A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 22

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Chapter 22


A Song Awakens Baoyu to Esoteric Truths

Lantern-Riddles Grieve Jia Zheng with

Their Ill Omens

Hearing that Xifeng wanted to consult him about something, Jia Lian stopped to ask what it was.

“It’s Baochai’s birthday on the twenty-first,” she said. “What do you intend to do about it?”

“Why ask me that?” he retorted. “You’ve handled plenty of big birth­day celebrations. Why can’t you cope with this?”

“For big birthdays there are definite rules but this is neither big nor small, that’s why I wanted your advice.”

He lowered his head to think before answering.

“You’re losing your grip,” he said after a pause. “There’s a prece­dent in Baiyu’s birthday. Just celebrate this the same way.”

“As if that hadn’t occurred to me too!” Xifeng smiled mockingly. “But yesterday the old lady told me she’d been asking everybody’s age and learned that Baochai would be fifteen this year, and although that’s not a round number it means she’s reached marriageable age. If the old lady wants to celebrate her birthday specially, it’ll have to be different from Daiyu’s in the past.”

“In that case, have things on a more lavish scale.”

“That’s what I thought, but I wanted to sound you out so as not to be blamed for doing something extra on my own initiative without consulting you.”

“Well, well! Why this sudden show of consideration? Me blame you? I’m quite satisfied if you don’t find fault with me.”

With that he left, but where he went does not concern us.

Let us return now to Xiangyun. After spending several days in the Rong Mansion it was time for her to go home, but the Lady Dowager urged her to wait until after Baochai’s birthday and the performance of

operas. So Xiangyun, having to stay on, sent home for two pieces of her embroidery as a birthday-present for her cousin.

The fact was that the Lady Dowager had taken a fancy to Baochai since her arrival on account of her steady, amiable behaviour. And as this would be her first birthday in their house, the old lady summoned Xifeng and gave her twenty taels of silver from her own coffer for a feast and an opera.

Xifeng teased, “When an Old Ancestress wants to celebrate some grandchild’s birthday, no matter how grandly, who are we to protest? So there’s to be a feast and opera too, is there? Well, if you want it to be lively you’ll have to pay for it yourself instead of trying to play host with a mouldy twenty taels. I suppose you expect me to make up the rest? If you really couldn’t afford it, all right. But your cases are bursting with gold and silver ingots of every shape and size the bottoms of the chests are dropping out, they’re so full. Yet you’re still squeezing us. Look, aren’t all of us your children? Is Baoyu the only one who’ll carry you as an immortal on his head to Mount Wutai, that you keep every­thing for him? Even if the rest of us aren’t good enough, don’t be so hard on us. Is this enough for a feast or theatricals?”

The whole company burst out laughing.

“Listen to that tongue of hers!” The old lady chuckled. “I’m not exactly tongue-tied myself but I’m no match for this monkey. Not even your mother-in-law would think of arguing with me, but you give me tit for tat.”

“My mother-in-lay dotes on Baoyu just as much as you do,” retorted Xifeng with a smile. “So I’ve no one to take my side. Instead, you make me out a termagant.”

That set the old lady crowing with laughter and put her in the highest of spirits.

That night, after the family had gathered to pay their evening respects to the Lady Dowager and then gone on to chat, she asked Baochai to name her favourite operas and dishes. Knowing the old lady’s partiality for lively shows and sweet, pappy food, Baochai gave these as her own preferences, adding even more to the Lady Dowager’s pleasure.

The first thing next day she had presents of clothing and trinkets sent to the girl. Lady Wang, Xifeng, Daiyu and the others also sent theirs according to the status of each. But these need not be enumerated in detail.

On the twenty-first a small stage was set up in the Lady Dowager’s inner courtyard and a new troupe of young actresses had been hired who were able to perform both Kunqu and Yiyang operas. Tables were laid in the hail for a family feast, to which no outsiders were asked: apart from Aunt Xue, Xiangyun and Baochai, who were guests, all the rest would be members of the family.

Not seeing Daiyu that morning, Baoyu went to look for her and found her curled up on her kang.

“Come on to breakfast,” he said, “The show will soon be starting. Tell me which opera you’d like and I’ll ask for it.”

