A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 18

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A Dream of Red Mansions018

Chapter 18

Yuanchun Visits Her Parents

on the Feast of Lanterns

Daiyu Helps Her True Love

by Passing Him a Poem

As soon as Baoyu was out of the courtyard, the pages who attended Jia Zheng stepped forward to throw their arms around his waist.

They said, “It’s lucky for you that the master was in such a good mood today. The old lady sent several times to ask how things were, and you should thank us for telling her he looked pleased. Otherwise she’d have sent for you and you wouldn’t have had this chance to shine. Ev­erybody said your poems were the best. “Today’s your lucky day, so give us a tip.”

“You shall each have a string of cash,” he promised them.

“Who hasn’t seen a string of cash?” cried one. “Give me your pouch.”

Swarming round without so much as a “by your leave,” they stripped him of his scented pouch, fan-sheath and other pendants.

“Now let’s see him back!” they cried.

With one of them carrying him, the others in a troop escorted him along to the outer courtyard of the Lady Dowager’s apartments.

Since she had sent several times to see how her grandson was faring, she was naturally pleased when her nannies and maids brought him in, none the worse for his experience.

When presently Xiren handed him tea she noticed that not one of his pendants was left. “So those shameless wretches have taken all your things again,” she remarked with a smile.

Daiyu came over to see if this was true. Sure enough, all his trinkets had gone.

“So you’ve given them that pouch I made you too!” she remarked. “All right, that’s the last thing you’ll ever get from me.”

Going crossly back to her own room, she took her scissors and started cutting up the sachet she had been making for him at Baoyu’s own re­quest.

Baoyu, seeing that she was angry, knew that something was up and hurried after her. Too late. Although the sachet had not been finished, the embroidery on it was very fine and she had put a lot of work into it, so he was annoyed to see it spoilt for no reason. Quickly undoing his collar, he pulled out the pouch he was wearing over his red tunic.

“Look, what’s this?” he asked, showing it to her. “When have I ever given anything of yours to someone else?”

Realizing that he treasured her gift so much that he had kept it safely hidden away, Daiyu repented of her hastiness and hung her head in si­lence.

“You didn’t have to cut it up,” went on Baoyu reproachfully. “I know you don’t like giving me anything, so I’ll let you have this one back too, how about that?” Tossing it into her lap, he turned to go.

Choking with anger Daiyu burst into tears. She picked up the pouch meaning to cut it to pieces as well. But he rushed back to stop her, beg­ging, “Dear cousin, spare it!”

She threw down the scissors to brush away her tears.

“You don’t have to treat me like that, kind one moment and cruel the next. If it’s a quarrel you want, we’d better have nothing more to do with each other. Why carry on like this?”

She flung herself tearfully down on her bed with her face towards the wall, wiping her streaming eyes. In desperation, Baoyu leant over her begging, “Dear cousin, dear kind cousin, do forgive me!”

Meanwhile the Lady Dowager had been asking where Baoyu was. Hearing that he was with Daiyu she said, “That’s good. Let them amuse themselves together for a while. He deserves a little relaxation after be­ing kept so long under check by his father. Just see that they don’t quar­rel. You mustn’t upset him.” And to this the servants agreed.

Unable to shake Baoyu off, Daiyu got up. “Since you won’t give me any peace, I’m going to leave you,” she declared.

As she started out he said with a smile, “Wherever you go, I’ll go with you.” He was fastening on the pouch again as he spoke.

Daiyu snatched at it, scolding, “First you say you don’t want it, and now you’re putting it on again. I really blush for you.” She started to giggle.

“Dear cousin, do make me another sachet tomorrow.”

“We’ll have to see how I feel.”

They went together then to Lady Wang’s quarters where they hap­pened to find Baochai. Everyone was in a state of great excitement, as the twelve young actresses bought by Jia Qiang in Suzhou had just ar­rived, together with the instructors he had hired and the costumes for the operas they would perform.

Aunt Xue had moved to quiet, secluded quarters in the northeast part of the grounds, and Pear Fragrance Court had been made ready for the rehearsals. Some family maids who had once trained as opera-singers themselves but were now hoary dames were sent to look after the little actresses, while Jia Qiang was put in charge of their daily expenses and the provision of everything they required.

