A Dream of Red Mansions – Chapter 38


Chapter 38

Chapter 38

The Queen of Bamboos Wins First Place

with Her Poems on Chrysanthemums

The Lady of the Alpinia Writes a Satire

upon Crabs

Having laid their plans Baochai and Xiangyun slept, and the next morn­ing the latter invited the Lady Dowager and others over to enjoy the fragrant osmanthus.

“What a delightful, refined idea,” said the old lady. “We should take advantage of such an invitation.”

At noon she took Lady Wang and Xifeng to invite Aunt Xue to accom­pany them to the Garden, and asked:

“Which would be the best spot?”

“It’s up to you to choose, madam,” said Lady Wang.

“Preparations have been made in Lotus Fragrance Anchorage,” put in Xifeng. “The two fragrant osmanthus trees at the foot of the slope there are in full bloom, the water flowing past is green and clear, and you get a fine view from the pavilion in midstream. It’s refreshing to look at water.”

The Lady Dowager approved and led the way to Lotus Fragrance Anchorage.

This pavilion, built in the middle of the lake, had windows on all four sides, twisting corridors on left and right leading to both shores and, be-hind, a winding bamboo bridge connecting it with the bank. As they stepped on to this, Xifeng moved forward quickly to take the old lady’s arm.

“Just step out boldly, Old Ancestress,” she cried. “This bamboo bridge always creaks — it doesn’t matter.”

Upon reaching the pavilion they saw on the balcony two bamboo tables, one laid with cups, chopsticks and wine pots, the other with a tea-service. Beside them a few maids were fanning two stoves: one to brew tea, the other to heat wine.

“Tea — splendid! This is just the place for it,” remarked the Lady Dowager. “Everything here is so clean.”

Xiangyun said with a smile, “Cousin Baochai helped prepare this.”

“Yes, I always say she’s most provident, that child, and thinks of everything.”

As the old lady made this observation, she noticed two inscriptions inlaid in mother-of-pearl on the black lacquer tablets hanging on the pil­lars. She asked someone to read them to her. Xiangyun complied:

Magnolia oars shatter the reflections of lotus;

Caltrops and lotus-root scent the bamboo bridge.

The Lady Dowager glanced up again at the inscription on the board above her head, then turned to Aunt Xue.

“When I was young we had a pavilion like this too at home,” she said. “It was called Pillowed Iridescence or something of the sort. I was no bigger than these girls at that time and I used to play with my sisters there every day. Once I slipped and fell into the water and nearly drowned! They managed to pull me out, but a wooden bolt had gashed my head. That’s how I got this dent the size of a finger-tip on my temple here. They were all afraid I was done for after that ducking and chill, but I recovered.”

Before anyone else could comment Xifeng quipped, “If you hadn’t, who’d be enjoying all this good fortune today? Obviously our Old Ances­tress was destined from birth to good luck and a long life: that’s why the gods dented her head to hold her good luck! The God of Longevity originally had a dent in his head too, but it was so stuffed with good fortune it swelled up instead into a bump.”

Before she had finished, the Lady Dowager and all the others were quite limp from laughing.

“This monkey’s so dreadfully spoilt, she even makes fun of me,” declared the old lady. “I ought to tear out that glib tongue of yours.”

“We’ll presently be eating crabs,” said Xifeng. “I was afraid you might have indigestion if I didn’t first make you laugh. If you’re in good spirits it doesn’t matter eating a little more.

“I’ll make you stay with me day and night to keep me laughing,” threatened the Lady Dowager. “I won’t let you go home.”

“It’s because you’re so fond of her, madam, that she’s so spoilt,” interposed Lady Wang. “And by talking like that you’ll make her even worse.

“I like her as she is.” The old lady chuckled. “Besides, she never really oversteps the mark. When we’ve no visitors we should joke and chat, so long as the young people don’t break the main rules of propriety. Why should we expect them to behave like angels?”