Daiyu smiled disdainfully.

“If that’s how you feel, you’d better hire a special company to play my favourite pieces instead of expecting me to cash in on someone else’s birthday.”

“That’s easy, we’ll hire a company next time and let the rest of them cash in on us.

He pulled her up and they went off hand in hand.

After breakfast it was time to choose the plays and the Lady Dowa­ger called on Baochai to name her choice. The girl declined the honour at first but finally, to the old lady’s delight, named a scene from Pilgrimage to the West. Next, Xifeng was ordered to take her pick. And knowing the old lady’s liking for lively plays, especially comedies and burlesques, she pleased her even more by selecting Liu Er Pawns His Clothes.

Daiyu, told to choose next, deferred to Aunt Xue and Lady Wang.

“I planned today as a treat for you girls,” said the Lady Dowager, “So make your choice and never mind your aunts. I didn’t lay on this show and feast for them. They’re lucky to be here at all, able to watch and eat free of charge, but I won’t let them choose any items.”

All laughed at that, and then Daiyu suggested one piece. She was followed by Baoyu, Xiangyun, the three Jia girls and Li Wan, and their choices were put on in turn.

When the feast was ready the Lady Dowager told Baochai to select another opera, and she asked for The Drunken Monk.

“You always choose something rowdy,” objected Baoyu.

“You’ve been watching operas all these years for nothing if you don’t know how good this is,” retorted Baochai. “Besides being spectacular it has some magnificent lines.”

“I never could stand noisy shows,” he persisted.

“If you call this noisy that just shows how little you know about op­era,” she rejoined. “Come over here and let me explain. This opera has most stirring arias sung in the northern mode Dian Jiang Chun, which needless to say is an excellent melody; and the verses set to Ji Sheng Cao are quite superb, did you but know it.”

Baoyu edged closer then and begged her to recite them to him.

Baochai declaimed:

“Dried are the hero’s tears.

My patron’s house left behind;

By grace divine

Tonsured below the Lotus Throne.

Not destined to stay,

I leave the monastery in a flash,

Naked I go without impediment;

My sole wish now

To roam alone in coir cape and bamboo hat,

And in straw sandals with a broken aims bow!

To wander where I will.”

Baoyu pounded his lap to the rhythm of the verse and nodded appre­ciatively, loud in his praise of these words as well as of her erudition.

“Do be quiet and watch,” said Daiyu. “Before we’ve seen The Drunken Monk you’re playing The General Feigns Madness.

This set Xiangyun giggling.

They went on watching operas until dusk. By then the Lady Dowager had taken a special fancy to the girl who played the part of the heroines and the one who took the clown’s role. She had them brought to her and on closer inspection found them even sweeter. All marvelled when it was disclosed that the heroine was only eleven, the clown only nine. The old lady rewarded them with some extra delicacies and two additional strings of cash.

“When that child’s made up she’s the living image of someone here,”

remarked Xifeng. “Have none of you noticed?”

Baochai knew whom she meant but she just smiled. Baoyu too had guessed but did not dare to speak out.

Xiangyun, however, blurted out, “I know! She looks just like Cousin Daiyu.”

Too late Baoyu shot her a warning glance, for by now everyone had noticed the resemblance and laughingly declared that it was most strik­ing. Soon afterwards they scattered.

That evening while undressing, Xiangyun ordered Cuilu to pack her things.

“What’s the hurry?” asked the maid. “We can start packing when it’s time to leave.

“We’re leaving tomorrow morning. Why should we stay here and put up with dirty looks?”

Baoyu overheard this exchange and hurried in to take Xiangyun by the hand.

“Dear cousin, you’ve got me wrong,” he said. “Daiyu is so terribly sensitive that the others didn’t name her for fear of upsetting her. How could she help being annoyed, the way you blurted it out? I looked at you warningly because I didn’t want you to hurt her feelings. It’s ungrateful as well as unfair of you to be angry with me. If it had been anybody else but you, I wouldn’t care how many people she offended.”

Xiangyun waved him crossly away.

“Don’t try to get round me with your flattering talk. I’m not in the same class as your Cousin Daiyu. It’s all right for other people to make fun of her, but I’m not even allowed to mention her. She’s a grand young lady, I’m a slave how dare I offend her?”