Just at this time, Lin Zhixiao’s wife came to report, “The twenty-four little nuns — twelve Buddhist and twelve Taoist — whom I selected and purchased have now arrived, and their twenty-four new habits are ready. There’s another girl, too, who had entered holy orders without shaving her head. She comes from a Suzhou family of scholars and offi­cials. She was delicate as a child, and although they bought many substi­tute novices for her it was no use — her health didn’t improve until she joined the Buddhist order herself. That’s how she became a lay sister. She’s eighteen this year and her name in religion is Miaoyu. Her parents are dead now and she only has two old nurses and one maid to look after her. She’s widely read and well-versed in the sutras, besides being very good-looking. She came to the capital last year, having heard there were relics of Guanyin here and canons inscribed on pattra leaves. She’s been living in the Sakyamuni Convent outside the West Gate. Her tutor was an excellent diviner, but she passed away last winter. Miaoyu had meant to escort the coffin back to her native place; but as her tutor lay dying she told the girl not to go back home but to wait quietly where she was for something fortune had in store for her. So she didn’t accompany the coffin back.”

“In that case, why not ask her here?” put in Lady Wang.

“She’d refuse,” objected Lin Zhixiao’s wife. “She’d be afraid of being looked down on in a noble household.”

“A young lady from an official family is bound to be rather proud,” agreed Lady Wang. “Why not send her a written invitation?”

Lin Zhixiao’s wife agreed and left. One of the secretaries was in­structed to make out an invitation, and the following day servants were sent with a carriage and sedan-chair to fetch Miaoyu. As to what fol­lowed, we can leave that till later.

A servant came just then to request Xifeng to open the storeroom and issue the gauze and silk needed by the workmen for screens. Another asked her to store away the gold and silver utensils. Meanwhile Lady Wang and her maids were busy too.

So Baochai suggested, “Let’s not stay here where we’re only in the way. Let’s go and find Tanchun.”

She took Baoyu and Daiyu to the rooms of Yingchun and others to while away the time.

For Lady Wang and her helpers the days passed in a flurry of prepa­rations until, towards the end of the tenth month, all was ready. The stew­ards had handed in their accounts; antiques and precious objects had been set out; the pleasure grounds were well-stocked with cranes, pea­cocks, deer, rabbits, chicken and geese to be reared in appropriate places; Jia Qiang had twenty operas ready; and the little Buddhist and Taoist nuns had memorized various sutras and incantations.

Then Jia Zheng, able at last to breathe more freely, invited the Lady Dowager to make a final inspection of the Garden and see that all was in order with nothing overlooked. This done, he chose an auspicious date and wrote a memorial, and the very same day that it was presented the Son of Heaven acceded to his request. The Imperial Consort would be permitted to visit her parents for the Feast of Lanterns on the fifteenth of the first month the following year. This threw the whole household into such a commotion that, hard at work day and night, they scarcely had time to celebrate the New Year.

In a twinkling the Feast of Lanterns would arrive. On the eighth of the first month eunuchs came from the Palace to inspect the general layout of the Garden and the apartment where the Imperial consort would change her clothes, sit with her family, receive their homage, feast them and retire to rest. The eunuch in charge of security also posted many younger eunuchs as guards by the screened and curtained entrances to the retir­ing rooms. Detailed instructions were given to all members of the house­hold as to where they should withdraw, where they should kneel, serve food or make announcements — all the exact etiquette to be observed. Outside, officers from the Board of Works and the Chief of the Metro­politan Police had the streets swept and cleared of loiterers. Jia She su­perintended the craftsmen making ornamental lanterns and fireworks, and by the fourteenth everything was ready. But no one, high or low, slept a wink that night.

Before dawn the next day all those with official ranks from the Lady Dowager downwards put on full ceremonial dress. Everywhere in the Garden were hangings and screens brilliantly embroidered with dancing dragons and flying phoenixes; gold and silver glittered, pearls and pre­cious stones shimmered; richly blended incense burnt in the bronze tri­pods, and fresh flowers filled the vases. Not a cough broke the solemn silence.

Jia She and the other men waited outside in the west street entrance, the Lady Dowager and the women outside the main gate, the ends of the street and the alleys leading to it all having been screened off.

They were growing tired of waiting when a eunuch rode up on a big horse. The Lady Dowager welcomed him in and asked for news.

“It will be a long time yet,” the eunuch told her. “Her Highness is to dine at one, pray to Buddha in the Palace of the Precious Spirit at half past two, and at five go to feast in the Palace of Great Splendour and look at the display of lanterns before asking leave from the Emperor. She can hardly set out until seven.”

This being the case, Xifeng suggested that the Lady Dowager and Lady Wang should go inside to rest and come back later.