Now that everyone was in the pavilion tea was served, after which Xifeng set the tables. The one at the head was for the Lady Dowager, Aunt Xue, Baochai, Daiyu and Baoyu; that on the east for Xiangyun, Lady Wang, Yingchun, Tanchun and Xichun; and the small one near the door on the west for Li Wan and Xifeng. The seats at this were unoccu­pied, however, as they were waiting on the tables of the Lady Dowager and Lady Wang.

“Don’t bring too many crabs,” Xifeng told the maids. “Fetch us ten and keep the rest in the steamer, to be brought in as we need them.”

Having called for water to wash her hands, she stood by the old lady and shelled a crab, offering the meat to Aunt Xue. But the latter declined it.

“Please don’t trouble,” she said. “I prefer to do it myself.”

So Xifeng gave this crab to the Lady Dowager, the second to Baoyu. She then sent for piping hot wine and ordered some young maids to fetch powdered green beans scented with chrysanthemum leaves and fragrant osmanthus, for use when they washed their hands.

Xiangyun, after eating one crab with her guests, left her seat to help the others and also went outside to give instructions that two dishes of crabs should be sent to the concubines Zhao and Zhou.

“You’re not used to entertaining,” said Xifeng coming over to her. “Go back and eat while I look after your guests for you. I’ll eat after they’ve left.”

But Xiangyun, declining this offer, had two more tables placed on the balcony for Yuanyang, Hupo, Caixia, Caiyun and Pinger.

“Since you’re seeing to things here, madam,” said Yuanyang to Xifeng, “we may as well go and eat.”

“Yes, go along, all of you. Leave everything to me. ”

At that Xiangyun went back to her seat and, after Xifeng and Li Wan had eaten a few hurried mouthfuls as a matter of form, Xifeng left the table again to do the honours. Presently she stepped out on to the balcony where the maids were enjoying the crabs. At her approach they rose and Yuanyang asked:

“Why have you come out here, madam? Do let us enjoy our crabs in peace!”

“This little bitch has become quite impossible!” cried Xifeng laughing. “Instead of thanking me for doing your job, you’re complaining. Hurry up and pour me some wine.”

Smiling, Yuanyang made haste to fill a cup and hold it to her lips. Xifeng tossed it off. Then Hupo and Caixia poured two more cups and held them to her lips, and she drank them too. By this time Pinger had ready a shellful of yellow crab meat.

“Add plenty of ginger and vinegar,” said Xifeng. And when this was eaten she told them, “Sit down and go on with your meal. I’m leaving you.

“How shameless!” Yuanyang tittered. “Cadging from us.”

“You’d better behave,” warned Xifeng. “You know your Master Lian is in love with you and means to ask the old lady to let him have you as his concubine.”

“Bah!” Yuanyang spat out. “What a way for a lady to talk! I’m going to smear your face with my dirty hands to get even.”

She stood up as if to carry out her threat.

“Let me off this time, good sister!” pleaded Xifeng.

“If Yuanyang becomes a concubine, Pinger will make things hot for her.” Hupo giggled. “Just look at her. She’s drunk a whole saucer of vinegar with less than two crabs — that’s soured her.”

Pinger had just scooped out the yellow flesh of a crab, and at this gibe she aimed it at Hupo’s face, laughing.

“You foul-mouthed bitch!” she swore.

Hupo giggled and dodged so that Pinger, stumbling forward, smeared Xifeng’s cheek with the crab flesh. Xifeng, still joking with Yuanyang, cried out with a start which made everyone burst out laughing. Unable to help joining in herself, she cursed:

“Damn slut! Have you no eyes that you smear anyone?”

Pinger hastily wiped Xifeng’s face and went to fetch water.

“Gracious Buddha!” cried Yuanyang. “This is just retribution.”

“What’s happened?” called the Lady Dowager. “What are you laugh­ing at? Let us into the joke.”

