A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 2

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A Dream of Red Mansions002

Chapter 2

Lady Jia Dies in the City of Yangzhou

Leng Zixing Describes the Rong Mansion

A verse says:

Who can guess the outcome of a game of chess?

Incense burned out, tea drunk – it’s still in doubt.

To interpret the signs of prosperity or decline

An impartial onlooker must be sought out.

Rearing the hubbub at his gate, Feng Su hurried out so see what the messengers wanted.

“Ask Mr. Zhen to come out,” they bawled. “Be quick about it.”

“My name is Feng, not Zhen,” he answered with an ingratiating smile. “My son-in-law’s name is Zhen, but he left home a year or two ago to become a priest. Is he the man you want?”

“How would we know? We’re here on the prefect’s orders. If you’re his father-in-law, you must come and clear this up with His Honour to save us another trip.”

Giving Feng Su no chance to protest they dragged him off, while his whole household trembled, not knowing what this portended.

Towards the end of the second watch he returned in the highest of spirits. Asked what had happened, he told them: “This new prefect, Jia Hua, is a native of Huzhou and an old friend of my son-in-law. When he passed our gate and saw our Jiaoxing buying thread, he supposed that Shiyin had moved his household here. He seemed very upset when I explained all that had happened. He asked after my granddaughter too and I told him she was lost on the Feast of Lanterns. ‘Never mind,’ said His Honour. ‘I’ll have a search made and I’m certain we shall find her.’ At the end of our conversation, as I was leaving, he gave me two taels of silver.”

Zhen’s wife was very moved by this. And so the night passed.

Early the next morning a messenger arrived from Jia Yucun with two packets of silver and four lengths of brocade for Mrs. Zhen as a token of gratitude. There was also a confidential letter for Feng Su asking him to persuade Mrs. Zhen to let the prefect have Jiaoxing as his secondary wife. Feng Su could hardly contain himself for joy. Eager to please the prefect, he prevailed on his daughter to agree and that very same night put Jiaoxing in a small sedan-chair and escorted her to the yamen.

We need not dwell on Yucun’s satisfaction. He gave Feng Su a hun­dred pieces of silver and sent Mrs. Zhen many gifts, urging her to take good care of her health while he ascertained her daughter’s whereabouts. Feng Su went home and there we can leave him.

Now Jiaoxing was the maid who had looked back at Yucun that year in Gusu, little dreaming that one casual glance could have such an ex­traordinary outcome. And so doubly kind was fate that within a year of marriage she bore a son; while after another half year Yucun’s wife contracted a disease and died, and then he made Jiaoxing his wife, fur­ther improving her position.

A single chance hiatus

Raised her status.

Yucun, after receiving Shiyin’s gift of silver that year, had left on the sixteenth for the capital. He did so well in the examinations that he be­came a Palace Graduate and was given a provincial appointment. He had now been promoted to this prefectship.

But although a capable administrator Yucun was grasping and ruthless, while his arrogance and insolence to his superiors made them view him with disfavour. In less than two years they found a chance to impeach him. He was accused of “ingrained duplicity, tampering with the rites and, under a show of probity, conspiring with his ferocious underlings to foment trouble in his district and make life intolerable for the local people.”

The Emperor, much incensed, sanctioned his dismissal. The arrival of this edict rejoiced the hearts of all officials in the Prefecture. But Yucun, although mortified and enraged, betrayed no indignation and went about looking as cheerful as before. After handing over his affairs he gathered together the capital accumulated during his years in office and moved his household back to his native place. Having settled them there he set off, “the wind on his back, moonlight in his sleeves,” to see the famous sights of the empire.

One day his travels again took him to Yangzhou, where he learned that the Salt Commissioner that year was Lin Hai his courtesy name was Lin Ruhai – who had come third in a previous Imperial examina­tion and recently been promoted to the Censorate. A native of Gusu, he had now been selected by the Emperor as a Commissioner of the Salt Inspectorate. He had been little more than a month in this present post.

