A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 23


Chapter 23

Lines from “The Western Chamber”

Are Quoted in Fun

A Song from “Peony Pavilion”

Distresses a Tender Heart

After Yuanchun’s return to the Palace from her visit to Grand View Garden she gave instructions that Tanchun should copy out all the poems written that day for her to arrange in order of merit, because she wished them to be inscribed on the tablets in the Garden as a lasting memorial to that splendid occasion. Jia Zheng accordingly ordered skilled artisans to be found to polish and engrave the stones under the supervision of Jia Zhen, assisted by Jia Rong and Jia Ping. As Jia Qiang had his hands full looking after the twelve actresses and their properties, he asked Jia Chang and Jia Ling to supervise the work instead. In due course wax was melted over the tablets and the poems were engraved in vermilion. But no more of this.

The twenty-four young Buddhists and Taoists from the Dharma Con­vent and Jade Emperor’s Temple in the Garden had now been moved out, and Jia Zheng had been thinking of sending them to various temples elsewhere. Word of this reached Jia Qin’s mother nee Zhou who lived in the street behind just as she had decided to look in Jia Zheng’s house for some remunerative job, whether big or small, for her son. So she came by sedan-chair to enlist Xifeng’s help.

As this woman was normally unassuming, Xifeng agreed. Having thought out the right approach she told Lady Wang:

“We mustn’t send away the little Buddhists and Taoists, because they’ll be needed next time Her Highness comes, and it would be hard to get them together again if once they’d been dispersed. My idea is to move them all to our family’s Iron Threshold Temple. Then all we need do is to send someone with a few taels of silver every month for their firewood and rice, and they can be fetched back if needed without any trouble.”

Lady Wang passed on this proposal to her husband.

“Quite right,” he agreed. “I’m glad you reminded me. “ He sent for Jia Lian.

Jia Lian and Xifeng were having their meal together when this sum­mons arrived. Not knowing what he was wanted for, he put down his rice bowl at once and started out.

“Wait a minute and listen to me!” She caught hold of his ann. “If this is some other business, that’s not my affair; but if it’s about those little novices, you must handle it my way.” She told him then exactly what to say.

Jia Lian shook his head, laughing.

“This is none of my business. If you’re so clever, go and ask uncle yourself.”

Xifeng threw back her head and laid down her chopsticks, staring at Jia Lian with an icy smile.

“Do you mean that, or are you joking?”

“Yun, the son of Fifth Sister-in-Law who lives in West Lane, has come several times begging me to find him a job, and I promised him I would if he would wait. Now here’s a job at last, but as usual you want to snatch it away.”

“Don’t worry. Her Highness wants more pines and cypresses planted in the northeast corner of the Garden, as well as more flowers at the foot of the tower. When that job comes up, I promise to let Yun have it.”

“All right then,” he chuckled. “But why were you so uncooperative last night when all I wanted was to try something different?”

Xifeng snorted with laughter and spat at him in mock disgust, then lowered her head and went on with her meal.

Grinning broadly, Jia Lian left. When he found that his uncle had in­deed sent for him about the novices, taking his cue from his wife he suggested:

“Jia Qin seems to be shaping well. We might entrust this to him. He can just draw the allowance every month in the usual way.”

Since Jia Zheng never took much interest in such matters, he made no objection. As soon as Jia Lian went back to tell Xifeng, she sent a maid to notify Jia Qin’s mother, and the young man came to thank them both profusely. As a special favour Xifeng asked her husband to let him have three months’ allowance in advance and made him write a receipt, to which Jia Lian put his signature. He was then given the tally to fetch from the treasury three months’ allowance two or three hundred taels of glittering silver. One piece he picked up casually and gave as a tip to the men who had weighed the silver, “For a cup of tea,” as he put it. The rest he told his servant to carry home. On his mother’s advice he lost no time in hiring a sturdy donkey for himself and several covered carts. Taking these round to the side gate of the Rong Mansion, he called out the twenty-four little novices and seated them in the carts. Then to­gether they set off for Iron Threshold Temple. And there we leave them.

Now it had occurred to Yuanchun while she was editing the poems on Grand View Garden that it would be a pity if her father locked up such charming pleasure grounds after her visit in deference to her, so that nobody could go there. The more so when the girls of the family had a taste for poetizing, and if they were to move there the Garden would make a perfect setting for them while its flowers and willows would not lack admirers. Then she reflected that Baoyu was unlike other boys, having been brought up among girls, so that if he alone were excluded he would feel left out in the cold, and this might distress the Lady Dowager and Lady Wang. She had better give directions for him to move in there too.

Having reached this decision, she sent the eunuch Xia Shouzhong to the Rong Mansion with the order: “Baochai and the other young ladies are to live in the Garden, which is not to be closed. Baoyu is to move in as well to continue his studies there.”

