and sends the idea on to womenfolk at home to ponder. Bad news about Xue Pan: The bribery has been unsuccessful - all the persons involved will be punished (Jia Zheng is now officially strongly linked to the Xues by his son's marriage) or won't they? First, Jia Zheng has to meet his new boss, the governor.

Edited: Mar 13, 2012, 3:23am

>81 LolaWalser:

I think life in China has become less strenuous now. The generation who lived through the Cultural Revolution looks markedly older than the same age group of Chinese from Hong Kong or Taiwan: they have more wrinkles and darker skins, even if they lived in the city.

The concept of “face” exist in the West also. I understand that a proper engagement ring in the United States should be the equivalent of 3 months salary or so (we don’t have that here in Holland, where the same ring just goes from the left to the right hand) and Sarkozy is France’s Président Bling-Bling. And in general, the concept of “saving someone’s face” is equal to not trying to hurt someone’s feelings. What I would find more difficult to deal with is the strict hierarchy and the tight family ties, combined with the often small houses with multiple generations. However, the Chinese can cope with it and middle class Chinese societies like Hong Kong and Taiwan are remarkably safe and free of littering. It also gives Chinese society as certain democratic quality: even the dorkiest of men can date beautiful women or run for political office.

The other thing is that the Chinese learn this behaviour from very early on, nowadays even from before they are born:

More parents are also attending prenatal education to make sure their dragon babies get a head start in life. There's prenatal music, yoga classes, advice on nutrition and how to tend to baby. A series of about 20 lessons, costs between US$300 and US$500. Mother-to-be Gu Xiao Qian said: "Children who appreciate music will be more obedient and have milder temperaments. Now when the baby listens to music, it will move in my womb."

And for good reason:

Bao Qian Yi, senior nutritionist, Prenatal Education Centre, said: "Our latest research found that prenatal education can raise the baby's IQ by more than 25 per cent. Other than that, we also hope the baby will have high EQ and be easy to bring up."

The “dragon babies” are those born in the Year of the Dragon, whose horoscope promises them a prosperous life. Expect a higher birthrate in China this year. Also, I am sure quite a few women have tried to slow down delivery close to the start of the Year of the Dragon. And many will try to speed up delivery close to the end of this (lunar) year.

As for relaxed Chinese, I’d say you find them in Malaysia, Indonesia, Suriname and some other places. Also remember that sacrificing for the future was more common in Europe in the reconstruction years after the Second World War and the early sixties when sometimes incomes increased with 10% p.a. But once economic growth slowed down to a “natural pace”, the sacrifices also went out of fashion. There are some signs that urban middle-class Chinese on the Mainland are warming to this idea:

The younger generation of Chinese workers have begun to discover the joys of sloth. Leisure – which has had a bad rap on the mainland – is making a comeback. A lot of it is sheer exhaustion. China’s one-child generation, born after the introduction of strict birth limits in the late 1970s, spent so much time as children slaving away at the abacus or the keyboard, that they never learnt to enjoy a good day’s indolence. Now, caught tight in a sandwich generation between toddler offspring and retired parents – and with no siblings to help them with the elders – they are burning out.


“Our parents didn’t need to spend two hours getting to work every day,” says Rey Lee, 31, who has quit her job four times just to take a rest. Chinese workers are famous around the world for quitting their jobs – recruiters estimate turnover at a shocking 20-30 per cent per annum – but this is quitting with a difference: Ms Lee, and many like her, are leaving jobs not for career reasons, but for lifestyle reasons – not to get more pay, but to get more time off. For centuries, the Chinese have been known as a nation with a work ethic on steroids; if they go off overtime now, the effect could be felt around the world. Kevin Wale, head of GM in China, says urban post-1980s Chinese are “very much into work-life balance”, and are asking for things like time off to look after children or a shorter commute. “That’s something you wouldn’t have seen in China five years ago,” he said recently, adding: “It’s an HR challenge for all of us.”

That said, for smart women China has taken over America’s reputation as the land of unlimited opportunities, a certain Li Wei has shown:

'She has proved that women can have real power in China as well as men.'

That is a serious break with the past. Now living quietly in Hong Kong, Ms. Li built her wealth in a peculiar way:

Ms Li reportedly created a vast network of protection and favour in the provinces in Yunnan, Guangdong, Beijing and Qingdao to build a multibillion-pound business empire in return for sexual favours. As her corrupt protectors went to jail, she turned herself in and was given a lenient jail term.

"You cannot invest all your resources and opportunities into one person, you have to construct a huge relationship net, like an umbrella," Ms Li was quoted as saying by Chinese media. Her empire at its peak consisted of more than 20 companies in Beijing, Qingdao, Shenzhen, Hong Kong and overseas, in industries including tobacco, real estate and advertising. She owned 183 petrol stations in Beijing.

The “umbrella” consisted of at least 15 men.

Yet while her lovers were jailed for corruption, China's Queen of Mistresses testified against them, sat out four years in detention and was then released this year, with most of her wealth intact.

Even the way she accomplished that is peculiar. The wealth she lost was not confiscated by the state:

Li Wei, known as the “common mistress of high officials,” was released without a criminal trial on Feb. 13. Judging from a media report, Li’s loss was no more than “signing documents to transfer her 20 percent share in Beijing Sinopec Shouchuang Petroleum Investment Company to the Beijing Capital Group.” Most of her overseas assets were not touched. Compared to the fates of other mistresses of corrupt officials or the officials who helped her build her empire, Li is extremely lucky. She has completely lived up to Chinese officialdom’s criteria for a truly successful person.

>82 jcbrunner:

The films you mention are all Japanese. They are often different in style from Chinese ghost stories. Besides "scary" ghost stories, Hong Kong cinema also produces slapstick versions. Have a look in your friendly neighbourhood Chinese shop.

Mar 13, 2012, 9:42am


Sounds great and rather ambitious, J-C. I'd tag along. I'd have to start reading to get a sense of the type of "strangeness"--uncanny, horror, Gothic, supernatural?

In the meantime, following on mercure's advice about Chinese films, I recommend Tsui Hark's The Green Snake, if you can find it. Not scary (or not very), but a type of fantasy that seems to be very traditionally Chinese (the story is old and a variant in Lafcadio Hearn's Some Chinese ghosts, I think). I hope Strange Tales are in a similar mould, it reminds me of Hoffmann.


even the dorkiest of men can date beautiful women or run for political office.

