Story of the Stone, Red Chamber - Read along

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Story of the Stone, Red Chamber - Read along

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Sep 1, 2009, 5:45pm

Welcome to the Dream of the Red Chamber / A Dream of Red Mansions / Story of the Stone read-along. After the mighty clashes of the Han warriors, we turn to the second Chinese classic which presents Qing domestic life, which spouts its own Redology, reminding me both of Janeites and Twilighters ("Xue Baochai and Lin Daiyu; which one is better?" I hope some of our posters can help me with some of those questions such as "Are the feet of the female character in the novel bound or not?" (In one of the great stories in Woman Wang, the bound feet serve as fleshy shackles.))

There are two main English translations by David Hawkes/Penguin (5 vol.) and Gladys Yang/Foreign Language Press (3 hc or 4 sc vol. FLC). Hawkes' translation is said to use a more refined/readable English. Personally, I don't like the low contrast and cheap type-setting of Penguin books. I bought the three volume FLC hardcover edition which has b/W and water color illustrations. Strangely and unfortunately, this edition is still using Wade-Giles (Tsao Tsao). I think we should try to use the Wikipedia names to reduce confusion.

I picked up the Hong lou meng 1987 TV series DVD collection of 36 episodes. A new version will be broadcast in China during the Chinese new year in 2010.

Again 120 chapters. The FLC starts with a Communist publisher's note with bold Mao quotes followed by the prelude chapter 1, itself a stratagem to escape censorship, integrating the publisher's note into a Nabokovian mélange. Let's start at the beginning and I hope many of you will join in.

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.

Sep 1, 2009, 5:53pm

Chapter 1 Like a rolling stone

The novel starts with a narrator explaining about the author's use of a pseudonym due to his unwholesome lifestyle (which the author nevertheless wants to preserve). So on level 0 is the narrator, on level 1 the author who now presents level 3, the outcast stone picked up by a monk (accompanied by a Taoist, a Chinese Statler and Waldorf): "You look like a precious object, but you lack real value.", engraves it and promise to release it into a prosperous place.

Break. A Taoist named Reverend Void discovers inscriptions of the stone's story. The Taoist copies the story after the stone proclaimed his story to be better than all those cheap and conventional romances and set in the present age (instead of a pseudo past). The Taoist has the story printed (level 4?) as the "Record of the Passionate Monk" (isn't passion - in contrast to compassion - very un-monkish?).

The back story. In Kusu (Suzhou), fifty-year old Chen Fei dreams about a Taoist and a monk who talk about two souls Vermilion Pearl, Shen Ying and a bunch of sinners returning to Earth to enact a drama. The Taoist and the monk intend to join them after having cleared all formalities. Chen Fei talks with them and is shown the engraved stone "Precious Jade of Spiritual Understanding" (but prevented from reading the obverse). The three enter a dreamland, the Illusionary Land of the Great Void, when he awakes. A nurse hands him his only child, a daughter named Ying-lien. He sees a monk and a Taoist who proclaim that the daughter will cause him nothing but trouble. The monk and Taoist promise to meet again, then vanish.

Chia Hua, a poor scholar, visits Chen Fei and has tea with him. During a lull, he sees a charming maid. They flirt, but Chia Hua has to leave. In autumn, while Chia Hua still chants love-sick verses, Chen Fei invites him again for tea and drink. Chen Fei advances money (fifty taels of silver and two suits) so that Chia Hua can take the Metropolitan Exams.

Chen Fei's good deed is not appreciated in heaven; he loses everything: his daughter, his property, his independence, then walks off stage: A servant loses Chen Fei's daughter, a fire destroys his house so he has to live with his treacherous father-in-law. Chen Fei sees the monk again singing about the deceiving world. "Whoever saw a really filial son? All good things must end." Chen Fei joins in and leaves with the monk and the Taoist.

Chen Fei's wife and her two maids live with her parents. One day, an official knocks on the door ...

Sep 6, 2009, 12:56pm

Chapter 2 Meet the Fockers

Chen's investment paid off: As the new prefect he handsomely rewards the surviving Chens/Fengs and takes the maid he flirted with as a concubine. His wife dying in childbirth, the maid advances her status to wife. His luck runs out and he is impeached and retires to the countryside, the goes on a sightseeing tour. He takes up a post as a tutor of a salt commissioner's daughter. Meeting an old drinking buddy, they tell the story of his extended Chia/Jia clan with the Ning and Jung/Rong branches in Nanking. They are still prosperous but live above their means, trying to preserve their former status. Families in decline.

In the Ning branch, the first-born died, leaving the cadet son, Chia Ching, in charge who prefers the life of a Taoist. Thus in charge is his son, Chia Chen, who even worse spens his time in pleasure.

In the Jung/Rong branch, the deceased Chia Tai-shan and Lady Dowager Shih/Shi/Jia Mu had two sons, the present Duke, Chia Sheh, and the scholarly Chia Cheng/Jia Zheng, Under-Secretary in a ministry. Chia Cheng and Lady Wang had three children: The first-born boy died. A daughter born on the first day of the year. Finally, the youngest son, Chia Pao-Yu/Jia Baoyu "Precious Jade" born with an engraved piece of jade in his mouth. Chia Cheng tests his one-year old son who fails him in grasping female stuff (rouge, powder boxes and hair ornaments). A disappointed father, an adoring grandmother.

As an eight-year old, "little Adam" proclaims: "Girls are made out of water, men out of mud. i feel clean and refreshed when I am with girls but find men dirty and stinking." If my googling turned up reliable information, men (18-40) consist of 61 % water, women (18-40) of 52 %. Water content decreases with age, so men over 60 have about the same content as young women. Older women (>60) make do with 46 %. Wikipedia informs me that in females the percentage of body weight that is water is lower due to a relatively greater amount of subcutaneous fat. He picked up the gender-specific appreciation of soap quickly (even in his sheltered world). The internet turned up a conforming nursery rhyme:

What are little boys made of?
Snips and snails, and puppy dogs tails
That's what little boys are made of!
What are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice and all things nice
That's what little girls are made of!

The tutor then offers his world model with a large majority of average people and a small number of very good (Confucius, Mencius) and very bad people (incl. Cao Cao!). Good people create order, bad people disorder. Ordinary people have both good and bad elements, giving them the possibility to become princes or thieves. Then he offers a glimpse of a play in the play (mimesis) about an ill-fated pampered boy of the Chen family that has remarkable daughters.

We are now presented with the daughters of the Chia/Jia clan:
Yuan-chun/Jia Yuanchun "Primary Spring" (Chia Cheng/Jia Zheng), a palace lady clerk, goodness, filial piety and talents
Ying-chun/Jia Yingchun "Meet Spring" (Chia/Jia She + concubine)
Tan-chun/Jia Tanchun "Explore Spring" (Chia Cheng/Jia Zheng + concubine)
Some more distant relatives:
Hsi-chun/Shi Xichun "Cherish Spring" (Chia Chen of Ning)
Lin Daiyu "Black Jade" (Lin Ruhai + Chia/Jia Min, recently deceased)

Another male characters is introduced:
Chia Lien/Jia Lian (20, son of Chia/Jia She), sub-prefect, married to Wang Xifeng.

Via third-party narration, we meet the principal characters. A handy family tree or cheatsheet would be nice.

Sep 14, 2009, 3:05pm

Hi, JC--I started reading late last night and am simply spell bound by the first chapter. I read the English translation first then go back to the original. It will be slow going. I thought I had read this book with the help of my mother, oh, a couple years ago, but it's been 20 years!!

I've always been fascinated by the "crazy" Taoist and Buddhist monks. In my graphic novel, to be published next year, there is a real Taoist figure from my father's childhood who wandered into my family's life. He urged my great grandfather to relinquish all things of this Earth, before the demons came to take it all away. The demons turned out to be the Communists.

In the West, relinquishing the world is not a honorable thing. If you say you've found enlightenment and would like to live as a recluse, people charge you as being antisocial and a misfit. More on this later, as this has been a theme in my writing and in my writing life.

Sep 28, 2009, 9:10am

Sorry for the lack of postings. Been busy. I have always been fascinated by the rather cerebral and individualistic approach of Asian religions (if I may lump them together). Ultimatively, my inner Cartesian is unwilling to accept the "gateless gate" and knowing without knowing. I want to, but can't believe.

I think that society values an honest retreat from the world. It is the age of Aquarius after all ... America may be a bit different with its emphasis on "just do it". Still, there are pockets where this idea has great tradition and is alive (cf. Thoreau, the Amish, ... the road less traveled by).

The role of the monks serve as a safety valve for society, offering a way out of bankruptcy and hierarchy (cf. the European Beguines). Today's "monks" or "gurus" are called consultants, authors or lecturers.

Switching from one lifestyle to the other has become more difficult, starting with wardrobe to credit card track records to social security and health care. One of the biggest difference between today and even the start of the 20th century, is the personal material footprint (Which reminds me of the subtle staged constrictions the Nazis placed upon the Jews, taking away their jobs, their homes, their possessions, their freedoms, their lives. Re WWII, I just saw John Rabe, an excellent biopic about the Oscar Schindler of Nanking.).

Back to the story.

Chapter 3 The Jia Mansion

Winston Churchill called his out-of-office time the wilderness years. The out-of-grace officials/scholars seem to be in a similar position, networking away to emerge again.

Motherless Lin Daiyu/Ju-hai is sent to her relatives, the Jia in the city. Yu-Tsun is to accompagny her on the boat and rewarded for his efforts. Jia Zheng receives Yu-Tsun and lobbies successfully for his appointment as a prefect. Off he goes.

We are now introduced to the stately mansions of the Jia clan (What would be a recommended book about Chinese architecture?). Past the more imposing mansion of the senior branch, we arrive at the triple gate of the Jia mansion, passing through the service gate (as you still do in many medieval European city gates, the main gate reserved for cars, the service gates for pedestrians). The change in chairbearers is also interesting in demarking different stages of the public sphere. How rich is the Jia clan? Certainly richer than the men with fortune in Austen's novels - only counting the servants.

The first person Lin Daiyu meets is the Lady Dowager, emotional chief hen in the mansion, who introduces her to the wives, then the daughters (one pyknic, one asthenic/leptosom, one too young). Lin Daiyu is presented too as a polite, erudite but sickly girl (a monk said her sickness is induced by her family's proximity.).

In sweeps flamboyant "Hot Pepper", Wang Xifeng, apparently also in charge of the budget (and living in a special part of the mansion).

A courtesy vist to the menfolk is unsuccessful; they are too busy to meet Lin Daiyu. We get descriptions of the great hall and Lady Wang's reception room which also features a not very lady-like spittoon (which I did not associate with China; as Wikipedia states "America is one long expectoration." -- Oscar Wilde on his first visit to the United States, 1882. Apparently, the Chinese Communists were fond of this practice too.). There is also a Kang, a brick bed-stove, which Lin Daiyu politely declines to sit on. Lady Wang warns about her pampered boy who seems to be raised in a weird, girlish way, throwing tantrum after tantrum.

The following meal shows again the importance of protocol and the rigid pecking order. After the meal, the Lady Dowager keeps Lin Daiyu for a talk. Apparently, she is already well read, having finished the four books, the core of the curriculum for the civil service examinations. Her cousins barely know a few characters (Female education is not a household forte there. Do I see a Cinderella pattern?).

In stumbles beautiful boy Jia Baoyu in flamoyant dress who disappears just as quickly. He returns in a new dress. Hello, Paris Hilton? He finally meets his celestial soul mate, Lin Daiyu, who is polite and deferring again to his crazy style.

When she misjudges Jia Baoyu's question about not having a jade piece, he throws his away and sulks (Is the jade a penis symbol? Among the womenfolk, he is the only "jade-carrier", uncertain about his gender ...). Having calmed him down, the Lady Dowager assigns sleeping quarters to Lin Daiyu in the Green Gauze Lodge (Jia Baoyu's quarter), while Jia Baoyu sleeps in a room outside of his old room. Daiyu is also assigned beside her old two attendants, a maid of the second grade, four nurses, two maids and five to six girls. More than a dozen personal servants for the poor country relation!

At night, Jia Baoyu's maid-in-chief notices that Lin Daiyu is still up and crying. She tells her not to worry about the boy's tantrums. The next morning, she hears the women talk family business.

Nov 1, 2009, 12:36am

Thanks again, for carrying the weight of this. I must make a point to tell you some of the mistranslations. I need to "chime in," but have barely managed to read the first 3 chapters. I find the structure mesmerizing. Most book editors today would jump right into the Jia family's saga, sans the Gourd Temple, sans Jia Yuchun, but I think the charm of the book lies in the circuitous way of introduction. When I write my books, much of the "weitao"--flavor--is in the tasty little interludes. Most of the time, I have to argue with my editor to keep these sections, wherein lie the charm (methinks). Glad Red Mansion didn't meet with the scissor of a modern editor.

When I finish my current project and dive into chapter 4 with you, I promise not to short change you. It's rather "charmed" that I have a friendly reading partner in Vienna.

Nov 1, 2009, 8:14am

Regarding the structure, I must confess that the shifting and dumping of protagonists confused me and I had to restart multiple times. Luckily, after the first chapter, the "real" story starts. The Bridge on the Drina follows a similar structure with an extensive 200-page prologue of the bridge's 300-year history. Today, a book editor would shift an action chapter to the front to catch the reader's attention and focus before inserting the backstory. The complexity and inter-linkages of Red Mansion or Bridge on the Drina only become apparent after having completed them and benefit from multiple readings.

Having watched the first two episodes of the 1987 TV series Hong lou meng, an extremely faithful adaptation of the novel. I love the wonderful gardens and offices of the officials. Seeing all (upper-class) women transported in sedans even for short distances with cumbersome and inefficient transfers, I tend to believe that their feet were bound, a practice not followed in the TV series (just as Japanese samurai films seldom blacken the teeth of the actresses.). Compared to the austere and flowerless Raise the red lantern, the mansion seems much more colorful.

Let's get on with the story. A great chapter which introduces us both to the rigged justice system (where some are more equal than others) and a number of relatives.

Chapter 4 Bad boy

Jia Yu-Tsun has to decide about a tricky murder case pitting an important family's "miserable failure" son who had a humble man killed over a disputed good - which happens to be a slave girl sold twice (incidentally the kidnapped girl from ch. 1, now 12 or 13 and considered marriageable). The almost romantic bride shopping and courting of the poor man is interesting, including the deferred transfer to a luckier date which causes all the trouble and results in the poor man's death. Lesson: Never leave your bride on the shelf.

Having to decide the murder case, Yu-Tsun is advised by the monk turned palace official (also from ch. 1) and introduced into the peculiarities of local family power politics. I love the palace garden office shown in the TV series. Given the circumstances, and with a little help from his monk friend, Yu-Tsun achieves to find a still pleasing solution which only lets the spoiled brat escape. The kidnapper and slaveholder is sentenced to death. The rich family is ordered to pay blood money to the poor relatives of the victim (for the funeral). Probably the best possible outcome, credit to Yu-Tsun and his monk friend.

The young playboy is on his way to the city, entering the realm of our family. Is Hsueh Pan a grown version of Baoyu? The playboy's sister is entering a beauty pageant for the court harem, nicely repeating the motive of selling of women on a higher level.

Lady Wang being the sister to the mother of these two, they stay in a empty guest house on the Jung mansion with ten rooms called the Pear Fragrance Court in the NE corner, conveniently with its own entrance. The playboy immediately starts to gamble, drink and enjoy the courtesans. No oversight by the Jias!

Nov 29, 2009, 9:23am

The following chapter is so deep and complex that the TV series skipped it completely (apart from the Red Mansion song). It's Alice in Wonderland, Dante's Inferno and the Judgment of Paris rolled into one and ends with a wet dream.

Chapter 5 Baoyu in Wonderland

The chapter establishes the love triangle between Jia Baoyu on the one hand and Lin Daiyu (lovely, reserved, tearful, sickly - Athene?) and Xue Baochai (slightly older, graceful, generous, tactful, accommodating, outgoing - Hera/Aphrodite?). A flower viewing party in the Ning Mansion tires Baoyu. Overwhelmed by sensations, he is allowed to sleep in Qin Keqing's room (Baoyu's Ning uncle's beautiful wife).

In his dream, escorted by a virtual Keqing, he meets a fairy goddess of romance and love supervision. Through an arch they enter the Illusionary Land of Great Void, a giant archive of love and grief: The records of the past and future of girls from all over the world. The record keepers only register the most important 36 girls of a province, sorted by hierarchy (how heaven always mirrors earth ...). The fairy goddess is unable to keep a secret. A little nagging and she spills it all. Baoyu's companions are described in the third register of the twelve beauties of Chinling. In verses, their sort is presented:

From the third register:
1: Early death by calumny
2: Elopement with an actor

From the second register:
3: Early death announced by a bad planting decision

From the first register:
4: Looks like a crime scene or suicide?
5: Announced death after a good life (20 years in charge)
6: An unlucky girl
7: An accident or a crime?
8: Girl sinks into the mire
9: A bad marriage to wolf-man
10: A nun
11: A rising star, Icarus-like her fall
12: A distant relation, helped in times of trouble
13: A beauty (envied by others)
14: A lustful Ning girl strikes disaster
15: ?

Like Baoyu, we do not yet know whose name associated to the sort. The goddess and Baoyu go on. The family ghosts have arranged the meeting in order to reform Baoyu and not lust after women (something best done exposing him to beautiful women, a strange theory similar to the crazy US Republican (an oxymoron?) who claimed that looking at Playboy (sic! outdated reference) turned boys gay). Shouldn't the goddess have shown him what happens to bad boys? Besides this pedagogical problem, there is a consistency flaw: As in all tragedy, the hero is doomed to continue his journey to the bitter end. His sort is already in the goddess' book. Any appeal to reform must fail.

The program continues with wine and dance and song. The stanzas of the "Dream of Red Mansions" elaborate the girls' fates (e.g. the eighth song corresponds to no. 9 above). Tired again, Baoyu lies down (in the biblical sense) in a chamber with a girl combining the features of Daiyu and Baochai and bearing the name of his real host Keqing. An all-in-one solution of the Judgment of Paris! His wet dream ends in a nightmare, waking him up.

Nov 29, 2009, 11:51am

Hello, hello! I've caught up! My fave character: Hsi-feng (Fiery Phoenix, "Hot Pepper")--she's something like a general manager of that huge household, holding and pulling all the threads.

Does anyone know whether children of both sexes were "sellable" (in theory at least), or was it girls only? I can't remember ever coming across a boy being sold. Any recommendations for reading about the legal status of women in feudal China?

Nov 30, 2009, 12:10am

You might try Bret Hinsch, Women in Early Imperial China.

Dec 7, 2009, 7:58pm

Great, Lola! Apart from a fiery dislike for the spoiled brat Baoyu, no preferences yet. I have a hard time distinguishing the different faces in the TV series. A cheat-sheet of names helps my reading greatly. In contrast to many hero novels, this well crafted novel shows the limits of Hot Pepper's degrees of freedom. Her actions are always under threat of review.

Re your slavery question, and always under the premise of my widespread nay total ignorance of things Chinese, Woman Wang mentions the sale of children (albeit in times of adversity). I assume the difference is economic: Girls make for better investments. A boy's value is limited to the value of his own (low) labor productivity, whereas a girl constitutes capital.

Chapter 6 Making rain

Theory and practice. Baoyu's wet dream in the last chapter nets him an introduction into the practical aspects of the "sport of cloud and rain" with a handy maid named Xiren (wiki: "Fragrance raids people", Aroma; is this an allusion to the Taoist idea of an ejaculation's resulting loss of qi?).

Patron and client. Leaving Baoyu in the arms of Xiren, the chapter paints a detailed portrait of patron-client relations: Distant Wang clan members seek money for their progeny to lessen their hardship. Granny Liu and her little kid are sent to petition their Wang relations. An elaborate charade re-establishes the social hierarchy, as Granny Liu worms her way through antechambers and protocol to Wang Xifeng who holds the purse strings (but still has to seek backup by Lady Wang). Twenty taels of silver appear to be a standard client investment (last used for funding the scholar's examination; today, 20 x 40 grams of silver amount to only 500 USD or 300 EUR.).

The scale of the household is noteworthy: 300 to 400 persons - a mid-size enterprise, a military battalion or a medieval monastery. Also noteworthy is how much influence is in female hands. A Roman pater familias would have kept the prerogative of external and client relations (as well as the purse strings). The men seem absent from much of the Jung Mansion life. Hot Pepper neatly shows her nephew the limits by playing cat-and-mouse with the screen request.

Dec 10, 2009, 10:15am

I think we're watching the events from the women's quarters because the focus is a child (and one with a predilection for female company).

Among other things, I am struck again by the naturalness of the attitudes toward sex (compare and contrast to Europe at the same time--and treatments of sex in contemporary European literature. Heck, even in the later period, all to our times.)

There was that digression about the guy who preferred men to women, until he fell for the kidnapped girl. His homosexuality is mentioned apparently perfectly casually--his preference is known, public and as far as one can tell, doesn't affect his position in society. It isn't commented upon as such at all.

Next, consider the episode when the maid discovers Baoyu's nighttime emission, as she's helping him dress. She is "a couple years older" and "knows the facts of life". She blushes, they are both somewhat embarrassed, but nothing could be described more simply--those are just the facts of life.

There's a wonderful lack of prurience concerning sex throughout this book. I can't generalise, but I would add that even that Chinese "porno" classic, The golden lotus, about Hsi-men and his six wives, isn't... sleazy. Raunchy, yes, sexy (depending on personal taste), but "dirty", no. The idea of sex being "dirty" (whether to castigate or excite) seems to be restricted to the Christianised West. Oh, yes, there were Chinese sex-forgoing puritans, ascetics etc. but thinking within a different philosophical framework.

Dec 16, 2009, 7:20pm

Wasn't the 18th century Europe pretty open about sexuality too? Casanova, Fanny Hill, Tristram Shandy, Manon Lescaut, Liaisons Dangereuses (my fave!), ... Even in puritan America, Benjamin Franklin cared for the sisters in the city of brotherly love while Thomas Jefferson hiked the Appalachian trail. I don't know, but I suspect that this relative openness to sexuality is related to a more tolerant upper class/aristocracy (eg the erotica collector Goethe and his circle of friends) not society itself.

Overall, in my impression, Chinese society was and is very traditional. At least, compared to Japanese Ukiyo-e or European nudes. These NSFW Chinese inspirations for the Japanese "seem to be anatomically less accurate with regard to the drawing and proportions of the human body. ...Perhaps this deficiency in Chinese erotic art is due to the fact that the Chinese artists had less chance than his Japanese colleague to draw the human figure from direct observation. Instead, he had to content himself with the so-called ti-pen or miniature models of the human figure in wood or ivory which themselves were not very accurate." There seems to be a taboo of public display of nudity.

Baoyu reminded me of Oskar Matzerath's fizzy candy powder maid's navel experiment (The Tin Drum). The maid is not a person of authority, thus no shame or loss of face.

Regarding homosexuality, I think it is just like with gay Republicans or preachers: As long as they play along Emperor-with-no-clothes-like, society isn't bothered. Only in a power game, it becomes relevant.

I stopped reading the Golden Lotus (probably in a horrible translation), as it became somewhat repetitive and esthetically non-rewarding: old, fat men having sex with willing girls. The challenge or drama seemed missing (or perhaps the translation just kept the naughty bits?).

I wouldn't condemn or single out Christianity too much. Every society has sexual taboos and restrictions (some extremely healthy, some just weird).

Chapter 7 Live in Versailles

The chapter starts with vignettes of the various leisure activities of the womenfolk until we get an introduction to the ailments of the hypochondriac (?) Xue Baochai, whose illness can only be cured by an almost comically impossible medicine (with a supply chain that would drive any pharma company nuts). This wonder medicine is buried and Baochai (like Siegfried) discloses the location of this treasure freely. Symptoms are coughing and shortness of breath (the internets inform me that it could be heart problems, asthma, sarcoidosis, anemia etc. - House, we need an MRI!).

On the way back, the messenger, Mrs. Chou, takes home a box of twelve gauze flowers to distribute to the girls. We are also informed that the murder case girl is now a servant girl with Lady Wang. The four Springs receive their flowers first (on the way, we learn that a monthly allowance is paid for incense and religious services). Next stop is Xifeng who keeps two and sends two to the Ning Mansion. Finally, on to Lady Dowager where Mrs. Chou meets her daughter who informs her that her husband has been charged. Xifeng to the rescue. Lin Daiyu is not amused to receive the remaining two flowers. Was this by design or accident of Mrs. Chou?

Xifeng then reports the day's activities and her plan for the next day to Lady Wang (proper chain of command). Their amusement schedule surely keeps them busy (cue Versailles).

The next day, Xifeng with Baoyu in tow visit the Ning Mansion. Baoyu finally meets a peer/buddy, even if that person, Qin Zhong, is socially inferior to him: poverty sucks. Having received gifts, the shy boy bonds with Baoyu and becomes his study buddy (in exchange for some menial duties).

They are escorted home by a complaining drunk servant named Chiao Ta who in foul language accuses his own master Jia Zhen of infidelity with his own daughter-in-law, Qin Keqing. The servant is tied up. Baoyu's questions are muzzled.

Dec 17, 2009, 11:09am


...Casanova, Fanny Hill, Tristram Shandy, Manon Lescaut, Liaisons Dangereuses (my fave!)

Overall, in my impression, Chinese society was and is very traditional. At least, compared to Japanese Ukiyo-e or European nudes.

Ah, but there is a drastic difference between mere European individual libertinism and Chinese society's general down to earth practical approach to sexuality. Europeans had porn, sure, dirty books sold under the counter, and double-speak, but nothing close to the practical attitudes embodied in "The red chamber" and other Chinese novels. And the latter were popular classics, not a handful of clandestine editions or titles reserved for "connoisseurs". If anything resembling China in this regard existed in Europe, it was probably among the peasants.

I can't enter now in a discussion of Chinese erotica, but I think the main point isn't stylistic differences, but the very existence of such representation--and there were tons of it.

Nudity as such, OTOH, I don't see how it matters at all. Ancient Greeks, probably the most naked Europeans in tale and picture, yet had one of the most sexually restrictive, puritan societies ever. Same goes for all the nudes in European painting--on the one side, naked sprawling Venuses; on the other, witch-burning--I really don't see the former can be taken as any evidence of positive attitudes toward sex.

The maid is not a person of authority, thus no shame or loss of face.

I'm not following. He's still embarrassed in front of her until she reassures him, and he likes her. He never demeans the servants, seeing them, as a child would, as helpers and friends. They can shame, grieve, sadden, anger and console him; the bonds are deeply emotional.

Dec 25, 2009, 10:30am

I had a false start with the first volume last year, and only picked it up again last week. The early chapters were still heavy going but last night I blazed through the last fifteen chapters in one sitting. I did not expect such a marvellous page-turner!

For me the most striking aspect of the work has been not in the story itself as much as in relating it with the manuscript commentaries of which Hawkes includes a few quotations in his foreword. Even the most hilariously comedic passages in the story (I'm looking at you, chapter 17) are colored in my mind by a touch of the crushing despair with which the author and his pseudonymous companions-in-exile must've looked back at their youth. I should want to dig deeper into the commentaries but I bet there's not much available in the way of basic secondary literature in English. Feel free to prove me wrong, though.

I'm somewhat mystified by Bao-Yu's calling of Qin-shi's original name, which no one was supposed to know, at the end of chapter 5. The ending note of the chapter promises an explanation in the next chapter, but there isn't one. A trace of inconsistent redaction?

Jan 11, 2010, 9:23am

thnx for info

Jan 28, 2010, 5:37pm

Back again, I hope to return to a weekly posting schedule.