One of Lin Ruhai’s ancestors five generations earlier had been en­nobled as a marquis. The rank had been conferred for three generations; then, as the benevolence of the present gracious Emperor far exceeded that of his noble predecessors, he had as a special favour extended it for one more generation, so that Lin Ruhai’s father had inherited the title as well. He himself however, had made his career through the examina­tions, for his family was cultured as well as noble. Unfortunately it was not prolific, although several branches existed, and Lin Ruhai had cousins but no brothers or sisters. Now he was in his forties and his only son had died at the age of three the previous year. He had several concubines but fate had not granted him another son, and he could not remedy this. By his wife, nee’ Jia, he had a daughter Daiyu just five years old. Both par­ents loved her dearly. And because she was as intelligent as she was pretty, they decided to give her a good education to make up for their lack of a son and help them forget their loss.

It so happened that Yucun had caught a chill which laid him up in his inn for a month and more. Exhausted by his illness, and short of funds, he was searching for somewhere to recuperate. Fortunately he had two old friends here who knew that the Sale Commissioner was looking for a tutor. Upon their recommendation Yucun was given the post, which pro­vided the security he needed. He was lucky, too, to have as pupil only one small girl accompanied by two maids. Since the child was so delicate, her lessons were irregular and this meant that his duties were light.

In a twinkling another year went by and then his pupil’s mother unex­pectedly fell ill and died. The little girl attended her during her illness and then went into strict mourning. Yucun considered resigning, but Lin Ruhai kept him on so as not to interrupt his daughter’s education during the period of mourning. Recently, grief had brought about a relapse in the delicate child’s health, and for days at a time she had to abandon her studies. Then Yucun, finding time hang heavy on his hands, used to take a walk after his meals when the weather was fine.

One day he strolled to the outskirts of the city to enjoy the country­side. He came to luxuriant woods and bamboo groves set among hills and interlaced by streams, with a temple half hidden among the foliage. The entrance was in ruins, the walls were crumbling. A placard above the gate bore the inscription: Temple of Perspicacity. And flanking the gate were two mouldering boards with the couplet:

Though plenty was left after death, he forgot to hold his hand back;

Only at the end of the road does one think of turning on to the right track.

“Trite as the language is, this couplet has deep significance,” thought Yucun. “I’ve never come across anything like it in all the famous temples I’ve visited. There may be a story behind it of someone who has tasted the bitterness of life, some repentant sinner. I’ll go in and ask.”

But inside he found only a doddering old monk cooking gruel. Not very impressed, Yucun casually asked him a few questions. The man proved to be deaf as well as dim-witted, for his mumbled answers were quite irrelevant.

Yucun went out again in disgust and decided to improve the occasion by drinking a few cups in a village tavern. He had scarcely set foot inside the door when one of the men who was drinking there rose to his feet and accosted him with a laugh.

“Fancy meeting you here!”

It was Leng Zixing, a curio-dealer whom he had met in the capital. As Yucun admired his enterprise and ability while Zixing was eager to cultivate one of the literati, they had hit it off well together and become good friends.

“When did you arrive, brother?” asked Yucun cheerfully. “I’d no idea you were in these parts. What a coincidence, meeting you here.”

“I went home at the end of last year and stopped here on my way back to the capital to look up an old friend. He was good enough to ask me to stay, and since I’ve no urgent business I’m breaking my journey for a couple of days. I shall go on about the middle of the month. My friend’s busy today, so I came out for a stroll and stopped here to rest. I’d no idea I’d run into you like this.”

He made Yucun sit down at his table and ordered more food and wine. Drinking slowly, they spoke of all they had done since parting.

“Is there any news from the capital?” asked Yucun.

“Nothing much,” replied Zixing. “But something rather curious has happened in the house of one of your noble kinsmen.”

“I’ve no kinsmen in the capital. Who do you mean?”

“You have the same surname even if you don’t belong to the same clan.”

Yucun asked to whom he alluded.

“The Jia family of the Rong Mansion. You needn’t be ashamed of the connection.”

“Oh, that family.” Yucun laughed. “To tell the truth, our clan is a very large one. Since the time of Jia Fu of the Eastern Han Dynasty its branches have multiplied until now you find Jias in every province. Impossible to keep track of them all. The Rong branch and mine are, however, on the same clan register, but they’re so grand that we’ve never claimed rela­tionship and are gradually drifting further and further apart.”

“Don’t talk like that, friend. Both the Ning and Rong branches have declined.” Zixing sighed. “They’re not what they used to be.”

“How is that possible? They used to be enormous households.”

“I know. It’s a long story.”