This is universal!

Ms. Li sounds amazing, but then, anyone who can juggle fifteen sugar daddies must be a genius of organisation and logistics.

Interesting that about high turnover--I take it it must be relatively easy for them to find jobs again.

Mar 13, 2012, 11:04am

> 84

This is universal!

Charisma works differently in Chinese culture, possibly even "Confucian" culture. It seems to take less "sales" to be a corporate or a political leader. I would not consider myself an expert, but would relate that to greater power distance/hierarchy. But I doubt if that is all you can say about it. You also see a different kind of charisma at work when you observe Chinese pop music, which most Westerners find static, "unauthentic" and sugary in character.

Which does not mean that Chinese culture does not produce charismatic leaders. Mao and, far more possitively, Harry Lee come to mind. And few Western leaders have Obama's oratory qualities.

Mar 14, 2012, 12:03pm

I really recommend the three volume Beijing Press edition translated by Gladys Yang

Mar 18, 2012, 12:30pm

>86 elmgrove: Welcome to LT, elmgrove, I agree, the Yang translation is very readable, although I miss the copious notes of the Penguin translation.

>85 mercure: According to Jung Chang's Mao: The Unknown Story, Mao's charisma was more of the Kim Il Sung indirect type via mass media (in the tradition of the Chinese emperors). Mao was a lousy public speaker but excelled in backroom dealing. (Once the novelty aspect wears off, I have come to find Obama's oratory as rather pedestrian and empty. There is an awfully bland white guy inside of him.)

>84 LolaWalser: Thank you very much, Lola, for the tip about The Green Snake. As soon as I saw that Maggie Cheung played in it, I rushed to get a copy. In the mood for love is such a great movie, although its sequel 2046 did not please me which might have been influenced that I saw the film in Warsaw in a art house/porn cinema in OV with Polish and Engrish subtitles.

I also picked up the souless 2011 remake with China's Adam Sandler, Jet Li: The Sorcerer and the White Snake, thanks to globalization (The German DVD is only to be released in April.). Like Disney films, this version is stripped of all the anarchic and archaic qualities of a fairy tale. Even the monk's temptation in the form of an erotic dream has the temptresses dance in Mormon approved underwear.

What a contrast to the wonderful Green Snake with its buffet approach mixing Ghost Busters with Basic Instinct, 1984, an action movie and a classic romantic comedy. The most interesting aspect I found the different even opposite ways depicted to salvation: The monk seeking nirvana, complete detachment from earthly reality; the Taoist seeking union with the spirits and nature; the scholar looking for order and knowledge of an ideal society; and the women/snakes seeking salvation in emotion/feeling/compassion. One minor puzzle/inconsistency: What motivates/drives the demons if they can't feel compassion? The demons reveal plenty of emotions (of joy, anger, ...) prior to the final realization.

The question of salvation is then linked to solidarity: Am I my brother's keeper? May I, to the best of my intentions, interfere into the lives of others (see also The Quiet American)?

Chapter 100 A shrinking family's stock

Good news for Jia Zheng. His governor, to whom he is even related, shows no ill feelings towards him. The prospect of Xue Pan does not look good. Despite all the bribes paid, it does look like he will have to pay the price for his murders. Aunt Xue's financial position doesn't look well, especially as any loss of standing is met by a dynamic piling on of further disrespect, a vicious circle of a family in decline. With Xue Pan away, his wife tries to enchant Xue Ko who remains valiant. Ko and Baochai seem to be the two decent characters in a wicked world.

Baochai manages to control both her mindless husband and help her troubled mother, quite an accomplishment for such a young girl. Baoyu's sisters, however, have had worse sorts: The Imperial concubine (dead), the second sister married in a near slave status, the third sister Tanchun to be sent far away into an unknown marriage. The social bonds are dissolving. Xifeng is asked to organize Tanchun's travel and dowry.

Mar 18, 2012, 1:01pm

I'm very glad you liked The green snake. I love Maggie Cheung too and feel just the same about In the mood for love vs. 2446.

I've seen two more Chinese "snake" movies, in case the motif interests you, neither to my mind as good as Hark's, but interesting in different ways: Madam White Snake, which is a musical (huangmei), and the more lively and more bizarrely surreal The Snake Prince, with my personal fave Ti Lung. (Links to IMDB, but not very helpful, I'm afraid).

Mar 20, 2012, 6:15pm

Some kind soul uploaded the whole film of the Snake Prince onto Youtube. Weird, weird but fascinating indeed. A strange brew inspired by ABBA and Hair, performed by a Communist Red Pioneers jazz dance troupe. Given the obvious production value of the rest of the film, it is puzzling why they went for the Ed Wood touch in terms of special effects. Blood looks like paint because it probably is. The Snake Prince transformed looks like an eczema covered burn victim ... The odd mix of Western and Chinese hair styles and dresses reminds me of some of the odder Star Trek planets.

It is not often that a film tries to turn the snake as penis symbolism into an actual but clumsy bestiality scene. Note to the director: Your snake is doing it wrong. Like a fumbling Rick Santorum, it somehow gets her still pregnant. Baoyu's hour of the snake with good sport Baochai is yet to come.

Mar 20, 2012, 7:13pm

Oh, you made me laugh! You know, I originally wrote the previous post including some descriptions of the art direction (WHAT was that circle dance with Native American-lookalikes in fringed minidresses?!), and the immortal copulation scene (aw, admit it--you never saw anything like it), but then I thought, what the heck, I'm trying to sell the spectacle, not bury it.

Goofy snake sex, but somehow rather shyly sweet, I thought. I can't imagine anything comparable for ordinary Western audiences, our Ledas and swans notwithstanding--it reinforces the distinctions between traditions.

Oh, and the serpent egg-birth! Fantastic.

"Blood like paint"--this is common to all movies in the genre that I've seen, at least through the seventies. The most artificial-looking makeup ever. I think you just have to accept it as a convention (probably out of budgetary considerations).