>14 LolaWalser: I concur that in China the naturalness of sex seems to be more readily accepted (except, perhaps some weird ideas of losing qi/power through ejaculation) than in Europe with its messed-up duality of duty (procreation) and lust (sin), all toped with harnessing sex as a form of social control (see Norbert Elias). The above mentioned Raise the Red Lantern is a case study of controlling female sexuality. On a giant Qing daily life wallpaper, displayed in the Viennese Museum of Applied Arts (MAK), all women depicted are either chaperoned by men or walled up in a compound/shop. I consider Europe's middle class-oriented restrictions much lighter - even if Mme Bovary and Oscar Wilde beg to differ.

Re "The maid is not a person of authority, thus no shame or loss of face." In front of servants, you can let your hair down. It is the duty of the butler to not notice. The bonds may be emotional, first of all, they are class and rule-driven (see the maid's love in The Red Lantern.): It is her job to cater to his every whim.

>15 defaults: Welcome aboard, I wish I could read it at your speed. I assumed that Baoyu may have subconsciously heard the name (perhaps spoken by her brother).

Chapter 8 Visits made and received

The Lady Dowager gives Qin Zhong (Chin Chung) permission to attend school with Baoyu. While the ladies enjoy the opera (wearing out the old: first the Lady Dowager, then Lady Wang. Peking Opera is for iron-bottomed girls!), Baoyu visits Baochai, checking in with his aunt. The author clearly enjoys describing Baochai's dress and face. Now, it's Baoyu's dress to ne described. Next, they examine each other's jade and gold pieces. His reads:

Precious Jade of Spiritual Understanding
Never lose, never forget.
Eternal life, lasting prosperity.

Expels evil spirits.
Cures mysterious diseases.
Foretells happiness and misfortune.

Hers says:
Never leave, never abandon.
Fresh youth, eternally lasting.

What does this mean? Life, health, wealth for him. Beauty and health for her. Fame, liberty and happiness are absent, hard-nosed bourgeois aspirations! The notion of loss and losing reminds me of that most modest of flowers, Forget-me-nots. The two protagonist don't interpret their stones.

More viscerally, Baoyu just starts sniffing her medicine perfume, when Daiyu rushes in, vying for Baochai's attention. Food takes center stage, though: Goose feet and duck tongues (apparently still a staple snack; not sure if I could stomach it, it certainly looks strange). A bit of warm wine helps washing it down. Nanny Li tries to prevent Baoyu from drinking but is sent away. Daiyu throws a hissy-fit (directed at a maid) to get attention. Then it is again Nanny Li's turn to be disregarded. After the meal, they return home without waiting for their nurses (Baoyu enjoyed being dressed by Daiyu). The Lady Dowager is not pleased with Baoyu's drinking, asking for the whereabouts of Nanny Li.

Meanwhile, Qin Zhong waited the whole day for Baoyu to return to calligraphy. Poor Qin Zhong has also been deprived of dumplings by Nanny Li. She also drank Baoyu's tea - Baoyu explodes. Fortunately, Xiren smooths things over and tucks him into bed. Is this a kind of teenage rebellion against order or is Nanny Li truly at fault, siphoning off goods towards her own family?

The next day, Qin Zhong is presented to the Lady Dowager and receives gifts. Finally a peer for Baoyu (Qin Zhong's poor but overjoyed father struggles to raise the 24 taels of silver to pay the teacher. The chapter ends with a dire omen for Qin Zhong. Longterm happiness is in short supply.).

Feb 6, 2010, 3:47pm

The new Chinese TV series of the novel, promised to kick-off at the upcoming Chinese New Year, has been pushed back to May. The new youtube trailer looks splendid. The visual perfection and the level of detail is astonishing. I hope the story line does not suffer from overpowering the sensory system as practiced in many Chinese films (and Avatar). Don't just show me the protagonist (like in a poem by German 18th century poet Klopstock), make me root for/against them.

The next chapter was cut from the 1986 TV series. Will see whether it appears in the new one.

Chapter 9 The Lord of the Flies meets Police Academy

The first day of school for Baoyu requires an elaborate set of preparations and good-byes. Why didn't they build the clan school inside the family mansions instead of 1 li away? Among the courtesy visits is a short meeting with Baoyu's father who Kafka-like crushes Baoyu's spirit: "Your presence here contaminates this place and contaminates my door." Can there be any reason to pull this reverse Diogenes (facing Alexander the Great)? Poor Baoyu.

A servant being grilled about Baoyu's progress misquotes the Book of Songs "Yu-yu cry the deer, lotus leaves and duckweed", a cultural faux-pas. I don't know if I have found the correct quote, as the best match is in the second book (161), the deer cry (Arthur Waley):

"With pleased sounds the deer call to one another,
Eating the celery of the fields.
I have here admirable guests;
The lutes are struck, and the organ is blown (for them); –
The organ is blown till its tongues are all moving.
The baskets of offerings (also) are presented to them.
The men love me,
And will show me the perfect path.

With pleased sounds the deer call to one another,
Eating the southernwood of the fields.
I have here admirable guests;
Whose virtuous fame is grandly brilliant.
They show the people not to be mean;
The officers have in them a pattern and model.
I have good wine,
Which my admirable guests drink, enjoying themselves.

With pleased sounds the deer call to one another,
Eating the salsola of the fields.
I have here admirable guests;
For whom are struck the lutes, large and small.
The lutes, large and small, are struck,
And our harmonious joy is long-continued.
I have good wine,
To feast and make glad the hearts of my admirable guests."

After all the rebukes, Baoyu seeks some cheerful words from Daiyu and we are finally off to school. And what a school it is. Despite being all part of the Jia clan, the students comprise a multitude ("A dragon begets nine offspring, each one different."). The new two girlish boys are being hazed.

The school serves depraved Xue Pan as a hunting ground for boys (who apart from being underage are also his relatives!), especially two called Lovely and Sweetie. I wonder how they look given Baoyu's already extremely feminine looks. The relation seem to be a mix of peers, prostitution and a school protection racket, less the hierarchical abuse model of the Catholic Church.

Innocent and ignorant Baoyu and Qin Zhong befriend Sweetie and Lovely, which makes them guilty by association in the eyes of the other boys. Prearranged, ring leader Qin Jung is attacked by Baoyu's servant, which results in a general brawl. Qin Jung picks up a bamboo stick, the level of violence further escalates. Finally, the orderly Li Kuei puts a stop to it.

Baoyu threatens to report the action. He requests an apology from Qin Jung and plays the family pecking order card. Qin Jung, unwillingly, performs a full kowtow to Qin Zhong. Sunt pueri pueri, puerilia (boys will be boys). Perhaps Baoyu's father was right that this school isn't exactly a house of learning.

Feb 7, 2010, 9:08am

#17 --

"controlling female sexuality."

Apparently most of us have forgot the rationales behind "controlling female sexuality".

One reason: Would you consider it fair for a man to pay for the support of five children when in fact only three were his -- which he'd know if not lied to about the fact?

Thus the invention of the chastity belt -- and issues of inheritance.

Granted: no considerations of the male side of the equation are worthy of respect; they "oppress" females. No mention of the oppression of supporting five children when one only father of three of them.

In reality (which is politically incorrect) everyone is oppressed -- some of those oppressions imposing on all, and some imposing only on -- dare I say it -- males. I cited one example above. Another: being eligible for the draft during war time is a life-or-death oppression imposed only on males.

Feb 7, 2010, 11:15am


Yeah, the school's a riot. Sweetie and Lovely, forsooth. Some boys will be nancy-boys. ;)

I wish I could get my hands on those TV adaptations you mention...

I'm a bit ahead of you, will wait.

Feb 8, 2010, 8:47pm

>20 LolaWalser: Ok, I try to catch up, Lola. The 1986 TV series is not that difficult to get. As I bought the Three Kingdoms DVDs in Toronto's Chinatown two years ago, you should be able to get the A Dream of Red Mansions DVDs at a much better price than the 120 USD advertised on (I paid 45 EUR).

Clicking the link is totally worth it, as the sole two stars review is hilarious. True to a first stater, the reviewer managed to finish only the first episode to shape his/her views. True, Dan Brown, it ain't. Only with the last sentence I concur: "Even the main female character, supposedly portraying a lady of great beauty, wasn't." Or is this my Western bias?

>19 JNagarya: Open sidebar
I'm sorry if I touched a nerve. I try to give you a brief answer to the loaded question but please do not let this thread derail. We can discuss this in either a private message or another thread.

Firstly, as a Swiss citizen I'm reminded often about the direct connection of compulsory military service and voting rights (Women only became eligible to vote in 1971.). Replacing the Swiss dagger/rapier, carried by every man up to the modern era, with a Swiss Army Knife has not yet hurt penis size. Overall, I think men have the better deal. No man ever died in childbirth, has to directly experience menstrual cycles and spend most of the intermezzo time queuing in front of the bathrooms. YMMV or as the Viennese like to sing "Happy is he who forgets what cannot be changed" (Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss).

Secondly, the actual chastity belts (not the later conversation pieces) were anti-rape devices. As all travelers on the road shared beds in an inn, donning such a belt before going to sleep made much sense.

Thirdly, for most of history, children quickly turned cash-flow positive and paid for themselves. Otherwise, the saying that the poor are rich only in children would not work. Only education (and thus delayed income generation) made having children expensive. The novel under discussion shows this scrambling to pay for education many times.

Fourthly, child support is meant to support the child (not the woman). At least in most European jurisdictions, if the real father can be identified, he will be liable for child support; if not, the state has made an ethically correct (i.e. the least bad) choice: Somebody will have to pay for the upbringing of the innocent child, either the public, the mother or the stepfather. The love and bond to a child is completely independent of a biological link (cf. Konrad Lorenz's imprinting young geese). Hurt feelings towards the woman should not be projected onto the children, which is hard to accept deep down in the guts.

Finally, the secret of power is not to use it. What remains if basic trust is broken? If bonds turn into a cage, neither prisoner nor warden will be happy (reminds me of Max Frisch's quip that Switzerland is the only place where everybody is prisoner and warden at the same time.). It's not about applying pressure but about providing comfort and support.

Leadership is about guiding people to do voluntarily/intrinsically what you want them to do. Sticks and carrots (i.e. management) are a heavy and long-term ineffective tool (This is also why riding Western style is much more comfortable for both the horse and the rider than the English style.). To sum up, the traditional control of female sexuality has been as effective as praying for rain. It simply doesn't work, and all efforts to make it work result in tears.
>Close sidebar

The next chapter perfectly illustrates the difference between male and female power plays, both aborted before resolution.

Chapter 10 Wisteria Lane meets Dr. House

The fights at the bottom of the pecking order are the fiercest (cf. Teabaggers). Qin Jung cannot accept the open but imposed defeat and its new male pecking order. Probably because he has not been defeated in battle but by intervention. Status conscious, he runs to mama. His mother in turn contacts her sister-in-law who in turn wants to bring this up in the Ning Mansion to gossip about Madam Jung and Qin Keqing (the indirect approach with the twin targets of Baoyu and Qin Zhong). When she learns about Qin Keqing's frail health (pregnancy?), she refrains from attack, either out of charity or because she is unlikely to win a battle of sympathies against a sick person.

Family birthdays were tiresome even then. Ning Mansion Pops Jia Jing wants his quiet and prefers the family to gather without him and invitations are sent out to the Rong Mansion. The next day, a specialist healer visits Qin Keqing. He takes her pulse (which in Chinese medicine has much deeper function and meaning than in Western medicine). He delivers a full diagnosis and gives her a 30% chance of recovery, with a night's rest at 60%. He hands Jia Jung a prescription and hopes on time's healing function.

Feb 8, 2010, 10:31pm

As I bought the Three Kingdoms DVDs in Toronto's Chinatown ...

By gum! Next time I go to kick the bong around in my favourite opium den I must remember to check out the pir... I mean, the fine, fine DVD selection.

But wait! Toronto has at least three Chinatowns. Do you remember if you were downtown, or all the way east, or up north in Scarborough? It could save me hours of wandering.

Feb 9, 2010, 6:32am


Don't you mean "kick the GONG around"? Or has the expression changed since Minnie the Moocher's day?

Edited: Feb 9, 2010, 10:26am

Dammit! No more posting after midnight!! :)

ETA: One should note, though, the prevalence of bongs over gongs in this fair city too.

Feb 9, 2010, 3:55pm

>22 LolaWalser: Around Dundas Street on the way to the Art Gallery of Ontario (then under renovation; its new wooden arcade looks great. I am eagerly awaiting an upcoming Taschen book about museum architecture wherein it is featured. The Taschen website has a splendid flash book preview mode.). Wandering you will still have to do, as I had to shop around for availability. The demand for Chinese 1986 TV series isn't that big ...

Edited: Feb 28, 2010, 8:10pm

Belated Happy Valentine's Day and Chinese New Year! The Year of the Metal Tiger is upon us. The new chapter is about a partying too.

Chapter 11 Fatal attraction

As the older generation (both Jia Jing and the Lady Dowager) stays away from Jia Zhen's birthday party, the younger generation of Ningguo and Rongguo House enjoy themselves with food and plays - if one can enjoy oneself with a sick relative close by. The ascetic wise old man, presenting his notes on Rewards and Punishments (print run: 10.000 copies!) doesn't see the shady character of his son whose adultery with his daughter-in-law Qin Keqing causes her a severe (even mortal) illness (a female Schmerzesmann paying for her and his sins).

Xifeng and Baoyu pay her a visit (which Xifeng often does). Remembering her bad omen, Baoyu starts crying and is escorted back to the party. Keqing cryptically says the healer could cure her disease but not her fate. Why so? Is the adultery intended by her or forced upon her? She has given up. Xifeng promises to return.

On her way back via the gardens, she is intercepted by lecherous youth and grandson of the teacher, Jia Jui. Apparently being of the same family increases the chances of a rendez-vous, although Xifeng is not interesting in dating-down. The bantering resistance inflames Jia Jui who plays well above his league. Xifeng is a bit of a bitch, in promising him death with her own hands. Not exactly like a lady. After this incident (much more dramatic in the TV episode, she being alone while in the book, there are servants around.), Xifeng returns to the party.

Forerunner of the karaoke title lists, the actors offer a menu of scenes and sketches to which latecomer Xifeng adds a few. The menfolk have already left to drink. When the party ends, Jia Jui eyes Xifeng.

While Jia Jui tries to call on Xifeng's house, she invariably is at Keqing's bedside. Her status report to Madame Yu (but not to the Lady Dowager) is not positive. Jia Jui's outlook isn't better: Xifeng sets up a trap for the fool.

Two strong, older characters (Jia Zhen, Xifeng) are about two crush two weak, younger ones (Qin Keqing, Jia Jui).

Edited: Feb 22, 2010, 4:51am

Chapter 12 In for the MILF, out with a Darwin Award

Jia Jui continues with his creepy stalking of Xifeng. Doesn't "sister-in-law" have a strange ring to it? Family affairs indeed. As a preuve d'amour, she sends her stalker to wait for her at night in the entrance hall between the two mansions. He really is a tool. The exposed entrance hall would be a terrible lover's nest. He manages to be locked out and spends a miserable night outdoors, almost freezing to death. Returning home, he is additionally punished with thirty bamboo strokes and made to kneel in the courtyard.

The lovesick puppy is not yet cured. Xifeng baits him with another rendez-vous. Waiting in the dark, Jia Jui knows no restraint grabs his suspected date and with dropped pants grapples with untieing the clothes, when he is discovered by Jia Chiang. His date turned out to be Jia Jung! They blackmail him for 100 taels of silver and have him drained in refuse. Jia Jui has learned the lesson to keep his distance.

He hasn't been cured from his obsession with Xifeng and turns to compulsive masturbation which further drains his qi and leads to his collapse (see Showtime's Sons of Anarchy for a Chinese solution against compulsive masturbation). Xifeng is mean with providing medicine to the poor relations. Better help approaches in a lame Taoist priest who offers a Precious Mirror of Love. Like Lot's wife, Jia Jui is asked to look only on the back side of the mirror for three days. Curiosity kills the boy. A suite of petites morts leads to his death. (The TV series naturally skips the masturbation angle.)

The Jia clan at least provides for a decent funeral. The sums for the funeral put the huge blackmail into perspective. Jia Jui could never pay back such an amount of money.

Meanwhile, Lin Daiyu's father is sick and asks his daughter to return. Xifeng's husband Jia Lian escorts her home.

Feb 28, 2010, 8:13pm

I mixed up the Jias above in chapter 11 (fixed). Grandpa Jia is innocent, his son is the one messing with Keqing! As pater familias, Grandpa should have protected his grandson from his father. Rewards and Punishments, indeed!

Chapter 13 A funeral puts Xifeng in command

Her husband gone (escorting Lin Daiyu home), Xifeng Qin feels bored. One night, Keqing appears in her dream and offers her tips how the family fortune can be recovered. Sound financial advice from a ghost! Essentially, Keqing advises to protect part of the family fortune through a separate financial vessel (a JiaRaptor in Enron-speak) which owns enough property to finance the family school and the family sacrifices - and which in bad times cannot be confiscated by the government. Just before vanishing, Keqing's ghost says that calamity will befall the family in three months' time.

Xifeng awakens to hear about Keqing passing away. The household turns to mourning. The shock has Baoyu spit blood (Is anybody healthy in that family? With that set of preconditions, they would never qualify for the best health care in the world by the greatest health care companies ever (tm)). The two clans gather in the Ning mansion: 22 Jias in one room. One of Keqing's maid off'ed herself too (seen as commendable); another assumed, for mourning purposes, the role of the non-existing grand-daughter. One of these two jobs is clearly superior to the other.

The adulterer Jia Zhen is upset by the death of his mistress and daughter-in-law. Out of love (or remorse?), he spends a fortune on her funeral. The mourning period should take 49 days with 108 monks as well as 99 Taoist priests praying during the whole period, plus 100 performing sacrifices every week. In total, this accounts for close to 30 man-years (10.843 days), conspicuous consumption at its worst. The adultery certainly merits showing some divine devotion (but the two mansions count but 400 people, so nearly 10 percent of the manpower is spent/paid for this task). This is not all: The coffin costs 1.000 taels and the purchase of an imperial rank for his son costs another 1.200 taels (although this is an investment which outlasts the funeral). Compared to the funeral costs of a chapter ago (ca. 50 taels), this is outlandish.

The required paperwork for the rank shows a Buddenbrooksian decline in the family fortune: Great-grandfather was commander-in-chief, grandfather a metropolitan scholar, father a third rank general and junior but a state scholar (though only 20 years of age).

Jia Zhen's wife being ill (probably because she didn't want to preside over her adulterous daughter-in-law's funeral), he calls on Xifeng to manage the funeral and the household. Xsifeng directs him to ask for permission from her "boss", Lady Wang who readily grants it while excusing her inexperience. Jia Zhen grants her both budgetary and disciplinary authority over the Ning mansion. She now controls the finances of both houses and will be in a position to fulfill ghost Keqing's transaction. Xifeng retains her home base by staying in the Rongguo mansion. She sets up a memorandum of five points: 1. Create a work-break-down structure to track tasks 2. Establish lines of command and reporting 3. Clear budget accountability and control 4. Clear priorities and goals 5. Show leadership and defy opposition. That woman knows how to run the show!

The clock is ticking. Three months is but one quarterly report ...

Mar 7, 2010, 6:20pm

Chapter 14 Xifeng energizes the Ning Mansion for a grand funeral

Xifeng has quite a reputation among the servants: "a terror, sour-faced, hard-hearted and no respecter of persons once she's angry" - a bitch. Somehow Hillary Clinton comes to my mind (I should have resisted following the last US presidential campaign so closely.). Xifeng's husband is also a philanderer whose proclivities Xifeng tries to limit by threatening the physical integrity of his servant Soprano-style ("I'll break your legs") - as the real troublemaker is beyond reach, arranging the funeral of Lin Daiyu's father.

In the Ning mansion, Xifeng institutes a fixed allocation of tasks and duties on a two shift basis. Efficiency in conspicuous consumption! I find the relative numbers a bit strange. Isn't the food station (10) relatively understaffed compared to the tea service (10) and only four in the cup, plates and tea things cleaning service? Anyway, the newly energized workforce gets going and Xifeng keeps them busy by personal example (rising at 4am). The funeral preparation is a grand affair with its interplay of the different religious groups and the family devotion. One usher is late - and promptly harshly punished by Xifeng: twenty bamboo strokes and a month's pay. Oderint dum metuant. Baoyu and sidekick Qin Zhong visit Xifeng at work.

Finally, the funeral takes place. Jia Zhen is a bundle of nerves; Xifeng manages everything. The funeral procession is a big spectacle, attended by the "good names", even a prince pays his respects. Out of curiosity, the prince asks to see the boy born with the jade in his mouth. Baoyu steps up ...

How much wealth pre-modern societies spend on activities "not of this world" ... A few days of celebration/carnival in exchange for a year of misery.

Mar 11, 2010, 6:28pm

Chapter 15 Fun at the funeral

Not exactly coming to pay his respects, the funeral procession caught the prince in a traffic jam. He makes the best out of it by doing a bit of small talk with Baoyu and inviting him to the prince's school with its stable of scholars.

The procession leaves the city and the nobler family members proceed on horses and carriages. Xifeng takes Baoyu and Qin Zhong under her wings. A rest stop at a peasant village gives Baoyu a chance, or the first chance, to come into contact with real life. Baoyu has never seen farm implements and quotes a scholar's lament about not knowing where food is coming from. Similar to the British kids in Jamie Oliver's TED anti-fat talk who cannot correctly name unprocessed vegetables. Baoyu's eyes wander beyond the fruits of the land to a peasant girl who is whisked away by her family.

The procession resumes its march to the burial place and the coffin is installed in a hall at the Iron Threshold Temple. The family stays at the Iron Threshold Temple, an ancient family foundation. Most guests, having been entertained, depart. Xifeng stays behind, which gives Baoyu and sidekick Qin Zhong a chance to extend their country visit. Xifeng prefers to stay at the nearby Steamed-Bread Convent which is also home to Qin Zhong's flirt Chih-neng, an novice who serves them tea. The tea party ends.

Xifeng, meanwhile, is asked by the abbess to intervene and disentangle a feud between two families about a marriage contract. It looks like a simple resolution is possible. Xifeng, however, exacts a steep 3.000 taels of silver for her good services. She writes a letter to the superior of one of the families to cool the hothead down.

In the dark, Qin Zhong visits Chih-neng in the kitchen and starts kissing and groping her. It isn't clear to me if she is willing or not. On the one hand, her stamping her foot on the ground and threatening are signs of distress. On the other hand, she signals some sort of assent to future courtship. The scale tips more towards rape. Qin Zhong does not respect her wishes, carries her to the kang and proceeds until he is cock-blocked by Baoyu (I love this US expression). Unlucky lucky Chih-neng is able to flee. At night, Baoyu exacts a penalty from Qin Zhong (a Massa massage?) for having discovered him in the kitchen. Baoyu and Qin Zhong ask Xifeng to stay another day which she grants (and which might help her settle the feud).

Mar 14, 2010, 7:56pm

Chapter 16 Marriage, death and spending

Xifeng's intervention ends ghastly. In fact, Goldman Sachs-like, Xifeng is the only one profiting in a sea of misery and she opens up her own consulting side business.

Misery is the fate of Qin Zhong, too. Sick from the country trip, he continues his affair with the novice (who strangely follows him to town). Qin Zhong's grandfather discovers them, beats the sick boy - and dies from exhaustion himself. Later on, Qin Zhong succumbs himself, returning from hell to admonish Baoyu to study with devotion.

Good news for the Jia clan: Jia "Primary Spring" Yuanchun, the eldest daughter is selected as "Chief Secretary of the Phoenix Palace with the title of the Worthy and Virtuous Consort". The Imperial connections will help business and lift the market value of the stable.

Lin Daiyu and Xifeng's husband Jia Lian return. Daiyu snubs Baoyu about his princely hand-on gift of beads. Xifeng is more subtle in controlling her man. Fishing for indirect compliments, she underplays her management skills and hides her financial nest eggs with the complicity of her maid. Controlling her man's desire for other people's beautiful eyes - not so successful, although arrested at the stage of desire not execution. Xifeng also arranges jobs for her husband's old nanny's two sons.

Another round of conspicuous consumption is necessary. Imperial Court members are allowed to visit their families given suitable accommodation. The Jia clan starts a sumptuous building program within the ground of their mansions for the prospective Imperial Consort. At 50.000 taels, it is the biggest expense yet. To finance it, the Jias plan on cashing in on outstanding debt of the Chen clan. I am not sure whether that clan can so quickly provide liquidity at such a massive scale. Mistaken investments ruined the Buddenbrooks, the Jias go for spending sprees.

The chapter illustrates the limited but present degrees of female freedoms. The bride-not-to-be has the power to end her life. The novice escapes. The Imperial Consort can visit her home. Xifeng can withhold funds (and information) from her husband.

Mar 21, 2010, 10:24pm

Chapter 17 Quality Time with Dad in the Garden

Finally a chapter where Baoyu spends some quality time with his father who continues in his best Darth Vader imitation to intimidate poor Baoyu. The occasion for this rare event is the inspection of the newly created garden. Apparently, a Chinese garden isn't complete without Kodak spot descriptions, framing the viewer's thoughts. A bad description is also a chance to lose face. Provisional description panels may prevent future embarrassment.

Jia Zhen, Jia Zheng, Jia Baoyu as well as a bunch of hanger-ons and toadies enter the garden which follows classic garden design principles of blocking and framing views. Baoyu is tasked with finding new names. The first choice does not sound well - at least in English: "A winding path leads to a secluded retreat." (Isn't a retreat is by definition somewhat secluded. I also dislike the doubling of winding and leading.). The garden is a marvel of design and construction with bridges and pavilions. The next stop acquires the name "seeping fragrance". Baoyu composes a seven character couplet which must sound good in Chinese (otherwise the TV series would not showcase the characters on screen). Baoyu's father seems secretly pleased too but unable to praise his son. I really like Baoyu's next choice "Where the phoenix alights" (a subtle way of calling his elder sister a chicken?) and again composes a couplet.

The Imperial Consort visit triggers huge expenditures: over 120 satin curtains embroidered with dragons, 120 brocade hangings, 200 blinds, 800 portières, 1200 stool covers ...

When they want to name a feature "Apricot Village", trademark issues require an official permission. Baoyu offers a good solution "Approach to Apricot Tavern". He also offers quite profound thoughts on the artificial nature on display in the garden, this kind of Chinese Villandry. His father "punishes" him into composing another couplet.

The next place is named "Flowery Harbour" with four punts and one boat (to be supplied separately). The come to a house where Baoyu displays profound knowledge of plants and composes another couplet. His father smiles. The main garden palace leaves Baoyu at a loss for words (reminding him of the dream palace). After a few more stops they leave the garden, a true master work. At first, Baoyu follows his father but is quickly dismissed to return home.

The chapter gives us a masterful tour of the garden and, for the first time, allows Baoyu to shine (even if dismissed by his father). Baoyu's educated guesses belie the previous mentions of his ignorance and laziness.

Mar 25, 2010, 6:14pm

Hello JC and the group,

I've caught up now also. I had just finished Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. Pu Songling died about the time that Cao Xueqin was born, so John Minford's extensive notes were a good introduction to late-Ming and early-Qing society. I enjoyed Minford's translation, so I decided to go with the Penguin edition of The Golden Days et seq. The family trees and comprehensive lists of characters in these volumes has been a big help in keeping my confusion to a reasonable level.

I've noticed a few minor plot discrepancies between this translation and JC's synopses. I'm guessing that this is because they are based on different versions of the original Chinese texts. It reminds me of the opera Boris Godunov in that there seems to be no ideal "definitive" source.