“I was only thinking of you, yet now you put me in the wrong.” Baoyu was desperate. “If I meant any harm, may I turn into dust this instant and be trampled on by ten thousand feet!”

“Stop talking such nonsense just after the New Year. Or go and rave if you must to those petty-minded creatures who are so quick to take offence, and who know how to manage you. Don’t make me spit at you!”

She flounced off to the Lady Dowagers s inner room and threw her-

self down angrily on a couch.

After this snub Baoyu went to look for Daiyu, but scarcely had he set foot in her room than she pushed him out and closed the door in his face. Mystified, he called in a subdued voice through the window:

“Dear cousin!”

But Daiyu simply ignored him.

He hung his head then in dejected silence. Xiren knew it would be useless to reason with him just then. So he was standing there like a fool when Daiyu opened the door, thinking him gone. When she saw him still standing there, she hadn’t the heart to shut him out again. She turned away and curled up on her bed, while he followed her into the room.

“There’s always a reason for everything,” he said. “If you’d ex­plain, people wouldn’t feel so hurt. What’s upset you suddenly?”

“A fine question to ask!” Daiyu gave a short laugh. “I don’t know. For you I’m a figure of fun, to be compared with an actress in order to raise a laugh.”

“But why be angry with me? I didn’t make the comparison. I didn’t laugh.”

“I should hope not, indeed! But what you did was even worse than the others laughing and making comparisons.”

Baoyu did not know how to defend himself and was silent.

“I wouldn’t have minded so much if you hadn’t made eyes at Xiangyun,” Daiyu went on. “Just what did you mean by that? That she’d lower and cheapen herself by joking with me? She’s the daughter of a noble house, I’m a nobody. If she were to joke with me and I answered back, that would be degrading for her — was that the idea? That was certainly kind on your part. Too bad she didn’t appreciate your thought­fulness, but flared up all the same. Then you tried to excuse yourself at my expense, calling me ‘petty-minded and quick to take offence.’ You were afraid she might offend me, were you? But what is it to you if I get angry with her? Or if she offends me?”

Baoyu realized that she had overheard his conversation with Xiangyun. He had intervened in an attempt to prevent bad feeling between them but, having failed, was now held to blame by both sides. This reminded him of the passage in Zhuangzi:

“The ingenious work hard, the wise are full of care; but those without ability have no ambition. They enjoy their food and wander at will like drifting boats freed from their moorings.”

And again:

“Mountain trees are the first to be felled, clear fountains the first to be consumed.”

The more he thought the more depressed he grew.

“If I can’t even cope now with just these two, what will it be like in future?” he reflected. At this point it seemed quite useless to attempt to justify himself, so he started back to his room.

Daiyu realized that he must be very dejected by what had occurred to go off so sulkily without a word. But this only made her angrier than ever.

“Go, then!” she cried. “And don’t ever come back! Don’t speak to me again!”

Baoyu paid no attention. Returning to his room, he lay down on his bed staring fixedly before him. Although Xiren knew what had happened, she dared not mention it and tried to distract him with some more cheer­ful subject.

“Today’s plays are bound to lead to others,” she prophesied. “Miss Baochai is sure to give a return party.”

“What do I care whether she does or not?” he snapped back, quite unlike his usual self.

“What do you mean?” asked Xiren. “This is the beginning of a new year when all the ladies and girls are enjoying themselves. Why carry on like this?”

“I don’t care whether they’re enjoying themselves or not.”

“If they are so obliging to each other, shouldn’t you be obliging too? Wouldn’t that be pleasanter for everyone?”

“For everyone? Let them oblige each other while ‘naked I go with­out impediment.”’

Tears ran down his cheeks and, seeing them, she said no more. Baoyu, pondering the significance of that line, suddenly burst out sob­bing. Getting up, he went to his desk, took up a brush and wrote this verse in the style of a Buddhist gatha:

Should you test me and I test you,

Should heart and mind be tested too,

Till there remained no more to test,

That test would be of all the best.

When nothing can be called a test,

My feet will find a place to rest.

For fear that others might not grasp the meaning, he then appended a verse after the melody Ji Sheng Cao and read the whole through again. Then he went to bed, feeling less frustrated, and slept.