Edited: Mar 21, 2012, 3:14am

I feel the same about Obama: too cheesy, too American. But if Americans call him the “Orator in Chief”, he seems to be doing something right. Mao may have been a lousy public speaker, but also “the only communist leader capable of rallying the masses to terrorise the party”. Occasionally you see statues of Mao in Chinese businesses as if he were a modern day Kuan Kung. Some Chinese adore him for the power he used. Now that China is no longer led by the generation of the Long March, its leaders look as indifferent as the black hair dye they all use. It is the same in Taiwan and Japan, most of the time.

Those who liked the combination of Wong Kar-wai and Maggie Cheung as in In the Mood for Love should also try their older film Days of Being Wild. And the Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao Hsien has a style that is somewhat equivalent to Wong Kar-wai. You may want to try his movie Three Times. It consists of three stories of increasing opportunities for intimacy in Chinese culture, while communication recedes. The oldest story is set in 1911. Taiwan at the time was already occupied by the Japanese, but for it looks very much like China during the Qing.

It seems like the Green Snake is a film to watch. When considering ghost movies, you may want to peruse A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols: Hidden Symbols in Chinese Life and Thought first. The book was originally published in German in 1983, and it sometimes feels older, as if there is still a hint of Freud in it. Still, it is quite fun to leaf through. E.g. Lola, with her love for Dracula-films, may want to look out for films with foxes:

Hundreds of stories tell how a ravishingly beautiful girl appears one night to a young scholar while he is studying and how he makes love to her. She disappears in the early morning but comes back each evening. The scholar gets weaker and weaker – until a Taoist informs him that the girl is really a fox who is sucking him dry in order to imbibe the essence of immortality.

And this is what Eberhard says about snakes:

Snakes are supposed to be very sensual creatures, and since they are apparently very attracted to the smell of women’s underwear, they can be caught in this way. So it is not surprising that the snake is identified symbolically with the penis. However, a snake with a triangular head is is a female symbol – a caveat not to jump to indiscriminate conclusions in the field psychological imagery.

Wise words. And remember, almost all Asians believe in ghosts. Suspension of disbelief comes easier.

Mar 21, 2012, 9:51am

the girl is really a fox who is sucking him dry

Plus ça change...!

Freudian hints are fine, Freud won't be got rid off entirely. Thank you for the movie recommendations, and that book!

Speaking of Asian ghosts, have you seen Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee who can recall his past lives? I've become a fan of the director's some five-six years back when they gave him a mini-retrospective here.

Edited: Mar 22, 2012, 2:42am

I have not seen Uncle Boonmee. I am afraid I do not really enjoy ghost movies. Last year I travelled by bus through Sabah and Sarawak with ample opportunities to watch them, but I rather looked out of the window.

Horror more or less stops for me at films like Fruit Chan's Dumplings, another typical Asian story:

In Hong Kong, Aunt Mei is a cook famous for her home-made rejuvenation dumplings, based on a millenarian recipe prepared with a mysterious ingredient that she brings directly from China.

It is best to watch it without knowing too much about it (but compared to Hou's Three Times, the pace is at lightning speed). If you ask me, both the film and its director deserve cult status, but never seem to have obtained it.

Mar 22, 2012, 10:23am

Oh, not to give you a wrong impression, Weerasethakul isn't a shlock director, his movies are beautiful, profound and original, with very simple plots but rich atmosphere. There are fantastic touches--the ghost in Uncle Boonmee, the tiger shaman in Tropical malady, but nothing close to Shaw Brothers aesthetic.

He's Thai, and as I think I read somewhere you lived in Thailand, I thought you might know his stuff.

Fruit Chan's Dumplings sounds tasty. Between you and J-C, I have a list for my next trip to Chinatown.

Mar 25, 2012, 5:47pm

(Dumplings are the kangaroos of the food world, surviving only on the acquired taste of people in marginal regions.)

I doubt whether I have yet actually seen a Thai movie. The next movie I am going to watch (opens here in April) was filmed in Thailand (doubling for Burma): The Lady (stupid title, great director and leads).

>91 mercure: Thanks for the tip of Eberhard. I'll buy it next time, I am in the city center where they carry the whole range of that new age series. The esoteric cover means that one cannot read the book in public without being taken for a complete fruitcake. First, I have to finish van Gulik's. His discussion of "essence" conservation fits the foxy theme to the T.

One aspect I find intriguing is how many Chinese fairy tales have a sad ending compared to the "happily ever after" of the old European ones. The lesson seems to be to cope with adversity. One important theme, also in Green Snake, is locking away the female (also present in the West, see Saint Barbara or Rapunzel), preparing the women for a life in a confined space (see Raise the Red Lantern).

It is also better not to reflect too much on what people believe (ghosts, hell, devils, UFO, ... 40% in Switzerland apparently still hold evolution to be untrue.). Their infalsifiability and easy explanatory powers makes ghosts and superstition difficult to overcome. My favorite Dracula moment is on Southern/Eastern European buses when all passengers simultaneously make the sign of the cross whenever a church or cross is passed on the road.

Chapter 101 asks a good question: "How could so many people with good sense have been fooled from old times till now?" Turtles all the way down ...

Chapter 101 Ghosts and oracles

I didn't know that Xifeng is only 25. I imagined her in her thirties. There is quite a generation gap between the Old Dowager at 80 and the other women! During a nightly stroll, Xifeng is frightened first by a dog and then by the apparition of dead Qin Keqing. Shocked she stumbles home. Her whole entourage (safe imperturbable Ping'er) is touchy too. Even the nanny is rude towards Xifeng's (crying) child. Tired, the entourage stays in bed when her husband returns home early shortly after having left. He is troubled too and not happy to see all of them lounging in bed. He needs to clean up other family mischief: Xifeng's brother has milked the guests at a supposed birthday commemoration and squandering the money. Later on, Xifeng checks in on the newly-weds. Baoyu is still fascinated with Baochai brushing her hair and seems to care for her now.

The abbess arrives and informs to invite the ladies to attend a mass to decontaminate the evil spirits. Otherwise skeptic Xifeng is quite willing to visit the monastery after her ghost encounter to listen to the oracle. Hers said: "Number 33. Most auspicious. Wang Xifeng returns home in splendour. The one who for a score of years left home / now in fine raiment will return again. / The honey culled from blossoms by the bee / is seized by others - all toil is in vain. / The traveller arrives. / Word comes too late. / Settle the lawsuit. / Reconsider the match." The abbess and the entourage interpret this as positive. Only Xifeng remains skeptic.