David Hawkes includes an appendix explaining the register entries and songs from Chapter 5, based on the rebuses, puns, wordplay, and allusions available to the reader of the original Chinese. I don't know if other readers would consider these "spoilers". I can, as an example, reveal that the last of the register entries and of the songs refer Qinshi, because we already know her fate. The explanation is that Cao had originally written that Qinshi hanged herself in the Celestial Fragrance Pavilion from shame over her affair with her father-in-law, but was compelled by one of his early reviewers to soften this by replacing that section with her death from some (poorly defined) illness. However, Cao did not revise references to this suicide in other parts of the novel. He may have been unenthusiastic about this change, or, in the case of Chapter 5, he may have wanted to wait until the plot was stable before going through the extra effort of revising the poetry to match.

As of Chapter 17, I can understand Baoyu's preference for women, given the character of the older men in his family. Jia She, Jia Zheng, Jia Lian, Jia Jing, Cousin Zhen, Xue Pan: I'd be hard pressed to find anything good to say about any of them!

Mar 26, 2010, 10:37am

A few days of celebration/carnival in exchange for a year of misery.

Still happens! A wedding celebration can go on for a week or lots longer, in Asia, and in the Balkans (rural at least) as well. The function of the ostentation? Who knows. Top dogs flashing their colours? In a complete digression, I'm reminded of Charlotte Bronte's repeated observations (in The Professor and then in Villette), of the welcome frugality of the Belgians, as opposed to the ostentatious, keeping-up-with-the-Joneses English, said general frugality enabling her characters to set up in Belgium with comfort AND save money.

I must say I'm fond of the mentality of big spenders, but not of big benders. A wedding shebang going on for weeks; nay, even days!--shoot me first.

Edited: Mar 28, 2010, 8:04am

Thank you inviting me to the group. I am on Chapter 15 in the first volume - Translation by {{Gladys Yang}}. I will finish reading the above which has helped remind me... as I put the book down over a month ago.

I am caught up now to # 19

Mar 27, 2010, 1:31pm

Welcome aboard, LJ_Reading and Havetea!

>33 LJ_Reading: I'll have to buy David Hawkes' books then too, solely for the apparatus. I added Pu Songling to my TBR list. For once, a Chinese author with a choice selection of translations in German: Either one by noted journalist Martin Buber, one praised by Franz Kafka or a modern five volume complete edition. A propos, translators. The biography of Gladys Yang (read the Times Online article linked), translator of the version I am reading, mirrors the tumultuous events of Chinese history in the 20th century and a weird revolution consuming its own children.

I find the cultural difference in the relative order of crimes and the selection of the guilty parties highly interesting. The suicide of the bride-not-to-be (chapter 16) and the maid's self-sacrifice suicide (chapter 13) are praised. Keqing's way of taking herself out of (male) play places her in the Madame Bovary class not appreciated by (male) society. Talking would have been a better option as put forward in Christine Brückner's classic Wenn Du geredet hättest, Desdemona (If only you had spoken, Desdemona): "Die Zeiten der unverstandenen Frau sind vorbei. Wer verstanden werden will, muss sich verständlich machen". (The times of misunderstood women are past. Who wants to be understood, has to put one's ideas across.)

As to the bad domestic habits of the Jia men (up to now, comparable to Bill Clinton's jogging or Mark Sanford's hiking), I see a certain selection bias at work (scholar-magistrate Jia Hua from the early chapters does not sound all bad). Like sheltered Ottoman princes growing up in the harem, Baoyu notices only the domestic sphere, from a female vantage point.

Perhaps we can appoint you, LJ_Reading, pointman whenever an action predicted in the dream revelation happens?

>35 havetea: Do catch up, the reading fellowship is growing. PS To set a touchstone you need to use the angly brackets.

>34 LolaWalser: My inner Swiss Protestant howls at "pomp and circumstance", displays of obvious wasteful spending. My hypothesis is that such events occur when property rights and/or life expectancy are uncertain: Nobody can take those memories away (if they didn't end in drunken stupor)! In Cracow, I had the chance to gawk at a splendid, full blown country marriage procession in traditional dress. Veblen's Theory of the Leisure class remains a great read.

"Live with comfort AND save money" is still en vogue with the current crop of British retirees, but today practiced in Spain and Southern France (just look at the flight plans of Ryan Air or Easy Jet). Much better weather than in rain-r-us Belgium (200 annual rainy days). Sometimes Belgian frugality can go to far: In many Southern Belgian inns, the women's restrooms can only be reached by passing through the male urinals - a peculiar Catholic combination of shame and exhibitionism ... (then again, Ally McBeal featured unisex restrooms).

Edited: Apr 8, 2010, 7:23pm

Chapter 18 A visit in style

On his way back, Baoyu is robbed by his own servants, which sets the stage for Daiyu to pass innocent Baoyu through an emotional roller coaster of anger and tears. Accusing him of having lost her present, she starts tearing up her present needlework. When he produces her present (kept safely close to his heart), she is both pleased by his love and displeased because her show backfired. Mild Baoyu only asks her to complete her needlework. She quickly regains the upper hand: "We'll see how I feel tomorrow." Rhett Butler, he isn't. A great scene, unfortunately chewed by miserable acting in the TV series.

We are introduced to a beautiful, young lay sister, Miao-yu who is invited to visit the Jias. I have a feeling that this will not end well ...

At last, after a flurry of preparations, the official visit starts, with a big wait. From dawn to dusk, the family and attendants wait in ceremonial dress. The Imperial Consort is embroiled in the protocol program. The lantern lights transform her arrival and garden visit into a fairyland. Renaming the different views is part of her program and a sign of appreciation (I am amazed how similar this is to the near contemporary budding German romantics, such as Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock with his endless descriptions and appreciations of nature). Finally reunited with her mother and female relatives, tears flow freely. The Imperial Consort does not seem all too happy with her court life. The menfolk including her father have to stay outside behind a curtain. Only Baoyu, her little brother and teenager, is allowed in. After another garden stroll, a family poetry competition ensues. The efforts by the Spring sisters sound rather pedestrian (at least in the English translation, naturally I am unable to appreciate the originals), Baochai's and Daiyu's poems are better but too descriptive and baroque (compared to Japanese haiku). Baoyu is offered a chance to shine again, assisted by word coach Baochai and ghost writer Daiyu. The poems are better but not perfect, e.g. the line "Lost in a dream, at peace, the poet sleeps long." has twice the idea of dreaming/sleep and twice the idea of peace/tranquility. His elder sister is enchanted, that is all that counts. After opera performances and another garden stroll, it is time for parting presents and another burst of tears.

A beautiful day and a big show for the clan. We will see if the expenses bear fruit.

Edited: Mar 31, 2010, 12:16am


I was wondering if the social obligations for the rich to spend their money arose partly as a way to keep money in circulation and stimulate the economy.

FWIW, if you are still looking for the TV series, the Wikipedia article about it has a link to a place selling it for US$59.00. I don't know anything about this merchant, so caveat emptrix.

Mar 31, 2010, 4:13am

>38 LJ_Reading: I don't think the rich take the poor into consideration. Keeping up with the Jones' is the trigger, impressing their rich friends.

I don't know about China (I think how the Jia financed their garden with calling in debt), but contemporary Europe and earlier had severe money supply limitations. The importance of capital for growth had not entered public conscience. People were cash-starved. Thus, the endless chase and escape of debt collecting, a major theme in many a biography or novel.

Edited: Mar 31, 2010, 12:09pm

The publishers note has an excellent review of the econmics of this period grossly 1736-95. The last feudal dynasty the wealthy became richer with the recovery of trade to Europe which had previously been banned.The spending became more elaborate, reckless and endless while the peasant class endured great missery. Setting the stage for an eventual revolution. These splendid mansions - a place where "flowers and willows will flourish , a home of pleasure and luxury," are nothing but "slaughter houses" for the servants.

Apr 6, 2010, 7:46am

In a preview to the upcoming chapter 19, we might discuss the status of the servants in the form of Nanny Li and Xiren/Hsi-jen.

Nanny Li (and Granny Liu) both are both comic relief and example how a society treats its no longer actively contributing members. Is Nanny Li acting out of spite in grabbing any food or is it hunger? As the only examples given are two treats, the novel hints at the former, even if a whiff of desperation is felt.

Xiren is in an intermediate status between servant (employee) and slave (property), supported only by her personal relations with Baoyu, likely to change abruptly if he marries. She may end up without protection. The following chapter also shows that the other maids do not really care for her, letting Nanny Li grab her food.

I consider the mansion servants to be relatively priviledged. At least, compared to the peasants, the large mass of people and the urban proletariat. The mansions are overstaffed and undermanaged, according to the old Communist quip: "We agree not to pay you and you agree not to work." Waiting is their work, not that bad compared to backbreaking manual labor. As the servants represent the mansions, the family can not be totally derelict in providing for them. Compared to the wretched 17th century in China (as told by Woman Wang), the 18th sounds rather golden.

Apr 8, 2010, 7:23pm

Chapter 19 The Emo boy
Post festum domus tristis. Only Energizer bunny Xifeng is hard at work. Baoyu idles time away first at opera performed at Ning Mansion, then by peeping and interrupting servants having sex. The girl servant carries an exotic Buddhist name: Swastika (Wikipedia informs me that a left-facing swastika on Chinese food denotes vegetarian products). The price of Baoyu's silence is helping him go on an unannounced excursion in the city. He wants to stalk his servant/mistress Xiren in her family home. The family seats the unannounced guest in the place of honor and offers him food (which, for strange unmentioned reasons, he "could not eat". Why?). Baoyu notices that she has been crying. She notices that he is overdressed and should return home. As entertainment for the family, she is showing around Baoyu's jade. With considerable expense to the family, Baoyu arrives home safely.

Meanwhile, Baoyu's servants are idle and do not protect the food reserved for Xiren from Nanny Li. When Xiren returns, good girl that she is, she defuses the situation. Instead, she talks turkey with Baoyu about her future (using a white lie). Xiren's lucky sister is getting married, while she is stuck being a servant/slave, a number, a nobody. She falsely threatens to leave Baoyu if he doesn't promise to behave. Her three conditions seem pretty mild: No boasting, studying and not chasing skirts or dressing in skirts. Baoyu readily agrees. Will Baoyu be ever true to his word? Their constellation is interesting: The formal master-servant is mirrored by an actual her super-ego to his id/child position. Exhausted from the family visit and her remodeling of Baoyu, Xiren catches a cold.

Baoyu soon finds another girl to play with: Daiyu. They loll about in her bed. She notices and cleans up girl's make-up on his face (not exactly true to his promises, is he?). Baoyu truly is the first Emo! He tickles her body, while she tries to tickle his mind, but he fails to understand her allusions. He replies by a (rather lame) word-pun story. The lovebirds are interrupted by Baochai who reminds Baoyu of his rhyming problems during the Imperial visit. Noise from Baoyu's rooms in turn interrupts them.

Apr 11, 2010, 5:03pm

Chapter 20 The power of position

Nanny Li scolds poor (and sick) Xiren and doesn't mince words ("ungrateful slut"). Baoyu, Daiyu and Baochai are unable to cool Nanny's wrath. Enter Xifeng. She escorts Nanny Li out of the room (sweetened by a food offer). This only postpones the problem which in my view is an unacknowledged change in the pecking order: Xiren unofficially occupies Nanny Li's former position. Nanny Li needs a new suitable honorific job. Baoyu feeds Xiren a dose of medicine and tucks her in, then leaves.

When he returns, all is quiet. All the servants but one have retired to their quarters or went out. Baoyu offers to comb her hair (he would really enjoy Ken and Barbie). His maid Qingwen, who has been very vocal in the prior scene too, scolds him and traps Baoyu talking bad about her behind her back. She knows how to dominate her master.

The next day, Baochai, Xiangling, Ying-erh and Jia Huan, a concubine's son, gamble for cash. Jia Huan cheats which upsets Ying-erh who in turn is tamed by Baochai. Even in family matters, the official pecking order is important. Baoyu, not without reason, asks Jia Huan to leave. Jia Huan runs to mother and complains. She, however, having learnt about 2nd class status as a concubine, will have none of it and scolds him. The scolding is overheard by Xifeng (who must be patrolling the compounds) and she defends the boy. Xifeng takes the boy along and advises him to be more self-confident and not to cheat. She also provides him with some money.

Baoyu and Baochai go to the Lady Dowager's apartment to greet a visitor. There, they meet Daiyu who scolds him for his lack of attention and retires to her room. Obedient puppy that he is, he follows her to her room. She expands her quick win with a theatrical lament of romantic illness and death. Baoyu plays along until Baochai drops in and escorts Baoyu out. Sulking Daiyu remains behind. The point goes to Baochai- but not for long, as Baoyu is coming back to Daiyu's room - to receive another earful of laments. Daiyu analyzes correctly: "You've got someone better (Baochai) than I am at reading, writing and versifying, better at talking and laughing with you too. ... Why not leave me to die in peace?" Those skills do not mean much to Baoyu. He reassures Daiyu to be closer to her than Baochai. With great understanding he asks her: "Do you only know your own heart and not mine?" She hesitates to acknowledge their mutual love, falling silent. Her quip to escape the topic, backfires and is both a hint of her love and care of Baoyu and her being less smart than Baochai. The lovebirds are interrupted by the Lady Dowager's visitor who promptly receives a mild reproach from Daiyu. The visitor deflects it towards "Little Miss Perfect" Baochai, a target all three can agree on.

Apr 11, 2010, 10:22pm

#41 & 42:

Regarding Aroma (Xiren), she works for Grandmother Jia, not Baoyu, so it's her relationship with Her Old Ladyship that matters most to her future. Aroma's actions are those of a model employee, although they are also sincere, as she and Grandmother Jia are of one mind as to what is best for Baoyu.

I don't believe Aroma's role would necessarily need to change significantly once Baoyu gets married. It might simply be formalized by making her a chamber wife. It would be assumed that Baoyu will have mistresses, and he could do a lot worse than loyal Aroma (as we will see, for example, in Chapter 25).

Apr 28, 2010, 8:43pm

>44 LJ_Reading: Thanks, I wonder whether Aroma and Skybright (of whom I yet know little of) are complementary/yin-yang. Aroma embodies the earthy, warm, sexual and also motherly yin aspect.

In Europe, the dauphin's mistress was married off at the time of the dauphin's marriage to interrupt the intimacy. With over 400 servants, finding a new mansion job assignment for Aroma should not be difficult.

Chapter 21 Deceiving boyish men trouble the life of servant girls

Baoyu stops Daiyu from further reproaching Shi Xiangyun. The next morning, Baoyu creeps into the girls' sleeping quarters and performs his morning toilette there. Xiangyun braids Baoyu's hair while he picks up the rouge. Not exactly keeping his reform promise. Xiren and Baochai lament his ways.

Returned home, Baoyu sulks about Xiren's implicit reproach. A kang charade demonstrates that she still cares deeply about him (and he about her). Baoyu renames a servant girl to Nr. 4, depreciating her real name: "It is an insult to (flowers), calling you by their lovely names." Ouch, time for a discrimination lawsuit.

Baoyu self-imposes a girl quarantine and isolates himself with some teenage rage reading by the warring states philosopher Zhuangzi: "Be authentic, man!" Baoyu writes a parody of these baby and the bathwater ideas using the double meaning of his girl entourage's names.

The next day, Xiren is still sulking. Childlike Baoyu has trouble understanding her feelings. He throws a tantrum. While Baoyu pays his respects to the Lady Dowager, Daiyu reads Baoyu's parody and adds a witty rejoinder calling out his double standard.

Xifeng's daughter has smallpox, which requires sacrifices to the goddess of smallpox (her Hindu cousin looks fierce). Xifeng's care for her child diminishes her attention to her husband who ventures into an affair with the mansion's very own prostitute, a beautiful woman married to a drunken cook named the "muddy worm", an Aphrodite-Hephaistos relationship.

As Xifeng controls the purse strings, her husband has to stealthily acquire the coins to access the lady's charms. After a dozen days of sexy time, Jia Lian returns to the matrimonial bed.

Ping'er finds a strand of the lady's hair in Jia Lian's bedding. He tries to wrestle it away from her, when Xifeng enters. She is suspicious and on the right trail. Ping'er covers up Jia Lian's "monkey business". Jia Lian asks for Ping'er's silence but snatches the incriminating strand of hair away from her. Bereft of the evidence, Ping'er vows never to cover for Jia Lian again. Jia Lian tries to do some monkey business with Ping'er who wrestles herself free. Unfaithful Jia Lian complains to Ping'er about his domineering wife. Ping'er accepts none of it. Standing up for Xifeng, however, only results in a put-down by the dragon herself. Ping'er storms off.

Another case of men behaving irresponsibly, childlike while the women carry the show. While Xifeng has to bear the marital infidelity and the trouble of her child's illness, it is the servants who have to bear the brunt of the men's bad behavior. They do with admirable grace and skill.

May 5, 2010, 6:43pm

Chapter 22 Opera, riddles and tears

A filler chapter. Nothing of importance happens in this chapter besides opera, sulking, riddles and dismay.

Xifeng obtains permission from both her husband and the Old Dowager to splurge for Baochai's birthday party. Family opera it is.

Daiyu is acting depressed again (or is she sulking because of Baochai's birthday?). All the kids choose opera scenes for the event. Baochai again lectures Baoyu about the finesse of arias and declaims the text to one. Xifeng notices that one of the girl opera singers looks like Daiyu, which somehow is seen as disconcerting (to be reminded of her lowly origins? Or actress = prostitute?). Baoyu tries to appease Daiyu who is sulking again (or still).

Xiren/Aroma tries to calm the upset Baoyu who starts sobbing, writes a "good bye, cruel world" poem and goes to sleep. Daiyu checks in with Xiren and receives the poem, which she shows to Baochai who misattributes its meaning to her recited text (instead of Daiyu). Baochai burns the poem. The girls walk over to Baoyu's place.

Daiyu outsmarts Baoyu in philosophy or sophistry, defuses Baoyu's poem by adding a line about nirvana. Baoyu answers with a zen anecdote. As Daiyu feels better again, Baoyu can relinquish his philosopher role play. All are happy again.

The rest of the chapter is devoted to a lantern-riddle sent by the Imperial Consort. All send their individual answers and devise their own riddles for the Imperial Consort. The whole family is assembled, Baoyu's father's presence kills the buzz, however and the kids are quiet. They pose and solve riddles. Baoyu's father then solves the riddles sent to the Imperial Consort. He is dismayed at the (supposedly) negative objects of the riddles. He withdraws from the party.

Which relaxes the kids, especially Baoyu who monkeys about. The Old Dowager calls it a night and dissolves the party.

May 15, 2010, 11:22am

Chapter 23 This bud of love, by summer's ripening breath

Xifeng decides to keep the flock of Buddhist nuns at her outpost temple, again raising the clan's fixed costs without a corresponding earnings increase. She also discusses with her husband offering/creating a job for a family retainer. Her husband's retort is priceless:

"All right then, but why were you so uncooperative last night when all I wanted was to try something different?" Xifeng snorts with laughter and spits at him with mock disgust.

Meanwhile, the Imperial Consort asks for the youngsters to live in the garden, a pleasant project for the summer, though the garden's upkeep will be costly.

Baoyu is ordered to see his father, which he does in a whipped puppy way. His father is mild-mannered, informing him about the garden living. Then they discuss Baoyu's strange naming choice for Xiren/Aroma. His father dismisses him with a stern: "What are you standing there, you unnatural monster?" which will not help to increase Baoyu's self-esteem (nor do children understand irony/double messages, though Baoyu is a teenager, albeit a childish one).

The youngsters move into their garden quarters. Baoyu is delighted and writes poetry. Given today's acid rain in China, his tea brewed with freshly fallen snow is no longer a good idea. He discovers the joys of reading low brow fiction which he has to conceal in his study.

A vignette of Daiyu and Baoyu shows how far removed they are from their contemporaries. At the same time, she is a forerunner of green recycling and composting.

Daiyu discovers Baoyu's illicitly reading The Romance of the West Chamber and greedily reads it too. Daiyu is both shocked and enthralled by the parallels, which she uses to ensnare (once again) the outspoken Baoyu who has to eat his words (once again). Baoyu is whisked away for a courtesy visit.

Daiyu remains behind. Listening to the opera singers practicing, she falls into a state of deep melancholy until she receives a pat on the back.

A contrast of two couples: the bantering wife and husband, knowing the joys and perils of marriage, and the two innocent lovebirds. Much of the story is told by reference and implication.

Edited: May 21, 2010, 5:20pm

Chapter 24 Papageno and Papagena

Daiyu, awoken out of her melancholy by Hsiang-ling, joins in some girl chat - about "the relative merits of different pieces of embroidery and tapestry". Oh, really?

Mischievous Baoyu, meanwhile, indulges in his twin passion for rouge and his servants, trying to kiss Yuanyang who invokes Xiren to stop him. The newly dressed Baoyu then visits Jia Lian who is just receiving a distant poor family relation in search of a job: Jia Yun, son of Fifth-Sister-in-Law from the Back Lane, who talks smoothly to the rather stupid Baoyu and garners an invitation to visit him. Jia Lian, however, is the wrong person to talk to, as he does not control the purse. He asks Jia Yun to wait.

Jia Yun then visits his uncle who runs a perfumery to lend him some spices. The uncle and his wife have to decline, as their living conditions are precarious: Even providing a dinner for Jia Yun would require them to run up some debt with their neighbors. Life is tough in the city. Living hand-to-mouth must be terribly exhausting - and this uncle must be considered better off by the standards of Jia Yun.

Jia Yun literally stumbles into his drunken neighbor, a moneylender. Jia Yun, both desperate for a little money and trusting his neighbor, takes out a loan of 15 taels and 34 cents. Will this gamble pay off? He returns home for the night, not telling his mother about the day.

The next day, he buys camphor and musk as presents, and lingers around the Jia Mansion. First, he compliments Xifeng and hands her the gifts. Xifeng takes them but prefers not to make the quid pro quo so obvious. She brushes him off.

Persistent Jia Yun then calls on Baoyu. He waits in vain. The only compensation is the view of a beautiful lower servant girl called Hsiao-hung. She advises him to call again tomorrow.

The next day (day 3 of job hunting), Jia Yun is back at the Mansion. Xifeng calls him out about the presents and talks turkey with him. She offers him the gardening job after he declines her offer of a job too far into the future. His persistence has paid off. With the funds from his new job (200 taels), he prudently repays his loan and buys trees. Apparently. Jia Yun is a persistent, hard-working good guy (much better than his nobler male relatives).

Meanwhile, Baoyu is left home alone, as all servants are out on missions or recreation. After a few cries for help, Baoyu is left to fetch his own tea (poor boy). This is the opening for Hsiao-hung to step in, fetch the tea and talk to Baoyu, hitherto oblivious to her existence. Now, he has noticed her charms.

Just in time, the maids return to block further conversation. Having catered to the needs of Baoyu, the maids return to scold Hsiao-hung. One maid spits in her face and show her the pecking order among the hens.

Just then, an old maid announces that the garden will be full of sweaty workers tomorrow. The maids should stay inside. Hsiao-hung knows that Jia Yun is in charge of the gardeners. That night, she dreams about the two of them. Will Papageno get his Papagena?

May 30, 2010, 4:32pm

Chapter 25 Cain and Abel

A thrilling chapter that starts uneventful, then gathers speed to reach a dramatic height. We meet again sleepy Hsiao-hung who lazily does housekeeping chores.

Jealous Jia Huan, son of jealous concubine Zhao, spills wax on Baoyu, burning his face. While mother and son are being scolded, Baoyu is treated and lamented. The burn is not serious, still Baoyu hides the wound out of aesthetic reasons from the concerned Daiyu.

The next day, a Buddhist priestess called Ma arrives, a snake-oil saleswoman of blessings. She even offers a menu of contributions, sorted by social position. The Lady Dowager engages the priestess to pray for Baoyu in exchange for monthly contributions of a few catties. The priestess then collects some slippers from concubine Zhao and offers her to voodoo curse Baoyu and Xifeng, for a big consideration. Silver and a promissory note seal the deal.

Meanwhile, Daiyu and the desperate ladies discuss the quality of the tea and tease Daiyu about her marriage prospects (to Baoyu). A perfect calmness before the shock: Baoyu and Xifeng both turn mad and sick. They fall into a coma, watched by a sorrowful clan (except concubine Zhao who gloats too early). The family already starts making funeral arrangements, when Baoyu's good ghosts, the bonze and the Taoist, arrive. They recharge Baoyu's jade as a talisman and, more importantly, impose a rigorous quarantine (thus removing the poisoner's access). The two are on their way to recovery.

The balance is restored. While Daiyu praises Buddha, Baochai mocks her again. Not very nice from Miss Perfect. The concubine and her son will remain in the shadow ( and probably try harder to do further misdeeds).

Jun 8, 2010, 11:06am

Mother Ma is like an arms dealer who is secretly supplying both sides. Still, it strikes my as foolish of her and Aunt Zhao to mount attacks on Baoyu and Xifeng at exactly the same moment.

The text mentions that in her crazed state Xifeng kills several dogs. There are other passing references to dogs and cats living within the compound, but no mention of anyone treating them as pets. I wonder why this is.

Another thing I find odd is that no one connects Daiyu's insomnia with their habit of drinking tea at all hours of the day and night.

Jun 11, 2010, 6:37pm

>50 LJ_Reading: Offering a caffeine-rich tea to a nervous girl, would be mean indeed. Drinking tea is just a safe way of consuming (boiled) water, similar to the enormous quantities of beer consumed in the European middle ages.

I imagine that the dogs and cats live more alongside than with people, similar as they do now in many North African and Eastern European cities. The Wikipedia article on dog meat informs me that in China dog meat is referred to as "mutton of the earth" and recommended for its pharmaceutical properties. In contrast, there are quite a few dog breeds of Chinese origin (Pekinese, Chow-chow, Shar Pei, Shih Tzu ...).

Chapter 26 Insiders and outsiders

At the beginning of the chapter we follow Hsiao-hung around who chats with a bunch of servants and granny Li. She meets by happy accident, her heartthrob Jia Yun conveniently on the (narrow) wasp waist bridge. She glances, blushes, ... no sparkling though.

Jia Yun is literate but not that sharp, given his rather child-like deduction of the naming of Happy Red Court. As a guest at Baoyu's, drinking tea strengthens his connections. On the way out, Jia Yun asks a maid about Hsiao-hung and - classic theatrical plot - does not return her lost handkerchief but his own hanky, thus necessitating a personal meeting of the two.

Meanwhile, Baoyu sent on a garden walk by Xiren, overhears depressed Daiyu in Bamboo Lodge quote a line from the Romance Baoyu gave her. He enters while she feigns sleep (all the while pleased at his presence). Baoyu oversteps with a line about a lover and a mistress - reminding Daiyu of her second class status, turning on hear fountain of tears. A better choice would have been some classic love poetry, elevating her status while still preserving the reference to her line of poetry. As usual, the inconsiderate Baoyu apologizes but is whisked away by Xiren as his father demands to see him.

Except it isn't his father but the rakish Hsueh Pan who wants to see him. Hsueh nicely shares his own birthday delicacies with Baoyu: Siamese ham, Lotus root and melon. In conversation, Hsueh Pan shows a keen eye - for erotic prints, not so much for Chinese characters. Baoyu' s a good detective and resolves a mis-attributed painting. The party is joined by another rake, Feng Tsu-ying, who bears the mark of a hunting accident from an excursion with his father, a general. Gulping down his drink in a single draw, Feng has to leave, not without inviting them to his upcoming party.

Returning to Happy Red Court, Baoyu meets Baochai and they spend a funny evening together, while Daiyu stands outside in the courtyard, not being admitted inside by the lazy (and mean) maids. Daiyu cites poetry and cries again - when the gate opens and again exposes her vulnerable outsider position.
Baoyu is back in business and the center of attention again. Daiyu is on a destructive path of self-isolation.

Edited: Jun 20, 2010, 1:07pm

Chapter 27 Depressed Daiyu, high-powered Hsiao-hung

Daiyu continues her streak of depression. While her servants take note of it, there are apparently no adults (and family) around who might help the poor girl.