Yuanyang and the others, still shaking with mirth, called back loudly, “Madam Lian came here to steal our crabs. Then Pinger flared up and smeared her face with yellow crab meat. Now mistress and maid are scrapping.”

Amid general laughter the Lady Dowager said, “Do take pity on the poor thing and give her some of the smaller legs and innards.”

Yuanyang cheerfully assented and cried loudly, “The table is covered with legs. Just help yourself, madam.”

Then Xifeng, having washed her face, went back to wait on the Lady Dowager.

Daiyu, the only one afraid to eat much, had contented herself with a little meat from the pincers, after which she left the table.

As soon as the old lady had had enough they all left their places to wash their hands, then strolled off to look at the flowers, play with the water or watch the fish.

“It’s windy here, and you’ve just been eating crab, madam,” said Lady Wang presently to her mother-in-law. “You’d better go back and rest. If you’ve enjoyed this you can come again tomorrow.”

“Very well,” replied the Lady Dowager. “I didn’t want to spoil your fun by leaving; but since you suggest it, let’s go.” She turned to Xiangyun. “Don’t let your cousins Baoyu and Daiyu eat too much.” When Xiangyun agreed, she advised her and Baochai, “You two had better not eat too much either. Crabs are delicious but not very wholesome. If you overeat you’ll have a stomach-ache.”

Having assented and seen her out of the Garden, they returned and ordered the tables to be cleared and reset.

“There’s no need for that,” Baoyu objected. “It’s time to write po­ems now. Just put the wine and dishes on the big round table in the middle there. You needn’t assign seats either. We can help ourselves and sit wherever we please. Wouldn’t that be more comfortable?”

“An excellent idea,” Baochai approved.

“That’s all very well,” said Xiangyun, “but we mustn’t forget the others.”

She had another table set and more hot crabs brought for Xiren, Zijuan, Siqi, Shishu, Ruhua, Yinger and Cuimo. Two rugs were spread at the foot of the slope under the fragrant osmanthus trees for the serving-women and the younger maids, who were urged to eat and drink as much as they liked and not to come unless called.

Then Xiangyun pinned the themes on one wall. And the others crowding round to look exclaimed:

“How original! But this isn’t going to be easy.”

She explained why they had chosen no definite rhymes.

“Quite right too,” approved Baoyu. “I don’t like hard-and-fast rhyme schemes either.”

As Daiyu did not want much wine or crab, she sent her maid for an embroidered cushion and sat by the balustrade angling for fish. Baochai played for a while with a spray of fragrant osmanthus, then leaned out of the window to toss some petals into the water so that the fish would come and nibble at them. Xiangyun roused herself from a brown study to urge Xiren’s party and the maids at the foot of the slope to eat their fill. Tanchun, Li Wan and Xichun stood in the shade of the willows watching the waterfowl, while Yingchun, standing apart in the shade of the blos­som, threaded jasmine flowers with a needle.

Baoyu first watched Daiyu fishing, then went over to make a few remarks to Baochai, after which he joined Xiren and the rest and sipped some wine with them while Xiren prepared a shellful of meat for him.

At this point Daiyu, laying down her rod, walked over to the table. She picked up a tarnished silver pot with a plum-blossom design and chose a tiny red soapstone cup shaped like a palm leaf. To the maid who hurried forward to pour her a drink she said:

“Go on with your meal. Let me pour my own wine, that’s more fun.”

By now she had poured half a cup and could see it was yellow wine.

“After eating a bit of crab I’ve slight indigestion,” she said. “What I really want is a mouthful of hot spirits.”

“There’s some here,” said Baoyu promptly. He told the maids to heat a pot of spirits in which acacia flowers had been steeped.

After just one sip Daiyu put the cup down. Baochai, coming over just then, picked up another cup and drank a mouthful before wetting her brush and ticking off the first title on the wall Thinking of the Chry­santhemum, beside which she wrote “Alpinia.”

“Dear cousin,” put in Baoyu hastily. “I’ve got four lines already for the second. Do leave that one for me.”