The return might well be in funeral clothes. All toil in vain might indicate the loss of the family fortune and Tanchun's marriage could be a bad choice.

Mar 30, 2012, 7:19am

> 94

I think I have spent about three months in Thailand (as a tourist). I would not pretend to know that country. I spend a lot more time in Indonesia however. To a large extent, both countries share the same culture. Maybe I should have a look at Uncle Boonmee.

That said, I was made aware of the book Themes in Chinese Psychology by Catherine Tien-Lun Sun. It is rather expensive, but it covers a lot of themes in few pages. A look at the Table of Contents on Amazon mentions the influence of Chinese religions, face and Chinese values in classical literary works like The Dream of the Red Chamber. The sneak preview option shows rather short but to-the-point descriptions.

Apr 4, 2012, 5:56pm

Chapter 102 A tiger croaks in the garden

Tanchun is packed off rather quickly. The garden, now mostly bereft of human occupation, is in a state of disarray and neglect, an expensive folly of over-consumption - and supposedly a source of illness. Madam Yu, having walked through the garden, catches a fever (malaria?). Besides consulting their doctors, the Jias seek help from a diviner who uses three coins to dvine I Ching trigramms, inner sign: Head/Head/Head (9) - Head/Head/Tail (8) - Head/Head/Head (9), outer sign: Head/Head7Tail (8) - Tail/Tail/Head (7) - Head/Head/Tail (8). The first sign is interpreted as possession by a ghost, while the second forecasts plundering of brothers and misfortune. The illness is due to the White Tiger that rises at dusk (the time period the tsetse flies are active too). The rest of the family is caught by illness too. The haunted garden is closed off but its evil effects spill over and continue to terrorize the Jias. After a patrol into the garden beat a hasty retreat (having been shocked by pheasant! A Chinese Bremen town musician), a Taoist is called for an exorcism.

Meanwhile, Jia Zheng has been demoted for not being able to manage his employees in the province.

Apr 8, 2012, 6:32pm

Chapter 103 From soup to nuts

The family is quite relieved to hear that Jia Zheng's demotion (and probable return) ended so quietly. Better to cut your losses. A loss of another kind is experienced by the Xues. Xue Pan's crazy wife is dead. A clumsy attempt to poison her imagined rival Xiangling had ended with her self-poisoning with soup. To save face, both maids, Xiangling and Baochan, are bound for inquiries.

The deceased's mother raises hell about her daughter's fate to poor Aunt Xue. Interestingly, the presence of the mother's adopted son prohibited the younger women (chiefly Baochai) to come to her mother's aid (gender segregation). Lady Wang sends in reinforcements to tag team the mother. The women get physical, pushing and shoving - the adopted son even throwing a chair (WWE China edition). As the official investigators are coming soon, Jia Lian helps in separating the contestants.

Baochan tries to rescue herself by inculpating the mother and her mistress. It was Baochan who unintentionally messed up the daughter's plan to poison Xiangling by switching the bowls. To preserve outward appearances, the whole affair is buried.

Meanwhile, scholar and official Jia Yutsun meets a Taoist in the shade of a cypress near a run-down temple. The Taoist happens to be the former Mr. Chen, his benefactor. Mr. Chen seems content to pass his final days in quiet contemplation and urges Jia Yutsun on to cross the river. As he started to do so, a messenger arrives.

Apr 19, 2012, 6:57pm

Chapter 104 Sippenhaftung

Just watching the temple burn down shows what a cold fish Yutsun is. For (political) insurance purposes, he orders an underling report about the fate of his benefactor. Apparently he has ascended to heaven within the burning temple. Isn't that convenient? On the road, Yutsun is troubled by a drunk and treats him to a bit of rough justice. Arrested, the drunk tries to use his indirect connections to the Jia clan to release him from jail. Unfortunately, the Jias never hear from the case, as their gates are locked. Having an open ear for your clients is the hallmark of a patron. The Jias are not listening.

Instead, it looks like there is a nation-wide purge against the Jia clan underway. Baoyu's father is dressed down by the Emperor who clearly is no longer fond of anyone named Jia.

Returning home in a sour mood, the father is misinformed about the death of Daiyu. A fact that deeply troubles troubled Baoyu. This robs his sleeps but scratches his poetic itch. Baoyu starts investigating Daiyu's last moments as an inspiration for an elegy.

Re Chinese romances, I cannot get Mouse loves the rice out of my head (via MeFi). The German "Ich habe Dich zum Fressen gern" ("I'd love to devour you") expresses the selfish aspect of love, of a union by absorbing the other. The Chinese version turns the craving into a sacrifice, a denial where the union is achieved by the total personal abnegation (cf. kamikaze motivation).

(The video is also a wonderful status desires of a Chinese princess.)

Apr 22, 2012, 5:51pm

Chapter 105 Nobody expects the Spanish inquisition

Amidst a Jia party, the Imperial Guard raids the mansion, publicly humiliating the Jias. In a mix of formal search and a sack, the Jias manage to shield at least their household goods from the greedy hands of the Guards' hanger-ons. Still, the house is turned upside down and an inventory is compiled. Most incriminating are goods reserved for Imperial use and usurious loan agreements. A friendly prince spares the Jias from further (or total?) humiliation.

Most shocked are the Jia ladies who together with Baoyu have to retire into a special sanctum while the male Imperial Guards proceed to examine the household. A world collapses for the gasping Old Dowager, (anemic) Xifeng faints.

The inventory list reveals an odd set of fine cookery silverware. From the list it looks like they are equipped for a banquet of twenty. Fox furs in all variation and in huge numbers are another surprising revelation. There are, however, also six tiger and three seal skins and eight male (?) wolf skins. 18 clocks and watches are much more than I would have expected, especially given the time period of the novel. Would a 18th century European lord own 18 time pieces? With only 7.200 taels of silver, the family's cash-flow problem is amply demonstrated. They couldn't thus even pay for one more funeral out of pocket.