“Last year when I was in Jinling,”1 said Yucun, “on my way to visit the Six Dynasty ruins I went to the Stone City and passed the gates of their old mansions. Practically the whole north side of the street is taken up by their houses, the Ning Mansion on the east and the Rong Mansion adjoining it on the west. True, there wasn’t much coming and going out­side their gates, but over the wall I caught glimpses of most imposing halls and pavilions, while the trees and rockeries of the gardens behind had a flourishing, opulent look. There was nothing to suggest a house in decline.”

“For a Palace Graduate you’re not very smart.” Zixing chuckled. “A centipede dies but never falls down, as the old saying goes. Although they’re not as prosperous as before, they’re still a cut above ordinary official families. Their households are increasing and their commitments are growing all the time, while masters and servants alike are so used to lording it in luxury that not one of them thinks ahead. They squander money every day and are quite incapable of economizing. Outwardly they may look as grand as ever, but their purses are nearly empty. That’s not their worst trouble, though. Who would’ve thought that each new generation of this noble and scholarly clan is inferior to the last?”

“Surely,” countered Yucun in surprise, “a family so cultured and versed in etiquette knows the importance of a good upbringing? I can’t vouch for our other branches, but I’ve always heard that these two houses take great pains over the education of their sons.

“It’s these two houses I’m talking about,” rejoined Zixing regret­fully. “Just hear me out. The Duke of Ningguo and the Duke of Rongguo were brothers by the same mother. The Duke of Ningguo, the elder, had four sons and after his death the oldest of these, Jia Daihua, succeeded to the title. The elder of his two sons, Jia Fu, died at the age of eight or nine leaving the younger, Jia Jing, to inherit the title. But he’s so wrapped up in Taoism that he takes no interest in anything but distilling elixirs. Luckily when he was younger he had a son Jia Zhen, to whom he’s relinquished the title so that he can give all his mind to becoming an immortal; and instead of going back to his native place he’s hobnobbing with Taoist priests outside the city. Jia Zhen has a son called Rong just turned six­teen. Jia Jing washes his hands of all mundane matters, and Jia Zhen has never studied but lives for pleasure. He’s turning the Ning Mansion up­side down, yet no one dares to restrain him.

“Now for the Rong Mansion, where that curious business I just men­tioned took place. After the death of the Duke of Rongguo, his elder son Jia Daishan succeeded to the title and married a daughter of Marquis Shi of Jinling, by whom he had two sons, Jia She and Jia Zheng. Jia Daishan has been dead for many years but his wife, Lady Dowager Shi, is still alive. Their elder son Jia She inherited the title. The younger, Jia Zheng, was so fond of studying as a child that he was his grandfather’s favourite and he hope to make a career for himself through the examinations. When Jia Daishan died, however, he left a valedictory memorial, and the Em­peror out of regard for his former minister not only conferred the title on his elder son but asked what other sons there were, granted Jia Zheng an audience, and as an additional favour gave him the rank of Assistant Secretary with instructions to familiarize himself with affairs in one of the ministries. He has now risen to the rank of Under-Secretary.

“Jia Zheng’s wife, Lady Wang, bore him a son called Jia Zhu who passed the district examination at fourteen, married before be was twenty and had a son, but then fell ill and died. His second child was a daughter, born strangely enough on the first day of the year. But stranger still was the birth later of a son who came into the world with a piece of clear, brilliantly coloured jade in his mouth. There are even inscriptions on the jade, Isn’t that extraordinary?”

“It certainly is. The boy should have a remarkable future.”

“That’s what everyone says.” Zixing smiled cynically. “And for that reason his grandmother dotes on him. On his first birthday Jia Zheng tested his disposition by setting all sorts of different objects before him to see which he would select. Believe it or not, ignoring everything else he reached out for the rouge, powder-boxes, hair ornaments and bangles! His father was furious and swore he’d grow up to be a dissolute rake. Because of this he’s not too fond of the boy, but the child’s still his grandmother’s darling. He’s seven or eight now and remarkably mis­chievous, yet so clever you won’t find his equal in a hundred. And he says the strangest things for a child. ‘Girls are made of water, men of mud,’ he declares. ‘I feel clean and refreshed when I’m with girls but find men dirty and stinking.’ Isn’t that absurd? He’s bound later on to run after women like the very devil.”