The next day, on her way to pick up Daiyu, Baochai sees Baoyu enter Bamboo Lodge. She distracts herself by chasing butterflies. This random walk leads her to a pavilion where she observes Hsiao-hung's handkerchief negotiation. Baochai is no fan of Hsiao-hung.

Hsiao-hung eagerly and competently fulfills a request Xifeng who recognizes (wasted) talent. How does it sound if a "pretty girl buzzes like a mosquito"? Hopefully not like a vuvuzela. She reassigns Hsiao-hung to her own household. The other maids are not at all pleased with the upstart.

We return to Baoyu meeting Daiyu. She gives him the cold shoulder. He follows her like a puppy. The meet Baoyu's sisters who live sheltered lives. Tanchun cannot buy goods in the city herself. Instead, she has to ask Baoyu to do it for her. Faithful Baoyu then has to listen to Tanchun's complaints, until he is rescued by Baochai. Baoyu notices that Daiyu is missing from the party.

He finds her weeping in the garden. She bursts out 13 stanzas of emo poetry, with themes of liberation, decay and death. Quite a piece of work.

Between Daiyu and Baochai, my choice is clear (Baochai). Why is Baoyu more attracted to the dark, depressed and sick Daiyu? Shouldn't Chinese medicine (which is close to Western psychology) offer helpful advice against depression and anxiety (beside the heap of medicaments Daiyu is already taking)?

Jul 1, 2010, 2:19pm

Chapter 28 Teenage angst and party

The teenage angst tear spill continues. Daiyu's weeping leads to Baoyu's crying. It's a cruel, cruel world - for no reason at all. (These two privileged teenagers have no reason to complain. Baoyu is a pampered boy, Daiyu a pampered Cinderella (although not princess no. 1 in the house, a spot occupied by Baoyu). Compared to the other fates of hunger and desperation, one can sympathize with the foreword's condemnation of feudalism ...)

Daiyu notices Baoyu crying and walks away, he follows her, asking her to listen to just one word from him. A bit thick, he naturally doesn't manage to compress his message to one word (perhaps he should have started singing the Crazy Test Dummies mmmm. If you can't say it, sing it.). She nevertheless allows him to lament his fate and present himself as a near-only child similar to Daiyu and confesses his worthlessness. She relents and they discover that last night's closed door event was caused by lazy servants. Baoyu promises to scold them.

They return to a meal with Lady Wang. Medicine talk. Baoyu is apparently messing around creating prescriptions (expensive ones at that, including Xifeng's old pearls). The girls leave to join the Lady Dowager for the meal. Baoyu stays with his mother. On his way to the girls, he is intercepted by Xifeng who uses him as a secretary and asks him to allow Hsiao Hung's (she calls her by her correct name Hung-yu, a slight poke against Baoyu?) transfer to her service.

Free again, Baoyu mulls around Daiyu who's cutting material. Baoyu observes her and banters around. Daiyu isn't amused. Baochai appears and dutifully disappears to play cards with the Lady Dowager. Baoyu leaves to dress for a visit to Feng Tzu-ying. Hsueh Pan, an actor and a courtesan are already waiting for him. They drink, sing and play games. Hsueh Pan makes an ass out of himself, being rude to the courtesan and to the crew. Baoyu is a secret fan of the actor and they exchange sashes. Baoyu easily gave away Xiren's green sash to the actor. Baoyu gives her the red sash in compensation. She puts it away in storage - is it because of its former owner or because a servant should not be too flashy?

His sister, the Imperial Consort, sends over presents to all. Daiyu is put into a lower gift category than Baoyu or Baochai. Baoyu tries to heal the potential snub (which is just protocol) by offering her anything from his presents. She declines, preferring to nurture her little grudge as a common plant or tree. Speaking of the devil, they see Baochai walking by, who sees them in turn but pretends not to notice.

They meet again at the Lady Dowager where Baoyu is enchanted by Baochai's bracelet - and her white plump arm. He stares lustily at her body and face and is smitten - and caught by Daiyu. She makes an allusion to a silly goose (Baochai) and slaps Baoyu with her handkerchief.

Daiyu is Baoyu's soul mate. Physically, he is much more attracted to healthy and stable Baochai. The presents of the Imperial Consort indicate that status-wise, Daiyu is no match to Baochai. The contrast between Baochai and her useless brother is quite stark too.

I picked up, for a song, a remaindered German biography of Song poetess Li Qingzhao, which refers to Liu Xiang's Biographies of Exemplary Women which in turn would certainly have been helpful as a reference at the presentation of the twelve beauties. This discovery of my level of ignorance creates a feeling of wonder and awe. Miles to go in baby steps ...

Jul 4, 2010, 6:38pm

Chapter 29 A family excursion tires the teenagers

Xifeng arranges a clan trip to the Etheral Abbey. The young maids are especially thrilled to be able to leave the compound for once. The numerous vehicles created their very own traffic jam. At the ceremonial entry to the Abbey, a young boy runs into Xifeng, who assists the Lady Dowager. Xifeng is furious. The mild Lady Dowager protects the boy from Xifeng's anger and sends him off with some cash.

The large number of girls and women necessitates an elaborate security perimeter for the harem. Jia Zhen is in command. He calls for his son, Jia Rong who appears closing his buttons. Jia Zhen orders one of his servants to spit on Jia Rong. Jia Zhen has already shamed his son with his affair. Now this, not very Confucian. Nice family relations! At least, Baoyu's father has not yet spit on him.

The abbot is a master of diplomacy. He even contemplates about matchmaking. The Lady Dowager declaims that beauty is the most important quality of a girl, wealth and position matter less (is this really her true opinion?). Xifeng starts to talk business and reminds the abbot about a debt. The old fox is prepared, however, and presents the expected talisman on a tray. The tray then is used to show Baoyu's jade to the (smelly) Taoists waiting outside. To start another round of gifts, the abbot further presents valuable amulets. The Jias try to decline but have to accept, opening a new debt the abbot will surely collect.

Despite what he promised Xiren, Baoyu cannot help himself from inspecting the amulets. One with a unicorn reminds Baoyu about somebody. Baochai helps him out: Shi Xiangyun owns a similar one. Daiyu once again uses the occasion to quip about Baochai's gold-digging. Baoyu secretly picks the unicorn amulet for Shi Xiangyun. Eagleeyed Daiyu spots him doing it. He offers it to her, she declines and he says to keep it for himself (why doesn't he mention that it's a gift?).

Meanwhile, the Jia clan retainers arrive with gifts, an unintended consequence of the excursion. Before this escalates too much, the family returns home. Xifeng is not happy that her fun is curtailed.

Daiyu suffers from sunburn. Baoyu is concerned.Their exhaustion lead to one miscommunication after another. They start quarreling. Too much thinking and not enough listening. Baoyu throws a tantrum and tries to destroy his jade. It takes Xiren to disarm him. Xiren's consideration for Daiyu triggers her tantrum in turn: Daiyu thows up her medicine and cuts up the jade's tassel. Finally, all three of them weep. The circle of pain is enlarged to the maids who are scolded for their lack of control by Lady Wang.

The next day, both Daiyu and Baoyu stay away from Hsueh Pan's birthday party. The Lady Dowager is not amused. Xiren advises Baoyu to take the first step and apologize to Daiyu.

Jul 5, 2010, 10:56am

#53 "one can sympathize with the foreword's condemnation of feudalism ..."

I'm reading Hawkes' translation, so I don't have that foreword. As an aside, I recently finished Outliers. In it, Malcolm Gladwell argues that the life of a farmer raising rice in paddies in Southern China and elsewhere in East Asia was quite unlike that of feudal peasants in Europe. In terms of earning a livelihood, he believes it was more like that of urban Jews in Europe, in that long hours and expertise were likely to lead to success. He sees this (rather than, e.g., a "Confucian work ethic") as producing the economic success of the countries in that region

Jul 6, 2010, 8:57am

>55 LJ_Reading: Don't worry, written in a turgid prose, it reads like an unintentional parody. In one of history's ironic twist, a Communist state that glorifies the peasant translates and edits a surpemely bourgeois emo novel. Other examples are the French monarchy financing the American War of Independence and the US Congress built by slaves.

I advise extreme caution in reading Malcolm Gladwell, the Tom Friedman of truthy social science anecdotes. A good storyteller and edutainer, he discovers a quirky story and runs with it, without doing proper research. Thus, he more than not gets the underlying message completely wrong.

Just your example offers a ton of mischaracterizations. Firstly, agricultural work is long only during crunch times (sowing, harvest), with plenty of interim downtime. Adapting the agricultural workers to the never ending factory clock work was one of the major challenges of industrialization.

Secondly, toiling the land creates only limited amounts of wealth. Otherwise, Africa and South America would be the kings of the world. Even today, the life of a Chinese peasant, toil and all, is not a happy one. The seasonal pattern of agricultural products makes them cheap in times of abundant harvests, while the lack of supply prevents cashing-in during times of crisis. Only agricultural products that can be easily stored (e.g. wine) are sources of richness.

The true wealth creator in China was its textile industry and its merchants. The insumrountable social barriers those merchants and industrialists faced, were, in my opinion, one of the main reasons why Europe did overtake Asia in the 18th century. (His characterization of the life of urban Jews in Europe sounds wrong to me too, but breaks the topic of this thread.)

Gladwell is a contaminator of not-fully-thought-through factoids that inhabit the world's airports, intellectual junk food. If learning is your goal, reading Gladwell will be detrimental, as a little knowledge is often more dangerous than ignorance.

Jul 11, 2010, 1:49pm

Chapter 30 Love hurts

Daiyu is, as usual, depressed. Baoyu arrives to cheer her up. Playing the "I am so lonesome, I could cry" game, Baoyu blurts out to become a monk after her death. She doesn't believe him and becomes even more furious at him. The two weep in unison.

Baoyu blunders again by touching her. "Take your hands off me. You're not a child any more, yet you still carry on in this shameless way. Can't you behave yourself?" This goes to the heart of the matter, their position towards each other. Are they a kind of siblings (thus under the incest taboo) or are they suitors-in-waiting? The family treats them like the former, they themselves consider themselves more like the latter.

The matter's resolution is interrupted by Xifeng who in turn but consciously misjudges their physical closeness for mutual agreement. Xifeng leads them to the Old Dowager.

Baoyu apologizes to Baochai for not sending a birthday present to her brother. Her gracious reply earns a severe taunt and loss of face: "No wonder they compare you to Lady Yang, you're both plump and sensitive to the heat." Calling her a fat sweating pig, not so good an idea ... (Is Rubenesque plumpness considered attractive in 18th century China?)

Baochai takes the blow like a champ. It's a poor maid that has to absorb her anger. Gaffe-meister Baoyu tries to resume small-talk which results in a veiled payback. Baoyu's, Daiyu's and Baochai's faces are glowing - a fact publicly noted by Xifeng. The meeting is dissolved.

Mischievous Baoyu next tries to sexually harass one of his mother's maids. The old woman is not amused - and punishes the girl. After ten years of service, she is dismissed.

Baoyu then observes an actress in the rose garden getting drenched in rain. He runs back to Happy Red Court, himself "drenched like a drowned cock". Xiren plays a game of not quickly opening the door. He punishes her by kicking her hard. In the night, while Baoyu checks on her, she spits blood.

Like a small child, impetuous Baoyu acts without thinking, hurting everybody in the process. Hardest hit is the poor maid, who has lost her status and job (and life?). Then poor Baochai who is humiliated in public. Xiren suffers physically, while Daiyu gets her usual dose of taunts. Baoyu is not exactly growing up. A long way to go towards becoming a monk ...

Jul 21, 2010, 6:56pm

Chapter 31 Yin and Yang

Xiren wants to keep her illness a secret. Baoyu procures medicine on the sly. His antics still reverberate in the house, all are grumpy (even the maids quarrel). We learn that, despite their similarities, Baoyu and Daiyu are fundamentally different: She is an introvert, while he is an extrovert.

Baoyu nearly ruins a second maid's life by threatening to send her home. Daiyu arrives just in time to absorb the attention. Baoyu again vows to become a monk. Baoyu later makes up with the wronged maid, fooling around by destroying fans.

The next day, the Lady Dowager holds court. Xiangyun's dress causes the others to muse about her former cross-dressing experiments. Having paid her compliments to all the ladies and their maids, she strolls through the garden, explaining the concept of yin and yang to one maid. Both are complementary but not exactly of equal value, a fact they discover discussing master and slave, man and woman. Unfortunately, the conclusion is interrupted by their finding the unicorn trinket Baoyu lost in the garden. Baoyu appears just at the right moment to happily resolve the matter.

Jul 30, 2010, 2:48pm

Chapter 32 Maids and mistresses

Xiren is rather impertinent towards Xiangyun whose temper flares. She apologizes by offering a ring to Xiren. Xiangyun then sings the praise of Baochai. Baoyu cautions her about the explosive temper of Daiyu. Xiangyun joining Team Baochai may be caused by Daiyu's destroying a fan made by Xiangyun.

Xiren asks Xiangyun for a, to me, curious favor, to help with sewing. Xiangyun's family, however, is not so well off and actually has to do their own sewing. Thus, the additional job is a real burden to her (which someone more experienced than Xiren might have grasped, as does Baochai later on). Xiren seems also to be part of Team Baochai, commenting on Daiyu's tantrums.

Daiyu's listening in, hearing Baoyu defend her, causing a rainbow of emotions and a rain of tears. Baoyu is called away to his father's company. On the way, he runs into weepy Daiyu. Baoyu tries to console her, earning himself another accusation, this time about favoring Xiangyun. After a round of brooding silence, Baoyu tells her not to worry so much. Another round of brooding, tears and a brush-off. Exit Daiyu, leaving behind a boy in trance (Isn't Baoyu similar to Bella?).

Baoyu, still in trance, declares his strange love - to Xiren who has come to bring him a fan. Exit Baoyu. Enter Baochai who complains about the heat (remember the "sweating pig" comment). Sweet Baochai worries about Xiangyun's having to do too much needlework. Baochai offers to help.

The maid dismissed due to Baoyu's actions (ch. 30), kills herself by drowning. Lady Wang covers up her guilt and innocent Baochai believes it, wondering about an accident. Lady Wang knows and pays off the family with decent funeral money. Helpful Baochai offers two of her new dresses for the funeral (why does the dead girl need two funeral dresses?). When she returns with the dresses, she sees Lady Wang scolding the weeping Baoyu, opening her eyes about Baoyu's latest mischief.

Aug 7, 2010, 9:47am

Chapter 33 What not to do with your spoiled kid - the Giuliani edition

Karma is a bitch: Baoyu is bound to pay a heavy price for his shenanigans. First, he bumps into his father who is neither amused to see his filius nor to being bumped into by him. Then, a princely messenger arrives asking Jia Zheng to surrender Baoyu's drinking buddy actor from a few chapters back. Jia Zheng is not pleased learning about the actor's presence on his premises from an outsider, nor is he pleased by the low company his son is keeping. Baoyu makes the loss of face worse by denying it - while wearing the actor's bright red sash around his waist. Clever, he ain't! Lying is added to the growing list of misdemeanors and crimes. Baoyu surrenders the actor's present location (fortunately, outside the family compound).

Jia Zheng hurries off, ordering Baoyu to await his punishment. On his way, Jia Zheng crosses the path of Jia Huan, his concubine's son, no fan of Baoyu either. In order to protect himself from his father's wrath and to further blacken Baoyu's reputation, he spills the beans on the maid's suicide to Jia Zheng. Another vile act committed by his vile offspring in the family compound!

Instead of counting to ten and containing his anger, Jia Zheng snaps. Without explanation to Baoyu, he orders him to be gagged and flogged, then Jia Zheng flogs him personally.

His brutality transforms the perpetrator into a victim. First, Baoyu's mother tries and fails to intercede for him. Everybody is weeping. More and more members of the family arrive. Finally, the top dog, the Old Dowager, arrives. She mentally lashes out on her son who falls to his knees. The Old Dowager, Lady Wang and Xifeng lament Baoyu's critical state and ask some maid to carry him home. Everybody is feeling sorry. It looks rather unlikely that Baoyu has learned the right lesson from his father's punishment.

Meanwhile, Xiren does some sleuthing. Malicious Xue Pan is behind the actor story, the one scandal Baoyu is not guilty of. I can not understand Xue Pan's motive for exposing Baoyu, though. What does he stand to gain from it?

In contrast, Jia Huan was just the messenger about Baoyu's black deed. The poor boy is destined to a life in Baoyu's shadow.

Aug 12, 2010, 3:51pm

Chapter 34 His sorry ass and women on the verge of nervous breakdowns

While Xiren treats Baoyu's wounds, Baochai, probably to ease her conscience about her brother's deeds in this affair, brings a pill to lessen the pain, console him but also admonish him for the pain he causes to the womenfolk. Baoyu, for the first time, learns the reason behind the whipping, at least partially. Baoyu defends Xue Pan, both out of friendship and in consideration of his sister.

At dusk, stealthy sick Daiyu pays a visit too, but vanishes when Xifeng approaches. Xiren then shields Baoyu from further visitors. Xiren then goes on a visit herself, to see Lady Wang, Baoyu's mother (almost the only one who didn't try to visit him). Xiren offers a status report and receives some expensive rose water medicine. She asks his mother to discipline him. Furthermore, she seeks to dislodge him from the Happy Red Court Mansion, which is too close to the girls' quarter (given Baoyu's near rape of the servant girl, an accident waiting to happen). Baoyu's mother consents and asks Xiren to be his guardian (curiously, they do not talk about Baoyu's punishment.).

Baoyu, meanwhile, sends a secret message by sending over two old handkerchiefs - which Daiyu fills with tearful poetry. She feels agitated which, we are informed, is actually the first stage of consumption (tuberculosis, see Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor for a survey of TB as the disease of the refined).

While Daiyu experiences mental anguish, Baochai is in a vocal discussion with her family (brother and mother). While Xue Pan both denies that he is behind this and downplays the beating, Baochai lashes out aggressively towards him. Xue Pan is unrepentant and, seeing both women crying, flees the ground. Baochai cries all night (given her unusually gentle and sunny disposition, this shows her deep affliction).

The next day, unkempt Baochai runs into Daiyu who acidly mocks her compassion. Only the next chapter will reveal whether Baochai's reply will be sharp or gentle.

Edited: Aug 15, 2010, 12:17pm

#56 Thanks for the information on Gladwell. It's funny you should mention Tom Friedman: a friend of mine who has been at the cutting edge of computer technology for many years read The World is Flat and told me that it was notable only for the consistency with which it managed to get everything wrong.

Publishing Red Chamber in Maoist China doesn't strike me as too of a stretch. At times I can't help thinking that Baoyu, Daiyu, and Baochai would all benefit from forced exile into the countryside for reeducation among the peasants.

Cao Xueqin successfully implies the permeating bleakness and despair, the emptiness (kōng 空; vanitas) that underlies this life of luxury even during periods of jollity. (Dashiell Hammett achieved the same effect in The Thin Man, though this was not reflected in the popular Depression-era movie franchise for obvious reasons.) I've long believed that communism operates, in practice, as a form of religion, even though (like Buddhism) it is not theistic. As such, Cao's parable on the folly of unmindful self-indulgence could easily be interpreted to support the ruling “theocracy”.

Aug 15, 2010, 5:38pm

>62 LJ_Reading: With the lone exception of Paul Krugman, being wrong about everything (as long as it fits ruling class paradigms) is part of the job description of a US newspaper columnist.

Given the ferociousness of the Chinese re-education campaigns, I do not wish them upon anyone. The Last Emperor transformed into First Gardener suits my preferences more. Following the gossip of royalty, the jet set or the celebrities unfortunately does not trigger any revolutionary impulses.

Communism is an ideology not a religion. Communism aspires to change this life not the next, breaking the chains and shackles that impede the fulfillment of humanity. Communism suffers from a bad press and bad associations (somehow Capitalism is never tarnished by its excesses from Manchester to Deepwater Horizon). Institutions that follow Communist principles such as National Parks, libraries or the Fire Department are never labeled as such. It is also strange that wealth re-distribution can only be discussed in the US in a Pareto-optimal way (nobody is worse off afterwards, even Bill Gates). In reality, we all live in mixed economies with both Communist/Socialist and Capitalist elements. Benjamin Franklin sponsored both kind of enterprises.

Chapter 35 Soup and company

Gently Baochai ignores mean bitch Daiyu's quip. Daiyu observes the compound, then returns home to meet her poetry reciting parrot. Meanwhile, Baochai returns to her family quarrel with her brother who tries to play the "drunk" get-out-of-jail card. A hopeless case, this human parrot.

Everybody meets at Baoyu's. The spoiled brat asks for a special soup which the Old Dowager eagerly orders for him. The order is passed down the chain-of-command, first to Xifeng who orders soup for a dozen people. The Old Dowager considers this a great expense (is it really? Chicken/lotus-leaf does not sound like all that expensive ingredients. Soup is probably one of the cheapest forms of nourishment, also an easy way to lose weight as it fills stomachs without a large count of calories.).

The Old Dowager then first compliments herself on her own wit, a slight snub to Xifeng. Baoyu uses the moment to compliment both Xifeng and Daiyu. The Old Dowager has the last word, though: She offers the highest compliment to Baochai. Both her mother and Baoyu's agree. Everybody else seems a bit speechless. Everybody leaves after Baoyu's request for Ying-erh's sewing services.

The ladies eat and later send over the soup to Baoyu. One of the servant girls carrying the soup is Yu-chuan, the sister of the girl who killed herself due to Baoyu's rape attempt. Baoyu manages to somewhat mollify her. Baoyu then receives a courtesy visit from an upstart family which is seeking a match for their beautiful (but already older) daughter. The Jias are not interested.

Xiren and Ying-erh ask Baoyu what kind of nets he likes her to prepare. Baoyu does not really care. Is it a feint? Is she a replacement for the suicide girl or a conduit to Baochai? While Xiren eats, Baoyu approaches her and talks kindly about her and Baochai. Speaking of the devil, Baochai approaches. She offers the idea of preparing a net for Baoyu's jade (quite the image of safely enclosing his penis symbol in her net).

Xiren receives an extra meal portion, in appreciation of her services from Baoyu's mother. Baochai leaves, dessert arrives. Baoyu is just trying to send some of the fruits over to Daiyu, when she shows up. Being sick is not altogether bad for Baoyu.

Aug 28, 2010, 12:06pm

Chapter 36 Up and down

Still grounded, Baoyu continues in his mischievous ways, idling away, burning the Confucian classics. Xifeng, meanwhile, finds pleasure in another sin: greed. She enjoys taking the bribes from those aspiring to replace the dead maid. A mad corrupt world, where the poor pay the rich in order to obtain a job.

The number of maids is determined by status: A concubine 2 maids, Lady Wang 6 maids. Instead of hiring a girl, Lady Wang doubles the pay of her sister Yu-chuan. We also learn that the family treasury and Xifeng have cut the maids' allowances in half, which they naturally resent but are powerless to undo. No union or legal protection. As is characteristic in all unequal societies, spending cuts hit the weak the most (Xifeng could quite easily have cut the luxuries a bit.). Compared to the generous funeral of the maid (which probably included a bit of blood money) at 50 taels, this equals a maid's salary of four years. My inner Puritan shudders at the waste of outsized funeral spendings, so common in fatalistic societies (Here in Vienna, it used to be called "a schene Leich'", a beautiful wake, people joining saving societies and paying dues their whole life long just for a sumptuous funeral. To break this tradition, the city of Vienna nationalized the funeral business (recently liberalized, but the city remains the market leader in death. On its website, the company informs that they have arranged over 2 million burials. There is also a wonderful Funeral Museum.).

Lady Wang both transfers Xiren to her own service (still delegated to Baoyu) and doubles her pay to 2 taels. Xiren is to be treated like concubine Chao (thus she is now Baoyu's unofficial concubine). I wonder what the Old Dowager will say to this transfer behind her back.

Meanwhile, while Daiyu is bent of taking a bath, Baochai checks in on the sleeping Baoyu who is lovingly attended by sewing Xiren. To relieve Xiren, Baochai takes over the watch. Spying Daiyu sees the attentive Baochai (which she somehow finds funny). Xiren learns of her promotion and is sent to kowtow to Lady Wang (but not to the Old Dowager!).

Only in the evening does she inform Baoyu, making it clear to him that she can either go back to Lady Wang or kill herself in order not to endure Baoyu's whims anymore. Baoyu receives the message. It is unclear, however, how deep it sinks in. Instead, he enjoys himself in his own Wertherian emo death wish ("O cruel world").

The next day, Baoyu finds himself another victim. He stalks one of the young actresses living in the park. The actress declines to sing for him. Baoyu goes to complain to Chia Chiang who is just returning with a bird, a jade crested oriole, for the actress. The bird knows quite a few tricks. The actress is not amused, feeling like a prisoner herself. The two obviously are in some sort of personal drama, so Baoyu leaves.

He returns home where Xiren and Daiyu have gathered. He both apologizes for his behavior yesterday and starts a new accusation. Xiren knows her man and ignores him. Daiyu asks Baoyu to attend Aunt Hsueh's birthday party. Baoyu at first wants to decline but Xiren convinces him to go, assisted by Daiyu's quip about Baochai.

Shi Xiangyun in formal dress announces tearfully that she has to return home. She asks Baoyu to remind the Old Dowager to invite her back.

Sep 4, 2010, 4:29pm

Chapter 37 Dead Poets Society

What a charming chapter! Baoyu's father goes away to the provinces on inspector's duty for months. The cat away, the mice declaim - poetry. Baoyu receives a formal letter from his sister in which she proposes to start a poetry club. Baoyu is delighted and starts off to visit his sister, acknowledging two Begonia pots sent by his enterprising "protégé" Jia Yun (Baoyu and Xifeng are genial receivers of gifts.). Baoyu hardly appreciates the Begonias, a feeling we today share, as Begonias are one of the most common types of potted plants around.

Baoyu and the girls meet in the Studio of Autumn Freshness. As the first point of order they all pick pen names. Baoyu's eldest sister proclaims her apartments as their meeting place. The first poetry round starts with a poem about the Begonias, with rhyme and word complications thrown in. The poems they produce are, in my view, all too florid and pedestrian, except Daiyu's which is quite good. Baoyu, as usual, considers Daiyu's the best, the rest prefer Baochai's.

Meanwhile, Xiren manages the Begonia transaction and thinks of Baoyu's married cousin Shi Xiangyunwho has not been invited to the party. She indirectly reminds Baoyu and the potential snub is healed. Xiren also cares about mixed up plates in the Jia household and sends some maids to fetch them back (Xiren is doing Xifeng's job). The gossiping maids discover that Xiren received Lady Wang's old dresses, and are quite jealous about the upstart.

The next day, the poetry group is finally complete with the addition of cousin Shi. She produces two poems to yesterday's task (without respecting the side conditions, however).

The next day, she is to host the poetry session. Considerate Baochai helps her to arrange it without straining her limited financial resources by piggybacking the session onto a general family crab eating meeting. Baochai then enters Stepford wives territory with an appeal to not be too original: "Our main jobs are spinning and sewing." Actually, their real job is more likely what is called KKK in German (Kinder, Küche, Kirche - children, cooking and church). They choose as motto "reactions to the Chrysanthemum" and prepare an album of twelve topics before they go to sleep.

Up to now, for me, Chrysanthemums were linked to Japan, mainly due to the book title The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Apparently, in China, the Chrysanthemum forms part of the Four Gentlemen or Four Noble Ones (orchid, bamboo, chrysanthemum, and plum blossom) and also the Flowers of the Four Seasons (orchid/spring, lotus/summer, chrysanthemum /autumn and plum blossom/winter). Curious to me is to see flowers as male (naturally, they are both) and the absence of the rose, the most royal of flowers in a European context.