“I’ve only just taken one, yet what a fluster you’re in!” replied Baochai mockingly.

Daiyu silently took the brush from her and ticked off the eighth sub­ject, Questioning the Chrysanthemum, as well as the eleventh, A Dream of Chrysanthemums, writing “Bamboo” beside them. Baoyu, the next to take the brush, ticked off the second title Visiting the Chrysanthe­mum and wrote “Red” by it.

Tanchun, strolling over now to look, remarked, “If no one’s doing Wearing the Chrysanthemum, I’ll try that.” She wagged a finger teas­ingly at Baoyu. “It’s just been announced that no allusions to the inner chambers are allowed, so be careful!”

Meanwhile Xiangyun had come over to tick off numbers four and five, Facing the Chrysanthemum and Displaying the Chrysanthe­mum, next to which she wrote her name.

“You should have a pen-name too,” Tanchun objected.

“Though we’ve still a few pavilions and lodges at home, I’m not living there now,” replied Xiangyun. “And there’s no point in using a borrowed name.”

Baochai countered, “Just now the old lady said your house has a water pavilion called Pillowed Iridescence. That’s yours all right. Even though it’s in other hands now, you’re after all its old mistress.”

“That’s right,” approved the rest.

Before Xiangyun could make any move, Baoyu blotted out her name and wrote up “Iridescence” in its place.

Then, in less time than it takes for a meal, the twelve poems were finished, written out and handed to Yingchun, who copied them out on a fresh sheet of coloured Xue Tao stationery1, adding the pen-name of the author to each. Li Wan and the others read them.


I gaze around in the west wind, sick at heart;

A sad season this of red smartweed and white reeds;

No sign is there of autumn by the bare fence round my plot.

Yet I dream of attenuated blooms in the frost.

My heart follows the wild geese back to the distant south,

Sitting lonely at dusk I hear pounding of washing blocks.

Who will pity me pining away for the yellow flowers?

On the Double Ninth Festival they will reappear.

The Lady of the Alpinia


Seize the chance to ramble out on a clear frosty day

Rather than linger over wine or tea.

Who has planted this flower before the frost under the moonlight?

Whence springs this autumn glory by balustrade and fence?

Waxed sandals patter, come gaily from far away,

In soaring spirits he chants endless poems;

If the yellow bloom will take pity on the poet,

Let it welcome him with a string of cash hung from his cane.

The Happy Red Prince


With my hoe I moved them from their bed in autumn

To plant them by the fence before my court;

An unexpected rain last night revived them,

How good to see them flower in this morning’s frost.

I chant a thousand poems to this autumn splendour

And drunk with wine toast its cold fragrance,

Seal its roots with mud and water it with spring water

To keep it free from dust by the three paths to the house of the recluse.

The Happy Red Prince


Brought from another plot, more precious than gold,

One clump is pale, one dark;

Sitting bareheaded by the lonely fence,

In the cold clean scent I hug my knees and chant.

None, surely, in the world as proud as you;

I alone, it seems, know your worth.

We should make the most of autumn, gone so soon,

And facing you I treasure every moment.

Old Friend of Pillowed Iridescence


Music and wine gladly accompany

Chrysanthemum adorning a desk with style.

By the seat dewy fragrance as if from the garden path;

Tossing my book aside I face a spray of autumn.

Fresh dreams penetrate the curtain in clear frost,

Sunset in chill garden recalls a former visit.

You too disdain the world, for we share the same taste,

Not lingering by breezy spring’s peach and plum blossom.

Old Friend of Pillowed Iridescence


Day and night the imp of poetry assails men;

Skirting the fence, leaning on the rock, they start chanting;

With the tip of the brush, by the rime, they write fine lines,

Or facing the moon croon their sweet melodies.

We may fill a page with sorrow and self-pity,

But who can put into words what autumn means?

Ever since Tao Yuanming of old passed judgement

This flower’s worth has been sung through the centuries.