Now some time after Baoyu’s abrupt departure Daiyu came, ostensi­bly to see Xiren, to find out how things were. Told that he was asleep she was turning to leave when Xiren said with a smile:

“Just a minute, miss! He wrote something you might like to look at.” She quietly fetched and handed Baiyu the verses Baoyu had just writ­ten, and the girl was both touched and amused to see what he had tossed off in a fit of pique.

“It’s just a joke, nothing serious,” she told Xiren.

She took it back to her own room and showed it to Xiangyun. Next day she showed it to Baochai as well. Baochai read the second verse. It ran:

If there’s no “I,” then neither is there “you,”

If she misunderstands you then why rue?

Freely I come and freely too I go.

Giving myself to neither joy nor woe,

Close kin or distant it’s the same to me.

What did it serve, my assiduity?

Today I see its true futility.

Having read this she read the first verse then laughed.

“So that’s the enlightenment he’s attained! This is all my fault for reciting that song to him yesterday. There’s nothing so apt to lead people astray as these Taoist teachings and Chan paradoxes. If he really starts taking such nonsense seriously and gets it fixed in his head just because of that song I quoted, I’m the first to blame.”

She tore up the verses and told her maids to burn them at once.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” protested Daiyu with a smile. “I’ve

some questions to ask him. Come with me, both of you. We’ll soon cure him of this nonsense.”

So the three girls went together to Baoyu’s rooms. Daiyu opened the attack by saying:

“Listen, Baoyu. Bao means that which is most precious, and yu that which is most solid. But in what way are you precious? In what way are you solid?”

When Baoyu could not answer, the girls clapped their hands and laughed.

“And this stupid fellow wants to dabble in metaphysics!”

Daiyu continued, “The last two lines of your verse are all very well

When nothing can be called a test

My feet can find a place to rest.

But it seems to me they still lack a little something. Let me add two more:

When there’s no place for feet to rest,

That is the purest state and best.

“Yes, that shows real understanding,” put in Baochai. “In the old days when the Sixth Patriarch Huineng of the Southern Sect went to Shaozhou in search of a teacher, he heard that the Fifth Patriarch Hongren was in the monastery on Mount Huangmei, so he took a job as cook there. The Fifth Patriarch, on the look-out for a successor, ordered each of his monks to compose a Buddhist gatha. His senior disciple Shenxiu recited:

‘The body is a Bodhi tree, The mind a mirror clear;

Then keep it cleaned and polished —Let no dust settle there.’

“Huineng heard this as he was hulling rice in the kitchen and com­mented. ‘Very fine, but it needs rounding off.’ With that he declaimed:

‘The Bodhi tree is no tree, The mirror no mirror clear;

Since nothing actually exists, Where can any dust appear?’

Then the Fifth Patriarch passed on his robe and alms bowl to him. Your

verse amounts to much the same thing. But what about the conundrum you set him just now? He hasn’t answered it yet. How can you leave it at that?”

“Failure to answer promptly means defeat,” said Daiyu. “And even if he answered it now it would hardly count. But you mustn’t talk about Chan any more. You know even less about it than the two of us yet you dabble in metaphysics.”

Baoyu had in fact fancied that he had already attained enlightenment, but now that he had been floored by Daiyu, and Baochai had quoted Buddhist lore that he had never suspected her of knowing, he thought to himself, “They understand more about these things than I do, yet still they haven’t attained full enlightenment. Why should I trouble my head over such matters?” Thereupon he said with a laugh:

“I wasn’t dabbling in metaphysics. I just wrote that for fun.”

So the four of them made it up.

Just then they were told that the Imperial Consort had sent over a lantern-riddle for everybody to guess, after which they were to make up a riddle apiece and send these to the Palace.

At once the four of them hurried to the Lady Dowager’s quarters where they found a young eunuch with a square, flat-topped lantern of red gauze made specially for lantern-riddles. One riddle was already hang­ing on it. They gathered round to read it and try to guess it, while the eunuch passed on the order:

“When the young ladies have guessed, they are not to tell anyone their answers but write them down privately to be sealed up and taken to the Palace. Her Royal Highness will see which are correct.