Sep 8, 2010, 6:13pm

Chapter 38 Poetry slam

Lotus Fragrance Anchorage Pavilion in the middle of a lake in the garden is the location for the combined crab & verse event. This Grand View Garden page includes a picture which looks like it (see also Grand View Garden at Wikipedia). The Jias dine out in style, with wine and tea stoves. The Old Dowager leads the procession, followed by all the womenfolk and Baoyu.

The big crab eating party is starting. Some crabs are even sent to the two concubines (these poor women are not really integrated into the family life. No wonder they develop bad feelings.). Xifeng walks around the tables and joins the maids for some banter and throwing around of food. Soon, the elder women retire, leaving the young ones behind for their poetry session. All pick their themes and write their lines. The twelve poems are read and judged. Daiyu wins. All compliment one another.

The next round is about eating crabs. Baoyu breaks the ice with a truly awful poem. Daiyu and Baochai are clearly better at poetry. Just then, Ping-erh interrupts the party ...

Sep 12, 2010, 2:56pm

Chapter 39 A maid's tale and a granny's yarn

Ping-erh only returns to get some crabs for Xifeng who has been to busy waiting on the elderly to stuff herself. The girls decide to gossip with Ping-erh, sending some older maids back with food for Xifeng. Li Wan and Baochai laud some of the servants, chiefly among them Ping-erh and Xiren (who have established good rapport). Ping-erh confides in Xiren that Xifeng is postponing the servant's pay day to receive interest in the interim on what is technically called the "float" (To prevent such behavior, at least in Austria, labor laws prescribe fixed pay days. Furthermore, the European Commission finally curbed bank proclivities to cash in on the time between debiting and crediting transactions.). Speculating with the money of poor and dependent people? Not exactly model behavior from Xifeng. My sympathies lie with Ping-erh and Xiren. I much prefer reading about their stories than about the jeunesse dorée.

Ping-erh later returns to her quarters, meeting Granny Liu who pays her "tribute" in agricultural products. Granny Liu is quite shocked about the crab largesse. The ladies have munched away 20 taels of silver in one day (nearly equivalent to Ping-erh's 24 taels annual salary). A Chinese Marie Antoinette.

Granny Liu is invited to stay a few days and entertain the Old Dowager (after a good scrubbing and a change of clothes) who is fond of hearing her country tales and yarn. Baoyu, as always too trustworthy and not the sharpest tool anyway, accepts one of the old lady's tales as reality and offers to pay Granny Liu for the upkeep of a (non-existing) shrine. The next day, Baoyu sends a servant to check out the shrine who returns with the message of having found only a shrine devoted to the god of Plague. At least Baoyu recognizes that Granny Liu might have taken him for a ride but he asks the servant for another try. Baoyu's attention is shifted again towards the girls.

Sep 26, 2010, 6:25pm

Final chapter of the first volume (of the three vol. edition)! Just in time arrived the paperback edition of Sun Wen's 230 brush illustrations of A Dream of Red Mansions which took him 36 years to complete in the 19th century. In the hardcover edition, the English and Chinese text forces the paintings into an unnecessarily small cinemascope box. The paperback restricts itself to English text only and provides more space for the paintings. I wish the painter had not limited himself to a G General Audiences rating (removing all aspects of grittiness).

In July, the new 50 episodes 2010 TV series started airing in China and Singapore to mixed reviews (see also IMDB). I wonder when the DVD will be available with English subs.

chapter 40 Laughing at your poor relations

Next morning, Li Wan is supervising the maids when Granny Liu shows up. Baoyu's idea of a small tea party requires to access many goods stored in the attic. Granny Liu enjoys a peek at the stored splendor. Having already unlocked the attic, Li Wan decides to get some boating gear out too and to prepare the barges.

The Lady Dowager and her entourage appear. The old lady selects one of the offered flowers and asks Granny Liu to pick one too. Xifeng decorates Granny Liu's head with all the remaining flowers to great merriment, Granny being a good sport. The magnificent garden overwhelms Granny Liu, comparing it to a painting. Fake nature surpassing real nature (cues of Marie Antoinette playing shepherdess). Enchanted, the Old Dowager asks one of the girls, Jia Xichun, to paint the garden as a gift to Granny.

Further exploring the garden, Granny Liu stumbles, the old country bumpkin's antics greatly entertaining the ladies. Then they visit the young ones' apartments. First, Daiyu's scholarly room (typically, the absent Baoyu is enjoying himself on the boat). Aunt Hsueh joins the party when the Lady Dowager notices the faded window gauze (Daiyu being quite poor among the rich). She orders replacements, which gives her the opportunity to put Xifeng in the corner and reminiscence about her past (nearly gone) richness when they owned much more valuable gauze. In contrast, Granny Liu would be happy to make clothes out of the window gauze. Granny Liu's play nets her a couple of cloth rolls.

Next on the program is breakfast at the Studio of Autumn Freshness in the Morning Emerald Hall. Entertainment is provided by Granny Liu who is given strange chopsticks to vainly pick up terribly expensive pigeon's eggs (1 tael each = 1 monthly allocation of a maid), following an attempt at horrible poetry. Hilarity ensues. The meal's leftovers are distributed to the maids and concubines.

Then they have the house actresses practice in front of the group at the Lotus Fragrance Anchorage. Firstly, though, they enjoy a boating trip. They stop at Baochai's whose apartment is also lacking in things - simple taste but also proud of not having to accept the spoils of her richer relatives. Daiyu the ascetic poet, Baochai the thrifty housewife, cricket and ant.

The chapter ends with a literature and poetry drinking game. Naturally, Granny Liu makes a (wise) fool of herself. The old woman knows what is expected of her and complies. Like willow, she bends but does not break under pressure. General merriment ensues. It would be much nicer to laugh with Granny not at Granny (similar to watching the train wrecks on Jersey Shore). The next chapter and thread will reveal what interrupts the party.


With a third of (or even half of the original) book under the belt, it might be time for a round of discussion. We might perhaps tackle Cliffs Notes question no. 7: Compare the fate of women in feudal China and in modern China. Cite illustrative examples to support your arguments. What is the significance of the Begonia Poetry Club for the girls in Grand View Garden?

Edited: Oct 11, 2010, 6:23am

I think it's too early to assess the significance of the poetry club, after all it's barely been inaugurated. In the process of catching up (for this has turned out to be no summertime book for me) I've happened to overshoot by a few chapters, and the club has just popped up again.

Thanks for the hint on the Sun Wen book.

Oct 13, 2010, 1:51pm

JC, where did you find the paperback? I can only see the hardcover edition on Amazons Canada and US. Tuttle Publishing.

Oct 13, 2010, 4:31pm

>70 LolaWalser: Sorry, Lola, for any confusions caused. Despite its official label "hardcover", I consider the book's wobbly plastic laminated cardboard binding a "softcover" (similar to many midsized cheap art books), especially compared to its sturdy deluxe edition. In its defense, the book has a plastic laminated cardboard slipcase. It's a curious mixture of different production values: A nice slipcase, a cheap and ugly cover/binding plus beautiful pages - a work edition.

>69 defaults: Darsu, isn't guessing part of the fun? The Begonia Club establishes intellectual group activities without adult supervision.

a) I expect that these intellectual pursuits will be considered unsuitable for a lady (see the disdain for Daiyu's scholarly room. There exercise is to be directed towards needlework. Too much brains hurts a lady's marriage prospects.

b) One of the elements I find puzzling (and quite in contrast to my mass rally oriented view of China) is the amount of time, the characters spend in relative solitude in their chamber (with servants). Apart from big events, one finds most of them either visiting or staying in their room, whereas a Western teenager would spend his/her day with peers in a group setting.

We see a traditional society that controls female movement: Firstly, by bound feet (in the West, high heels serve a similar purpose). Secondly, by restricting movement to the clan compound. Thirdly, by assigning the women to their chambers (instead to, say, a group hall) to do labor-intensive but symbolic work such as embroidery or painting.

c) While the Begonia Club retains some elements of the traditional hierarchy (male - female, birth order, families), meritocratic elements emerge that challenge the traditional assumptions. This liberates the womenfolk, especially Baoyu's married sister/cousin (?) in her poor marriage/household and Daiyu who can show her brilliance.

The (elsewhere unthinkable) absence of adult supervision of group activities is, again, an example of Xifeng's neglect of her house manager duties (preferring to run her financial schemes and intrigues).

d) Finally, these meetings aren't cheap. They run through many taels that the financially challenged clan can ill afford to spend on externally not visible conspicuous consumption.

Thus, plotwise I expect the club crashing in a fury when Baoyu's father returns from his business trip. The cat being away ...

Oct 17, 2010, 6:26pm

Volume II continues with Granny Liu, the Jar Jar Binks of Red Mansions.

Chapter 41 Who has been drinking out of my mug? Who has been getting into my bed?

Tipsy Granny Liu is afraid to smash her expensive porcelain cup and sensibly asks for a wooden one. In Versailles, this is a rather uncommon demand as wooden cups serve mostly decorative purposes. They scramble to collect a set which is quickly turned into another drinking challenge for the old woman. They also feed her with chicken-flavored eggplant, a luxury she greatly appreciates. In contrast to her rich relatives who have the actresses practice/play without an audience. Granny Liu starts dancing to the music. Daiyu, who should be mindful about class differences, compares her to a dancing cow.

Next, pastries are served. While the ladies nibble a bit and mostly abstain, Granny Liu and her little boy gobble up the pastries as fast as they can. Then, they visit the nunnery where they are served by Miao-yu who, despite being a nun, considers Granny Liu to be beyond the pale: She orders the bowl Granny used to be discarded. Baoyu, sensible for once, instead asks the nun to donate the bowl to Granny Liu.

The old ladies retire to rest. Granny Liu displays her illiteracy by bowing to an arch (mistaking it for a temple), causing great merriment. Quickly followed by her next breach of protocol of asking to relieve herself in the garden. She is sent to the privy. On the way back, she is fooled first by a trompe-l'oeil and her own reflection in the mirror. Finally, she takes a nap in Baoyu's bed, another breach of protocol.

The others notice her absence and start looking for her. Xiren finds her in Baoyu's bed. She hustles the old woman out and decontaminates the bed. Thus ends the intrusion of the not so beautiful and not so young Snow White.

Edited: Oct 21, 2010, 11:57am

Chapter 41 presents the most wonderfully bewildering character portrait yet in Miaoyu. I hope she pops up again.

I've been revisiting the first volume side-by-side with the Sun Wen book, and noticed a then seemingly insignificant little scene in chapter 23 — Golden/Jinchuan'er teasingly waylays a passing Baoyu in the courtyard, offering him a taste of rouge served in the proper fashion to the amusement of the gaggle of maids present. So there's some history behind the fatal incident in chapter 30.

Oct 23, 2010, 9:05am

>73 defaults: Out-of-touch priest stories are not exactly in short supply (even if a hands-off approach is vastly preferable). Miaoyu is a vile vily merchant of god. I prefer the maids' tales.

I tried to spot your reference in the paintings, but was unsuccessful. Could you tell me its page number? For easier reference, the Sun Wen book should have supplied a chapter reference on each page (Its 3K partner volume supplies Chinese chapter numbers).

In my opinion, the incident proved fatal mostly due to the flippant breach of decorum and protocol, Baoyu openly lusting around in his mother's room (cf. Clinton in the Oval Office vs. Kennedy in the White House garden pool room).

Edited: Oct 23, 2010, 11:16am

Banish the thought of me contesting the central maids as the heart of the story at this stage. It's not like I want Miaoyu to take over; quite the contrary, after this chapter there'll be plenty of potential for amusement from just evoking her name without her ever appearing again in person. She's set apart from the cast of "difficult" side characters in that she stands quite outside the maze of plotting household factions that fuels everyone else.

I meant it was in the book itself where I spotted the Golden/Bayou incident. I was flipping through its early chapters in parallel with catching up in the Sun. It's not in Sun, but if it were I reckon it would be around page 74. Anyhow, my take on chapter 30 is that it would probably not have happened at all if it had been another, less flirtatious maid there.

Edited: Oct 25, 2010, 11:19am

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Edited: Oct 25, 2010, 11:20am

Miaoyu is part of the family's religious subsidiary, its soul insurance company, thus both an insider and an outsider. Her role opens ways and possibilities not available to those living traditional gender roles. The author's moral stance and abhorrence of independent females (which features very strong in the upcoming chapter) gives him an interest in painting Miaoyu in the blackest of colors.

Talking about nuns, on the weekend I enjoyed the classic film Black Narcissus (set in India, filmed in UK and Ireland) with its intra- and extramural management challenges. Monasteries can only work in highly unequal/feudal societies (see Virgins of Venice how monasteries served as a repository for supernumerary daughters). It is interesting to note that these monasteries mirror the class system of their parent society. Miaoyu the noble woman shows as much contempt to the stinky commonier as does. say. Daiyu.

Miaoyu is part of the respected in-group, in contrast to the scaby, itinerant, uncontrollable monk and taoist - who are also (male and) smelly (condemnable attributes in this novel). The author makes it very clear that he does not like the whiff of poverty which he lets his protagonists note about Granny Liu (Somewhat understandable for anyone who has ever ridden on a Third World bus. On the ither hand, I expect Granny Liu to try to keep herself respectably clean, just not to a Geisha level.).

Chapter 42 Ignorance is strength

All that partying was too much for the Old Dowager and some of the younger ladies. We are offered an interesting glimpse into Chinese medicine and superstitions. The sick/tired child is treated with placebo (enchantment, renaming - what is in a name? Giving a girl a boy's name I find strange. I also can't fathom the US (lower class) practice of naming girls Taylor, Sidney, ... a reverse Sue?).

The Old Dowager herself is examined by a Court physician, who is even allowed to see her (These Chinese would be at ease with the US hospital gown craze and being neekid in front of a doctor.). He feels her pulse. Nothing wrong with her too, just too much stress.

Meanwhile, Granny Liu collects her loot from her visit. The maids all offer her some extra goodies and money. What a difference to Granny Liu's first visit! What exactly has changed that such different treatment is merited?

Baochai asks Daiyu to her room where she confronts her with the socially awkward fact that Daiyu's poetry was based on naughty literature. A sympathetic confession of having read it too is followed by a not so sympathetic even pathetic (self-)condemnation of female education, a paen to Stepford wives. Is it really believable that an 8-year-old Chinese could a) read those texts and b) comprehend their sexual meaning? I doubt it. Baochai probably conceals her current bedtime reading, a true hypocrite. The second part of her condemnation of female education is even nastier. Baochai would fit in any Stalinist or Maoist showtrial (or in a US Republican town hall meeting). Uncharacteristically, Daiyu accepts the scolding.

She lashes out at Xichun instead who asks for a year's dispensation from the Begonia Club to produce the painting for Granny Liu. Daiyu correctly challenges the crazy time frame. Why would Xichun want to wiggle out of the club? The author takes the occasion of Daiyu's interrogation of Xichun to present us the elements and preparations necessary for a Chinese painting. Daiyu also manages to include some further insults about Granny Liu, callling her a locust. Daiyu, the poor relation and free rider, calling out the peasants who provide the rich people's food? Yep, little Miss Marie Antoinette. Daiyu then quips about Baochai which results in a little catfight. It ends in an uneasy truth, Baochai restoring Daiyu's hear. The underlying conflict about who gets Baoyu isn't resolved.

Oct 27, 2010, 2:44pm

Granny Liu, the Jar Jar Binks of Red Mansions.

As the kids say--this TOtally cracked me up.

Yeah, Pao-chai's little lecture on the bliss of ignorance--I actually wondered whether it was a post facto, other-hand insertion. Strange--especially since just a couple paragraphs later she's again quoting merrily from the classics etc. Or is it meant sarcastically?

By the way, Baochai/Pao-chai--I thought we were reading the same edition, JC, Beijing Foreign Press? Mine has Pao-yu, Pao-chai, Tai-yu (whereas the Penguin had Bao, Dai...)

Edited: Oct 28, 2010, 7:16am

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Edited: Oct 31, 2010, 4:03pm

#78: As JC noted in #1, while the Penguin edition uses pinyin to romanize Chinese words, including names, Gladys Yang's translation uses the older Wade-Giles. IIRC, Yang's work was first published in 1962, which was before pinyin was common. However, in the interest of sanity, JC uses pinyin in his posts.

The pinyin used by Penguin differs from standard pinyin in two ways: the marks over vowels to indicate tones are not used, and multisyllabic words are hyphenated to show syllabification. For example, the pinyin "Jiǎ​ Bǎo​yù" is written "Jai Bao-yu".

WRT names, the big incompatibility between the two translations in not the romanization. In the novel, servants, performers, and holy people are normally called by some assigned or adopted name, rather than by their birth names. Whenever this occurs, Hawkes uses a translation, usually related to the meaning of this name, rather than the actual Chinese word. Servants' adopted names are given English equivalents, while those of performers are French, and those holy men and women's are Latinate. Thus, Xiren is known as "Aroma", Jiang Yuhan as "Bijou" and the actress in Chapter 36 as "Charmante", and Miaoyu as "Adamantina".

David Hawkes died last year, here is an appreciation. As this article notes, one peculiarity of his Stone translation, for which he apologizes in the introduction, is that he could not preserve the theme of "red" that runs through the novel and still convey an accurate sense of its meaning in English.

As a reader, the characteristic that I notice most is the Victorian feel of the wording. In a couple of cases, Hawkes uses words in ways that are totally obsolete in contemporary English. In one way, it feels natural to me that a translated novel should be this way, probably because of all the Constance Garnett translations I read many years ago as a teenager. However, when Hawkes has a character use "straight" as a colloquial equivalent for "heterosexual" (because the Victorians did not have a common word for this?) it stopped my reading cold because it felt like such an anachronism.

A know that Stone was written in the vernacular of the time, but I don't know how old-fashioned this 18th language sounds to Chinese readers today, or if Hawkes used Victorian English to convey this sense to his readers. Can any of our Chinese-speaking members throw some light on this?

Oct 31, 2010, 4:29pm

Thanks, I was wondering whether Yang's translation was available in multiple editions (and JC, that's some trouble to go to, modifying transliterations along the way!)

I read Hawkes's translation first, and I remember loving it (I practically inhaled the five volumes)--it's been a long time, but it seems to me a bit more supple than Yang's. I don't think "straight" bothered me, it reinforces the casual tone in which I hear most of the talk. "Heterosexual" is such a clunky word...

Incidentally, Yang lets loose with "fuck" occasionally, which I don't recall in the Penguin.

Oct 31, 2010, 5:02pm

#81: I agree that "straight" was the perfect word to use there. It's just that when immersed in the reading, my unconscious starts assuming that this was written a hundred or more years ago (which, in the original, it was). If I hit a word used in a sense that didn't exist then, it's jarring, almost like reading that Daiyu was in her room listening to emo on her iPod.

I'm curious how you would compare the translations' handling of the poems. More generally, I've wondered if Cao Xueqin wrote all the poems himself. If so it seems pretty cheeky of him to have his characters praise some of them so lavishly.

Oct 31, 2010, 5:43pm

Wow, Halloween is really a post booster ... Welcome, fellow Zombies.

>82 LJ_Reading: I guess NOT including poetry in novels is a rather modern convention. I venture that most Romantic and earlier novels include at least one poem or song per work.

>81 LolaWalser: Bowing to my Communist Overlords, I use Pinyin names when not too inconvenient to look up, as it happens with secondary characters. I find them visually more pleasing. I prefer Cao Cao to Tsao Tsao, Baoyu to Pao-yu, especially as the unaspirated p sound in Pao-yu is closer to b than to p, at least I think it is (Furthermore, living in Vienna, I am daily exposed to (Eastern) Austrians lazily pronouncing all German p's and t's as b's and d's. By the way, an easy way to distinguish Eastern Austrians from Germans speaking English is listening to their p's: Austrians slip towards b's while Germans tend to strongly aspirate their p's).

>78 LolaWalser: Having just finished Simon Winchester's Korea A walk through the land of miracles, I see Baochai's talk to Daiyu as a masterful and gentle way of Daiyu not losing face. She corrects her in private and by co-creating/admitting her own (term limited) guilt. I don't doubt that in a reversed situation, outspoken Daiyu would have exposed Baochai in public.

On reflection, female education is poison in many a novel. From the judgment of Paris to Jane Austen, looks win over smarts any time. Educated women are also more likely to try to escape from their golden cage.

Settling for a (less costly) intelligent but not so pretty girl is the punch line in the ballad dr sidi abdel assar vo el hama by 20th century Swiss troubadour Mani Matter (in a play on Arab-sounding fricatives very prominent in Swiss German, as in its shibboleth Chuchichäschtli). This is also the tragedy of Hermione Granger, a terrible underused character who has to settle for a sub-par marriage ...

Chapter 43 A frivolous fund-raiser and a trip down to the river

The Old Dowager and Xifeng use the risk of losing face to extract rather large contributions for Xifeng's birthday party from all family members and their servants. While the richer clan members can easily absorb this financial blow, I think it highly unfair to the maids who are forced to part with the equivalent of a monthly salary. The whole birthday party is another frivolous expense that fails to use the resources at hand (the actresses) and lavishes money on one-time thrills. Xifeng, the nominal beneficiary of the party, not content with the extotion achieved, then even tries to cheat Lady You (of Ning Mansion) in a bit of unnecessary inter-family clan rivalry. Lady You, burdened with organizing the festivities despite being known for her lack of organization skills, is smart enough and wins the powerplay, even scoring points in restituting Ping'er's and Yuangyuang's shares. She understands that savings have to come from the top not the bottom of the social stratum. Good connections to the chief maids aren't bad either.

Baoyu, meanwhile, sneaks out on a mad excursion beyond the clan compound. His page Mingyan and Xiren are no match for him and cannot hold him back. On horseback, Baoyu leaves the city without clear goals, a Chinese Huck Finn. More on a whim, he visits the River Goddess convent for a prayer and a snack. He returns safely and in time for the festivities. It could have ended differently, e.g. Baoyu could have been kidnapped or worse. Bad parenting all around.

Nov 1, 2010, 1:39pm

>77 jcbrunner: Is it really believable that an 8-year-old Chinese could...

Chronology was not Cao Xueqin's forte, so I think you have to judge Baochai's age by the context. I assume she is about the same age as Baoyu, who we know has already gone through puberty. Also Baoyu's frequent references to Lady Yang suggest that Baochai's body has started to take on more womanly proportions.

Baoyu is so nonplussed by his recent discovery that Daiyu's delicate, ethereal beauty is not the only basis for feminine attractiveness that he can't help commenting on it. Baochai in turn is just prudish enough to find it all highly embarrassing and offensive, so Baoyu's comments end up upsetting both her and Daiyu to the point that the poetry club has to have a new rule against naked woman (i.e., Lady Yang) allusions!

Given that children in previous times did not mature physically as quickly as today, I'd place Baochai and the others in their early teens, say 14 or so.

Nov 6, 2010, 11:28am

>84 LJ_Reading: As said before, on reflection, I think her reference to being eight years old is just a ruse to disclaim culpability of reading smutty texts.

Regarding the protagonists' suitable age for romantic liaisons, one/I have to mentally adjust their ages to keep the story interesting/believable. Childhood (in the modern sense) is a recent, mostly Victorian invention. Prior to this, children were thought of as little, incomplete adults (or that is what I remember from glancing at one of my sister's books about the topic.). The BBC, helpful as ever, has made a documentary series: The Invention of Childhood.

The drift between physical and intellectual maturity leads to a growing infantilisation of society. See for instance the MPAA ratings drift of Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet. The USA:G (original rating, approved No. 21756, 1968) slipped to a USA:PG (edited for re-rating, 1973) to the current IMDB note: "The PG rating is out of date. Today, the film would be rated PG-13 for nudity, some violence, and thematic elements."

Chinese cinema, by the way, apart from its smutty Hong Kong enclave, has made great strides in breaking out of its prudery and has almost reached parity with buttoned-up USA.

Nov 7, 2010, 1:00pm

Chapter 44 Jersey Shore : Chinese edition, bitchez

The chapter starts with a nice vignette about our three central characters at Xifeng's birthday party, watching the play. Nerdy Daiyu offering her (unrequested) comments, polite follower Baochai keeping the peace and Baoyu is looking out for drink. In Meredith Belbin's team role inventory, I would classify them as follows: Daiyu (Plant/Monitor Evaluator), Baochai (Teamworker/Completer Finisher) and Baoyu (Resource Investigator/Teamworker).

Xifeng (a classic Shaper in Belbin terminology) cannot really enjoy her own birthday party as she is pressured into binge drinking. After a few rounds, she is retiring to her rooms to recover. A turn obviously not expected by her husband who has arranged some sexy time with his complicit servant's wife. The two sentinel servants he has placed to warn him about his intruding wife are not in relay.

Thus, Xifeng and Ping'er overwhelm each of the two maids before they can warn their master. Irate Xifeng starts slapping them and removes a hairpin to threaten a more "enhanced" interrogation. The shocked maids reveal what their master is up to. Enraged, Xifeng approaches to her husband's window to listen in, just in time to hear the woman wishing "the hellish wife" to die. Instead of defending her, Jia Lian stoically utters that he would then marry another "hell-cat" quite as bad, going on to both denigrate and implicate Ping'er.

She-Hulk Xifeng first slaps Ping'er, kicks open the door and starts pummeling and insulting the mistress. Next, it is Ping'er's turn to be slapped by Xifeng again. Enraged, she in turn slaps the mistress. This nets her a kick from Jia Lian. Ping'er justly asks: "Why drag me in?" Which nets her another slap by Xifeng. Ping'er escapes, intending to kill herself but is stopped by the other maids.

Xifeng finds herself another target and head-buts her husband who picks up a sword and threatens to kill them all. Madame Yu finally puts a stop to the sorry affair.

Meanwhile, Xifeng went to the Old Dowager whom she offered a very one-sided account of what just happened, unjust especially to Ping'er. However, the main culprit himself enters Jia Lian with his sword. The Old Dowager finally manages to calm him down by threatening to call his father. Jia Lian exits. Xifeng is still furious about poor Ping'er who has taken refuge with Xiren.

Xiren and Baoyu pamper and calm Ping'er. Compassionate Baoyu again shows an uncanny interest and connoisseurship of cosmetics, almost like a gay best friend Sex and the City character. He presses Ping'er's clothes with the iron, washes and hangs up her handkerchief, then weeps for her in solitude in a servile protective way.

The next day, relations have to be restored. Jia Lian apologizes on his knees to the Old Dowager, then to his wife. Jia Lian then apologizes to Ping'er. Jia Lian's apology reads better if spoken in a Clinton voice. Finally, when it comes to Xifeng, it is Ping'er who kowtows, explaining that Xifeng had only misdirected her anger, thus sparing Xifeng from having to voice an apology.

In private, Xifeng and Jia Lian are not at ease. Xifeng, justly, lashes out at her husband for calling her names and for preferring the whore to her. Jia Lian only interprets this as nagging. The basic conflict of a headstrong wife whose husband tries to get even with her by infidelities remains unresolved. Knowing this, Xifeng can only giggle - originally a stress signal.

The loser in the affair is the mistress who hanged herself. Her family demands compensation which vengeful Xifeng refuses. Jia Lian pays 200 taels, taking them out of the household accounts. An expensive birthday party indeed!

I read somewhere in one of these simplified international business culture books that the Chinese are the Italians of the East. This chapter certainly highlights some of these Italian aspects. Translating the scene to either Sicily or the Jersey Shore takes little effort. Still, Sun Wen (p. 106) manages to airbrush all the action of this great chapter out of his painting to get his G rating.

Edited: Nov 11, 2010, 1:44pm

John Minford's foreword to vol. 4 of the Penguin edition, which I just received yesterday, relates a theory published "recently" (the original publication date of the book being 1982, this could mean the seventies) that the site of a real and still extant palatial mansion in Beijing served as inspiration for the Jia mansion and its garden. Alas, a number of sources including Wikipedia give the year of construction as 1777 which, if true, of course denies this possibility off the bat; and whereas Minford says that the palace "once belonged to He Shen", internet sources agree it was built for him, so the theory seems entirely obsolete.