This edict was received by Jia Zheng and Lady Wang. As soon as the eunuch had left, they reported it to the Lady Dowager and sent servants to clean up the Garden and prepare the buildings, hanging up blinds, portieres and bed-curtains.

The others took the news fairly calmly, but Baoyu was beside himself with joy. He was just discussing it with his grandmother, demanding this, that and the other, when a maid announced that his father wanted him. At this bolt from the blue he turned pale, his spirits quite dashed. He clung like a limpet to the Lady Dowager, too terrified to leave her.

“Go, my treasure,” she urged him. “I won’t let him be hard on you. Besides, it’s because you wrote so well that Her Highness has said you should move into the Garden, and I dare say your father only wants to warn you to behave yourself when you’re there. Just say ‘Yes’ to what­ever he tells you and you’ll be all right.”

She called two old nurses and ordered them to take Baoyu there and see that he was not frightened.

The nurses complied and Baoyu left with dragging steps. It so hap­pened that Jia Zheng was discussing some business in his wife’s room while her maids Jinchuan, Caiyun, Caixia, Xiuluan and Xiufeng were stand­ing outside under the eaves. At sight of Baoyu they smiled knowingly, and Jinchuan caught hold of his sleeve.

“I’ve just put some scented rouge on my lips,” she whispered. “Do you want to taste it?”

Caiyun pushed her away.

“Don’t tease him when he’s feeling low,” she scolded. “Go in quickly, while the master’s in a good mood.”

Baoyu sidled fearfully in. His parents were in the inner room. The concubine Zhao raised the portiere, and with a bow he entered. His fa­ther and mother sat facing each other on the kang talking, while on a row of chairs below sat Yingchun, Tanchun, Xichun and Jia Huan, all of whom except Yingchun rose to their feet at his entrance.

Jia Zheng glanced up and saw Baoyu standing before him. The boy’s striking charm and air of distinction contrasted so strongly with Jia Huan’s vulgar, common appearance that he was reminded of his dead son Zhu. He glanced at Lady Wang. She had only this one son left and she doted on him. As for him, his beard was already turning grey. Bearing all this in mind, he forgot his usual aversion to Baoyu. After a pause he said:

“Her Highness has ordered you to study and practise calligraphy with the girls in the Garden, instead of fooling around outside and neglecting your studies. Mind that you apply yourself there to your lessons. If you go on misbehaving, watch out!”

“Yes, sir,” agreed Baoyu hastily.

Then his mother drew him over to sit beside her while Jia Huan and the other two sat down again. Stroking her son’s neck fondly Lady Wang


“Have you finished those pills prescribed for you the other day?”

“All but one.

“You must fetch ten more tomorrow. Get Xiren to see that you take one each evening at bedtime.”

“Ever since you ordered it, madam, Xiren has been giving me one every evening.”

“Who is Xiren?” demanded Jia Zheng.

“One of the maids,” his wife told him.

“A maid can be called anything, I suppose. But who thought up such a suggestive name for her?”

To shield Baoyu from his father’s displeasure Lady Wang said, “It was the old lady’s idea.”

“Such a name would never occur to the old lady. This must have been Baoyu’s doing.”

Since there was no hiding the truth Baoyu rose to confess: “I remem­bered that line of an old poem:

When the fragrance of flowers assails men

we know the day is warm.

As this maid’s surname is Hua (Flower), I called her Xiren. “‘

“You must change it when you go back,” put in Lady Wang quickly. Then she turned to her husband. “Don’t be angry, sir, over such a little thing.”

“It doesn’t really matter, there’s no need to change it. But this shows that instead of studying properly Baoyu gives all his time to romantic trash.” Then he said sternly to Baoyu: “What are you standing there for, you unnatural monster?”

“Run along, “urged Lady Wang. “The old lady is probably waiting for you for supper.

Baoyu assented and slowly withdrew. Once outside he grinned and stuck out his tongue at Jinchuan before hurrying off with the two nurses. He found Xiren leaning in the doorway of the entrance hail. Her face lit up when she saw that he was back safely, and she asked what his father had wanted.

“Nothing much. Just to warn me to be on my best behaviour when I

move into the Garden.”

Having by now reached the Lady Dowager’s room he told her what had happened. Then he asked Daiyu, who was there, in which part of the Garden she would like to live.

Daiyu had been thinking this over and she answered: “My choice would be Bamboo Lodge. I love those bamboos half hiding the winding balustrade, and the place is quieter than anywhere else.”

“Just what I thought!” Baoyu clapped his hands. “That’s where I want you. With me in Happy Red Court, we shall be close together and beautifully quiet.”