“That doesn’t follow,” put in Yucun, grown suddenly grave. “You don’t know how he’s come into the world. I suspect his father is making a mistake as well if he thinks the boy depraved. To understand him you’d need to be widely read and experienced, able to recognize the nature of things, grasp the Way and comprehend the Mystery.”

He spoke so seriously that Zixing asked him to expand on this.

“All men, apart from the very good and the very bad, are much alike,” said Yucun. “The very good are born at a propitious time when the world is well governed, the very bad in times of calamity when danger threat­ens. Examples of the first are Yao, Shun, Yu and Tang, King Wen and King Wu, Duke Zhou and Duke Shao, Confucius and Mencius, Dong Zhongshu, Han Yu, Zhou Dunyi, the Cheng brothers, Zhang Zai, and Zhu Xi. Examples of the second are Chi You, Gong Gong, Jie, Zhou, Qin Shi Huang, Wang Mang, Cao Cao, Huan Wen, An Lushan and Qin Hui.

“The good bring order to the world, the bad plunge it into confusion. The good embody pure intelligence, the true essence of heaven and earth; the bad, cruelty and perversity, the evil essence.

“This is a prosperous, long-enduring reign when the world is at peace and there are many people in the court and in the countryside who are endowed with the good essences. The over-abundance of this good es­sence, having nowhere to go, is transformed into sweet dew and gentle breezes and scattered throughout the Four Seas.

“But because there is no place under the clear sky and bright sun for the essence of cruelty and perversity, it congeals in deep caverns and in the bowels of the earth. If wafted by winds or pressed upon by clouds, it is thrown into agitation and traces of it may escape. And should these meet the pure essence, good refuses to yield to evil while evil envies good — neither can prevail over the other. This is like wind, rain, lightning and thunder which cannot vanish into thin air or give way but must battle until they are spent. So in order to find some outlet these essences permeate human beings, who come into the world embodying both. Such people fall short of sages or perfect men, but neither are they out-and-out villains.

“The pure intelligence with which they are endowed sets them above their myriad fellow creatures, but their perversity and unnatural behaviour sink them lower than other men too. Born into rich and noble families, such people will become romantic eccentrics; born into poor but cultured families, they will become high-minded scholars or recluses. Even if born into luckless and humble homes, they will never grow up into yamen runners or servants at the beck and call of the vulgar — they’ll turn out celebrated actors or courtesans. People of this type in the past were Xu You, Tao Qian, Yuan Ji, Ji Kang and Liu Ling, the two families of Wang and Xie, Gu Kaizhi, Chen Shubao, the Tang emperor Minghuang, the Song emperor Huizong, Liu Tingzhi, Wen Tingyun, Mi Fu, Shi Yannian, Liu Yong and Qin Guan. More recent examples are Ni Zan, Tang Yin and Zhu Yunming. Then there are others like Li Guinian, Huang Fanchuo, Jing Xinmo, Zhuo Wenjun, Hongfo, Xue Tao, Cui Yingying and Zhaoyun. All of these, in their different fields, were essentially the same.”

“You’re saying that such people may become princes or thieves, de­pending on whether they’re successful or not.”

“Exactly. You don’t know yet that since my dismissal I’ve spent two years travelling through different provinces and come across one or two remarkable children. Hence my guess that this Baoyu you mentioned belongs to the same category. Let me give you an example no further away than Jinling. You know Mr. Zhen, who was principal of the Jinling Provincial College?”

“Who doesn’t know him? The Zhen and Jia families are interrelated and on a very friendly footing, I’ve done business with the Zhens a num­ber of times.

“Last year when I was in Jinling,” said Yucun, “someone recom­mended me to the Zhens as a resident tutor. I was surprised to find their household so grand, yet it combined wealth with propriety. Posts like that are not easy to come by. But although my pupil was a beginner, he was harder to teach then a candidate for the Provincial Examination. Here’s an example of the absurd things he’d say: ‘I must have two girls as company while I study, or I can’t learn character my brain gets muddled.’ He told his pages, ‘The word “girl” is so honourable and pure, not even the supreme Buddhist and Taoist titles can compare with it. You with your filthy mouths and stinking tongues must never violate it. Before you utter this word, mind you rinse your mouths with clear water or fragrant tea. If you don’t, your teeth will grow crooked and rip through your cheeks.’