The Jias are under assault in a number of judicial cases. Faithful Xue Ko acts as a messenger and informant for the constrained Jias. The next blow lands as the message is passed along that the Old Dowager is dying. Sic transit ...

Apr 29, 2012, 4:39pm

Chapter 106 The deck chairs on the Titanic

The Old Dowager hasn't started singing yet. The Jias are fortunate in their misery as only half their fortune is confiscated: The Ning mansion and all its servants are gone. The old patriarch is sent into exile at the frontier. The remaining occupants find refuge in the Rong mansion. The Rong mansion's losses are due to Xifeng's usurious loans which are confiscated. The crisis, however, triggers a loss in credibility and liquidity. Everybody tries to redeem the Jia debts. A fire-sale of assets ensues. Jia Zheng finally realizes the dire financial situation of the family. A downsizing and turnaround is in order.

Chapter 107 Phoenix or turkey?

The Emperor spares Jia Zheng and even restores/transfers the hereditary title. The sack of the mansion still cost the family dearly. It is the Old Dowager's fortune which saves the day. Compared to the wasteful spending of earlier times, the 2-3.000 taels she hands out to every relative are small but allow them to keep their social station. Severe cut-backs in costs are in order. The number of personnel is to be curtailed sharply and the ruinous garden finally closed. The Old Dowager also visits sick Xifeng. Jia Zheng says goodbye to Jia She. Life goes on in the downsized mansion.

May 9, 2012, 7:34pm

Chapter 108 Company and solitude

Normalcy, sort of, returns to the Jia household. A birthday party for Baochai helps to heal some of the wounds to the family status. A drinking game relieves some of the ladies' stress. Baoyu is reminded of the 12 girls of Chinling most of whose lives ended not so fortunate. Depressed, he escapes to the (now closed) garden with Xiren. Daiyu's Bamboo Lodge is said to be haunted. Baoyu's wandering of into the wilderness alarms the beehive. A frantic search for the lost son ensues until he is found and returned to the compound. Baoyu is still a child at heart.

May 13, 2012, 5:52pm

Chapter 109 The circle of life

Crafty Baochai tries to get Daiyu out of Baoyu's system by postulating that Daiyu as an immortal will not contact a lowly human. Baoyu tests this hypothesis by sleeping outside. The fresh air works wonders and he sleeps through without dreaming about Daiyu. The air as well as a scantily clad maid aids Baoyu in another department too. After the maid managed to divert Baoyu's attention, he finally consummates the marriage. As this lies at the core of the "universally acknowledged truth, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife" (or more exactly a small fortune in Baoyu's case), its formulation is almost an anticlimax: "... he made abject advances which Baochai naturally did not reject. And thus that night at last their marriage was consummated." Given Baoyu's previous sexual experiences with Keqing and maids, the choice of "abject" is dismal indeed. I wonder whether the Chinese term has the same connotations as abject, which is derived from ab + iacere - throw away.

While Baoyu and Baochai are, however miserably, extending the Jia family tree, death is approaching too. The Old Dowager, shocked by the family's downfall, is at death's door. Doctors are of no help and the family is making funeral preparations. This isn't the only death, though. Poor Yingchun, just sent back to her abusive husband, dies too. An information withheld from the dying Old Dowager. Of the four "springs", the Imperial consort is dead, so is Yingchun, Tanchun is dead-by-distance. Only young Xichun remains. The Old Dowager's funeral will probably be the grand finale of the Jia family.

May 20, 2012, 2:38pm

Chapter 110 Götterdämmerung

The Old Dowager offers her farewell to the clan, marking the end of an era. Her funeral, which should be covered by special assets set aside by the Old Dowager, put the family in a manpower and liquidity crisis. The reduced staff (lacking especially good managers) isn't large enough to host the funeral and its guests and at the same time keep up the inner and outer household. Constrained by liquidity problems, Xifeng is unable to pay for the necessary services and has to bully the servants and workers all the time. Many of the sheltered ladies have not yet absorbed the lessons of a changed world and continue in their old profligate way. Xifeng serves as a scapegoat for other people's mistakes (her usury excepted) which, outspoken as she usually is, is hard for her to swallow.

Xifeng is especially pestered by Yuanyang whose world is in turmoil. Without the Old Dowager as a patron, she is essentially alone. As she doesn't want to marry, a suicide or entry into a monastery are her only options. Her pressuring Xifeng lets me think she wants to exit with a bang.

We learn that Shi Xiangyun's recent marriage is troubled too. Her husband is sick with consumption, putting her at risk to be a widow soon - and widows are bad luck for prospective husbands. The general despair results in a sea of tears with Baoyu as crier-in-chief. The chapter ends, however, with the collapse of Xifeng who is vomiting blood (extraordinary for somebody anemic).

The novel kills off its cast faster than a slasher movie. Who will be the survivor girl?

May 27, 2012, 2:39pm

Chapter 111 Loss and devotion

The bad luck continues. Vomiting Xifeng is knocked out. Managerial capacity is at an all time low. The family barely manages to stage the funeral. Meanwhile, poor Yuangyang decides to end her life. She hangs herself, an act wildly admired for her devotion to her mistress and a testament to her purity - awarded heavenly compensation. Yuanyang's coffin is placed near her mistress'. This chastity/purity fetish reminds me of Rilke (Von den Mädchen):

"Mädchen, Dichter sind, die von euch lernen
das zu sagen, was ihr einsam seid;
und sie lernen leben an euch Fernen,
wie die Abende an großen Sternen
sich gewöhnen an die Ewigkeit.

Keine darf sich je dem Dichter schenken,
wenn sein Auge auch um Frauen bat;
denn er kann euch nur als Mädchen denken:
das Gefühl in euren Handgelenken
würde brechen von Brokat."

The suffering is not over yet. While the nun Miaoyu visits Xichun, a distant relative had informed robbers about the Old Dowager's fortune in her chamber. As the Jia men hold a vigil at the funeral and the servants inattentive, the robbery succeeds all to easily. Only Pao Yung, guardian of the garden, is brave and willing to fight the robbers, killing the informer and putting the other robbers to flight. He cannot prevent the economic loss, however. Paying for the funeral will put the Jias now into further debt. Homo homini lupus.