Baochai stepped forward with the others then to look at the riddle. It was a quite nondescript quatrain, but of course she praised its ingenuity and pretended to be thinking hard although she had guessed it at once. Baoyu, Daiyu, Xiangyun and Tanchun had guessed it too and they went off quietly to write down their answers. Then Jia Huan, Jia Lan and others were fetched, and having racked their brains they wrote down their answers. After that each made up a riddle, copied it out neatly and hung it on the lantern for the eunuch to take away.

Towards evening the eunuch returned to announce that the Imperial Consort’s riddle had been correctly guessed by all except the Second Young Lady and Third Young Master, and Her Highness had thought of answers to theirs but did not know whether or not they were correct. With that he showed them the answers written down. Some were right, others wrong, but all made haste to say they were correct.

The eunuch then proceeded to give the winners their prizes: a poem-container made in the Palace and a bamboo whisk for cleaning teapots. The only two left out were Yingchun and Jia Huan, and while she regarded this as a game and did not take it to heart he was most disappointed.

And then the eunuch announced, “Her Highness did not attempt to guess the answer to the Third Young Master’s riddle, because it did not seem to her to make sense. She told me to bring it back and ask what it means.”

All of them gathered round to read the riddle:

First Brother has eight corners,

Second Brother two horns instead;

Second Brother likes to squat on the roof,

First Brother just sits on the bed.

A roar of laughter went up, and Jia Huan told the eunuch that the answer was a head-rest and an animal-head tile. The eunuch having noted this down accepted some tea and then left.

The old lady was delighted to know that Yuanchun was in such good spirits. She ordered a dainty screen-lantern to be made at once and put in the hall so that the girls could make up riddles and paste them on it. Scented tea and sweetmeats were prepared, as well as various little prizes.

Jia Zheng on his return from court found his mother in a cheerful frame of mind, and since this was a festival he came over that evening to join in the fun. He also had refreshments and prizes prepared and coloured lanterns lit in the hail, then invited the old lady in to see them. She sat with Jia Zheng and Baoyu at the highest table, while below, Lady Wang, Baochai, Daiyu and Xiangyun occupied one table and Yingchun, Tanchun and Xichun another. The hail was thronged with nurses and maids in attendance. Li Wan and Xifeng had a table in the inner room.

When Jia Zheng commented on Jia Lan’s absence, a nurse went inside to ask Li Wan the reason. She rose to reply:

“He says he won’t come because the master hasn’t invited him.”

When this was reported to Jia Zheng the others laughed and remarked, “What a queer, stubborn boy.”

Jia Zheng promptly sent Jia Huan and two serving-women to fetch him. And the Lady Dowager made him sit next to her and helped him to dainties, while the others chatted and enjoyed themselves.

Normally Baoyu liked to hold forth at great length but today, in his father’s presence, he simply answered briefly when spoken to; and Xiangyun, al­though a great chatterbox for a girl, seemed afflicted with dumbness by her uncle too. Daiyu was too reserved ever to talk much in company, and Baochai also behaved in the manner natural to her, choosing her words with care. So there was a constraint about this family party.

The Lady Dowager, knowing that Jia Zheng was the cause, suggested after three rounds of drinks that he should withdraw to rest. Aware that she wanted him out of the way so that the young people might enjoy themselves better, Jia Zheng said with a smile:

“When I heard today that you had prepared all these lantern-riddles, I brought some gifts and delicacies to join in. Won’t you spare your son a little of the love you have for your grandchildren?”

The old lady chuckled.

“None of them will laugh and talk with you here, and that’s very dull,” she said. “Well, if it’s riddles you want, I’ll give you one. But if you guess wrong you’ll have to pay a forfeit.”

“Certainly. And if I guess right shall I win a prize?”

“Of course.” Then she recited, “The monkey, being light of limb, stands on the topmost branch. It’s the name of a fruit.”

Jia Zheng knew of course that the answer was lichee,2 but he delib­erately gave wrong answers and had to pay several forfeits before he guessed right and received a prize from his mother. Then he in turn set her a riddle:

Its body is square,

Its substance firm and hard;

Though it cannot speak

It will assuredly3 record anything said.

— A useful object.