“He had a fearful temper and could be incredibly stubborn and ob­streperous; but as soon as classes were over and he joined the girls he became a different person — amiable, sensible and gentle. More than once, because of this, his father thrashed him within an inch of his life, but still that didn’t change him. When the pain became too much for him, he would start yelling, ‘Sister! Little Sister!’ Once the girls in the inner chambers teased him saying, ‘Why do you call us when you’re being beaten? Do you want us to beg you off? For shame!’ You should have heard his answer. He said, ‘The first time I called I didn’t know it would ease the pain. But then I discovered that it worked like magic. So when the pain’s worst, I keep on calling “Sister.” ’ Have you ever heard anything so ludicrous?

“His grandmother indulged him so unwisely that she was often rude to his tutor or blamed her son. That’s why I resigned from that post. A boy like that is bound to lose the property he inherits and won’t benefit by the advice of teachers and friends. The pity is, all the girls in his family are admirable.”

“The three girls in the Jia family aren’t bad either,” rejoined Zixing, “Jia Zheng’s elder daughter Yuanchun was chosen to be a Lady-Clerk in the palace of the heir apparent because of her goodness, filial piety and talents. The second, Yingchun, is Jia She’s daughter by a concubine. The third, Tanchun, is Jia Zheng’s daughter by a concubine. The fourth, Xichun, is the younger sister of Jia Zhen of the Ning Mansion. The Lady Dowa­ger is so attached to these grand-daughters that she makes them study in the Rong Mansion near her, and I hear good reports of them all.”

“I prefer the Zhen family’s way of giving their daughters the same sort of names as boys instead of choosing flowery names meaning Spring, Red, Fragrant, or Jade,” remarked Yucun. “How could the Jia family sink to such vulgarity?”

“You don’t understand,” said Zixing. “They named the eldest girl Yuanchuns because she was born on New Year’s Day, and so the others have chun in their names too. But all the girls of the last generation had names like those of boys. For proof, look at the wife of your respected employer Mr. Lin, the sister of Jia She and Jia Zheng in the Rong Man­sion. Her name, before she married, was Jia Min. If you don’t believe me, check up when you go back.”

Yucun pounded the table with a laugh. “No wonder my pupil always pronounces mm as mi and writes it with one or two strokes missing. That puzzled me, but now you’ve explained the reason. And no wonder she talks and behaves so differently from the general run of young ladies nowadays. I suspected she must have had an unusual mother. If she’s a grand-daughter of the Rong family that explains it. What a pity that her mother died last month.”

“She was the youngest of four sisters, but now she’s gone too.”

Zixing sighed. “Not one of those sisters is left. It will be interesting to see what husbands they find for the younger generation.”

“Yes. Just now you spoke of Jia Zheng’s son born with jade in his mouth, and mentioned a young grandson left by his elder son. What about the venerable Jia She? Has he no sons?”

“After the birth of this son with the jade Jia Zheng had another by his concubine, but I know nothing about him. So he has two sons and a grandson. However, there’s no saying how they’ll turn out. Jia She has two sons as well. Jia Lian, the elder, is over twenty now. Two years ago he married a relative, the niece of Jia Zheng’s wife Lady Wang. This Jia Lian, who has bought the rank of a sub-prefect, takes no interest in books but is a smooth man of the world, so he lives with his uncle Jia Zheng and helps him to manage his domestic affairs. Since his marriage he’s been thrown into the shade by his wife, who is praised by everybody high and low. I hear she’s extremely good-looking and a clever talker. So resource­ful and astute that not a man in ten thousand is a match for her.”

“That bears out what I was saying. These people we’ve been dis­cussing are probably all pervaded by mixed essences of both good and evil. They are people of similar ways.”

“Never mind about good and evil,” protested Zixing. “We’ve been doing nothing but reckoning accounts for others. You must drink another cup.”

“I’ve been talking so hard, I’m already slightly tipsy.”

“Gossip goes well with wine. Why not drink some more?”

Yucun looked out of the window. “It’s growing late. They’ll soon be closing the city gates. Let’s stroll back and continue our conversation in town.”

With that they paid the bill. They were on the point of leaving when a voice from behind called out:

“Congratulations, Brother Yucun! What are you doing here in the wilds of the country?”

Yucun turned to look. But to know who it was, you must read the chapter which follows.

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