Still, this means that there are loads of photos on the net for curious eyes of an actual Qing mansion of known likeness to the one in our tome.

Edited: Nov 12, 2010, 10:25pm

84> On rereading the chapter I saw that I had misinterpreted your reference to 8-year-old Baochai. In the spirit of things, I suppose that I should fill a wooden salad bowl with hot yellow rice wine and drink it.

Actually, if my impression that yellow rice wine is somewhat like sherry is correct, then that seems kind of gross. But it does remind me of an attitude of the Jias and others in the novel that I find annoying: they assume that what is rare, expensive, and/or hard to obtain is superior for all purposes to what is common and inexpensive. For some items, such as medicines, this includes a good dose of magical thinking. For myself, I can't believe that the water Adamantina has kept stored for years makes superior tea, no mater how exalted its provenance.

83, 86> The interaction between Grandmother Jia, Lady You, and Xifeng is worthy of any reality-TV series. The narrator make is clear that the old Dowager sincerely wants to do something nice for Xifeng on her birthday, but her execution shows that she can be as feckless as Baoyu at his worse. Her first mistake is to come up with the conceit of playing peasants by having everyone chip in an assigned amount for the party. This only serves to remind everyone that Xifeng is feathering her own nest at their expense: they can't even get their allowances on time because Xifeng hangs on to the money to milk as much interest out of it as she can get away with. No one is more incensed than You-shi, who, as senior lady of the Ningguo household must already harbor some resentment toward Xifeng for her control over their finances, even if she is glad not to have the responsibility herself.

Grandmother Jia's second mistake is therefore to put You-shi in charge of the arrangements. (Surely Li Wan would have been the better choice.) Xifeng compounded the error by reneging on her commitment to pay Li Wan's share, and threatening You-shi when she said she would tell the others. You-shi then returns the contributions of the maids and concubines, both righting a wrong and gaining allies. We are told that when she returns Faithful's (Yuanyang's) contribution, she also discusses what arrangements would please Grandmother Jia the most. I'm sure she also gives Faithful an earful regarding Xifeng's latest transgressions. The stage is now set.

Xifeng's id is blessed with more than the usual share of monsters, and her superego has its hands full riding herd on these even under the best of circumstances. Xifeng, along with most everyone else, therefore knows that she is someone who can't allow herself to get drunk, especially in public. Unfortunately, "most everyone" doesn't include Grandmother Jia, who thinks she was doing Xifeng a favor by ordering her to obey You-shi's urgings to tie one on. Again, Xifeng makes matters worse by joking that You-shi (her senior) should offer her the wine kneeling down, which results in You-shi making her empty two larger cups. Then the cousins and nannies join in the fun, forcing her to drink more. (At some point we should explore how the restricted roles for women led to an enormous amount of passive-aggressive behavior in the garden, including the most passive-aggressive act of all: suicide.)

Finally, who should come in to deliver the final blow (and I can't call it a coup de grace, because it is hardly merciful) but Faithful. Perhaps she and You-shi planned this all out at their meeting, or perhaps You-shi merely primed Faithful and relied on Faithful's own resourcefulness. Either way the trap is sprung, and there is nothing left for everyone to do but sit back and wait for Xifeng, now a ticking time bomb, to go off. They don't have to wait for long.

Finally, there's one part of what followed that I particularly enjoyed. It comes when Xifeng and Patience (Ping'er) are questioning the little maid that Jia Lian set out as a sentry. As Hawkes renders it:

Patience begged Xi-feng not to hurt the girl, at the same time urging the girl to make a clean breast of what she had to say. The story then came out.

Xifeng and Patience get the confession by playing Bad Cop, Good Cop. Benson and Stabler couldn't have done it better.

Nov 14, 2010, 2:53pm

>87 defaults: I love these Chinese gardens, especially the playful round garden wall entrances. I am a bit curious why the illustrators or TV makers shift the location to a somewhat country setting (see Sun Wen's dreamy mountains and wide open space), whereas the clan compound is so far inside the city that Baoyu has never experienced real nature before. In chapter 12, in which Xifeng disposes of her stalker by exposing him to the harsh weather outside the compound, the hostile urban environment is clearly shown. The beauty of the inner garden is protected by heavy outer walls (similar to many Arab cities).

>88 LJ_Reading: In the (German) cultural history of Chinese cuisine that I am currently reading, it is stated that Chinese rice wine is actually a sort of beer. I might have to go on a shopping trip to the Chinese supermarket nearby (unfortunately, the labels are all Greek to me). Another fascinating snippet is that the carrot came late to China and acquired the name "barbarian turnip" (Also, today, much of the Austrian Styrian pumpkin seed oil is based on reprocessed Chinese import. Buying local can sometimes turn into global without notice.).

Chapter 44 is one of the best yet. Your idea that this was a setup is intriguing. I hadn't thought of that.

Chapter 45 I can't stand the rain

The Begonia Club is in search of a sponsor. Xifeng is the target. At first, she tries to shift the burden towards Li Wan (asking her for 50% of her income!) but then relents and offers to cough up fifty taels (to pay for several months' events). She also promises to supply material for Xichun's painting amidst semi-earnest quite aggressive banter. Absent Baoyu gets a complaint - about absentism.

Meanwhile, a visitor arrives: Granny Lai who enjoys a cup of tea and offers education advice about the usual culprit Baoyu. Lai Ta's wife enters too, inviting Xifeng & co. to a family celebration. Xifeng fears paying for the gifts. The next client to arrive, receives a report about her clumsy boy. Xifeng asks for his dismissal but accepts a punishment for forty strokes for the boy. In my opinion, a terribly harsh punishment for drunkenness and an accidentally dropped bowl of dumplings. Quod licet Iovis ... or more precisely Juno.

In the autumn weather, Daiyu is sick as usual. Sunny Baochai cheers her up and offers expensive nutritional advice: Bird's nest. Daiyu is afraid to ask because of its cost. Gentle Baochai offers to procure some from her family's pantry. They start bonding. After Baochai leaves, the rain starts pouring down, triggering Daiyu to start writing an emo poem about rain. In drops Baoyu in exotic rain gear, a gift from a prince.

Baoyu manages to read the poem before Daiyu snatches it away and burn it. Baoyu proclaims to have learned it by heart. Not a bad feat after a single reading of the poem's twenty lines. Baoyu then shows off another gadget - a golden watch. Baoyu then leaves, having been supplied by Daiyu with an extra lantern. At the same time, a maid delivers Baochai's bird's nest. Daiyu offers her a cash tip, before the woman rushes back to start her gambling night.

In bed, Daiyu lies awake thinking about Baoyu.

Nov 20, 2010, 11:35am

I'm interested in horology, so the brief references to watches and clocks are tantalizing. I'd love to know whether these were all European imports, or whether some, particularly the clocks, were manufactured locally based on European designs, as was the case in Japan after they cut of trade with the West.

Also, reading Red Mansions has got me interested in incense, and has me reading a bit about Buddhism and other sources for Cao Xueqin's world view.

Has the novel so far sparked any new interests or tie-ins to existing interests for any one else?

Edited: Nov 20, 2010, 1:31pm

Sparked it has: at a point where some old ladies urged Baoyu's maids to fix him up with some strong pu-erh tea, I had to get up and brew some myself!

Being a go player, I've been keeping a close watch for references to the game. Although there hasn't been anything very detailed, I'm happy that Hawkins translates things competently instead of glossing things over.

I also read an adaptation of The Western Chamber because references to it kept popping up. It was in a nice little Foreign Languages Press paperback volume named Six Classical Chinese Comedies.

Nov 21, 2010, 4:01pm

>90 LJ_Reading: Great question!

Globalization started early for the filthy rich. The Jia clan might have owned one of the watches produced and marketed by Voltaire in Ferney. It's a small world! Getting spare parts must have been a challenge, though.

Xifeng's drinking game inspired me, as mentioned, to visit a Chinese supermarket here (staffed by Thais and Indonesians, so unable to guide me properly; I have to look for a real Chinese one). I experimented with some black rice wine, which fortunately has not cost me my eyesight but also failed to ignite my taste buds. I'll stay away from bird's nests, though.

The book has sparked my interest in Chinese architecture and gardening, which has been overshadowed by Japan in the West.

>91 defaults: Does The Western Chamber really contain naughty bits? What I have been reading about it on the net (this site also has a comic version), it works mostly by allusion. It seems to me that people complaining about the sex in it are similar to those shocked by the witchcraft in Harry Potter. Or am I mistaken?

Chapter 46 Sex with ducks

After Ping'er's plight, we learn about another maid's troubles: Yuangyang, the Old Dowager's chief maid, is wanted as a concubine by old leech Jia She, son of the Old Dowager. He sends his own wife, Lady Xing, to Xifeng to test the water. Xifeng offers two objections: 1. The Old Dowager is too dependent on Yuangyang. 2. He is too old for such levels of promiscuity. Not to be defeated, Lady Xing next talks to Yuangyang herself. Yuangyang politely shows her displeasure to the offer she can't really refuse.

Meanwhile, Xifeng tells the news to Ping'er. Strolling through the garden, she finds Yuangyang and teases her as the "new concubine". Yuangyang is quite shocked about this lack of solidarity among the chief maids. Their conspirative meeting in the garden is overheard by Xiren who has been hiding in the bushes. Yuangyang is not enchanted by Xiren's offer of other suitors. Yuangyang contemplates her future options of nun or suicide.

More social pressure is brought down on Yuangyang by the appearance of the devil in the form of her sister-in-law (whom she just labeled seconds ago as both a whore and a camel dealer, not an animal I associate with East coast China). Talking about the good news, the sister-in-law is spit upon by Yuangyang. Apparently, the real breach of protocol lies not in the spitting but in badmouthing concubines in the presence of concubines-to-be Xiren and Ping'er who naturally take Yuangyang's side. Sister-in-law charges off. The girls then discuss why Xiren was hiding in the bushes. It turns out that another person was hiding there and listening in: Baoyu. The whole flock returns to Happy Red Court.

The sister-in-law promptly returns to Lady Xing to talk about her snub and the other maids' support. Xifeng intercedes on behalf of Ping'er and the sister-in-law drops further inquiry. Lady Xing then learns that Yuangyang's absent father is dying or even already dead (no one is telling it to Yuangyang or the family?). The matter is then discussed with Yuangyang's relatives who are given a chance to talk to her. Her brother advocates the marriage too. Yuangyang still refuses.

Jia She is still convinced to win in the end, talking more like a mafia boss ("you are touchable"). Yuangyang escapes, however, for the moment, by making a big scene in front of the family and the Old Dowager, vowing never to marry. The Old Dowager is not amused. Her fury strikes the wrong person (the real culprit being her son). She quickly has Baoyu apologize for her. Xifeng and the Old Dowager banter and restore the good vibes. Xifeng jokes about her being so good to be reborn a man (Does this mean that Jia She will become a woman next time?). The Old Dowager (fake-)offers Yuangyang to Xifeng and her husband, probably knowing the trouble Xifeng has keeping her husband's hand off Ping'er.

Another outstanding chapter, illustrating the patriarchic system and the complicity of women in sustaining it. Not many good options for Yuangyang. As a chief maid, she can enjoy the family recreations, to which the concubines are not invited to. The promotion in status would at the same time cast her out.

(Chapter title inspired by Yuangyang's name Mandarin Duck and this video.)

Edited: Nov 22, 2010, 10:33am

The version I read (a short story of 50-something pages) has nothing we'd think of as naughty, just a mention of lovers secretly spending nights together. I don't know how closely the adaptation corresponds to the original; the foreword states "minor deletions and additions" were made "to make the transition to the short story form smoother."

Still I can clearly see why people would object strongly to the story on moral grounds, what with (SPOILER) eagirram eht ot eerga ot rehtom s'lrig eht erusserp ot desu gnieb riaffa evol ticilli eht. (RELIOPS) Even today that's not the kind of stuff you want your kids to pick up.

Nov 28, 2010, 9:05am

>93 defaults: Hmm, you might have heard about some girl named Bristol Palin doing similar things, except that he was no scholar, her family not notable and the shotgun wedding didn't happen. Baoyu and co. just have to observe their clan to notice transgressions. Scapegoating literature for spoiling kids is an easy but stupid activity (cue Tipper Gore).

What I find interesting, is how socially disruptive the idea of love is in traditional societies and how much societies invest in controlling people's feelings.

Chapter 47 With furious vengeance

The Lady Dowager finally reins in her sex-crazed son and buys him a 700 taels concubine (again increasing the clan's fixed cost without an increasing in funding). She also lectures his wife to grow a spine. The elder women then play a round of cards, interrupted by dressing down Jia Lian, another transgressing male.

A third male is bound to be punished in this chapter, Xue Pan. A family excursion to Lai Tai's compound serves as the occasion for Xue Pan to arrange a homosexual rendez-vous at the North Gate with Liu Xianglian, a poor schmoozer and party boy who repays Pan's inappropriate advances with a severe and humiliating beating. The whole Jia clan is actually relieved that Xue Pan is punished for his transgressions. Dealing with Baoyu, we learn about a very different, caring and considerate Liu Xianglian who is going to undertake some journey.

Dec 5, 2010, 11:03am

Chapter 48 Self-improvement, practical and spiritual

Xue Pan's beating triggered some thinking. He joins one of the family's traders on a business trip, which will hopefully teach him about commercial activities and restore the loss of face he suffered. Sensible Baochai convinces her reluctant mother to let her errant son go. Splitting the Xue party in two creates a staff shortage at the compound.

Xiangling benefits the most: She moves in with Baochai and, after proper introductions to the family members, engages in a poetry crash course under the direction of Daiyu. Xiangling crams the "10.000 hours practice to expertise" into as few days and nights as possible. The continuous improvement process does wonders to her poems. Baoyu invites her to the Begonia Club. Casually, we learn about one more male Jia misdeed: how Jia She strong-armed himself to a common man's property (in this case: fans). Some are more equal than others.

Dec 5, 2010, 9:32pm

#92: My understanding is that Ping'er has been Jia Lian's "chamber wife" (concubine) for some time now, and, unlike Xiren, her status is official. (Perhaps she and Xifeng were a package deal.) This explains some of the dynamic of Chapter 44.

Xifeng seems to take this in stride, at least when she's sober. In fact Xifeng and Ping'er usually come close to matching the (presumably male) Chinese ideal of wife and concubine working together to support their man.

I have to wonder, though, who thought that Jai Lian and Xifeng would be a good fit together, as he is so outmatched by her. Another example of Jia hubris?

Dec 6, 2010, 4:02pm

Interesting tidbit about karma and gender: committing good deeds in a lifetime goes toward a woman's credit in being reborn a--supreme blessing!--man.

So, ideological depreciation of women doesn't depend on having a First Ancestress who can't say no to a Snake...

Dec 12, 2010, 10:07am

>97 LolaWalser: Who can blame them for choosing the male option (cf. Louis CK on being a white male)? High female mortality in non-modern times and limited life choices does hardly constitute a compelling deal.

>96 LJ_Reading: It's not clear whether they are truly supporting him or simply propping up a weak player. Xifeng spends her time and energy in everything but her husband's endeavors (whatever they might be beyond fooling around with prostitutes). It is interesting that, in contrast to Ping'er who sees his advances as nuisances, she doesn't mind or even enjoys having sex with her husband.

I've been trying to work out the complicated sex rules of the compound:
1. Nubile family members are off-limit (instant dowry value destruction).
2. Servants are fair game. Other people's servants are fair game too, but compensation is required if caught. Same sex activities are tolerated if frowned upon.
3. Servants may not resist but show their displeasure and try to evade. This is especially true of maids still aspiring to marriage. A sort of taboo shields those maids from all but the most horny men. The novel follows the classic horror movie rule that giving it up/having sex is a death penalty for the girl.
4. Women can play the game too, in secret. Qin Keqing had an affair with her father-in-law and sex with Baoyu. Xifeng might have too instead of killing her suitor. The young nun had to be prevented from starting an affair. As long as the decorum is preserved, a rather high level of tolerance is shown (cf. also Raise the Red Lantern).

More knowledgeable input appreciated. A comparison of the sexual mores of Jane Austen land and Red Chamber must certainly have been written. My gut says that England was far more open regarding non-sexual encounters with members of the opposite sex but much more restrictive regarding actual sex.

Back to poetry.
Chapter 49 New chicks in the garden

The chapter starts with the improved but still very flowery payoff poem by Xiangling, when we learn that a bunch of Xue family members are going to stay in the compound. Behind this social city visit and marriage preparations, I detect a strategy to ease a harsh winter. Life in the garden becomes much more exiting if crowded, as most occupants have to accommodate extra guests: Two married women, ten teenage girls - and Baoyu (only whose girlish behavior makes him fit in). Amidst the new arrivals is a beauty, Pao-chin, pampered by the Lady Dowager. The other girls are no match visually, and she is kind too. Outclassed, gracious Baochai accepts it stoically. Explosive Daiyu, for now, directs her anger inward, weeping.

Next, everybody dresses up for winter to arrange a poetry session the following day in Reed Snow Cottage. The breakfast at Lady Dowager's offers a rather disgusting old person's treat: lamb embryo steamed in milk. It is hardly possible to get more anti-kosher than this!

At the Reed Snow Cottage, Baoyu starts a BBQ. Apparently, grilling is not too common but the smell and taste wins adherents quickly, among them beauty Pao-chin. After Xifeng self-invites herself to the poetry party, Li Wan finally settles down to the business of writing scenic poems. With Baochai's interjection to have a starter list, the chapter ends.

Dec 22, 2010, 6:40pm

Chapter 50 A family poetry slam; or what people used to do before video games existed

Having sorted the order of the contestants, the participants go down to business on declaiming lines. Apart from the usual suspects, Pao-chin turns out to be a real star with a beautiful mind. Mens sana in corpore sano. The girls truly enjoy themselves, escaping from the rigors of protocol and decorum. Only Baoyu is sulking and fails to contribute his lines. As a punishment, he is sent off to collect a spray of red plum blossoms from Miao-yu's garden (always considerate he returns with plenty of sprays for the girls' chambers).

The fun somewhat diminishes when the Old Dowager joins them and assigns the girls to produce lantern riddles for New Year. Having noticed the charms and brains of Pao-chin, the Old Dowager considers her a fine match for Baoyu, but is informed about the girl being already promised in marriage. In my opinion, their marriage would have been quite a disaster with her skills not matched by his. Traditionally, it is promising young men who marry into degenerate "old money" families.

Jan 2, 2011, 5:23pm

Welcome in 2011. Our journey continues with some Chinese sightseeing.

Chapter 51 Bold and cold ladies

Smart, young and beautiful Pao-chin reveals an impressive tourist record. I tried to compile a GoogleMap with Pao-chin's ten tourist spots, nine of which I think I have mostly tracked down. The location of Plum Blossom Nunnery in Dayu Mountains,Jiangxi, where fictional Du Liniang from the Peony Pavillion was supposedly buried, is still missing. Any help (and corrections) appreciated.

Even if she did not travel to Cochin China but to Anhui province (poem 2), she has seen quite a bit of China (at least Northern China/Wu). What a contrast to Baoyu who has barely ventured beyond the clan compound. The mention of the Peony Pavilion and the Western Chamber offers Baochai a chance to display another dose of her fake morality and censorship impulse, though she is quickly shot down by Daiyu, now better prepared after having tasted Baochai's sanctimonious medicine beforehand. Isn't it somewhat crazy how this charade of propriety is kept up in the inner family circle? Aren't they supposedly open-minded poets without elder generation supervision? They certainly are a most non-rebellious set of teenagers (if one can even apply such an anachronistic label to them).

Meanwhile, Xifeng prepares Xiren's visit to her dying mother. As Baoyu's prospective concubine, she is to be escorted by servants and a security detail. In another charade, she is equipped with better clothes. During Xiren's absence, nobody is keeping an eye on Baoyu. Two nannies and two girls, Qingwen and Sheyue, are supposed to tend to Baoyu. The three immature teenagers fool around quite a bit, until one nanny sends them to sleep. Qingwen's nightly excursions promptly gets sick. Baoyu advises her to stay as at her family's home it would be even colder (Harsh living conditions for these servants, as they are too rich to profit from their farm animals' natural heat and too poor to pay for proper heating.).

The doctor's visit poses problems to keep up gender barriers. Even seeing and touching the patient's hand is problematic. We are almost at a Taliban level. Baoyu considers this doctor's prescription too strong for a girl. Nevertheless, the doctor is paid lavishly, mostly because neither Baoyu nor the maids care about the family money. The family doctor (on retainer) prescribes lighter medicine. Xifeng realizes the heating problem and centralizes cooking for all garden inhabitants.

Jan 3, 2011, 12:41pm


Regarding the segregation of the sexes, R.H. van Gulik states in Sexual Life in Ancient China that this was not very strict in the early period, although it was stressed by Confucius. During the T’ang it was not generally practiced. It was however re-affirmed by Neo-Confucianism and strengthened during the Mongol rule and the Ming period. It was applied with all consequences during the Manchu dynasty. This of course applied to elite women, not to simple farming folk.

Van Gulik mentions the points attributed to merits and demerits during the Mongols. Saving the life of a human being would get you 500 points, killing one -1000. Violent debauch with a married woman would get you -500 points, with mutual consent -100, and if with a servant’s wife -50 points. A servant’s widow would be -200 points and a virginal housemaid -100.

I remember that in his Rise of Modern China, Immanuel Hsü writes that the greatest promoters of women’s rights in China were missionaries, not in the least from Britain and the United States. They were the first to open schools allowing women. However, I could not find the quotation back in this doorstopper of a book.

Jan 6, 2011, 6:19pm

>101 mercure:. Thanks for the tip, another must read. I ordered the French paperback. The English edition from the Brill extortionists is too pricey. On the plus side, their Sinica Leidensia series made me aware of Men and Women in Qing China (which I bought in the cheaper university printing edition. It will take a while to cross the pond, not that I am lacking in reading material.). I liked that book's introduction that one can read at Google Books'.

I love how a moral calculus discloses implicit moral and economic judgments and trade-offs. According to your example of the moral code, the optimal time to have sex with your servant is when she is married (-50). Virginity carries a 100% penalty, widowhood even a 400% one, probably to avert the David/Bathsheba/Uriah constellation. The code fails to cover the Bill Clinton case (perhaps -75? -60?) ...

Edited: Jan 7, 2011, 12:18pm

The venerable publishing house Brill an extortionist? You can buy the share at Euronext! Its ISIN-code is NL0000442523.

Van Gulik does not say much about Bill Clinton’s hobby. Even with the wife or concubine it was only permitted as a preliminary or an accessory to the actual union, it was never to result in the man having a complete emission. The slight loss in semen and secretions incurred was deemed to be compensated by the yin essence the man obtains from the woman’s saliva. Introitus per anum feminae was equally permitted. Sinning against widows had to do with the supreme importance of the cult of the dead, and the sacred duty of a woman to continue a man’s lineage; debauching a widow offended the soul of the dead husband. Northeast Asia was always a man’s world.

As you do not seem familiar with Van Gulik, he also wrote a series of detective novels about a judge during the reign of Empress Wu in the T’ang Dynasty. His main reason for using detective novels was to popularise ancient Chinese history among the Chinese people. Van Gulik was a bit of a maverick, and seems as interesting a character as Joseph Needham. Two biographies were written about Robert Hans van Gulik, of which Een Man van Drie Levens seems to be the more interesting , albeit somewhat hagiographic, one. The book is difficult to get hold off, and I have not yet succeeded in doing so. When I checked again today I just found out that it has been translated into French as Les trois vies de Robert Van Gulik.

And thanks for the link to Men and Women in Qing China.

Jan 8, 2011, 9:46pm

John Minford recommend van Gulik's Lore of the Chinese Lute for learning more about the qin and its place in Chinese thought, such as an allusion that Daiyu makes in Chapter 86. I'm waiting for the new reprint being issued by Orchard Press of Bangkok to become available.

Regarding widows, I believe it was expected of women such as Li Wan that they would not remarry, but instead stay with their husbands' families. However, I would think that marriage would be such an economic necessity for the masses that few widowed peasants could afford this luxury. (BTW, how did Chinese ancestor worship coexist with the Buddhist concept of "no self"?)

The aspects about Cao's depiction of sexual relations that I find most puzzling are the lack of pregnancies among sexually active women and the lack of concern about unwanted pregnancy. Also no one seems to have lost a wife, mother, sister, etc. in childbirth, nor are childhood diseases a significant problem. (The attitude toward Qiaojie's smallpox was like that toward measles when I was a child: something potentially deadly that needed to be watched carefully, but a normal part of childhood and no particular cause for alarm.) Cao must be giving us a highly idealized version of life for the Jias' time, even if this has become the norm in the developed world that today we take for granted.

Jan 9, 2011, 4:08am

Just how sheltered was Cao's childhood life? Beyond the fact that he can't have known everything that was going on in the family estate, isn't it conceivable that things will have been actively kept from him?

Jan 9, 2011, 5:30am

This message has been deleted by its author.

Edited: Jan 10, 2011, 1:42am

Ancestor worship lies at the heart of Chinese society. Chinese culture is sometimes explained as an “in-group/out-group” culture. Bonds with people of the “in-group” are particularly strong, but you do not care much for people outside your group, or at least less so than in Western culture. By far the most important group is the family, in which there is usually a strict hierarchy. The ancestors are of great importance here. This is also an important reason for the desire for sons: the bloodline is only maintained via sons, who will pay tribute to you when you have passed on into the afterlife. It is your raison d’être. If you allow me to digress a bit, people in Southeast Asia are also very group-oriented, but seem to form groups of like-minded souls besides their families, allowing them a greater sense of individuality. They have lots and lots of “friends”. Indonesians are the most avid users of Facebook, and may have over 1,000 Facebook friends.

Buddhism in China is only a minority cult in a polytheistic environment. C.K. Yang’s Religion in Chinese Society describes it as follows:

The polytheistic factor in the Chinese religious tradition led laymen to worship in different temples of different faiths on different occasions. To obtain a male heir, a layman might go to a Buddhist temple to pray to the Goddess of Mercy or the goddess Niang-Niang; but to pray for the return of his health, he might go to a temple dedicated to the Taoist patron of medicine, Hua-t’o. Selection of a temple was guided not by faithful attachment to a single religious faith, but by the reputed magical efficacy of a certain god for a certain purpose.

If you visit the cave temples of Dunhuang on the Silk road, you can see murals from the first centuries of Buddhism in China. Gradually, you see a reduction in what Buddhism requires from the faithful. The suffering of Indian Buddhism is replaced with a more giving or protecting nature of the God.

As far as care for care about unwanted pregnancy is concerned, the amount of intercourse per woman will be more limited in case of multiple wives and concubines, and that having a child, particularly a son, will improve the attachment of the husband. Van Gulik pays scant attention to birth control, but mentions that midwives knew methods for abortions. Infanticide was also quite common, as was giving away children, but all this applied to courtesans. In his highly recommended Lion and Dragon in Northern China (Oxford in Asia Hardback Reprints), Reginald F. Johnston, the later teacher to the last emperor, states that this did not occur in the area where he worked at the turn of the 20th century. He also describes somewhere how children are passed on to infertile couples (particularly if these are brothers or cousins). This would give such couples descendants that will consider them as ancestors, i.e. restore the bloodline.

The requirement that a widow would not remarry only applied to the richer classes. The poor people could not afford this, and would force the woman to remarry, particularly if there were no children.

Jan 12, 2011, 9:21am

>103 mercure: I was unaware about Brill's long pedigree. Their now being a publisher but not a printer explains their current business model (Another Dutch company in the information access choke business is Elsevier. Too much trading instead of sharing experience ...).