He whispered the answer to Baoyu, who took the hint and secretly told his grandmother. The old lady thought it over and decided he was right.

“An inkstone,” she said.

“Trust you, mother, to get it right first time.” Jia Zheng smiled and turned to order, “Bring in the presents.” There was an answering cry from the women below, who brought forward various trays and little boxes. The Lady Dowager, inspecting them one by one, was delighted to find them novelties for the Lantern Festival.

“Pour wine for the master,” she ordered.

Baoyu poured the wine and Yingchun presented it, after which the old lady said:

“Let me hear you guess some of the riddles the children have put on the screen.”

Jia Zheng rose and walked up to the screen. The first riddle he saw was:

Monsters I can affright and put to flight;

A roll of silk my form; my thunderous crash

Strikes dread into the hearts of all,

Yet when they look around I’ve turned to ash.

“Isn’t this a firecracker?” asked Jia Zheng.

When Baoyu said that was right, his father read on:

No end to the labours of men, to heaven’s decrees,

But labour unblessed by Heaven will fruitless be.

What causes this constant, frenzied activity?

The uncertainty of mortal destiny.

“An abacus?”

Yingchun agreed with a smile.

Jia Zheng read the next riddle:

The children by the steps look up:

Spring surely has no fitter decoration.

But when the silk cord breaks it drifts away,

Blame not the east wind for this separation.

“That sounds like a kite,” said Jia Zheng.

When Tanchun had confirmed this he looked at another riddle:

A former life’s appearance come to nought,

Deaf to folk-songs the chanting of sutras

she now hears;

Say not this life is sunk in a sea of darkness,

For in her heart a shining light appears.

“The lamp before a Buddhist shrine?” queried Jia Zheng.

“Yes,” said Xichun with a smile.

Jia Zheng thought to himself: “Her Royal Highness wrote about a firecracker which disintegrates after a single explosion. Yingchun’s sub­ject, the abacus, is in constant commotion; Tanchun’s kite is something which drifts away with the wind; Xichun’s temple lamp is even more lonely and neglected. What ill-omened subjects for all of them to choose so soon after the New Year!”

The more he reflected, the deeper his dismay. But in his mother’s presence he dared not disclose it and forced himself to look at the other riddles. Observing that the last was a verse by Baochai, he read it.

Who leaves the levee with smoke-scented sleeves?

Not destines by the lute or quilt to sit,

It needs no watchman to announce the dawn,

No maid at the fifth watch to replenish it.

Burned with anxiety both day and night,

Consumed with anguish as time slips away,

As life speeds past we learn to hold it dear

What cares it whether foul or fair the day?

After reading this Jia Zheng reflected with dismay, “The object itself isn’t ill-omened,4 but what inauspicious lines for a young girl to write. It doesn’t look as if any of these girls will have good fortune or long life.”

Sunk in gloom be looked the picture of grief as he lowered his head in thought.

His mother imagined that he must be tired, and felt his presence was spoiling the young people’s enjoyment.

“There’s no need for you to guess any more answers,” she said. “You’d better go and rest. We shan’t sit up much longer either.”

Jia Zheng assented with alacrity and forced himself to toast his mother

once more before he withdrew. Back in his own apartment, he turned the matter over in his mind with a grievous sense of foreboding and was unable to sleep. But no more of this.

As soon as he had gone the Lady Dowager urged her grand-children, “Now relax and have some fun!”

Baoyu had already run up to the screen-lantern and was prancing about like a monkey freed from its chain, pulling different riddles to pieces.

“Why not sit down as you were before,” said Baochai, “and chat with us in a more civilized way?”

Xifeng, who had joined them now, chimed in, “you ought to have the master keeping you by his side all the time. I forgot just now to suggest that you should make up some riddles in his presence. If I had, I’m sure you’d still be in a cold sweat.”

Baoyu made a frantic grab at her and a scrimmage ensued.

After chatting a little with Li Wan and the girls the Lady Dowager began to feel tired, and hearing the fourth watch sounded she ordered the food to be cleared away, telling the servants they could have what was left.

“Let’s rest now,” she said, rising to her feet. “Tomorrow’s still a holiday, and we ought to get up early. We can enjoy ourselves again in the evening.”

To know what happened next day, read the chapter which follows.

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