Jun 7, 2012, 6:07pm

Chapter 112 Disrobed and demented - the suffering continues

While the women lament the losses, the robbers commit a further crime, even a mortal sin - snatching the nun Miaoyu. The Jias have trouble with listing their losses as the one who knew exactly what the Old Dowager had is dead (Yuanyang) and as they risk overstating their losses in comparison to the goods confiscated. Feeling guilty both about the robbery and Miaoyu's visit, Xichun is placed on suicide-watch. Hearing about Miaoyu's abduction, Xichun wants to become a nun. She cuts of part of her hair before others manage to intervene.

Concubine Chao is the next one to break down, foaming at the mouth. She is left behind with her son and some attendants at the temple, while the family returns home. Finally, a doctor is sent for to care for her (which will further set back the financial health of the family). Xifeng's health is in danger too. Apart from robust Baochai, all the women seem to be at death's door.

Jun 11, 2012, 6:39pm

Chapter 113 Upstairs and downstairs

Exit Concubine Zhao, straight to hell. Xifeng is not far behind and delirious too. The menfolk (apart from girlie-man Baoyu) enjoy vastly better health than the women who are dropping like flies. The Old Dowager's bovine health was exceptional. Another survivor comes to pay a visit: Granny Liu, sturdy peasant, meets Xifeng, wasted city slicker. Life in the country-side continues to be harsh and Granny Liu's words are centered on food. Before she'll trigger bad memories for Xifeng, Ping'er moves her out of the house. After Jia Lien's lament about his financial situation, it is delirious Godzilla Xifeng who attracts everybody's attention. Granny Liu manages to calm her down and promises to pray for her. In exchange, Granny Liu leaves behind one grand-child at the compound.

Meanwhile, depressed Baoyu is stalking Daiyu's maid. He is still not over Daiyu's death and also doesn't understand that as a married man it is highly inappropriate for him to ask to enter a maid's room. Fortunately, Xiren has sent a maid after Baoyu who is chaperoned home, none the wiser. Baoyu's intervention has made Daiyu's maid miserable with memories. She is weeping when she hears a sound.

Jun 19, 2012, 7:46am

Chapter 114 Another one bites the dust

Xifeng is at death's door, Baoyu, Xiren and Baochai discuss her fate. It turns out that Baochai's family has arranged a quiet shotgun wedding for Xue Ko. Chinese wedding taboos are really complicated. Waiting three years for marriage after a parent's funeral seems strict (perhaps the family has to recover the funeral costs before the can spend again for the wedding?).

The quiet funeral of Xifeng angers her brother who makes a scene (he seems to be after money - not exactly the best time to go after the Jias). Ping'er provides the stretched Jias with a bridge loan from selling off her valuables.

Jia Zheng meanwhile starts downsizing when he receives a Mr. Chen whose son also named Baoyu is said to ressemble his namesake. Mr. Chen's fortune is blessed and he is off to big tasks (as the Jias used to be). He takes along a letter to Jia Zheng's daughter in the south. Mr Chen announces the visit of his Baoyu. The real Baoyu even wants to present his double to his wife and the maids. Another faux pas, as even identical looking foreign males are forbidden to feast their eyes (and more) of the compound's women.

Jun 22, 2012, 2:02am

Maybe Yvkoh could better comment on Chinese wedding taboos, but I have always understood that waiting three years for marriage after a parent's funeral was an expression of filial piety.

The booklet Origins Of Chinese People And Customs just says that mixing the happy event of a marriage close to a funeral would be "unlucky".

Jun 22, 2012, 6:37am

Unlucky is surviving brain cancer surgery weeks before the wedding day and then having the day cancelled by a parent's death, followed by needing to arrange for the funeral.

Jun 26, 2012, 10:57am

>110 vy0123: This sounds painful indeed. My condolences. The tales of suffering in the Jia mansion continues.

Chapter 115 Mirror, mirror or what's the matter with Snowwhite?

The funerals and mourning again interrupt Baoyu's going to school. His father assigns him to write essays, though that task can't be completed either as Baoyu's health interferes.

Some nuns visit and gossip about poor Miaou-yu in front of Xichun and consider her spoiled for wanting to become a nun, given her family background. Enraged and confirmed in her desire, Xichun sends them packing. She remains on suicide watch, as her family continues to see her plan of either taking her life or become a nun as foolish.

The attention shifts to the visit of Chen Baoyu, Baoyu's namesake and double, a virtuous suck-up. The stilted conversation or competition of the two Baoyus is quite unreal. Unworthy Jia Huan joins in this strange talk of who is the better "precious jade" - though it is quite apparent that Chen Baoyu will have a more successful career. When the two mothers meet, Lady Wang offers to arrange a marriage for Chen, rebuilding guanxi to an up-and-coming family.

The real Baoyu, set back by his polite competitor, loses his mind again and loses consciousness. The family even starts preparing for Baoyu's funeral (which the family can't afford to pay for), when a monk appears offering to restore Baoyu#s health with his precious jade for a fee of 10.000 taels. Baoyu grasps the jade and, for a few moments, seems to recover. When he reminds himself of Daiyu, however, he collapses again. Will he recover - and will the monk receive the reward for a job half-done?

Jul 1, 2012, 6:08pm

Chapter 116 Heaven and Earth

Comatose Baoyu revisits the celestial garden, the "Happy Land of Truth". Consulting the register of the twelve beauties of Chinling again, his memory fails him again. Led by ghostly Yuan-yang, he stumbles to a fairy flower garden which is guarded by ghostly maid. Threatened by a sword, Baoyu is rescued by one of his servant's ghosts and escorted to the Queen of Bamboo as attendant Shen Ying (?). He only catches a glimpse of Daiyu (and Qin Keqing). before being chased by girls turned into demons. The monk with the mirror saves him again.

Regaining consciousness, he finds himself back on earth among his family. As a precaution, Baochai is tasked in hanging his re-found jade around his neck. Enlightened Baoyu realizes that Buddhism and the renunciation of earthly ways is the solution. Looking at Xichun and Xiren, he weeps for their sorts.

Jia Zheng decides to escort the Old Dowager's coffin on its way to its southern burial place. In fact, it becomes a convoy of coffins (including Daiyu's). Mortgages on outside properties help finance this expedition. Baoyu is, in the mean time, to sit the examination.