So the Lady Dowager and others retired, leaving Xifeng in charge. She ordered the stewards to conduct the eunuchs to where refreshments were waiting. Then she had loads of candles carried in for all the lan­terns.

It was not until the candles had been lit that a clatter of hooves was heard in the street. The next moment up panted ten or more eunuchs, clapping their hands as they ran. At this signal the other eunuchs said, “Her Highness is coming!” They all rushed to their posts.

For a long time they waited in silence, Jia She and the young men of the family by the entrance of the west street, the Lady Dowager and the women in front of the main gate.

Then two eunuchs wearing scarlet uniforms rode slowly up to the entrance of the west street. Dismounting, they led their horses behind the screens, then stood to attention, their faces turned towards the west. After some time another pair appeared, then another, until there were ten pairs lined up and soft music could be heard in the distance.

And now a long procession approached: several pairs of eunuchs carrying dragon banners, others with phoenix fans, pheasant plumes and ceremonial insignia, as well as gold censers burning Imperial incense. Next came a curved-handled yellow umbrella on which were embroi­dered seven phoenixes, and under this a head-dress, robe, girdle and slip­pers. After this came attendant eunuchs bearing a rosary, embroidered handkerchiefs, a rinse-bowl, fly-whisks and the like.

Last of all, borne slowly forward by eight eunuchs, came a gold-topped palanquin embroidered with phoenixes.

All present, including the Lady Dowager, hastily fell to their knees by the side of the road. Eunuchs rushed over to help up the old lady as well as Lady Xing and Lady Wang.

The palanquin was carried through the main gate to the entrance of the courtyard on the east, where a eunuch holding a whisk knelt down and invited the Imperial Consort to dismount and change her clothes. Then the palanquin was borne inside and the eunuchs withdrew, leaving Yuanchun’s ladies-in-waiting to help her alight.

She observed that the courtyard was brightly lit with ornamental lan­terns of every kind, all exquisitely made of finest gauze. The highest, a rectangular lantern, bore the inscription: Fraught with Favour, Basking in Kindness.

Yuanchun entered the robing room and changed, then remounted her palanquin which was carried into the Garden. She found it wreathed with the perfumed smoke of incense, splendid with flowers, brilliant with count­less lanterns, melodious with strains of soft music. Words fail to describe

that scene of peaceful magnificence and noble refinement.

Here, Readers, recalling the scene of desolation at the foot of Blue Ridge Peak in the Great Waste Mountain, I cannot but thank the scabby Buddhist and lame Taoist for bringing me to this place. For how other­wise could I have seen such a sight? I was tempted to write a lantern-poem or a eulogy on family reunion to pay tribute to it, but feared slipping into the vulgar vein of other books. Besides, even writing an ode or eu­logy could not do justice to the scene’s enchantment. If, on the other hand, I omit to write one my worthy readers can imagine its magnifi­cence for themselves. So I had better save both time and paper and return from this digression to our story.

Now, as she gazed from her palanquin at the dazzling display both within and without the Garden, the Imperial Consort sighed softly:

“This is too extravagant!”

Then a eunuch with a whisk knelt down by the palanquin and invited her to proceed by boat. As she alighted she saw before her a clear wa­terway winding like a dragon. From the marble balustrades on either bank lanterns of crystal and glass of every description shed a silvery light, clear as snow. The wintry boughs of the willows and apricot trees above them were festooned with artificial flowers and leaves made of rice-paper and silk, and from every tree hung lanterns. Lovely too on the water were the lotus flowers, duckweed and water-fowl made out of shells and feathers. Lanterns high and low seemed trying to outshine each other. It was truly a world of crystal and precious stones! The boats were magnificent too, with lanterns, rare miniature gardens, pearl por­tieres, embroidered curtains, rudders of cassia and oars of aromatic wood, which we need not describe in detail.

By now they had reached a marble landing-stage. The lantern-sign above it bore the words, “Smartweed Bank and Flowery Harbour.”

Regarding this name, Reader, and others such as “Where the Phoe­nix Alights” from the last chapter in which Jia Zheng tested Baoyu’s literary talent, you may wonder to find them actually used as inscriptions. For the Jias, after all, were a scholarly family all of whose friends and protégés were men of parts. Moreover they could easily find well-known writers to compose inscriptions. Why then make shift with phrases tossed off by a boy? Were they like newly rich upstarts who throw money about like dirt and, having painted their mansion crimson, put up huge inscrip­tions such as “Green willows with golden locks before the gate, Blue hills like embroidered screens behind the house,” fancying these the height of elegance? Could that be the way of the Jia family described in this Tale of the Stone? This is surely a contradiction? Let me, stupid as I am, explain this to you.