The Queen of Bamboos


Painting for pleasure after writing verses

One brushes on the reds and blues at random;

A thousand ink-dots form the leaves,

Traces of frost stain the clustering flowers;

Dark and light their shadows overlap in the breeze,

Under one’s hand autumn exhales its fragrance.

Don’t think these flowers are picked by the east fence,

They are fixed to the screen for the Double Ninth Festival.

The Lady of the Alpinia


My questions about autumn none can answer,

Musing alone I stroll to the eastern fence.

Proud recluse, with what hermit are you taking refuge?

All flowers must bloom, what makes you bloom so late?

So lonely in dewy gardens and frosty courts,

When swans fly off, crickets chirp, does your heart ache?

Say not there is none in the world worth talking to;

Since you understand, why don’t we chat awhile?

The Queen of Bamboos


Busy every day planting by the fence, picking for vases,

Not to adorn himself before the mirror,

The young lord of Changan is infatuated with flowers,

Just as the poet of Pengze 2 was crazy for wine.

His short hair is wet with cold dew from the path,

His coarse cap stained with autumn frost and fragrance;

This eccentric recluse is scorned by the men of today,

But let them clap their hands and jeer by the roadside.

The Stranger Under the Plantain


The teeming, diverse shades of autumn splendour

Quietly loiter about the mountain path;

The few lamps inside windows far or near cast their shadows,

Chequered patterns of moonlight filtered through wicker fence.

The soul of cold fragrance should dwell in these reflections,

Empty even in dreams the frost tracery of their spirit;

Tread softly and take good care of this dark sweetness,

For who can discern it in his drunken eyes?

Old Friend of Pillowed Iridescence


A refreshing sleep by the fence while autumn mellows

And clouds and moonlight mingle hazily;

No need to envy Zhuang Zi his butterfly dream;

Recalling old friends, let me seek out Tao Yuanming.

In sleep the vision recedes with the flight of swans,

Aroused with a start we resent the chirp of crickets;

Awake, to whom can I describe my grief,

The infinite melancholy of cold mist and withered grass?

The Queen of Bamboos


Slowly drooping below congealed dew and heavy frost

Just after a feast in its honour on the Day of Light Snow.

The pale golden petals still retain some fragrance,

But the marred green leaves are withering on the stem.

Crickets chirp sadly under denuded boughs,

Wild geese wing slowly through far-flung frosty clouds;

Next year in autumn we shall meet again,

No need to sorrow over this brief parting.

The Stranger Under the Plantain

As they read each poem they praised it, heaping compliments on each other.

“Let me try to pass fair judgement now,” said Li Wan with a smile. “On the whole each poem has striking lines but, speaking impartially, I rank Writing About the Chrysanthemum first, Questioning the Chry­santhemum second, and A Dream of Chrysanthemums third; for all three show originality in the theme, ideas and style. The Queen of Bamboos will have to be given first place. Next in order of merit come Wearing the Chrysanthemum, Facing the Chrysanthemum, Displaying the Chrysanthemum, Painting the Chrysanthemum and Thinking of the Chrysanthemum.”

Baoyu clapped his hands in delight at this, exclaiming, “Absolutely right. Very fair.”

“Mine didn’t amount to much,” Daiyu observed. “They’re rather contrived.”

“But aptly so,” rejoined Li Wan. “Not stiff and overloaded.”

“To my mind,” continued Daiyu, “the best line of all is ‘Sunset in chill garden recalls a former visit’ which presents such a strong contrast. And ‘Tossing my book aside I face a spray of autumn’ is perfect, leav­ing nothing more to be said about displaying chrysanthemums, so that she had to revert to the time before the flower was plucked and put in the vase. Very penetrating, very subtle.”

“Quite so. Still, your line about ‘sweet melodies’ is even better,” countered Li Wan.

Tanchun put in, “And what about the Lady of the Alpinia? ‘No sign is

there of autumn’ and ‘yet in dream I see’ bring out the idea of nostalgia so vividly.”

