Chapter 20 reveals some "trivial" matters about the Chia family: (1) Nanny Li (Pao-yu's old nurse) is nagging and threatening Hsi-jen because she thinks that Hsi-jen is not really ill; she thinks that Hsi-jen is staying in bed only to avoid her; (2) Chia Huan (the son of Chia Cheng's concubine, Lady Chao) cheats during a dice game in order not to lose his money to the maid Yingerh, and Hsi-feng (Phoenix) criticizes him for his lack of self-respect and for making such a fuss over a couple of hundred cash; (3) Pao-yu is combing his maid Sheh-yueh's hair, and Ching-wen, another maid of Pao-yu's, becomes jealous; (4) Pao-yu's staying with Pao-chai for some time makes Tai-yu envious, and Shih Hsiang-yun's high praise of Pao-chai and her belittling of Tai-yu causes Tai-yu to mock her.
With his descriptions of these small matters, the author carefully and skillfully presents the various relationships between masters and servants, between brothers, and between males and females, and, in addition, his own attitude toward them all can be read between the lines. According to feudal ethics, masters were superior to servants, lineal descendants were more respected than those born of concubines; elder brothers were expected to be friendly to younger brothers, while younger brothers were expected to be respectful and submissive to older brothers; and females were inherently inferior to males. Thus, from these seemingly "small matters," we can see that Pao-yu is setting a "bad example" by rejecting a number of feudal principles of ethics. Rather than rigidly and doggedly observing them, he rebels against them. This particular chapter contains a superb and convincing portrait of young Chia Pao-yu's sparkling ideology of democracy.
In Chapter 21, the maid Hsi-jen enjoys a good chat with Pao-chai during Pao-yu's brief absence, and Pao-chai gains a very favorable impression of Hsi-jen — especially when she hears Hsi-jen express her opinion concerning Pao-yu's playing with his female cousins too often. Hsi-jen says, "It's all right to be fond of cousins, but still there's a limit!"
Afterward, in order to change Pao-yu's behavior, Hsi-jen uses various tactics: sometimes she ignores him, and at other times, she tries to comfort him with a soft voice. Clearly, she wants him to put an end to his silly, adolescent habit of playing with girls.
Finally alone, Pao-yu begins reading "The House-Breaker" in the Chuuang-tzu (one of the most important works of Taoism). He is especially moved by the Taoist concept of human conduct, whereby a person lets things take their own course. In other words, people can do nothing that goes against their nature. Pao-yu is confused and unhappy about the contradictions he sees all around him, particularly within his own family, and these particularly negative Taoist concepts help him ease his mental suffering a bit.
Meanwhile, Chia Lien has a problem. Hsi-feng 's daughter, Ta-chieh, is suffering from smallpox, so he has to move his study to the outer compound for twelve days. This is unfortunate because Chia Lien cannot be away from Hsi-feng for more than two days without turning to someone else for lovemaking. Not surprisingly, he has a fling with To Kuan, the cook's wanton wife. They swear eternal love, of course, but must eventually part when Chia Lien moves his things back home. Ping-erh, the maid, is straightening his bedding and discovers a long strand of a woman's hair. She teases Chia Lien just before Hsi-feng enters the room, and it is almost a miracle that Hsi-feng never finds out about the strand of hair. Chin Lien is so grateful for Ping-erh 's discretion that he attempts to make love to her, but Ping-erh escapes. The feudal lord's "rights" were thwarted, but the author makes it clear that the feudal lord did indeed have the right to lay claim to any of his servants.
In celebration of Pao-chai's fifteenth birthday, a feast and some opera performances are arranged by the capable Hsi-feng (Phoenix). Since Lady Dowager likes lively shows, when Pao-chai is asked what kind of show she would enjoy, she says that she prefers "lively shows" in order to please Lady Dowager. Later, after everyone has chosen a favorite play, Pao-chai says that she would like to hear the opera The Drunken Monk. She is immediately criticized by Pao-yu, but Pao-chai defends her choices and says that the opera has some excellent melodies. Then she cites some of her favorite lines:
Naked I go without impediment.