The Imperial Consort, before she entered the Palace, had been brought up from childhood by the Lady Dowager. And after Baoyu was born, as Yuanchun was his elder sister and Baoyu her younger brother, bearing in mind that their mother had given birth to him late in life, she loved him more than her other brothers and lavished all her care on him. They both stayed with their grandmother and were inseparable. Even before Baoyu started school, when he was hardly four years old, she taught him to recite several texts and to recognize several thousand characters. she was more like a mother to him than an elder sister. After she entered the Palace she often wrote letters home reminding her parents to educate him well, for unless strictly disciplined he would not amount to much, but if treated too sternly he might also give them cause for anxiety. Her loving concern for him had never ceased.

Jia Zheng, earlier on, had scarcely believed the tutor’s report that Baoyu had a flair for literary composition. As the Garden happened then to be ready for inspection, he had called on his son for inscriptions in order to test him. And although Baoyu’s childish efforts were far from inspired, at least they were passable. The family could easily enough have enlisted the help of famous scholars; but it seemed to them that a special interest attached to names chosen by a member of the house. Besides, when the Imperial Consort learned that these were the work of her beloved younger brother, she would feel that he had not fallen short of her hopes. For these reasons Baoyu’s inscriptions were adopted. Not all had been chosen that day; some he supplied later. But enough of this.

When the Imperial Consort saw this name, she commented with a smile: “Just ‘Flowery Harbour’ would do. Why ‘Smart-weed Bank’ too?”

As soon as the eunuch in attendance heard this, he hastily disem­barked and went ashore to report to Jia Zheng, who immediately had the alteration made.

Meanwhile the boat had reached the further shore and again Yuanchun mounted her palanquin. Before her now there towered the beautiful hall of an imposing palace. The marble archway in front of it bore the inscrip­tion: “Precious Realm for the Immortal.” At once she ordered this to be changed to “House of Reunion.”

As she entered this temporary palace, she saw torches in the court­yard flaring to the sky, powdered incense strewing the ground, flaming trees, jasper flowers, gilded windows and jade balustrades, to say nothing of screens as fine as the shrimp’s antennae, carpets of otter-skin, musk burning in tripods, and fans made from pheasant plumage. Truly this was:

An abode with golden gates and jade doors fit for immortals,

Its cassia and orchid chambers a worthy setting for the Imperial Consort.

After glancing around she asked, “Why has this place no name?”

The eunuch attendant fell on his knees. “Because this is the main palace,” he replied, “no subject outside the Court dared suggest a name.”

The Imperial Consort nodded and said nothing.

Another eunuch, the Master of Ceremonies, knelt and begged her to sit in a chair of state to receive the obeisances of her family. On both sides of the steps music was played as two eunuchs ushered in Jia She and the men of the family to range themselves below the dais; but when a lady-in-waiting relayed the Imperial Consort’s command to dispense with this ceremony they withdrew. Then the Lady Dowa­ger of the Rong Mansion and the female relatives were led up the east flight of steps to the dais, but they too were exempted from the ceremony and shown out.

After tea had been served three times, Yuanchun descended from the throne and the music ceased while she went into a side chamber to change her clothes. Meanwhile a carriage had been prepared to drive her out of the Garden to visit her parents.

First she went to the Lady Dowager’s reception room to pay her respects as a grand-daughter of the house; but before she could do so her grandmother and the others knelt to prevent her. The Imperial Consort’s eyes were full of tears as her family drew near to greet her. As she clasped the hands of her grandmother and mother, the hearts of all three were too full to speak — they could do nothing but sob. Lady Xing, Li Wan, Xifeng, Yuanchun’s half sister Tanchun and her cousins Yingchun and Xichun also stood beside them weeping silently. But at last the Impe­rial Consort mastered her grief and forced a smile as she tried to comfort them.

“Since you sent me away to that forbidden place, it hasn’t been easy getting this chance today to come home and see you all again,” she said. “But instead of chatting and laughing, here we are crying! Soon I shall have to leave you, and there is no knowing when I can come back again.” At this she broke down afresh.

Lady Xing and the others did their best to console her and the Lady Dowager asked her to take a seat, after which she exchanged courtesies with each in turn and more tears were shed. Next the stewards and attendants of both mansions paid their respects outside the door, and so did their wives and the maids.