The French translation of Gulik, which Amazon delivered with uncommon speed, is brilliant. I read the first part (up to Han), in one reading. I should have discovered the author earlier (I had a misconception that he was just a dirty old man sharing his erotica with his diplomat friends, similar to Goethe or to a cashiered Austrian ambassador to China some years ago who preferred to go his private sex party instead of attending the state banquet of his president on a official visit to China. Gulik must have done a ton of reading and research, at a time when access to Chinese sources were difficult to procure.). Unfortunately, the book ends just before the time of our book.

>104 LJ_Reading: Some of the lack of concern about unwanted pregnancy can be explained by Gulik's reference to the practice of deferred/surpressed ejaculation. Secondly, many of these women were undernourished, i.e. their low body fat prevented them from conceiving. Finally, the strict gender separation made an unwanted pregnancy easy to hide.

Edited: Jan 16, 2011, 6:38pm

Chapter 52 Maiden tales

Qingwen is ailing still, allowing the unsupervised Baoyu to listen in on Ping'er complaining about one of Baoyu's younger maids, Chui-erh. stealing a pearly gold bracelet. Ping'er wants the girl quietly dismissed after Xiren's return (keeping the dirty linen intra muros). Baoyu, who can be very empathic is not a diplomatic nor a reflective person, quickly spills all to Qingwen who, treated with Eastern and Western medicine, is not in the best of moods.

Wandering around, Baoyu joins the girls at Daiyu's and jokes around. Daiyu, in a small slight to supergirl Pao-chin, wants to re-gift the flower pots she received as a present from her to Baoyu. The flowers serve as a starting point for a future poetry session. Daiyu only jokes about it, while ever supportive Baochai takes Baoyu's idea seriously. Pao-chin runs with the idea to showcase her tourist experience again and delights the house with a rendition of a long-nose authored poem (which they must admit is quite good, for a foreigner). Daiyu is still sick and does not get a full night's sleep.

In the evening, considerate Baoyu offers his sleeping place to his maids and lets them sleep in the warmth. The next day, Baoyu and his entourage have to prepare for his uncle's birthday visit. The Lady Dowager equips Baoyu with an expensive, irreplaceable peacock-feather cape (made in Russia) with the futile admonition not to spoil it ... The birthday visit turns into a real mounted expedition with six stewards and four pages attend and protect Baoyu.

Meanwhile, sick Qingwen punishes the little thief servant girl, giving her a verbal lashing and small pricks, asking her family to take her back. Her mother is fetched and also humiliated (The mother's defense strategy of attacking Qingwen's minor protocol mistake backfires.). For extra points, the girl is humiliated again.

Later, Baoyu returns home with a hole in his irreplaceable cape. Tailors are too afraid to try to mend it. Qingwen, still sick to the bone, finally undertakes the difficult task to mend it herself, in an all-nighter session. Exhausted, she completes the task. Hopefully, this will not further impact her health.

Edited: Jan 16, 2011, 6:36pm

Chapter 53 The Show must go on

Fortunately, Qingwen's exertions do not further affect her health. Baoyu still seeks another medical consultation. Rest, fasting and some medicine are prescribed. Xiren returns from her mother's funeral. In those cold January days, the cold runs wild in the Jia mansion. It's not all bad: Two important clan promotions improve the family standing.

The New Year is a time to show off the family wealth and importance. Big preparations are underway for this baroque display of splendor, including an inventory of a client's contributions. It is all an elaborate scheme of giving and receiving where the terms of trade subtly shade the esteem the parties wish to express. Thus, external influences such as a bad harvest disrupt this social game and necessitate big explanations. The Jias, in a "How can I live with a smaller yacht?" lament one so oftem finds in the pages of the New York Times, complain bitterly of the challenges of the poor rich people. These exchanges are also the time to play subtle power games: Jia Zhen insults Jia/Chia Chin for his debauched behavior and strips him of his share.

The New Year celebration shows the clan in their best silks in a sumptuous Ancestral Temple Hall, inscribed by a Confucius descendant (Are their descendants of, say, Wittgenstein writing commercial copy?) with a rather ghastly inscription: "The grateful recipients of Imperial Favor will gladly dash their brains out on the ground; Generations to come will make solemn sacrifice for deeds whose fame resounds to Heaven." Sun Wen's chapter painting shows the impressive and exhausting display of pomp and circumstance. The Emperor's benediction "Their descendants succeed to their good fortune and virtue; Ning and Jung live in the memory of the black-haired people.", at least in its first part, may not be fulfilled.

The scene shifts to the Jung Mansion where the Old Dowager holds court at a banquet with the whole clan in attendance (except the old, the sick, the poor and the disgruntled). The festivities continue for days, seemingly without regard to the dwindling family fortune. Appearances must be maintained. The entertainers are lavishly rewarded with baskets full of coin.

Jan 17, 2011, 2:14am

How is the name of the western land of Bao-Chin's story rendered in the Yang edition? In the Penguin it was "Ebenash" and I wonder what the background is.

Jan 18, 2011, 5:37am

>111 defaults: It is "Chenchen", which in my googling did not result in a positive identification either, so I am guessing it is just a conceptual idea of "abroad/foreign land" (similar to Dilbert's Elbonia). The chance of meeting a Western foreigner in 18th century China, in particular a blond girl (Dutch or Russian?), must have been minuscule. How many Westerners were living in China in the 1740s?

In Google Books, "Ebenash" nets an interesting observation about the Chinese idea of the Other: Similar to American egocentricity (last witnessed by the strange US calls for prosecuting the Australian Assange for "treason"), the Chinese assume people want to become sinicized (i.e. civilized), A girl mastering Chinese poetry is well on her way to become Chinese.

Jan 18, 2011, 10:27am

This message has been deleted by its author.

Edited: Jan 19, 2011, 1:27am

The Chinese equivalent of the Monroe doctrine is equally developed and includes “All Under Heaven”, or Tianxia:

Tianxia (literally "under Heaven") is a phrase in the Chinese language and an ancient Chinese cultural concept that denoted either the entire geographical world or the metaphysical realm of mortals, and later became associated with political sovereignty.

In ancient China, tianxia denoted the lands, space, and area divinely appointed to the Emperor by universal and well-defined principles of order. The center of this land that was directly apportioned to the Imperial court was called Xia, Hua, Zhongxia, Zhonghua, or Zhongguo, among other names, forming the center of a world view that centered on the Imperial court and went concentrically outward to major and minor officials and then the common citizens, and finally ending with the fringe "barbarians". The center of this world view was not exclusionary in nature, and outer groups, such as ethnic minorities, that accepted the mandate of the Chinese Emperor were themselves received and included into the Chinese tianxia. In classical Chinese political thought, the Emperor of China, having received the Mandate of Heaven, would nominally be the ruler of the entire world. Although in practice there would be areas of the known world which were not under the control of the Emperor, in Chinese political theory the rulers of those areas derived their power from the Emperor. The larger concept of tianxia is closely associated with civilization and order in classical Chinese philosophy, and has formed the basis for the world view of the Chinese people and nations influenced by them since at least the first millennium BC.

Hence foreigners were supposed to kowtow to the emperor, which was a great problem in its relationship with the nouveau riche state of Great Britain:

Kowtow came into English in the early 19th century to describe the bow itself, but its meaning soon shifted to describe any abject submission or grovelling. Many Westerners who first encountered the practice believed it was a sign of worship, but kowtowing does not necessarily have religious overtones in traditional Chinese culture.
Kowtow was very important in the diplomacy of China with European powers, since it was required to come into the presence of the Emperor of China, but it meant submission before him. The British embassies of George Macartney, 1st Earl Macartney (1793) and William Pitt Amherst, 1st Earl Amherst (1816) were foiled, since kowtowing would mean acknowledging their King as a subject of the Emperor.

Dutch ambassador Isaac Titsingh did not refuse to kowtow during the course of his 1794-1795 mission to the Imperial Court of Emperor Qianlong. The members of the Titsingh mission, including Andreas Everardus van Braam Houckgeest and Chrétien-Louis-Joseph de Guignes, made every effort to conform with the demands of the complex Imperial court etiquette. Neither the Chinese nor these Europeans could have known that this would be the last appearance by any Western ambassador at the Imperial court until after the Opium Wars of the next century.

The kowtow was often performed in intra-Asian diplomatic relations as well. In 1636, Injo who was king of the Korean Joseon Dynasty had to kneel three times on the ground and touch his head three times on the ground, to show his vassal status to Huang Taiji who was the first Emperor of the Qing Dynasty. King of Ryukyu Kingdom also had to kneel three times on the ground and touch his head nine times to the ground, to show his vassal status to the Chinese Dynasty.

The ambassador and scholar Isaac Titsingh was the last Westerner to visit Beijing until after the Opium War. Basically, the kowtow wasn’t very meaningful. Only incidentally did Chinese influence expand beyond China’s current borders. Tianxia may have created an introspective culture. Many states were quite eager to make the trip to Beijing, as it offered plenty of opportunities for trade.

The tributary system affirmed the Emperor as the son of Heaven with a mandate to rule on Earth; as such, foreign rulers were required to present tribute and acknowledge the superiority of the imperial court. In return, the Emperor bestowed gifts and titles upon foreign emissaries and allowed them to trade for short periods of time during their stay within China. Foreign rulers agreed to these terms for several reasons, namely that the gifts given by the Emperor were of greater value than the tribute received (as a demonstration of imperial munificence) and that the trade to be conducted while in China was extremely lucrative and exempt from customs duties.

Regarding meeting blondes in China, this must have been quite rare, given that Westerners were restricted in their access to China until the Opium Wars. Before that defining event, foreigners were restricted to Macau, Canton, and a few other places for (semi-legal) trade. Particularly Macau was quite international. In Coxinga: The Pirate King of the Ming Dynasty, you can read that the Ming loyalist prince used African soldiers he had hired in Macau in his fight against the the Qing in the Yangtze delta and against the Dutch conquerors of Formosa. This little fact is not part of the standard school curriculum in Taiwan.

No such woman however reached the celebrity status of Titia Bergsma, the first Western woman who lived in Japan. Her story can be found in Titia: The First Western Woman in Japan.

Jan 20, 2011, 4:56pm

>114 mercure: Never heard before about Titia's fascinating but short modeling career in Japan ...

Simon Winchester's The river at the center of the world has a nice quote from a Chinese captain: "We think all lao wai are wanting to know too many things about China. Why are you so curious? We are not curious about you." (which isn't really true, given the Chinese predilection at staring at foreigners and the recent big increase of Chinese tourists. Suddenly, they are everywhere.). Winchester's account of the Qing's defensiveness towards Western technology is great (a contrast to the novel's fascination with Western consumer goods).

Edited: Jan 22, 2011, 3:18pm

>107 mercure: Thank you, this is quite helpful. I now have a copy of C. K. Yang's book; it looks like it will make Cao's world view clearer to me. I'm having trouble making sense of it in terms of what I think I know about Chinese Buddhist philosophy.

The polytheism your quote describes sounds virtually identical to the situation in the pre-Christian Roman Empire. So does the approach to unwanted pregnancies. In fact, long before this I found that without explicitly realizing it I had taken ancient Rome as my point of comparison for understanding the society in Red Mansions. It didn't hurt that many of the anecdotes in the novel, as well as those in Strange Tales, remind me of Apuleius.

I've thought about why this should be so, and the short version of my tentative answer is that these are what major civilizations default to when they have not felt the impact of a sequence of two historical events: the rise of the Abrahamic religions, and the Enlightenment.

Jan 22, 2011, 4:07pm

112> As an American, I've always admired the Chinese concept of Chineseness being based on culture rather than ethnicity. It certainly beats the attitude and practice in neighboring Japan.

A close friend of mine finagled his way from Poland to Munich in the early '80s, worked there for a couple of years, and then came to the U.S. As he explained it, he realized that even if he spent the rest of his life in Germany, he would never be a German, but that in the U.S. he could be an American. (And he is.)

114> Tianxia may have created an introspective culture. The traditional Western view of why China was such a helpless giant was that it refused to learn from other cultures. Europeans realized that their empires were largely acquired thanks to gunpowder and compasses—both invented by the Chinese.

The whole Amy Chua flap has reminded me again that in becoming members of modern industrial societies both in China and abroad, the Chinese are traveling down a well worn path. They could save themselves a lot of trouble if they would not disdain to learn from other cultures who have gone before them, rather than insisting on repeating each mistake for themselves.

114> Many states were quite eager to make the trip to Beijing, as it offered plenty of opportunities for trade. Ten taels weighs about a troy pound, so historically would be worth about a pound sterling, and one tael would be worth about two shillings. While a pound sterling bought far more in 18th century England than it does today, it wouldn't buy anything near what ten taels do in Red Mansions. Looked at that way, it's no wonder Westerners were so eager to trade with China. (It's extremely hard to compare purchasing power in different eras, but I estimate that one tael in Red Mansions is, on average, worth very roughly 1000 dollars/pounds/euros today.)

Jan 23, 2011, 9:40am

>117a Poland is Germany's Mexico, with a more atrocious history of invading, dividing and bashing up its smaller neighbor. It thus depends "what makes a difference". As a Pole, he doesn't trigger the buttons of not being a "Real American". I like the distinction of coconut and peach cultures: Coconut cultures are difficult to penetrate but soft inside (Switzerland, Japan). Peach cultures are soft and easy on the outside, but impenetrable on the inside (US, France, probably China too). Then there are cultures organized around class systems where class gives you at least honorary membership.

>117b Learning from other people's experience doesn't work. Doesn't work in childhood, doesn't work with animals, doesn't work with countries. Otherwise, the US would adopt one or the other foreign health care systems that produce double the quality at half the cost in a heat beat. Invading Russia was a bad idea for Sweden (Charles XII), France (Napoléon) and Germany (Hitler).

>117c It is always fascinating to compare the relative price differences for goods and services. The greater the inequality in a country, the cheaper the services.

Men and Women in Qing China has already arrived (I feel rather bad for the US bookseller who paid 11 USD for shipping, leaving him with but 2 USD for the book.). A good read, I will refrain from at the moment due to the numbers of spoilers.

Edited: Jan 23, 2011, 2:00pm

>114 mercure:. It occurs to me that the best American example of tianxia might be America's long history of isolationism.

>118b. If you're right about this, then is China destined to become a nation of Babbitts and Joads? (BTW, health care reform in the U.S. is difficult largely because so many people here don't want to repeat what they see as the mistakes of Britain and Canada.)

Jan 23, 2011, 2:46pm

>119 LJ_Reading: I blame Monty Python for that (bloody NSFW).

Edited: Jan 25, 2011, 1:09am

> 117. Chineseness is not just based on culture. Although my experience is mainly based upon exposure to places like Hong Kong, and Singapore, I would say that unfortunately, racism does exist in Chinese society. One of my colleagues in Hong Kong, arguably the most cosmopolitan city of modern China, was a rather light skinned Antillean. If he would sit down in the underground train, sometimes people would stand up and walk away. Normally, such people, usually older women, would only do that if their neighbour sneezes, or otherwise show signs of bad health. Despite that there are over 100 thousand often young Filipina women in Hong Kong working as amahs, I have never seen a mixed Chinese-Filipino couple. This attitude also applies to the government. South Asians that have been living in Hong Kong all their lives and who are fluent in Cantonese still have trouble obtaining a Hong Kong passport.

> 115. I do understand the comment that the Chinese “are not curious” about us. The recent increase in Chinese tourism is not the same as genuine curiosity. Most of them travel in groups and have a disproportionate budget for shopping. They seem mainly interested in getting their picture taken in front of monuments (preferably famous monuments, but they should at least look impressive), and buying diamonds in Amsterdam, grand cru wines in Bordeaux, and clothes and bags everywhere. Such things give face back home. Every major European and quite a few North American cities have anthropological museums that cover the whole world. No such thing exists in Asia. At best are the local national museums, usually founded by the colonial power with a mixed scientific, commercial and political purpose, that show the national culture. Art museums mainly collect local art, the only Western art museum I am aware of is in a Le Corbusier building in Tokyo (I must however admit that the situation is different for literature and Western music, both pop and classical). Asian child-rearing is generally more focussing on control of emotions and proper behaviour and less on independence and all-round personal development. Traditionally in Java, children below 8 months are not even supposed to touch the “dirty” earth. Among the Chinese, lower levels of irritability are found at a very early age, and Michael Harris Bond's The Psychology of the Chinese People even suggests a genetic cause for that. The book is however from the 1980’s, so new findings may have changed or confirmed this.

> 114. On the other hand, China was never a fully closed society; don’t get your view tainted by the Qianlong emperor's response to the Macartney mission. Earlier dynasties like the T’ang were quite open to foreign influence, and accepted among others Buddhism and Nestorian Christianity as foreign influences. Buddhism still survives in a sinefied way. It is interesting to read about Nestorian Christianity, e.g. in Tjalling Halbertsma’s De verloren lotuskruisen : een zoektocht naar de steden, graven, en kerken van vroege christenen in China, or, if you do not read Dutch, the somewhat pricier Early Christian Remains of Inner Mongolia (it's Royal Brill again). In order to get legalised by the emperor, Nestorian Christianity, which had its roots in the Middle East, had to accept all sorts of Chinese concepts until it lost its unique selling points and became irrelevant. The Jesuits who visited later in the Middle Ages, found acceptance for their scientific knowledge. And although the Europeans were restricted in their access to China, smuggling was rampant along the coast. I have just finished Bomb, Book and Compass, and what strikes me is how many universities there already were in China in the 1940’s, and how integrated they seemed to be.

In general, when confronted with the Western colonial powers, countries have tried to incorporate Western science and technology, but preferred to maintain their traditional morals, almost universally considering them superior. This applies to East Asia as much as today to the Muslim world, and likely to our own if one day a country from another continent may have the power to overwhelm us. In that sense people learn little from other cultures. However, you may ask if Singapore is not an exception. Singapore seems a bit like the country the more conservative social democrats from the 1960’s envisaged, with a free economy and an orderly, paternalistic state. It clearly copied structures from Western Europe, but over time changed them to fit local needs as perceived by the party in government. Singapore also pioneered policies like congestion pricing for driving in the business centre during rush hour. Such policies are hard to implement in our democratic culture. A quick implementation of such policies is part of the city state’s political, and something Mainland China tries to copy. Besides being a one party state, quickly rising wealth makes this easier than in most developed countries. Still, Europeans and American may perceive this element one day as the big challenge coming from Asia.

Jan 26, 2011, 6:53pm

>121 mercure: Give it time. It took quite a while (and an Englishman) to fill US museums with European treasures ... Personally, I see much more Chinese tourists travel in family groups than either Korean and Japanese travelers who roam in busload packs, and are much more likely to engage in small talk (These pioneer travelers also have much better command of English than either the Japanese or Koreans.).

Following Simon Winchester up the Yangtze River, I love reading about his witty brushes with Chinese nationalism and xenophobia.

Regarding Singapore, in my ignorance, I would not take it as a test case. Similar to the closed society and police state that was Venice (What's Singapore's bridge of sighs?), its importance will shrink once the larger nations around it have established modern economic infrastructures.

Chapter 54 The old cat hogs the spotlight

The New Year festivities continue under the firm rule of the Old Dowager who even wants to commandeer those that are absent (grieving Xiren). Xifeng manages to talk some sense into the old lady. Baoyu checks in on Xiren but doesn't want to disturb her girl talk with Yuanyang.

Instead, he relieves himself outside which triggers the maids into a complicated power game among maids and hunt for water and soap to wash his hands. How was the "night soil" business handled in Qiang China? Did the rich use chamber pots or outhouses?

Back at the party, Baoyu is tasked with filling the cups. The entertainment changes from opera to story tellers. Unfortunately, the Old Dowager is not inclined to listen but wants to talk herself. She starts a rant about the lack of realism in romances (*cough* Twilight *cough*). What troubles the old lady the most is the lack of parental control over the girls in this upper class families (in contrast to the expected lack of them in, say, the Jersey Shore or Wasilla). This episode serves as an inside commentary on the novel itself (see Mimesis): Why does the rest of the family not notice the feelings between Baoyu and Daiyu? The rant then takes an Orwellian turn when all declare not to have read the smutty novels we know that all of them know them by heart. Great Chinese hypocrites!

Xifeng then tries to get herself a bit of spotlight herself but is blocked by the Old Dowager. Due to the chill of night, the party moves inside. The men retire to enjoy the other talents of the singers. The women remaining with the Jia Jung couple have the young actresses perform. The Old Dowager displays encyclopedic knowledge about their arias. While the actresses prepare, the rest starts a (in my opinion, rather lame) joke and drinking game. Is the joke about the Monkey King at least funny in the original Chinese? Xifeng's joke is even worse - to add insult she has to explain the punch line. Next on the program are fireworks, followed by the singing actresses until a snack rounds the evening off. During the next days, the parties go on, but all that can try to relax and recover in private.

Edited: Jan 27, 2011, 3:05pm

In A Borrowed Place: The History of Hong Kong Frank Welsh writes that

Personally clean and fastidious as they were, it seemed that the Chinese had no concept of public hygiene. They could crowd together in the most insanitary conditions, almost as a matter of course keeping a family of pigs under the bed (172 were found in a single tenement block), and disposing of their sewage in buckets to refuse collectors whose business it was to transport the mess to Cantonese farms for use as manure

This practice is of course bad for public health, and led to various outbreaks of cholera in the Crown Colony.

Unfortunately, Mr. Welsh does not say if excrement collection ever reached the same level of sophistication as Edward Seidensticker reported in Low City, High City : Tokyo from Edo to the Earthquake about Tokyo:

Farmers, in the days that they bought, were willing to pay more for sewage the higher the social level of the house. The upper-class product was richer in nutriment, apparently. So, apparently, was male excrement. In aristocratic mansions where the latrines were segregated by sex, male sewage was more highly valued than female. It seems that the female physique was more efficient.

Singapore is interesting, because its de facto one-party government is the leading light for Asia’s authoritarian rulers, not in the least China. You may even see a few similarities between the outspoken advocates of Asian Values and the People’s Republic. Over time, Singapore’s society has become more open, without endangering the government or the quest for economic growth. You see the same thing happening in Mainland China. Much can be discussed nowadays, except for anything that may endanger the authority of the communist party.

It is probably a bit off topic, but I came to this point after your discussion about learning from other countries and a recent article by Fukuyama in the Financial Times that stated that US democracy has little to teach China. Fukuyama pointed out that

The automatic admiration for all things American that many Chinese once felt has given way to a much more nuanced and critical view of US weaknesses – verging, for some, on contempt.


The most important strength of the Chinese political system is its ability to make large, complex decisions quickly, and to make them relatively well, at least in economic policy. This is most evident in the area of infrastructure, where China has put into place airports, dams, high-speed rail, water and electricity systems to feed its growing industrial base.


Nonetheless, the quality of Chinese government is higher than in Russia, Iran, or the other authoritarian regimes with which it is often lumped – precisely because Chinese rulers feel some degree of accountability towards their population.

What Fukuyama describes here is carbon copy of Singapore. He then focuses on

But there is a deeper problem with the American model that is nowhere close to being solved. China adapts quickly, making difficult decisions and implementing them effectively. Americans pride themselves on constitutional checks and balances, based on a political culture that distrusts centralised government. This system has ensured individual liberty and a vibrant private sector, but it has now become polarised and ideologically rigid. At present it shows little appetite for dealing with the long-term fiscal challenges the US faces. Democracy in America may have an inherent legitimacy that the Chinese system lacks, but it will not be much of a model to anyone if the government is divided against itself and cannot govern.

You may question if Fukuyama is right. But you may also ask if the West be wiling to change its core values if the situation would dictate so. Would they be willing to accept a more authoritarian government if that were necessary?

I am not so sure if the Chinese will maintain their current level of curiosity. I recognise what you say about the current wave of Chinese tourists. But in the 1980’s you would have seen more Singaporean and Hong Kong tourists backpacking through Europe. They rarely do so nowadays. Most travel on the same group tours that “do” Europe in 7 or 8 days. The same trips are sold in Indonesia, Singapore and Hong Kong, and probably elsewhere. If Singaporeans or Honkies travel by themselves, they go on a food and shopping trip to Tokyo, which sophistication makes it somewhat like the Paris of the East. In general however, these rich Chinese have not become more adventurous. They don’t even like China, which they think is primitive and dangerous. Most of the Chinese who study in Australia and Canada live with local family members. This way they get little exposure to the Western mindset, despite the fact that this is actually sought after by Western companies operating in the area. In Northeast Asia the on-going Civilising Process seems to lead to more self-restraint, rather than to increased curiosity.

Feb 1, 2011, 8:17am

>123a Fukuyama has been wrong about so much during the last decades, I wish he would show some intellectual restraint (at least, he feels some remorse for the stuff he has written.). Once a pundit, always a pundit. There is no quality control in US punditry.

>123b Isn't what you describe about tourism true in general? Most tourists prefer to experience exotic elements in small doses. Being in an unfamiliar setting, not understanding the language, customs etc. and standing out in a crowd can be quite frightening and stressful, and thus practiced only by a minority of intrepid explorers/mad men.

While we are just before the start of the Chinese New Year (Metal Rabbit), our novel clan is still recuperating from theirs.

Chapter 55 A new broom

LJ_Reading above wondered about the relative absence of pregnancies. In this chapter, we are informed about a bad case: Xifeng has had a miscarriage and will be afflicted during the next half year with continued bleeding. While I will probably be punished by strange Google ads, my googling informs me that bleeding after a standard miscarriage should stop after 7-10 days. Was it more than a miscarriage? Cancer?

Xifeng's health problems result in a power vacuum and a management reshuffle. Lady Wang and Li Wan having shown little management talent, it is Tanchun who is picked to manage the estate, assisted by Li Wan. Furthermore, Baochai is asked for behind-the-curtain policing of the servants.

The first case pits Tanchun's care for the estate against her loyalty to her mother. As the daughter of a concubine, Tanchun is of a second class family status. Her personal relations with her mother seem not to be good in any case. Following the rules, she halves the funeral money for her mother's brother to 20 taels and persists even when Ping'er as a messenger for Xifeng allows her to increase it. Tanchun clearly places the family estate interest above her filial duty to her mother (and her uncle).

Tanchun even cuts some discretionary spending (school money), while not going after the big ticket items. Ping'er warns Qingwen not to ask for Baoyu's money when Tanchun is in cutting mode. Qingwen heeds the warning.

The big ticket items the family is saving for ar the dowries for Tanchun and Xichun (10.000 taels each), the wedding of Huan (3.000) and the funeral of the Old Dowager (5.000). The big money is spent on "experiences/events" not regular business (something the marketing gurus predict to happen to our consumer spending too, although less for weddings and funerals and more for tourism and recreation).

Behind the scene, Ping'er informs Xifeng about the events in the house, thus she is not out of picture and might step in at any moment.

Feb 6, 2011, 4:41pm

Chapter 56 Spending Power

Tanchun continues her savings drive. The movement restrictions the girls suffer under (inability to leave the compound) is used by the steward to gouge them out of their cosmetics allowance. The amount budgeted for cosmetics is astounding: 50 percent of their discretionary spending allowance (for comparison, an Austrian household spent 2.7% of the household income on personal hygiene in 2005, 1.1% on shoes). Tanchun proposes to completely cut out the middle MAN, which improves service quality and costs less (see the findings of micro-finance on welfare enhancing transfer of financial control to women; shed a tear for the pocket money-only Japanese sarariman).

Next on the agenda, is internal land re-distribution/privatization: Allocating parcels within the compound to elder women who may pocket all productivity gains beyond a set level. This also reduces the external cash drain and the need for (male) labor.

The good ideas put forth by Tanchun lead Ping'er to challenge her, demanding consideration for her mistress' work (and also for her interference into the maids' managerial level). Tanchun is not amused but will talk to Xifeng.

Next, after some chit-chat in a ceremonial visit by the Chen family, the Old Dowager discovers that the Chen family has its own willful, extravagant and lazy scion also called Baoyu (The Little Emperor motif is, at least by my distant view, curiously absent in the current US Tiger Mom discussion.).