At this point Jia Zheng sent a servant to report to the Lady Dowager that the twenty-second of the second month would be an auspicious day for the move into the Garden, and the young people’s quarters would be ready by then. Baochai was to have Alpinia Park, Daiyu Bamboo Lodge, Yingchun the Pavilion of Variegated Splendour, Tanchun the Studio of Autumn Freshness, Xichun Smartweed Breeze Cot, Li Wan Paddy-Sweet Cottage, and Baoyu Happy Red Court. Two old nurses and four maids were assigned to each apartment in addition to the occupant’s nanny and own attendants, and there were other servants whose sole duty was clean­ing and sweeping. On the twenty-second they all moved in and at once the Garden gay with flowers and willows ruffled by a fragrant breeze from embroidered sashes lost its former air of desolation; but no need to describe this in detail.

Baoyu found life in the Garden all he could wish. He asked nothing better than to spend every day with his sisters, cousins and maids, read­ing, writing, strumming the lute, playing chess, painting, chanting poems, watching the girls embroider their phoenix patterns, enjoying the flowers, softly singing, guessing riddles or playing the guess-fingers game. In a word, he was blissfully happy. There he wrote the following verses on the four seasons, which although quite commonplace give some idea of his sentiments and the scenery.


The walls flaunt hangings bright as sunset clouds

To muffle the frogs’ croaking in the lane;

The rain outside the window chills my pillow,

This vision of spring seems like the girl of my dreams.

The candle sheds slow tears for whom?

The blossoms fall as if reproaching me;

My maids are indolent from long indulgence;

Wearied by their laughter and prattle, I snuggle

down in my quilt.


Weary of embroidery, the beauty dreams;

In its golden cage the parrot cries, “Brew tea!”

Bright window, moon like musk-scented palace mirror.

Dim the chamber with fumes of sandalwood and incense.

Clear dew from the lotus is poured from amber cups,

Cool air from the willows wafts past crystal railings;

In lake pavilions everywhere flutter silken fans,

And the blinds are rolled up on the vermilion tower

As she finishes her evening toilet.


The red pavilion scented with rue is hushed,

Moonlight floods the gauze dyed with madder;

Crows asleep by the well are wet with dew from the plane tree,

And storks roost on mossy boulders,

A maid spreads the gold-phoenix quilt,

The girl coming back from the balcony drops her trinkets;

Sleepless at night and thirsty after wine

I relight the incense and call for fresh tea.


Plum-blossom and bamboo dream, the third watch has come,

But sleep eludes them under silk eiderdowns.

Only a stork can be seen in the pine-shadowed court,

No oriole sings in the snow which has drifted like pear-blossom.

Cold is the green-sleeved girl as she writes a poem,

Tipsy the young lord in gold and sable gown;

Happily the maid knows how to make good tea

And gathers up fresh fallen snow to brew it.

When some toadies learned that these poems were the work of a son of the Rong Mansion who was only twelve or thirteen, they copied them out and praised them far and wide, while young gallants attracted by the romantic images in them inscribed them on their fans or walls and kept chanting and admiring them. As a result, Baoyu was flattered to find himself applied to for poems, calligraphy, paintings and inscriptions; and supplying these occupied much of his time every day.

But after a while this quiet life began to pall. Baoyu became restless, dissatisfied and bored. Most of the Garden’s inmates were innocent, ingenuous girls who laughed and romped all day long without any inhibi­tions, quite unaware of his feelings. Then, too restless to stay with them he started fooling around outside, but still went on feeling disgruntled and frustrated.

His page Mingyan tried to think of some way to distract him and decided that there was only one thing that might appeal to him as a nov­elty. He went to a bookshop and bought his master a pile of novels old and new, tales about imperial concubines and empresses, as well as ro­mantic librettos. Baoyu had never read such works before. He felt he had discovered a treasure-trove.

“Don’t take them into the Garden,” Mingyan warned him. “If they were found I’d be in serious trouble.”

But how could Baoyu agree to this? After much hesitation he picked out several volumes written in a more refined style and smuggled these in, keeping them on the canopy over his bed to read when he was alone. The cruder and more indecent he kept hidden in his study outside the Garden.

One day, about the middle of the third month, carrying a copy of The Western Chamber he strolled after breakfast across the bridge above Seeping Fragrance Lock. There he sat down on a rock to read under a blossoming peach-tree. He had just reached the line

Red petals fall in drifts

when a gust of wind blew down such a shower of petals that he and his book were covered with them and the ground near by was carpeted with red. Afraid to trample on the flowers if he shook them off, Baoyu gath­ered them into the skirt of his gown and carried them to the water’s edge where he shook them into the brook. They floated and circled there for a while, then drifted down the River of Seeping Fragrance.

Going back, he found the ground still strewn with blossoms and was wondering how to dispose of these when a voice behind him asked:

“What are you doing here?”

He turned and saw Daiyu, a hoe over one shoulder, a gauze bag hang­ing from the hoe, and a broom in her hand.