This ceremony at an end, Yuanchun asked why Aunt Xue, Baochai and Daiyu were missing.

Lady Wang explained that they were afraid to presume, not being members of the Jia family and having no official status.

The Imperial Consort asked them to be invited in at once, and they were about to pay homage according to Palace etiquette when she ex­empted them too and chatted with them.

Next Baoqin and the other maids whom Yuanchun had taken with her to the Palace kowtowed to the Lady Dowager, who hastily stopped them and sent them off to have some refreshments in another room. The se­nior eunuchs and ladies-in-waiting were also entertained by members of the staff of both mansions, leaving only three or four young eunuchs in attendance.

When the ladies of the family had spoken with feeling about their separation and all that had happened since, Jia Zheng from outside the door-curtain asked after the health of his daughter, and she in turn paid her respects.

With tears she told him, “Simple farmers who live on pickles and

dress in homespun at least know the joys of family life together. What pleasure can I take in high rank and luxury when we are separated like this?”

With tears too he replied, “Your subject, poor and obscure, little dreamed that our flock of common pigeons and crows would ever be blessed with a phoenix. Thanks to the Imperial favour and the virtue of our ancestors, your Noble Highness embodies the finest essences of na­ture and the accumulated merit of our forbears — such fortune has attended my wife and myself.

“His Majesty, who manifests the great virtue of all creation, has shown us such extraordinary and hitherto unknown favour that even if we dashed out our brains we could not repay one-thousandth part of our debt of gratitude. All I can do is to exert myself day and night, loyally carry out my official duties, and pray that our sovereign may live ten thousand years as desired by all under heaven.

“Your Noble Highness must not grieve your precious heart in concern for your ageing parents. We beg you to take better care of your own health. Be cautious, circumspect, diligent and respectful. Honour the Emperor and serve him well, so as to prove yourself not ungrateful for His Majesty’s bountiful goodness and great kindness.”

Then it was Yuanchun’s turn to urge her father to devote himself to affairs of state, look after his health and dismiss all anxiety regarding her.

After this Jia Zheng informed her, “All the inscriptions on the pavil­ions and lodges in the Garden were composed by Baoyu. If you find one or two of the buildings not too tame, please condescend to re-name them yourself, that would make us extremely happy.”

The news that Baoyu was already able to compose inscriptions made her exclaim with delight, “So he’s making progress!”

When Jia Zheng had withdrawn, the Imperial Consort observed that Baochai and Daiyu stood out from their girl cousins, being truly fairer than flowers or finest jade. Then she inquired why Baoyu had not come to greet her. The Lady Dowager explained that, unless specially sum­moned, as a young man without official rank he dared not presume.

At once the Imperial Consort sent for him and a young eunuch ush­ered him in to pay homage according to Palace etiquette. His sister called

him to her and took his hand. Drawing him close to her bosom, she stroked his neck and commented with a smile, “How you have grown!” But even as she spoke her tears fell like rain.

Madam You and Xifeng stepped forward then to announce, “The banquet is ready. We beg Your Highness to favour us with your pres­ence.” Then she rose and told Baoyu to lead the way.

Accompanied by all the rest she walked into the Garden, where the magnificent sights were lit up by lanterns. Past “Where the Phoenix Alights,” “Crimson Fragrance and Green Jade,” “Approach to Apricot Tavern” and “Pure Scent of Alpinia and Iris” they strolled, mounting pavilions, crossing streams, climbing miniature hills and enjoying the view from various different points. All the buildings were distinctively fur­nished, and each corner had such fresh, unusual features that Yuanchun was lavish with her praise and approval. But she cautioned them:

“You mustn’t be so extravagant in future. This is far too much!”

When they reached the main reception palace she desired them to dispense with ceremony and take their seats. It was a sumptuous ban­quet. The Lady Dowager and the rest sat at tables on either side, while Madam You, Li Wan and Xifeng passed round dishes and poured the wine. Meanwhile Yuanchun asked for writing-brush and inkstone and with her own hand wrote names for the spots she liked best. For the main reception palace she wrote the inscription: Recalling Imperial Favour, Mindful of Duty. And the couplet:

Compassion vast as the universe extends to old and young, Grace unknown before honours every state and land.

The pleasure grounds were named the Grand View Garden.