A comedy of errors of mistaken identity of the two Baoyus occurs which strangely resolves into only being Baoyu's dream. I think this might be due to the novel's unfinished status. Is Baoyu a type or unique?

Feb 14, 2011, 6:38pm

Chapter 57 Two veggies in the garden / Love and marriage

After some mutual courtesy to the Chen clan, Baoyu checks in on Daiyu, still sick. While inquiring about Daiyu's health, Baoyu commits his next faux pas, touching/feeling up the lightly dressed maid Zijuan, who scolds him which shocks and so disconcerts him that he cries in the garden. Zijuan learns about this from Hsueh-yen who has come to Zijuan to gossip about her latest status snub to the poor concubine Zhao (Tanchun's mother). She tries to cheer up the distressed Baoyu. As she informs him about Daiyu's future return home, Baoyu's psyche receives another blow. The stupefied, drooling Baoyu, found by Qingwen, is examined by Nanny Li, who considers his case hopeless.

This in turn enrages Xiren who storms of to Zijuan (who set Baoyu's transformation into a vegetable in motion). Daiyu, hearing about the commotion, in turn, throws up all her medicine: "Red in the face, her hair tousled, her eyes distended, limp in every limb, she choked for breath and could not lift up her head." Daiyu sends Zijuan to Baoyu with Xiren.

The family has already gathered there. Zijuan is immediately charged by Lady Wang and the Old Dowager. Zijuan only offers the minor information about Daiyu's prospective return as a reason for Baoyu's breakdown (not the molestation charges). Baoyu has not yet recovered full mental control, uttering feverish thoughts. Doctor Wang appears and relieves the family's fears: Don't worry, he will recover. Somewhat ironic, it rests upon Zijuan to watch over her molester's full recovery. His wandering hands repaid by a mindfuck. The two mend fences and Zijuan returns to Daiyu.

At night with Daiyu, Zijuan makes the case for Daiyu to marry and settle quickly (while the Old Dowager lives, which would also solve Zijuan's problem of leaving her family behind). Daiyu ponders her situation. In her present sickness, she is not the most attractive of brides. Or does the chill of death provide a romantic air? A Chinese Mimi?

Aunt Xue's birthday party takes place without our two sick protagonists. Aunt Xue plays matchmaker for her nephew. The bride to be is a decent but poor girl who relies upon Baochai for assistance as Yingchun fails to fulfill her responsibilities. It turns out that the girl pawned her clothes to one of her future family's pawnshops. Trickle-down economics at its finest. Living in highly stratified societies is not fun below the top rungs.

Fitting for Valentine's Day, the Chinese Cupid, the Man on the Moon is mentioned who binds lovers with a red thread around the ankles. No yellow ribbon? Seeing Baochai with her mother drives the tears into lonely Daiyu's eyes. She asks Aunt Xue to "adopt" her as a foster mother. Baochai mocks her by hinting at her having to marry her rakish brother. Fortunately, Aunt Xue dismisses the thought. Baochai is not finished yet. Her next proposal is marrying Daiyu and Baoyu. Given the delicacy of the situation with both possible matches for Baoyu present, Aunt Xue keeps her cards close. Zijuan, seeing her case for Daiyu strengthened, runs with the ball but is tackled by Aunt Xue.

The chapter ends with the discovery of the pawnshop ticket. Will Yingchun be exposed for her stinginess or not? Apparently, only a man is deemed capable of righting a wrong (a sentence pointedly uttered by a woman and accepted by her female companions).

Feb 14, 2011, 6:48pm

Concerning the women's large expenditure on cosmetics--there's really not much else they spend the money on, no? No food, rent, even clothes (they receive fabrics from the house management)... What's left--gifts, jewellery, bakshish?

Feb 16, 2011, 5:12pm

>127 LolaWalser: It certainly looks like they do not have to pay themselves for essentials (which would be rather easy in any case). They are in a much more difficult position: They have to buy luxury goods with their very limited budgets (2 taels/month, when a single delicacy may already cost 1 tael). Given the importance of not losing face (of not displaying that Gucci bag), these otherwise rather independent women are forced into conformity.

Edited: Feb 20, 2011, 2:11pm

>125 jcbrunner: The Little Emperor motif is, at least by my distant view, curiously absent in the current US Tiger Mom discussion.

The discussion has elicited many comments that "Tiger Moms" far from universal in China, nor are they particularly Chinese. What the "Tiger Mom" does represent is a rehashing of the "Dragon Lady" stereotype (single-minded, ruthless, merciless) as part of the latest wave of Yellow Peril fear-mongering. What I find most interesting is that Dr. Chua has been backpedaling ever since her WSJ article came out. She was apparently caught unawares by the negative reaction to it, even though in the article itself she describes a similar reaction when she says the same things at a dinner party.

My guess is that Cao would not have approved of tiger moms, because their goal would be to create "career worms". Indeed, Cao makes Baoyu's father an example of the dangers of too much scholarship on a mediocre intellect. Jia Zheng's lack of people skills and common sense will contribute to the family's downfall. Perhaps if the Old Dowager had arranged more playdates and sleepovers for him, he would have fared better.

>125 jcbrunner: Is Baoyu a type or unique?

First, a reminder that Jia Yucun described his experience as tutor to Zhen Baoyu in Chapter 2. However that Baoyu, along with his exasperated father and doting, protective grandmother, was so similar to Jia Baoyu that it is easy to misremember the description as applying to the latter.

So our Baoyu is not unique, but he may also be a type: Dore J. Levy has written on the topic that Baoyu exhibits all the classic symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder. I am not familiar with ADD, so I cannot comment on this, but I will note that Cao's descriptions of his characters' thoughts and behaviors are remarkable for the correspondence to modern psychological knowledge.

In Daiyu, Cao describes a pathological pessimism and shows it associated with what today would be recognized as clinical depression. I particularly liked his comment that Daiyu enjoyed parties with her friends so much that when they ended it made her so sad that she wished they had never happened. The cognitive distortions in Daiyu's thinking match the theories of cognitive therapists such as Aaron Beck and David Burns so closely that if Cao were writing this today we would assume that he was consciously endorsing these ideas.

For me, Baochai presents the most interesting personality. While her knowledge of topics as diverse as art and medicine beggars belief, she comes across as encyclopedic because she recites her knowledge for its own sake without editing it to match the needs or interests of the person she is speaking with. She is scrupulous in following the morals and mores of her society, but lacks ability to tell when it's all right, or even better, to ignore them, giving her a certain priggishness.

But it is Baochai's reaction to other people's emotions that is most interesting. There are two occasions so far that I've noticed where she attempts to comfort a woman in emotional distress: Lady Wang grieving over the death of Golden, and Faithful upset over the prospect of becoming Sir She's concubine. In both cases Baochai tries make them feel better by convincing them that their emotions are not rational.

All of these cases demonstrate that Baochai does not posses the instinct to understand what others are thinking and feeling to anywhere near the degree that most people do. Like many with this condition, she also has superior intelligence, an excellent memory for facts, and a great facility in and comfort with formal systems. For example, I'm sure she would have been able to follow Newton's demonstration that the Keplerian motion of the planets follows from Newton's laws of motion and gravitation, had she been presented with this. As it is, she uses her mastery of her societies rules of behavior to compensate for her own inability to judge how others will respond to her actions.

Viewers of recent episodes of "House, M.D." may note Baochai's resemblance to the most recent addition to House's staff, Dr. Martha Masters. While neither could be said to be suffering from a developmental disability, both characters' personalities markedly display characteristics of Asperger's syndrome. With her lack of empathy, Baochai would find it easier than most mothers to drive her children to succeed at all costs, but harder to anticipate the reaction if she were to describe her child-rearing techniques in the Wall Street Journal.

Edited: Feb 20, 2011, 7:43pm

>127 LolaWalser:, 128 For the senior female servants, looking beautiful was important for their present employment, as well as for their eventual marriages to husbands who could provide them with comfortable lives. For these women, buying the best cosmetics would be as much an investment as a good education would be for a young woman today.

Feb 21, 2011, 8:10am

>130 LJ_Reading: Sheltered from the public, no man would be able to see their cosmetic wizardry. At their young age, most cosmetics (at least its hide and repair elements) would not be necessary. As it is often quipped, cosmetics and fashion mostly serve to impress other women (just as gadgets are there to impress other men).

>129 LJ_Reading: A career drive is a truly bourgeois institution. A nobleman is secure in his (god-given) station and any sense of strive is seen as unsporting and unseemingly. The Chinese Qing situation is an interesting mix of meritocratic advancement (scholarship, offices) and buying of sinecures/guanxi.

Being in the Team Baochai camp, I had not seen the psychological elements you describe so well, which partially attract me to her. Up to now, I have mainly seen her as a dutiful conformist, not an enchanting mix at all (Not beng fond of soapy procedurals, I have given up on House MD some time ago.).

Edited: Feb 21, 2011, 11:13am

> 131 In the book Spent: Sex, Evolution and the Secrets of Consumerism, evolutionary biologist Geoffrey Miller explains that cosmetics are used to signal beauty as a fitness indicator. As such beauty is a better indicator than female "gadgets" like bags, that, indeed, at best impress other women. Signaling beauty and health helps attract care from parents and kin, and solicits social support.

Keep in mind that in traditional (and modern) Chinese culture wives move over to their husband's family. The acceptance by her husband's family will greatly impact a woman's quality of life.

Feb 21, 2011, 11:59am

Independence of movement: it decreases with ascending rank. The ladies are sequestered (and literally hobbled? I don't recall direct mentions of bound feet--is this taken for granted?), chaperoned, surveyed all the time. Are these women much less free than contemporary Western counterparts of the same class? Or does it appear so because it seems they never travel outside their compound at all?

Edited: Feb 21, 2011, 2:27pm

I would say that is generally correct. Chinese culture is deeply influenced by Confucianism, making every relationship hierarchical. This includes one of the five essential relationships: that between husband and wife. Family is far more important in China than it is in Western culture. Within families sons are more important than daughters, because daughters are transferred to third parties. I know of a case in Taiwan in the ‘60’s/’70’s where the daughter received second grade food from her Taiwanese parents. The good food went to the sons. However, I am sure that you can find many exceptions where smart women managed to influence their husbands’ business.

In the introduction to Howard Levy’s Chinese Footbinding: The History of a Curious Erotic Custom Wolfram Eberhard describes this as follows:

As the custom of of footbinding spread, its meaning changed. It became a convenient way to express and enforce the new concepts of female chastity which China developed in the twelfth century. A chaste wife had to stay in the house and was not to be seen in the fields or streets. Bound feet made walking painful and difficult. At the same time bound feet indicated economic status. A man who had a wife with bound feed proved to the world that he was rich enough to feed a wife with earnings and did not need her help in the fields or in the shop

While leafing through the book, I also found this passage:

Conservative thinkers of the past alleged that applying rouge, putting on make up, piercing the ears, and binding the feet were all necessary practices which enabled women to conform to the social dictum that they had to differ from men in every visible physical aspect.

I think nowadays Chinese women wear less make up than Western women. In terms of hide and repair (message 131), Chinese women’s skin wrinkles less and at a later age. However, it seems their hair turns grey earlier and black hair dye is in great demand, both from women and men.

By the way, I have finished both Robert van Gulik’s and Joseph Needham’s biography (Een Man van Drie Levens (also available in French) and Bomb, Book and Compass,.respectively). Although neither was perfect I think van Gulik’s biography was more interesting.

Feb 21, 2011, 6:17pm

>134 mercure: The Gulik bio is in my mental TBR pipeline. Another interesting book discussed in this week's Economist is The Scramble for China about 19th century Qing, so a little too late for the novel. I will probably wait for the paperback.

>133 LolaWalser: European women in the 18th century, though sheltered and often veiled, had a weekly outing to the communal church, so were probably less cut off from the rest of the world.

As loading this thread is taking a rather long time, I will open a new thread once we reach the second half (chapter 61).

Chapter 58 Meaning and decorum

The death of an Imperial concubine imposes severe restrictions on the rest of the population. The nobles are required to attend mourning sessions which further reduces the clan's managerial resources. Aunt Xue acts as a backup manager, moving in at Daiyu's.

The music prohibition results in the dissolution of the Jia opera singer apprentices, most of which are transitioned into servant status, which is a bit puzzling. On the one hand, they are said to come from respectable families who sold them. On the other hand, most of these family origins turn out to be so shady that most accept a status drop to being sold again.

While Baoyu contemplates once more the fragilities of life, he stumbles upon one of the young opera singers sacrificing paper money for, we learn later on, her dead lesbian friend/lover. The opera singers are assigned to and exploited by Dickensian servant foster-mothers. Baoyu is quick to notice the injustice and asks Xiren to look out for them. Baoyu also offers a quite modern religious philosophy where the intent and not the ritual count. On the other hand, he enjoys profiting from the menial services of his servants.

Edited: Feb 24, 2011, 1:35am

135: I had already seen The Scramble for China somewhere, but lost interest when I saw that it only concentrated on the British. I am getting a bit tired of all these Anglo non-fiction writers who use nothing but English sources in a conflict involving the British and can only see things through an Anglo prism.

I earlier mentioned Hsü’s The Rise of Modern China. Hsü dedicates some 480 pages to the period 1800-1945, particularly concentrating on China’s conflicts with outside powers (e.g. including a few pages about the war between China and France about Annam) and the way China tried to modernise itself intellectually. The book is very factual, a bit like a series of lemmas in an encyclopedia, and unfortunately gives only limited information about the economic situation.

133: In terms of women’s independence, Hsü mentions that

The wife was supposed to be obedient to her husband. She had no property rights and enjoyed no economic independence.

This, I’d say is definitely less than the rights of women in Europe at the same time. E.g. compare this to Johanna Borski (no English article available). After the death of her husband she turned out to be a capable banker who was one of the richest people in the Netherlands (and not the only woman with that title throughout the centuries). She was instrumental in founding the Dutch central bank, loaning the czar 120 million guilders and saving the Dutch Trading Society, currently ABN/AMRO. That said, in Holland women’s rights were curtailed after le petit caporal conquered the country and replaced Roman-Dutch law with, well, something more Corsican.

The current industrialization of China is as much a rupture for the old Confucian order as communism was. Factory girls : from village to city in a changing China gives a high octane description of how this influences the chances of young rural women. Although circumstances are tough, these young women find opportunities that were never before available to most Chinese. The money they send home gives them influence over parents, including fathers. Many never want to return to the old ways and the countryside. “Destinyhascheatedme” has a good review of the book.

Edited: Feb 23, 2011, 9:38pm

So we have returned to the two sample Redology questions mentioned in the very first paragraph of this thread.

>133 LolaWalser: On the subject of bound feet, in the introduction to The Golden Days, Hawkes expains that Cao Xueqin's ancestors had emigrated to Manchuria and later become slaves of the right people, which led to the family's later success when the Manchus captured the Chinese throne and needed trusted go-betweens with the Chinese population. Hawkes writes that despite this,
Cao Xueqin tries as much as possible to present the family in the novel as an aristocratic Chinese one. It is only occasionally that he unintentionally lets slip some indication that its women are proud-stepping Manchu dames.

>131 jcbrunner: Extremely needy, sensitive as a mimosa, and always attributing the worst motives for others' actions, Daiyu would be the Girlfriend from Hell. I don't see Team Daiyu having many contemporary Western members. Lately, though, I can't think of choosing between Daiyu and Baochai without thinking of Robert Frost's "Fire and Ice". Facing this dilemma in the spirit of the Kobayashi Maru, I declare myself for Team Xiangyun. In addition to being quite intelligent in her own right, Miss Shi is more good-natured and more kind-hearted than either Daiyu or Baochai, and has no apparent psychological or cognitive issues that would raise the sort of reservations that I have about the other two young women.

Mar 1, 2011, 6:02pm

>136 mercure: Thanks for the tip. Adding Hsü to my TBR mountain.

The Economist has a great information display about the current gdp/capita of China's provinces mapping them to equivalent countries. The better Chinese provinces that aren't trader cities have caught up with poorer Eastern Europe. Western China is still atrociously poor. The Economist chickened out of including Taiwan (which is in the company of France).

>137 LJ_Reading: There must be members of Team Daiyu. At least, while looking for updates for an English subtitled DVD release the 2010 TV series, I found quite a few supporters of Daiyu. She is no femme fatale in the mood of Manon Lescaut, but what about Juliet?

Another question is who decides about marriage. The men seem to be totally absent in the decision-making.

Chapter 59 A commotion in the hen-house

The important people depart in a huge convoy to the Imperial funeral. Even the bedding has to be sent ahead - a medieval traveling court or Howard Hughes flavor. Fortunately, traveling has become so much easier and safer.

Those left behind in the compound batter down the hatches. The house is closed for business. The cats being away, the mice emerge - to bicker.

One morning, Seeing Xiangyun with a face rash again (aggressive acne?), Baochai orders Ying-erh to fetch some powder against it from Daiyu's. Taking one of the actresses with her, she strolls through the garden where she picks up twigs and flowers, forming them into a nice gift basket as a present for Daiyu, who is enchanted and feeling better. She intends to breakfast at Baochai's, sending the girls with the powder back to announce her coming. Ou-kuan, the other actress-servant, is begging to join them. So they set off through the garden.

While the two actresses deliver the powder and Daiyu's breakfast gear (napkin, chopsticks and spoon), Ying-erh collects further twigs to weave baskets. Chun.yen joins her as the two actresses return. Mocking Ou-kuan for her plight (told in the last chapter), Chun-yen elaborates on the poor marginal life of the desperate old maids who, in their fury to protect what little they have, tend to bully the only ones they can, the young ones. In a slapstick situation, Chun-yen is bound to experience just such bullying. Instigated thoughtlessly by Ying-erh, Chun-yen's aunt and mother gang up on Chun-yen and beat her. The older women's jealousy turns them vituperative and the hen house erupts in cries and beatings Jersey Shore-like. Chun-yen fleeing to Happy Red Court bumps into Xiren who acts as an arbiter but lets Ping'er be the bad cop: Dismissal and forty strokes for the old woman.

Which would be both excessive and cruel. The old woman pleads for mercy, even from her daughter Chun-yen. Baoyu defuses the situation and pardons the old woman. Later on, Ping'er checks in on Xiren asking for an update about the situation and revealing that the big troubles were at Madame Yu's.

Edited: Mar 3, 2011, 1:38am

I particularly like the GDP-map. It puts “the rise of China” in an interesting perspective. Guangdong, the industrial motor of China if not the world, has reached a pro capita product equivalent of Kazakhstan (although Kazakhstan’s GDP is somewhat higher than we think due to oil, it stands at 12,000, or in between Chili and Brazil, I saw here). On the other hand, the Chinese are investing heavily in the Western province of Xingjian (old name “Chinese Turkistan”), particularly also in infrastructure. If that will also benefit the local people is another matter. The Chinese practice of preferring to do business with insiders will not make it easier. The absence of harbours makes the connections with poor Central Asia all the more vital. For the overseas Chinese that built up the industries on the Chinese coast, the cultural differences with e.g. Vietnam are probably smaller than with Xingjian.

Regarding marriage, Hsü states in The Rise of Modern China (almost in the same passage, I did not quote it before to keep the response short):

The family head was the father, who had complete authority of over the other members. He decided all family issues, arranged his children’s marriages, disciplined the unfilial and disobedient, and could even sell them. Yet, for all his authority, he still had to act within the moral code of Confucianism and behave like a father – strict, yet benevolent, authoritative yet paternalistic – so that his children would like wise fulfill their expected roles.

Evans states in Women and Sexuality in China (which concentrates on China during the current communist party era) that even during the days of the communes that

subject to the authority of the household head, young women were still far from enjoying the possibility of conducting their own marriage negotiations.

The household head was of course the patriarch. Evans also reminded me of the common practice (and still around) of using matchmakers. And then of course there are the astrologers.

Mar 7, 2011, 5:30pm

>139 mercure: Van Gulik's comments about Han marriage practices are hilarious and fascinating, from Moon sect-like mass weddings to a marriage guarantee for every woman however poor, stupid or ugly (nice order of priorities!) to the extreme physical segregation of man and wife where touching is restricted to sex and women are mostly locked away, which led to the creative solution by Chinese diplomats taking a singer/prostitute to present to the world ...

By the way, does there exist a book about Chinese cultural misunderstandings (which deals mainly with the US/Brit-French differences)?

We have reached the half-time mark (or two thirds mark if one considers the novel to end on chapter 80). The bickering in Chapter 60 does not entice celebration.

Chapter 60 The cat fight between four actresses and a raging concubine

Baoyu sensibly recommends Chun-yen and her mother to apologize to Ying-erh. While this restores good relations with Ying-erh, it sets up the next train wreck. Fang-kuan receives rose-nitric powder from Jui-kuan she doesn't want to share with Jia Huan, the unfortunate son of the unfortunate concubine Zhao. She gives him jasmine powder instead, which the touchy concubine interprets as a slight. Concubine Zhao storms towards the Garden where she is further charged with the venomous gossip of Ou-kan's foster mother. Entering Red Happy Court, she insults Fang-kuan "You trollop! You painted whore!" Fang-kuan's sound retort "We are all slaves." angers the concubine so much that she slaps Fang-kuan who charges the concubine. Qingwen and Xiren don't interfere in the fight that leads to a decisive defeat for the concubine as the other former actresses join the cat fight. Her own daughter Tanchun has to rescue her, completely humiliated in front of Madam Yu and Li Wan.

We are finally treated to a vignette about a servant girl's plight: She wants to become a maid which isn't currently possible to Tanchun's hiring stop. She also declined to marry another servant's son, Chien Huai who cannot accept the loss of face. So girls have some sort of right of marriage proposal refusal (as we have already seen in the case of Xifeng's failed intervention). I fear the poor girl will have to pay the price for not obeying the Confucian parental wishes.

Edited: Mar 9, 2011, 4:03am

I am not aware of any book like Cultural Misunderstandings, probably because I have read too many books written by Brits (and Americans). There are of course books like Culture Shock China, but these describe China at a more practical, beginner’s level (e.g. do not give clocks as presents). Hence my library contains plenty of books on more detailed subjects like philosophy or religion, or more mundane (but often more revealing) subjects like superstitions or medicine.

Two books I could recommend regarding the Chinese Weltanschauung would be Five fold Happiness and The Geography of Thought. The first one is a very light read, more like the pocket version of a coffee table book with lots of cute pictures. However, it nicely describes the concepts Iuck, prosperity, longevity, happiness, and wealth that are so important to the Chinese, and that pervade their behaviour in every day life. The Geography of Thought deals with the different way of thinking of Asians (Northeast Asians that is, Southeast Asians think more holistically) vis-à-vis Americans (just to give you a hint: first the Americans were obsessed with Japan, now with China). Although some of its explanations might be too simple and Nisbett mistakes America too much for the West (e.g. in juxtaposing American lawyers against Asian engineeers), the observations are very real. It will also confirm the sense that the Chinese are less curious than Westerners as we discussed in message 115 and 121. Nisbett gives the practical character of Chinese culture as the main cause. This is a reason often given by Westerners to explain various characteristics of Chinese culture (e.g. think of message 107 about religion, or LolaWalser’s message 14), and I can confirm that from personal observation.

This practicality equally applied to Japan according to 19th century Dutch eyewitness accounts (see my review of Twee Spiegels op Cambang. Among others these Dutchmen noted the weak bond between husband and wife that my Hong Kong colleagues and friends talk about, but that I have yet to find discussed in any books. In Een man van drie levens van Gulik is quoted as saying that he could be so productive, because of the balance with his private life supplied by his Chinese wife. It was his wife taking care of the household, so he could concentrate on public life (and allowing him a certain level of licentiousness). When the biographer discussed this with his widow she confirmed this and stated that van Gulik never talked about his work or other public life matters. She found that somewhat disappointing, but accepted it. Note also that unlike in some Western and Southeast Asian countries the wives of political leaders are absent from public life in Northeast Asia.

JC, you seem to be at page 56 of the English version of van Gulik. The Han prioritisation of its marriage guarantee is no surprise if you consider what Hofstede calls (e.g. in Cultures and Organizations Software of the Mind) the high power distance of Chinese culture. I have seen a few times how a manager would talk to his staff, putting them in a row by order of height. Authority is not quickly challenged in the Middle Kingdoom.

Chinese singers and actresses still mostly become the consorts of tycoons, rather than of their fellow movie stars, like in the West. I would say that in general Chinese tycoons consider the gain of face from their relationships with much younger women even more important than their Western counterparts. On the other hand, the actresses and singers (often being both actress and singer at the same time) usually reach the top more because of their looks than their talents, and may find the material comfort all the more ensuring. Nisbett will explain you that counterpoint is absent from Chinese music. Consequently being a Cantopop star does not require much talent.

Mar 9, 2011, 1:18pm

>141 mercure: In German, there is the conservative 3K concept of a woman's proper sphere of action (Küche, Kinder, Kirche - kitchen, children, church), which is not all that different from the Asian pattern you described (which partially accounts for the popularity of Asian import brides who, at least at the beginning, tolerate such restrictive settings).

I'm on Page 96 of the (much cheaper) French paperback edition which features a Han poem that cries for a bad pop song:
L'homme est parti, ne revient pas, / la couche solitaire, c'est dur à supporter.
My man is gone and won't come back / my empty bed is tough to bear.

I saw The Geography of Thought in the library - the title is right up my alley - but didn't pick it up after having read the introduction where the author offers a flawed impression of the Ancient Greeks as individualistic philosopher kings (instead of a deeply squabbling tribal society). If he does not understand that part of his own civilization, how can he approach to understand a different one? I will have another look at it.

Five Fold Happiness is on its way ( had a nice 1 EUR copy)! Chinese culture patterns. I thought about a European equivalent (such as the Catholic concept of virtues) but differences in class, religion and language make such a consensus unlikely.

Mar 17, 2011, 7:41pm

The read along continues in Part Two with chapter 61.

Incidentally, during a visit to the Viennese Narrenturm (tower of fools) which houses a history of medicine/pathology museum, I saw the lower leg and bound feet bones of a Chinese woman. The whole foot was smaller in length than my (not iPhone compatible) index finger ...

Edited: Sep 22, 2011, 9:34pm

I flipped through Geography of Thought when it came out some time ago. The only points I recalled now are:

1. modern western culture seems to emphasize and train thinking while speaking out loud; while modern East Asian cultures emphasize thinking without speaking out loud. So in classroom and modern meeting rooms East Asians come out looking bad, but when you look at the quality of thinking it is in fact at least no worse.

2. When kids are asked to choose two items that belong together: A) Orange; B) Banana; C) Monkey: western kids pick A) and B); while East Asian kids pick B) and C). Supposed to reflect classificatory thinking (e.g. Aristotlelian logic) vs. relational thinking (Monkey eats banana)

Sep 27, 2011, 7:05pm

>144 lawpark: The main problem is the author's speaking of "Western" when he means American. It would be easy to assemble a group of Scandinavians to surpass even the quietest Asians in silence.

It used to be that everybody in the West read out everything aloud, as the lack of punctuation marks and, earlier, word dividers (spaces) made comprehension nearly impossible if not spoken out loud.

Edited: Oct 11, 2011, 3:15am

I may want to add that not all East Asians are very quiet. The Filipina maids that congregate in Hong Kong Central on their Sunday day off used to wake me up in the 20th floor with their chatter.

However, Thais and Indonesians are just as good at “holistic” thinking as are Chinese or Japanese.

I have just about finished Jonathan Spence's recommendable The Death of Woman Wang, which gives various examples of women running businesses on behalf of their husbands during the Ch'ing. According to Spence, women’s virtues fostered were

chastity, courage, tenacity, and unquestioning acceptance of the prevailing hierarchy – unto death if necessary.

It was the hierarchy that counted, but authority could obviously be delegated.

That said, 10/10/2011 is the 100th birthday of the overthrow of the alien Manchu regime, and the installation of the Sun Yat-sen's Republic of China. I guess you all toasted this event with rice wine?