My sole wish now is to roam alone
In coir cape and bamboo hat,
And in straw sandals with a broken alms bowl
To wander where I will.
This Buddhist message of nothingness touches Pao-yu; he takes in these "esoteric truths" and later writes similar lines when he cannot please and console Tai-yu after Shih Hsiang-yun comments on the resemblance of Tai-yu to an eleven-year-old actress. His verse states that
If there is no "I," then neither is there "you."
If she misunderstands you, then why rue?
Freely I come and freely I go too.
Giving myself to neither joy nor woe.
Close kin or distant — it's the same to me.
Pao-yu's early identification with Buddhist ideology prepares us for his becoming a monk at the end of the novel.
The Imperial Consort sends over a lantern-riddle for everybody to guess, and she also asks each of them to make up a riddle. Almost all of the riddles composed by the girls turn out to be inauspicious, and Chia Cheng is dismayed at the ill-omened subject matter. If one believes in omens, apparently none of the girls will have good fortune or a long life.
In Chapter 23, under the Imperial Consort's order, all the girls and Pao-yu move into Grand View Garden in order to inspire and stir their poetic imaginations and creativity with beautiful scenery and attractive flowers. Each of them will be assigned a "home": Tai-yu will live in Bamboo Lodge and Pao-yu will stay in Happy Red Court, next to Tai-yu's lodgings.
To satisfy Pao-yu's adolescent restlessness, Ming-yen brings him a stack of novels about concubines and empresses, as well as romantic librettos. He soon discovers his favorite: The Western Chamber. This libretto, however, is forbidden by the Ching government, which fears that the work's anti-feudal ideas will "poison" people's minds. Nevertheless, Pao-yu considers it to be a real masterpiece and shares it with Taiyu. Tai-yu is also enthralled by it — so much so that she can recite some lines immediately after she finishes reading it. Pao-yu also quotes some lines from the novel to teasingly praise Tai-yu's beauty, lines such as, "And yours is the beauty which caused cities and kingdoms to fall."
In this scene, we can see that Tai-yu and Pao-yu have a common ground of mutual understanding about love. Both of them are longing for the freedom to marry whomever they choose, and they are clearly against all old, outmoded feudal fetters concerning matrimonial matters.
On her way back home, Tai-yu is inspired again by some of the operatic lines: "For you are as fair as a flower, and youth is slipping away like flowing water." One line, in particular, from The Western Chamber makes tears run down her cheeks: "Flowers fall, the water flows red, grief is infinite."
Chapter 24 finds Chia Yun, the son of Fifth Sister-in-Law of the back lane, coming to visit Chia Lien, his Second Uncle, about the possibility of getting a job at the Jung Mansion. However, since Hsi-feng (Phoenix) does not see eye to eye with Chia Lien on the assignment of a job to Chia Yun, Chia Lien has to ask Chia Yun to wait for another vacancy.
Chia Yun then goes to see his uncle Pu Shih-jen and asks for four ounces of Borneo camphor and musk on credit, but his uncle turns him down. Then he happens to meet a neighbor, Ni Erh, "the Drunkard Diamond," a moneylender who promises to lend Chia Yun the money without any interest — and not even an I.O.U. After receiving the newly borrowed money, Chia Yun buys some camphor and musk and goes to visit Hsi-feng .
Being a man full of diplomacy and wit, he knows how to flatter Hsi-feng : He presents the camphor and musk to her. Hsi-feng is overjoyed at this unexpected gift, and, accordingly, the next day, Chia Yun gets a job — as a tree planter in Grand View Garden. Here, we see that Chia Lien and Hsi-feng , although husband and wife, battle for the right to hire employees, and we also see that each of them likes to be bribed in order to fill their own private purses. The author lays bare their greediness, as well as other conflicts among married members of the ruling class.