“Where the Phoenix Alights” was renamed “Bamboo Lodge,” “Crimson Fragrance and Green Jade” was changed to “Happy Red and Delightful Green” and also called Happy Red Court. The name “Pure Scent of Alpinia and Iris” was altered to “Alpinia Park,” the “Approach to Apricot Tavern” became “Hemp Washing Cottage.” The main pavil­ion became “Grand View Pavilion,” its eastern wing “Variegated Splendour Tower,” that on the west “Fragrant Tower.” Other names given were “Smartweed Breeze Cot,” “Lotus Fragrance Anchorage,” “Purple Caltrop Isle” and “Watercress Isle.” She composed a dozen or so other inscriptions too such as “Pear Blossom in Spring Rain,” “Plane Trees in Autumn Wind” and “Artemisia in Evening Snow.” The rest of the inscriptions cannot all be recorded here. The other former inscrip­tions at her order remained unaltered.

Then the Imperial Consort wrote this verse:

Enfolding hills and streams laid out with skill —What labour went to build this pleasure ground!

For these, the finest sights of earth and heaven,

Not fitter name than “Grand View” can be found.

With a simile she showed this to the girls and said, “I have never had a ready wit or any skill in versifying, as all of you know, but tonight I had to try my hand at a verse in honour of these pleasure grounds. Some day when I have more time, I promise to write a Description of Grand View Garden and a panegyric called The Family Reunion to com­memorate this occasion.

“Now I want each of you to write an inscription and a poem to go with it. Do your best, and don’t feel restricted by my lame attempt. It was such a delightful surprise to me to find that Baoyu can compose inscriptions and poems. The Bamboo Lodge and Alpinia Park are the places I like best, and after them Happy Red Court and Hemp Washing Cottage. We must have four poems specially written for these. Although Baoyu’s couplets com­posed earlier are charming, I want him now in my presence to write four lu­shi1 in five-character lines on each of these places. That will repay the efforts I made to teach him when he was a little boy.”

Baoyu had to agree and went off to rack his brains.

Of Yingchun, Tanchun and Xichun, Tanchun was the cleverest, but she realized that she was no match for Baochai and Daiyu. Still she had to write something, as the others were doing. Li Wan, too, contrived to compose a verse of sorts.

The Imperial Consort looked first at the girls’ attempts. Here is what they had written:

REFRESHING THE HEART

Landscapes strange and rare here we find:

Bashfully, at the word of command, I take up my pen;

Who dreamed of such loveliness in the world of men?

A stroll through these grounds refreshes heart and mind.

Yingchun

ALL THINGS VIE IN SPLENDOUR

This garden laid out with consummate art

I blush, with my poor skill, its fame to render.

Past telling are the marvels in this place

For here, indeed, all things compete in splendour.

Tanchun

REFINEMENT IN CREATION

This landscape stretches to infinity,

Its high pavilions soaring to the sky;

Laid out in radiance of the moon and sun,

Nature itself is by these scenes outdone.

Xichun

FAIR AND FINE

Bright hills and crystal water intertwine,

No fairy isle is half as fair or fine.

Green fans of singers mid sweet herbs are lost,

Plum-petals by red skirts of dancers tossed.

Rare verses should record this golden hour —

Our joy at the nymph’s descent from jasper tower.

Once she has visited these lovely grounds

No mortal foot may overstep their bounds.

Li Wan

CONCENTRATED SPLENDOUR,

BESTOWED FELICITY

West of the Palace in this pleasure ground

Sunlight, auspicious clouds, rare sights abound;

High willows orioles from the vale invite,

Tall bamboos tempt the phoenix to alight.

This night’s royal tour gives rise to poetry,

Her visit fosters filial piety.

Such wisdom flows from her immortal brush,

Too awed to pen more lines I can but blush.

Xue Baochai

A FAIRYLAND FAR FROM THE WORLD OF MEN

Who knows where this illustrious garden lies?

Far from the dusty world this paradise.

Here streams and mountains lend their fair delight

Enhanced by many a novel scene and sight.

Scents heady as the wine from Golden Dell2

Bind all in these jade halls with flowery spell;

Blessed by Imperial favour, we would fain

Welcome the royal visitant again.

Lin Daiyu

Yuanchun praised all these verses, then remarked with a smile, “Cousin Baochai’s and Cousin Daiyu’s are specially good. We others are no match for them.”

Now Daiyu had intended to outshine them all that night by a great display of her brilliance; but when the Imperial Consort asked them each for merely one inscription and one poem, she knew it would be presump­tuous to write more and simply dashed off a verse for the occasion.

Meanwhile Baoyu was far from finished with his verses. Having writ­ten on Bamboo Lodge and Alpinia Park, he was now tackling Happy Red Court. His draft contained the line:

The green jade leaves in spring are yet furled tight.