While the maids idle their time away, the monk returns to claim his reward.

Jul 12, 2012, 7:10pm

Chapter 117 Siddhartha

Baoyu, knowing that the way to salvation lies in renouncing the world wants to return the jade to the monk. Xiren and the maids, having experienced the effects of the absent jade on Baoyu, desperately cling on to him to hinder him returning the jade. Baochai and his mother restore some sanity. Baoyu agrees not to return the jade and offer only limited compensation to the monk who ultimately is not interested in the reward but Baoyu's soul. As Baoyu has seen the way, the monk's mission is complete. The rest of the family has not yet noticed (or agreed to) Baoyu's conversion.

Jia Lien returns to, informing about the illness of his father and the need of men to care for him which further diminishes the management capacity at the mansion. The family moves in even closer, giving up more space. The servants and young men, unsupervised, start to party - even meek Jia Huan goes out of bounds. The drinking buddies think about selling one of the girls off as a concubine to restore some of the family fortune. Men are truly vile in this novel!

More dark clouds are approaching as Jia Yu-tsun is arrested in chains for corruption. Poor Miaoyu's death is indirectly confirmed. At least, Xichun can look forward to her family finally accepting her wish to become a nun. Or not?

Just a reminder that after the remaining three chapters I will be reading Men and women in Qing China. So please get your copy if you want to join in (available in both a Brill rip-off edition at 135 USD and a recommended U of Hawaii Press paperback at 20 USD).

Jul 24, 2012, 6:28pm

Chapter 118 The quintessence of dust vs Rocky in Siberia

Xichun's maids are not keen to join her mistress into her new life. Fortunately, Daiyu's former maid volunteers and thus resolves her uncertain position, trading safety for potential.

Jia Zheng, meanwhile, is short on cash on his Southern journey and tries to borrow money from a local magistrate who fails to treat the Jias in accordance with their former status. Snubbed, Jia Zheng has the magistrate's career ended. In order to relieve their debts, Jia Yun, Jia Huan and Uncle Wang plan to sell Jia Qiaojie as a concubine. The (uninformed) girl is inspected by two ladies. Lady Wang and Ping'er try but fail to intervene. In more fortunate news, it looks like Tanchun is coming to visit the capital.

Baoyu and Lan prepare to take the exams. Baochai tries to reason with Baoyu to study hard for the exam as his filial duty. Baoyu in his "che sera, sera/I'll be a monk soon" phase is indifferent. Tutoring Jia Lan is a step in the right direction, arranging a burning of his frivolous zen books is appreciated by Baochai too as is his serious studying. She is, however, concerned with his lacking libido.

Jul 29, 2012, 2:34pm

Chapter 119 Back to the Shire

After Baoyu announces again Xiren's fate (which he, in a non-deterministic world, would be just the person to change it, wouldn't he?), he, Lan and the servants depart for the examinations (with all the stuff necessary for a polar expedition). Strangely, passing the exam changes from a means to a career to its own goal, the certificate becomes the competence. Baoyu continues with his prophecies, saying that the future of the Jia clan will be assured by Jia Lan - which naturally shocks Baochai who weeps silent tears.

Meanwhile, the arranged wedding is proceeding. Ping'er is is helpless to prevent it, as is Lady Wang. Fortunately, the cavalry arrives: Grandma Liu to the rescue. In a carriage, Granny Liu and Qiaojie depart for her village to hide until her father's return. The trip was unnecessary, though - as the marriage fell through from the prince's side. Total failure.

While Jia Lan returns from the examination, Baoyu is missing, disappearing in the crowd after the exam. Naturally, the family is very concerned. At least, a messenger arrives announcing that Tanchun will visit the next day. The joyful reunion is followed by good news - both Baoyu and Lan passed the exam, Baoyu in 7th place, Lan in 130th place. The good results benefit the Jia clan as the Emperor, being reminded of the Jias, declares a general amnesty and restores the family fortune. Qiaojie too is escorted back to the mansion from Granny Liu's village. Ping'er's good sense results in her promotion to wife. The final chapter is announced with bad news: Xiren is dying (having collapsed earlier).

Aug 4, 2012, 9:26am

Chapter 120 Back to the Shire

"It is a general truism of this world that anything long divided will surely unite, and anything long united will surely divide." Chapter 120 closes the circle, returns the world to its prior status. The Jia clan which was nearly ousted by the Emperor for their corruption and ineptitude has won the power struggle, restoring their access to wealth.

The deceased family members are buried on ancestral grounds. Baoyu is given a moment in the snow to honor his father. Xue Pan is released from prison and promises to be good, marrying faithful Xiangling (other parents might not consider him quite the catch, anyway.). Unfortunately, childbirth causes her death. Xiren recovers and marries Chiang Yu-han, the former actor and friend (lover?) of Baoyu, a nice Ying Yang Baoyu sandwich and not a bad outcome for Xiren. Baochai is left with being the mother of Baoyu's child, perhaps preparing herself to become the future Old Dowager.

Jia Yutsun, meanwhile, who had risen to the top, is back at the bottom again, contemplating the world and Baoyu. The stone returns to its old place, leaving behind the "story of the stone" which is handed to the author who thus makes a brief cameo. The story ends in verse:

"A tale of grief is told
Fantasy most melancholy.
Since all live in a dream,
Why laugh at others' folly?"

Dec 29, 2015, 11:30pm

Awesome read along, which I have just discovered (three years too late…) after completing my own reading of the novel. If anyone is still interested, I have posted my review here:

Jan 1, 2016, 2:16pm

Murr murr murr!! Oh your paws and whiskers! Beautiful review, thanks for linking, you hit on everything that makes me love it so specially. So nice to see it expressed so well.

Jan 2, 2016, 10:03pm

Thank you thank you thank you and hugs from Taiwan. Happy new year!

Feb 12, 2016, 5:01pm

Article in today's Guardian newspaper, asking why the Dream of the Red Chamber aka The Story of the Stone isn't better known in the west, concentrating on David Hawkes and John Minford's Penguin Classics translation:

Query, whether this is merely recycling a 2012 article from the Daily Telegraph (I can't tell, as the Telegraph website doesn't like my ad-blocker):

Feb 12, 2016, 5:11pm

>120 Cynfelyn:

Thanks, it was interesting to hear about Hawkes' background--the first generation of translators from Far Eastern into Western languages so often seem to have been fascinating people.