Later, we are introduced to a good-looking maid, Hsiao-hung, who wants to climb up the social ladder; her family has served the Chia family for generations, and her father is now in charge of various farms and properties. She makes good use of the absence of the other maids to serve tea to Pao-yu herself. By accident, she happens to meet Chia Yun. Meanwhile, her beauty leaves a deep impression on Pao-yu and makes the other maids extremely jealous. The chapter ends with Hsiao-hung dreaming that Chia Yun is calling to her, telling her that he has found her lost handkerchief.
Chapter 25 first focuses on the jealous and hateful Chia Huan, Pao-yu's half-brother by the concubine Lady Chao. Hoping to blind Pao-yu, Chia Huan deliberately knocks over a candlestick, splashing some hot wax on Pao-yu's face. Pao-yu, however, is not vindictive; he takes the blame for the burn, saying that he should not have been so careless. This incident shows that Pao-yu is not preoccupied with the feudal principle of distinguishing between lineal descendants and sons and daughters by concubines; moreover, he is clearly not bent on inheriting the Chia family properties. Once again, this incident shows us that Pao-yu is liberated from old-fashioned, patriarchal, feudal notions.
In contrast, Chia Huan and his concubine mother, Lady Chao, want very much to inherit the Chia family properties. Being a son of a concubine, Chia Huan knows that his future is bleak unless he kills or maims Pao-yu, and he is willing to do so in order to realize his ambitions. Similarly, his mother, Lady Chao, is also greedy and ambitious, so she enlists the aid of the priestess Ma (Pao-yu's Buddhist godmother) and bribes the old woman to use sorcery to invoke evil spirits that will get possession of both Pao-yu and Hsifeng, kill them, and ensure Lady Chao and Chia Huan's rights as legal inheritors.
Ma's sorcery and incantations prove to be effective. Suddenly Pao-yu and Hsi-feng become violently insane, lose consciousness, and seem to be near death. At this critical moment, a scabby-headed bonze (Buddhist priest) and a lame Taoist arrive and restore the magic power of Pao-yu's Jade of Spiritual Understanding, rescuing Pao-yu and Hsi-feng from death in the nick of time.
In brief, this chapter describes the struggle between a lineal descendant son and the son of a concubine over the right of inheritance. The conflict is very sharp and intensely realistic, despite the fact that the entire sorcery episode is deeply imbued with a sense of unreality and superstition.
Thirty-three days pass, and finally Pao-yu recovers his strength, and the burns on his face heal. Most of the servants and maids are rewarded according to their rank, and we see that this arrangement leaves some minor servants with no reward. The conversation between Chiu-wen and Hsiao-hung clearly reveals the differences in rank among the servants.
Pao-yu takes an early morning stroll to Tai-yu's Bamboo Lodge and happens to overhear her lazily quoting from The Western Chamber: "Day after day a drowsy dream of love." Tai-yu's love for Pao-yu has found expression in this line, and she resents his making fun of her romantic feelings by quoting lines about "bridal curtains" and "preparing the marriage bed." Already she has been teased enough by the other girls because of her fondness for Pao-yu.
Later, hearing that Pao-yu did not come home after being sent for by his father, Tai-yu goes to Happy Red Court. She is refused admittance and, ready to leave, she hears Pao-yu and Pao-chai laughing together inside. This is too much. Tears flood down Tai-yu's cheeks.
Here, we can see that the love between Pao-yu and Tai-yu is developing further. They use quoted lines to express their love for one another, revealing to us that they are both rebels against the feudal system of marriage. However, as a son and a daughter of aristocrats, their love relationship is full of unhealthy elements, especially in the case of Tai-yu. She loves Pao-yu very much, and yet she feels a compulsive need to test him again and again. When Pao-yu reveals his heart to her, she feels sad and irritated; when her love for Pao-yu meets with difficulties, she feels even more frustrated and begins weeping. All of this romantic anguish reflects the characteristics of the time, as well as Tai-yu's overly sentimental temperament.