Baochai, glancing at it while no one else was looking, nudged him surrep­titiously.

“She didn’t like ‘Red Fragrance and Green Jade,”’ she whispered. “That’s why she changed it to ‘Happy Red and Delightful Green.’ If you use ‘green jade’ again, won’t that look as if you’re challenging her judgement? Besides, there are plenty of allusions to plantain leaves you could use. Better find another phrase.”

Baoyu mopped his perspiring forehead. “I can’t for the moment think of any,” he said.

Baochai smiled. “Just change ‘green jade’ into ‘green wax.

“Is there such an allusion?”

With a mocking smile and a smack of the lips she nodded. “If you’re in such a state tonight, by the time you sit for the Palace Examination I dare say you’ll even forget the first primer you ever read. Have you forgotten the opening line of that poem on the plantain by the Tang poet Qian Xu, ‘Smokeless the cold candles, the green wax is dry’?”

Baoyu felt as if a veil had been lifted from his eyes. “How stupid of me!” he chuckled. “Fancy forgetting a ready-made phrase like that. You’re really my ‘one-word-teacher.’ From now on I shall have to ad­dress you as ‘master, ‘ not as ‘sister’ any more.”

Suppressing a smile Baochai replied, “Hurry up and finish instead of talking such nonsense. Who are you calling ‘sister’? That’s your sister sitting up there in the golden robes. Why call me your sister?” Afraid to delay him by chatting, she slipped away.

Baoyu persevered until three poems were done and Daiyu, depressed at having no chance to shine, came up to his desk where he was strug­gling alone, meaning to help him out by writing a couple of poems for him.

Asked if he had finished, Baoyu said, “I’ve only done three. All left now is Approach to Apricot Tavern.

“Well then, let me do that for you, while you copy out the other three.”

After thinking for a moment with lowered head, she scribbled the poem out on a slip of paper, screwed it into a ball and tossed it to Baoyu. When he smoothed it out he found it ten times better than his own at­tempts. He was overjoyed. Having hurriedly copied it out with care he presented all four poems to Yuanchun.

This is what she read:

WHERE THE PHOENIX ALIGHTS

The fruit fresh formed on jade stalks rare

Makes for the phoenix fitting fare;

So green each stem they seem to drip

With coolness seeping from each verdant tip.

Bursting through stones, they change the water’s track;

Piercing through screens, hold tripod’s incense back;

Let none disturb these chequered shades,

That sweetly she may dream till daylight fades.

PURE SCENT OF ALPINIA AND IRIS

Alpinia fills the courtyard free from dust,

By climbing fig its fragrance reinforced;

Softly they heighten the fresh green of spring,

Gently they trail their perfume, ring on ring.

A light mist hides the winding path from view,

From covered walks drips chill and verdant dew.

But who will celebrate the pool in song?

Lost in a dream, at peace, the poet sleeps long.

HAPPY RED AND DELIGHTFUL GREEN

In quiet court long days pass tranquilly;

A charming match, plantain and apple-tree;

The green wax leaves in spring are yet furled tight,

The blossom decked in red keeps watch at night;

With crimson sleeves one sweeps the balustrade,

One, misty green, is by the rocks arrayed.

Facing each other in the soft east wind

They surely bring their mistress peace of mind!

APPROACH TO APRICOT TAVERN

A grove of apricots, a tavern-sign,

And a hillside hamlet beyond;

Elms, mulberries, swallows on rafters,

And geese on the caltrop pond.

In the fields spring leeks are green;

All round, the paddy flowers scent the breeze;

None goes hungry in these good times,

Ploughman and weaver alike can take their ease.

Yuanchun, delighted with these poems, exclaimed, “He has certainly made great progress!”

Having pointed out that the last poem was the best, she changed the name “Hemp-Washing Cottage” into “Paddy-Sweet Cottage.” She then made Tanchun copy out all eleven poems on ornamental paper, and a eunuch delivered them to Jia Zheng and the other men waiting outside, who praised them highly. Jia Zheng also presented a panegyric of his own composition entitled The Visitation.

Yuanchun had junket, ham and other delicacies presented to Baoyu and Jia Lan, who was too young to do more than pay his respects after his mother and uncles, for which reason he has not been previously mentioned.

Jia Huan had not yet recovered from an illness contracted over New

Year and was still convalescing in his own apartments; this is why no mention has been made of him either.