I'd have thought that the inclusion on that 1000 books to read before you die list would provide quite a bit of advertisement for this and other Chinese classics, although the disparity in popularity in China and elsewhere is probably going to last.

The Telegraph article was written by the translator John Minford.

Feb 12, 2016, 7:56pm

China's Story of the Stone: the best book you’ve never heard of

Weighty tomes: Chinese pensioner Zhang Enmao with some of his 1,250 copies of the novel 'Dream of the Red Chamber', also known as The Story of the Stone

By John Minford
7:00PM BST 28 Jul 2012

The Story of the Stone is essential reading in China, yet this great work of literature is barely known in the English-speaking world

The death of the elderly Chinese scholar Zhou Ruchang, noted recently in a Daily Telegraph obituary, draws attention to a startling fact: that China’s greatest work of literature, the 18th-century novel Dream of the Red Chamber, on which Professor Zhou was an acknowledged – and somewhat obsessive – expert, is still virtually unknown in the English-speaking world. And yet a complete and highly readable English translation has been available in Penguin Classics for nearly 30 years.

In its native land, The Story of the Stone, as the book is also known – Stone for short – enjoys a unique status, comparable to the plays of Shakespeare. Apart from its literary merits, Chinese readers recommend it as the best starting point for any understanding of Chinese psychology, culture and society.

So why is this masterpiece so neglected in the West? Does it just reflect a general decline of interest in literature? Or is there something particular about the Chinese case? Are we, perhaps, too obsessed with China’s latest economic statistics to spare a thought for what’s left of its soul? As one philistine academic colleague growled at me not long ago, “Who cares about Chinese poetry anyway?” In British universities, teachers of traditional Chinese literature are in danger of becoming extinct.


For the Chinese, however, The Story of the Stone is a talisman. Three years ago, Madame Fu Ying, Chinese ambassador to the Court of St James (now deputy foreign minister of the People’s Republic of China, and a rising star), demonstrated this when she presented the complete five-volume Penguin edition to the Queen. On my arrival in China in 1980, I was advised by Yang Xianyi, one of Stone’s Beijing translators, that if ever I found myself in a fix with the authorities, I should mention my own connection with the book. I once tested this theory, with the Public Security Bureau – and it worked.

The book was left unfinished by the author Cao Xueqin at his death in 1763 and was eventually published in 1792, with an added conclusion attributed to Gao E. It is written in high-class Peking vernacular, with many unusual expressions and allusions, necessitating dozens of footnotes per chapter for today’s readers. But despite this, and despite its daunting length (twice as long as War and Peace) and its huge dramatis personae (well over 300 main characters), it is still widely read throughout the Chinese-speaking world. Mention of it triggers an instant gleam of recognition, and opens up new possibilities of communication.

At the centre of the plot is a love triangle involving Baoyu, a young aristocratic fop, and his two girl-cousins. These characters divide readers into fiercely opposing camps: some prefer the wilting, anorexic beauty of Miss Lin Daiyu, others admire the healthier, more down-to-earth charms of her rival, Xue Baochai; as for Baoyu, readers either adore him and his aesthetic ecstasies, or consider him a self-indulgent sentimentalist.

The story has been adapted countless times into film, drama, opera, and twice into lavish multi-part TV series. Chairman Mao and his last wife, Jiang Qing, were both Stone-aficionados. He lectured his subjects on the need to read it five times, while his secretary, Hu Qiaomu, claimed that the Great Helmsman himself had read it 25 times. A young graduate student from China once told me she read it in winter to keep warm, in summer to keep cool.

What is so special about this work? Why does it continue to cast its spell on today’s Chinese readers? One has to try to imagine a book that combines the qualities of Jane Austen – brilliantly observed accounts of Chinese psychology and personality, meticulous depiction of an aristocratic Chinese/Manchu household – with the grand sweep of a novel such as Vanity Fair or the works of Balzac. Its mood is allegorical, lyrical and philosophical. It leaves the reader with a visionary experience of the human condition, comparable to that of Proust. It’s a blend of Zen Buddhism and Taoism with the underlying theme of “seeing through the Red Dust” beyond the illusion of earthly “reality”.

The Stone narrates the journey of a sensitive soul towards enlightenment. That “soul” is Jia Baoyu, the incarnation of the “stone” of the title, a delicate teenager, a dreamer, a pampered aesthete “in love with love”. In the fifth chapter he retires from a family afternoon gathering to take a nap in the boudoir of his cousin Jia Rong’s beautiful young wife. His visit, in a dream, to the Land of Illusion is described, where a fairy named Disenchantment reveals the predestined futures of many of his girl-cousins and maids, at the same time gently berating him for being such a lustful creature (in his case it is Lust of the Mind). She initiates him into the art of love with a beautiful girl, Two-in-One, so called because she combines the charms of his two favourite girl-cousins. After the dream, his maid, Aroma, proceeds to practice with him some of the “lessons” taught him by the Fairy in his “initiatory dream”. This intertwining of desire and enlightenment, of passion and disenchantment, lies at the heart of the novel.

And yet, despite its philosophical and allegorical dimension, Stone is no Pilgrim’s Progress. It is full of fun and games, describing the illusion of daily “reality” in loving detail. Its pages make up a veritable encyclopedia of Chinese life, from the making of tea with last year’s melted snow, to the eating of crabs, the performing of lyrical opera and the writing of classical verse in every possible metre. To offset the large cast of upper-class characters, there is also a wonderful assortment of low-life personalities, old village dames, garrulous matrons, drunken retainers, martial artists, sing-song girls and theatrical performers. It convincingly describes the corruption and other social ills that beset China’s society in the late traditional period (and in many ways still do).

Its rich social tapestry, and its pervading philosophical theme, take this novel far beyond the scope of the sentimental Chinese novel so popular in the 18th century. Written just before the onset of China’s 19th-century decline, Stone captures brilliantly the “glory that was China”, and the knife edge on which that glory balanced. This is what makes it such essential reading today.

John Minford is Professor of Chinese at the Australian National University. He translated 'The Story of the Stone’ for Penguin with David Hawkes