When the time comes to celebrate the Festival of Grain in Ear, all kinds of gifts and a farewell feast are traditionally offered to the God of Flowers. All the inmates of Grand View Garden want to observe the custom faithfully, so Pao-chai, the three Chia girls, Li Wan, and Hsi-feng take this opportunity to enjoy anew the glory of Grand View Garden. Noticing that Tai-yu is missing, Pao-chai offers to go look for her. On the way to Bamboo Lodge, she is happily chasing a pair of enormous jade-colored butterflies when, by accident, she overhears a conversation between Chui-erh and Hsiao-hung about Master Yun's finding Hsiao-hung's handkerchief. Afraid that the two maids will discover her outside the pavilion, Pao-chai loudly pretends to be frantically looking for Tai-yu, leaving the two maids wondering whether Tai-yu might have eavesdropped on their conversation.
Pao-yu arrives at Tai-yu's pavilion, hoping that she will accompany him to the celebration, but he is given the cold shoulder. Tai-yu goes to the party by herself without saying a word to Pao-yu, leaving Pao-yu ignorant of what happened the previous evening. After talking about domestic affairs, the party disperses, and Pao-yu decides to gather some fallen blossoms; then he makes his way towards the mound where Taiyu buried some peach blossoms earlier. Before he gets to the hill, however, he hears someone sobbing, deeply lamenting the tragic fate of fallen flowers and comparing the fate of fallen flowers with her own future. The weeper is none other than Tai-yu. This particular song about burying fallen blossoms has earned a reputation for itself; it is renowned for containing the essence of Tai-yu's personality and character, and it has enjoyed long popularity among Chinese readers of this novel.
In Chapter 27, then, the author is comparing two typical female characters: One is a guardian of feudalism, and the other is a rebel against feudalism; one enjoys chasing butterflies, and the other enjoys burying fallen blossoms; one is full of happiness, and the other feels utterly depressed. The sharp contrast between the two young girls is presented in a poignant style with vivid, concrete examples of each of their individual characteristics.
Like Tai-yu, Pao-yu begins weeping over the sad fate of fallen flowers and the fate of beautiful girls like Tai-yu and Pao-chai, and his crying is overheard by Tai-yu. They have a heart-to-heart talk, and soon Pao-yu's patient explanations and sincerity resolve all of her groundless suspicions. Once again, they make up with each other.
Pao-yu is invited by Feng Tze-ying to attend a party, where Hsueh Pan, Chiang Yu-han (an actor famous for playing female roles), and Yun-erh (a courtesan) are present. To make the drinking party more enjoyable, Pao-yu suggests that they all make up four lines about a girl's sorrows, worries, joys, and delights, explaining the reason for each, and that everyone must drink a cup of wine, sing a new song and recite a line from an old poem. Everyone tries their best in turn and is praised by the others — except Hsueh Pan; his lines are so poorly composed that he is ridiculed by all.
Pao-yu and the actor Chiang Yu-han (Chi-kuan) become friends so quickly that they decide to exchange gifts with one another: Pao-yu gives his pale green sash to the actor, and Chiang Yu-han gives his scarlet, perfumed sash to Pao-yu as symbols of their new friendship.
The Imperial Consort asks a eunuch to send over presents for all the family members in celebration of the Dragon-Boat Festival. To Pao-yu's surprise, Pao-chai's gift is identical to Pao-yu's — not to Tai-yu's. Thus, Pao-yu asks Tai-yu to choose whatever Tai-yu likes from his gifts, which leads, of course, to Tai-yu's jealous innuendos. Later, Pao-yu asks Pao-chai to let him have a look at her red bracelet scented with musk, and as he does, he is given a chance to admire Pao-chai's soft white arm. She has a beauty that is quite different from Tai-yu's.
Basically, Chapter 28 shows us how Pao-yu deals with his friends. Chiang Yu-han is an actor, yet Pao-yu is on good terms with him, as can be seen by their exchange of sashes; Yun-erh is a courtesan, a person usually insulted and looked down on in society, yet Pao-yu sings a song, accompanied by her on the pipa. This incident shows that Pao-yu does not act according to strict, feudal, hierarchical codes. His rebellious behavior runs directly counter to feudal principles. That is one of the reasons Pao-yu is so severely beaten by his father, Chia Cheng, later in the novel.