“You’re just in time to sweep up these petals and throw them into the water,” cried Baoyu. “I’ve just thrown in a pile.”

“Not into the water,” objected Daiyu. “It may be clean here, but once it flows out of these grounds people empty all sorts of dirt and filth into it. The flowers would still be spoiled. I’ve a grave for flowers in that corner over there. I’m sweeping them up and putting them in this silk bag to bury them there. In time they’ll turn back into soil. Wouldn’t that be cleaner?”

Baoyu was delighted by this idea.

“Just let me put this book somewhere and I’ll help,” he offered.

“What book’s that?”

He hastily tucked it out of sight.

“Just the Doctrine of the Mean and The Great Learning.”2

“You’re trying to fool me again. You’d have done better to show me in the first place.”

“I don’t mind showing you, dear cousin, but you mustn’t tell anyone else. It’s a real masterpiece. You won’t be able to give a thought to eating once you start reading it.” He passed her the book.

Daiyu laid down her gardening tools to read, and the more she read the more enthralled she was. In less time than it takes for a meal she had read all the sixteen scenes. The sheer beauty of the language left a sweet taste in her mouth. After finishing reading she sat there entranced, recall­ing some of the lines.

“Well, don’t you think it’s wonderful?” he asked.

She smiled.

“It’s certainly fascinating.”

“I’m the one ‘sick with longing,”’ he joked. “And yours is the beauty which caused ‘cities and kingdoms to fall.”’3

Daiyu flushed to the tips of her ears. Knitting her sulky brows, her eyes flashing with anger beneath half-drooping lids, she pointed a finger at Baoyu in accusal.

“You really are the limit! Bringing such licentious songs in here and, what’s more, insulting me with nasty quotations from them.” Her eyes brimmed with tears. “I’m going to tell uncle and aunt.”

She turned to go.

In dismay Baoyu barred her way.

“Forgive me this once, dear cousin! I shouldn’t have said that. But if I meant to insult you, I’ll fall into the pond tomorrow and let the scabby-­headed tortoise swallow me, so that I change into a big turtle myself. Then when you become a lady of the first rank and go at last to your paradise in the west, I shall bear the stone tablet at your grave on my back for ever.

Daiyu burst out laughing at this and wiped her eyes.

“You’re so easy to scare, yet still you indulge in talking such non­sense,” she teased. “Why, you’re nothing but ‘a flowerless sprout,’ ‘a lead spearhead that looks like silver.”’

It was Baoyu’s turn to laugh.

“Now listen to you! I’ll tell on you too.”

“You boast that you can ‘memorize a passage with one reading.’ Why can’t I ‘learn ten lines at a glance’?”

Laughing he put the book away.

“Never mind that. Let’s get on with burying the flowers.”

No sooner had they buried the blossom than Xiren appeared.

“So here you are,” she said. “I’ve been looking all over for you. The Elder Master is unwell and all the young ladies have gone to inquire after his health. The old lady wants you to go too. Come back quickly and change.”

Then Baoyu, taking his book, took leave of Daiyu and went back to his own room with Xiren.

With Baoyu gone and the other girls all out too, Daiyu did not know what to do and decided to go back to her own room. As she rounded the corner of Pear Fragrance Court where the twelve actresses were re­hearsing, she heard sweet fluting and singing over the wall. Normally the

words of operas made little appeal to her, so she did not listen carefully; but now as she proceeded on her way two lines carried to her distinctly:

What a riot of brilliant purple and tender crimson,

Among the mined wells and crumbling walls.

Strangely touched by this, she stopped to listen. The singer went on:

What an enchanting sight on this fine morning,

But who is there that takes delight in the spring?

Daiyu nodded and sighed.

“So there are fine lines in these operas,” she thought. “What a pity that people just care for the spectacle without understanding the mean­ing.”

Then, sorry to have missed a stanza through her preoccupation, she listened again and heard:

For you are as fair as a flower

And youth is slipping away like flowing water.

Daiyu’s heart missed a beat. And the next line

Alone you sit in your secluded chamber

affected her so much that she sank down on a rock to ponder the words.

For you are as fair as a flower

And youth is slipping away like flowing water.

They reminded her of a line in an old poem:

Water flows and flowers fall, knowing no pity….

and the lines from another poem:

Spring departs with the flowing water and fallen blossom, Far, far away as heaven from the world of men.

She compared this with the lines she had just read in The Western Cham­ber:

Flowers fall, the water flows red,

Grief is infinite….

As she brooded over the meaning of all these verses, her heart ached and tears coursed down her cheeks. She might have remained there in a quandary had not someone come up behind her all of a sudden and given her a shove in the back. She turned to look.

But to know who it was, you must read the next chapter.


She minds not her morning toilet, her embroidery at night; Facing the moon, cooling off in the breeze, she feels grief.

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