All this time Jia Qiang was waiting impatiently down below with his twelve young actresses. But now a eunuch ran down to him, exclaiming, “They have finished their poems. Give me your programme, quick!”

Jia Qiang lost no time in handing him a programme with a brocade cover and a list of the stage names of the twelve players. Presently four pieces were chosen: “The Sumptuous Banquet,”3 “The Double Seventh Festival,”4 “Meeting the Immortals”5 and “The Departure of the Soul.”6

Jia Qiang put on the first item without delay. All his players sang bewitchingly and danced divinely; thus although this was merely a stage performance they conveyed genuine grief and joy.

No sooner had they finished than a eunuch appeared backstage with a golden tray of cakes and sweetmeats, and asked which of the ac­tresses was Lingguan. Realizing that this was a present for her, Jia Qiang accepted it gladly and made her kowtow her thanks.

The eunuch announced, “The Imperial Consort says that Lingguan is superb. She is to play in two more pieces of her own choice.”

Jia Qiang hastily agreed and suggested “A Visit to the Garden” and “The Dream.”7 But since neither formed part of her repertoire, Lingguan insisted on “The Pledge” and “The Quarrel”8 instead. And Jia Qiang had to let her have her way.

The Imperial Consort was so enchanted that she gave special instruc­tions that this girl must be well treated and carefully trained. She gave Lingguan an extra reward of two rolls of Imperial satin, two embroidered pouches, some gold and silver trinkets and various delicacies.

Then they left the banqueting hall to visit the places Yuanchun had not yet seen, among them a Buddhist convent set among hills, where she washed her hands before going in to burn incense and worship Buddha. She chose as inscription for this convent the words, “Ship of Mercy on the Sea of Suffering.” And here she gave additional gifts to the Buddhist nuns and Taoist priestesses.

Soon a eunuch knelt to report that the list of gifts was ready for her approval. She read it through, found it satisfactory, and gave orders that the presents should be distributed. This was done by the eunuchs.

The Lady Dowager received two ruyi sceptres, one of gold, the other of jade; a staff made of aloeswood; a chaplet of sandal-wood beads; four lengths of Imperial satin with designs signifying wealth, nobility and eternal youth; four lengths of silk with designs signifying good fortune and long life; ten bars of gold with designs signifying “May Your Wishes Come True,” and ten silver bars with fish and other designs to symbolize felicity and abundance.

Lady Xing and Lady Wang received the same gifts with the exception of the sceptres, staff and chaplet.

Jia Jing, Jia She and Jia Zheng each received two new books of His Majesty’s own composition, two cases of rare ink-sticks, four goblets, two of gold and two of silver, and lengths of satin identical with those described above.

Baochai, Daiyu and the other girls each received one new book, a rare mirror and two pairs of gold and silver trinkets of a new design.

Baoyu received the same.

Jia Lan received one gold and one silver necklet, a pair of gold and a pair of silver medallions.

To Madam You, Li Wan and Xifeng were given two gold and two silver medallions and four lengths of silk.

In addition, twenty-four lengths of satin and a hundred strings of newly minted cash were allotted to the women-servants and maids in atten­dance on the Lady Dowager, Lady Wang and the girls.

Jia Zhen, Jia Lian, Jia Huan and Jia Rong each received one length of satin and a pair of gold medallions.

A hundred rolls of variegated satin, a thousand taels of gold and silver, with various delicacies and wine from the Palace were given to those in both mansions responsible for the construction and maintenance of the Garden, the furnishing and upkeep of the various houses in the Garden, the theatre management and the preparation of lanterns. Five hundred strings of newly minted cash were also given as largesse to the cooks, actresses and jugglers.

It was nearly three in the morning by the time all had expressed their thanks, and the eunuch in charge announced that it was time to leave. At once Yuanchun’s eyes filled with tears again, but forcing a smile she clasped the hands of her grandmother and mother and could not bring herself to let them go.

“Don’t worry about me,” she begged them, “Just take good care of yourselves. Thanks to the Emperor’s kindness you can now come to the Palace once a month to see me, so we shall have many chances to meet again. There is no need to be upset. If next year by Imperial grace I’m allowed another visit home, you must promise not to be so extravagant.”

The Lady Dowager and other women were sobbing too bitterly to make any reply. But although Yuanchun could hardly bear to leave, she could not disobey the Imperial regulations and had no alternative but to re-enter her palanquin which carried her away. The whole household did their best to console the Lady Dowager and Lady Wang as they helped them out of the Garden. But more of this in the next chapter.

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