Baochai smiled and replied, “Your ‘short hair wet with cold dew’ and ‘coarse cap stained with fragrance’ do full justice to the subject too.”

Xiangyun remarked gaily, “Questions like ‘With what hermit are you taking refuge?’ and ‘What makes you bloom so late?’ are bound to stump the flower.”

Li Wan retorted, “I daresay your sitting bareheaded and hugging your knees while you chant, refusing to leave, would get on the flower’s nerves too — if it had any. ”

At that there was general laughter.

“I’m last again,” said Baoyu cheerfully. “But surely my ‘Who has planted this flower?’ ‘Whence springs this autumn glory?’, ‘waxed sandals come from far away,’ and ‘chants endless poems’ describe visiting the chrysanthemum all right? And don’t ‘rain last night’ and ‘this morning’s frost’ describe the planting? It’s just that they’re not up to such images as ‘facing the moon croon their sweet melodies,’ ‘In the cold clean scent I hug my knees and chant,’ ‘short hair,’ ‘coarse cap, ‘pale gold,’ ‘the marred green leaves are withering,’ ‘no sign is there of autumn’ and ‘seen in dreams.”‘ He added, “Tomorrow when I’ve time, I mean to write on all twelve themes.”

“Your verses aren’t bad,” Li Wan told him. “They’re not as distinc­tive as the others though.”

After some further discussion of the poems they called for more hot crabs and sat round the big table to eat.

“Now that we’re enjoying the fragrant osmanthus and eating crabs, we should write verses about this too,” said Baoyu presently. “I’ve already made one. Who else is game?”

With that he hastily washed his hands and wrote out his poem for the others.


Row fine to eat crabs in the cool shade of osmanthus;

Gaily we pile on ginger, splash vinegar on each part;

A true gourmand should also have wine;

But this creature scuttling sidewise has no heart.

In our greed we forget how hard it is to digest,

Our fingers washed, the reek of its oil will remain;

The crab’s sole function is to please men’s palate,

And Su Dongpo3 laughed because its whole life it’s busy in vain.

“If you call that a poem,” scoffed Daiyu, “I can write you a hun­dred.”

“No, you’ve exhausted your talent, you can’t write any more. All you can do is to disparage other people.”

Instead of answering and without stopping to think, she picked up the brush and promptly wrote a verse:

Girt even in death with iron armour and long spears.

On the plate, delicious, it’s sat,

Its pincers packed with meat like tender jade,

Its shell bulging with red, tasty fat.

How I love those eight succulent legs –

But who’ll urge me to drink a thousand cups till my grief is overcome?

Let us toast this dainty at our feast today

When breeze ruffles fragrant osmanthus and frost gathers on chrysanthemum.

Baoyu reading this was loud in his praise, but Daiyu tore it up and told the maids to burn it.

“Mine isn’t as good as yours, so I’m burning it,” she told him with a smile. “Yours is fine. Better than your chrysanthemum poems. You should keep it to show other people.”

“I’ve made a feeble attempt too,” Baochai put in with a laugh. “It’s not much good, but I’ll write it out to amuse you. ”

She did so and they read:

We sit, cups raised, in the shade of osmanthus and Wu-tong;

Mouths watering, for the Double Ninth we pine;

It crawls sidewise because the ways of the world are crooked,

And, white and yellow, harbours a dark design.

They all exclaimed at this point in admiration.

“That’s the style!” cried Baoyu. “My verse will have to be burned too.”

Then they read on:

Wine won’t purge the smell without chrysanthemums,

And ginger is needed dyspepsia to prevent;

What can it do now, fallen into the cauldron?

On the moonlit bank all that remains is the millet’s scent.

“It takes real talent to get deep significance into such a small subject as eating crabs,” the others commented. “But as a satire, this is rather hard on the world!”

They were interrupted by Pinger’s return to the Garden. To know what her business was, you must read the next chapter.

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