The identical presents of Pao-yu and Pao-chai are by no means a coincidence. We know now that Yuanchun, Lady Dowager, Lady Wang, and Hsi-fengare all plotting, hoping that Pao-chai will be Pao-yu's wife. In their opinion, Pao-chai is a perfect example of girls who come from aristocratic families: She is virtuous and knowledgeable according to feudal norms of love and marriage. On the other hand, Tai-yu's rebellious ideas and her heavy dependence on others have cost her favor among the powerful persons in the Chia family.
Chapter 29 finds the Chia family, Lady Dowager in charge, going to a Taoist mass at Ethereal Abbey. Their procession to the Abbey is a grand view to all of the spectators. In honor of the occasion, Abbot Chang is wearing his best robes of office, holding a tablet and waiting with his priests by the roadside to welcome them. Even General Feng Tzu-ying has sent gifts of pigs, sheep, incense, candles, and sweetmeats to express his respects to the Chia family.
Inside the Abbey, Chang the Taoist asks to borrow Pao-yu's Jade of Spiritual Understanding so that he can show it to his Taoist friends and disciples. Afterward, all of the priests express their esteem by sending several dozen amulets of gold and jade, all engraved with inscriptions, such as "Eternal Peace," to Pao-yu to express their esteem. In the meantime, Abbot Chang asks Lady Dowager when Pao-yu is going to get married, and after some discussion about "the proper girl" for Pao-yu, the abbot promises Lady Dowager to keep an eye open for a good-looking girl with a sweet disposition.
This scheming and "arranging" causes Pao-yu to sulk. Tai-yu urges him to go see the shows with the others, but Pao-yu's easily aroused resentment flares up — particularly when Tai-yu says sarcastically, "I'm not like those others who own things which make them a good match for you, the match of your choice." Suddenly, Pao-yu tears the sacred jade stone from his neck and dashes it to the Hoar — to the amazement of Tai-yu and the maids. Impulsively, Tai-yu cuts off the tassel she made for the jade and begins vomiting and crying. The quarrel continues until Lady Dowager and Lady Wang arrive on the scene.
Later, although apart, Pao-yu and Tai-yu are "as one at heart," we are told, and so the old proverb "Enemies and lovers are destined to meet" seems to simultaneously dawn on each of them. The conflicting emotions within Pao-yu and Tai-yu, despite the fact that they love one another, are proof that they are both rebelling against the feudalist concept of "jade [Pao-yu] must have gold [Pao-chai] in order to create good fortune." This concept is a typical feudal concept — that is, a belief in amulets rather than in people.
Just as Pao-yu and Tai-yu are making up after their quarrel, Hsi-feng arrives and tells them to go over and visit Lady Dowager, show their respects, and set the old lady at ease. They do so, and the old lady is happy to see them on good terms again. Pao-chai is also in the old lady's room, so they all have a talk together, which is pleasant until Pao-yu compares Pao-chai to Lady Yang (one of Emperor Ming-huang's favorites, a woman who is supposed to be very plump). Tai-yu is delighted, of course, to hear Pao-yu making fun of Pao-chai.
Later, when Pao-yu teasingly flirts with Lady Wang's maid Chin-chuan, Lady Wang catches them red-handed. Instead of criticizing Pao-yu, however, Lady Wang slaps the maid's face and fires her on the spot. Here, we see that, on the surface, Lady Wang is very kind and generous, but she is very cruel to the servants if her authority, or her feudal family's reputation, or her son's "purity" is threatened.
Afterward, while sauntering in the Garden, Pao-yu hears the young actress Ling-kuan weeping and writing the character "chiang" (rose) repeatedly on the ground. Pao-yu is so touched that he gets drenched when both of them are caught in a sudden rain shower. He hurries home, only to find the maids turning a deaf ear to his insistent knocking. Once inside, in a flare of temper, he kicks Hsi-jen by mistake. During the night, he hears coughing, goes to her, and discovers that she is spitting blood.