Hsi-jen's spitting blood worries Pao-yu, so he secretly sends for Doctor Wang (so as not to alarm the entire household). Doctor Wang says that His-jen has had a contusion and prescribes some pills for her recovery.
Next day, in a gloomy mood, Pao-yu criticizes his maid Ching-wen for dropping his fan and breaking it; the two quarrel, and during the argument Ching-wen ridicules Hsi-jen's ambition to be a concubine. Later, when Hsi-jen tries to make peace between them, Pao-yu threatens to fire Ching-wen. Hsi-jen tries to reconcile them, but Ching-wen argues with her and exposes Hsi-jen's ambitions openly. Pao-yu threatens again to fire Ching-wen, and Hsijen tries to pacify Pao-yu again. As a result, Pao-yu offers to let Ching-wen tear up as many fans as possible — just to win her smile again.
This episode illustrates how rebellious Ching-wen is. Her character and personality are in sharp contrast with Hsi-jen's. Ching-wen looks down on her rulers' "authority." That's why she sympathizes with Pao-yu. However, when Pao-yu puts on the airs of a master, she defies him and dares to fight for her own rights. Her tendency to hate conniving people is revealed when she exposes Hsi-jen's ambitions. Of course, Ching-wen's tearing up fans is not good, but her behavior is only another example of the fact that she is influenced by the wasteful, aristocratic examples that she sees all around her.
When Pao-yu's cousin Shih Hsiang-yun comes to visit the Chia family and to see Pao-yu, in particular, we see that both of them still like to play pranks and create mischief, as they did when they were young. After giving Hsi-jen and the other maids some gifts, Hsiang-yun explains why she brought them herself (instead of sending a page). Her cleverness makes Pao-yu praise her as "still such a talker." Out of jealousy, Tai-yu says, "Even if she couldn't talk, her golden unicorn could." Tai-yu knows that Pao-yu has already purchased a golden unicorn for Hsiang-yun, one which he got from Yuan-chun.
Chapter 32 begins with Hsiang-yun teasingly reprimanding Pao-yu for losing the gold unicorn, comparing losing a unicorn to losing an official seal. To Hsiang-yun's surprise, Pao-yu says that losing an official seal is nothing. Hsiang-yun then advises Pao-yu to associate with officials more frequently and learn something about world affairs and administrative matters; in addition, she praises Pao-chai as the best, most good-natured, and most tolerant girl among all her cousins. Pao-yu retorts immediately, sarcastically remarking that "people with such worldly wisdom like yours will be corrupted here." Pao-yu then tells Hsiang-yun frankly the reason why he feels such an attachment for Tai-yu: Tai-yu never talks disgusting nonsense.
Eavesdropping, Tai-yu is overjoyed when she overhears this compliment, but she is still worried about Pao-chai's golden locket, which "matches" (according to feudal precepts) Pao-yu's jade amulet, and she is also disturbed about Pao-yu's possession of a golden unicorn which matches Hsiang-yun's unicorn.
Suddenly Pao-yu sees Tai-yu crying, and he asks her not to worry about anything. He bares his heart to her, but it doesn't seem to help.
When Tai-yu is gone and Hsi-jen joins him, Pao-yu is standing as though in a trance, and he mistakes Hsi-jen for Tai-yu, again baring his heart. His secret is out! Now Hsi-jen, who is a favorite of the feudal Chia family rulers, knows all about Pao-yu's deep love for Tai-yu. Not surprisingly, Hsi-jen concocts a secret plan for dealing with the problem, foreshadowing the persecution of Pao-yu and Tai-yu by the feudal Chia family rulers, who refuse to tolerate Pao-yu's unconventional ideas and behavior.
Later in the chapter, we learn that the maid Chin-chuan threw herself down a well because of the disgrace of being slapped and fired by Lady Wang. Her death makes Lady Wang feel uneasy, so she decides to send the girl's family two sets of new clothes for Chin-Chuan's burial — to assuage her guilt. The author's point is this: Lady Wang seems to be kind and generous to the servants, but she is not, and Chin-chuan's tragic death is the author's condemnation of the entire feudal slavery system.
Because he is jealous of Pao-yu's being the heir apparent to the Chia fortune, Hsueh Pan is responsible for an officer from the household of Prince Chungshun arriving at Chia Cheng's door and exposing Pao-yu's relationship with Chi-kuan (Chiang Yu-han), His Highness' favorite actor. He wants to make sure that Chia Cheng knows that Pao-yu and the actor exchanged sashes. When Chia Cheng hears about the incident, he is ashamed and furious, and he is even further incensed when Chia Huan tells him that Chinchuan drowned herself because Pao-yu tried to rape her. Now, Chia Cheng's fury knows no bounds. He orders his servants to fetch Pao-yu, and he beats the boy savagely until Lady Wang and Lady Dowager come to Pao-yu's rescue.
Pao-yu's buttocks and legs are black and blue, every inch bruised or bleeding. The two ladies, as always, dote on Pao-yu and are clearly against using force on the young man; instead, they want to use peaceful methods to discipline him and win his heart. They pin all their hopes on Pao-yu and deeply hope that he matures into the kind of man whom their feudal family reputation requires. They have always used loving, indulgent methods of educating the young heir.
Lady Dowager scolds Chia Cheng for beating Pao-yu. She is so angry with him that she threatens to leave and take Pao-yu and Lady Wang to Nanking immediately. Chia Cheng, of course, good filial son that he is, has to give in to his mother. He kneels down and asks for forgiveness, and Pao-yu is carried to Lady Dowager's room.
Chia Cheng's beating Pao-yu is one of the climaxes in this novel, and it is also a turning point. This episode is a demonstration of the sharp contradiction between the father — Chia Cheng, who represents the forces of feudalism — and Chia Pao-yu, his son, who represents the forces of rebellion. They hold opposite attitudes towards seeking officialdom and marriage, and this violent outbreak, symbolic of the contradiction of the two forces, is an inevitable outcome of the development of Pao-yu's rebellious actions — totally unlike the old, traditional feudal norms.
Chapters 34 and 35 describe different attitudes and reflections by various members of the Chia family after Pao-yu is severely beaten by his father. Pao-chai's attitude is best expressed in her statement, "This would never have happened if you'd [Pao-yu] paid the least attention to my advice." She is trying to convince Pao-yu that he must conform to the old feudal role of seeking his fortune and official position so as to become the worthy successor to his family's rank and reputation.
Hsi-jen's confidential talk with Lady Wang is even more illustrative of this feudal point of view. In order to advance up the feudal ladder herself and win her masters' favor, Hsi-jen approves of Chia Cheng's flogging Pao-yu. She says to Lady Wang, "Master Pao needs to be taught a lesson. If his lordship doesn't discipline him, there is no knowing what may happen in the future." Her function in this section is actually that of a parrot, responding on cue to her feudal family masters. As a result, she is highly praised by Lady Wang and is told to keep an eye on Pao-yu from then on.
Among others reacting to Pao-yu's vicious beating are Lady Dowager, Lady Wang, and Hsi-feng , who all send bowls of Pao-yu's favorite dishes to comfort and console him, hoping to win his heart. Li Wan, Ying-chun, Tanchun and their maids pay short visits and leave. Of all of Pao-yu's visitors, only Tai-yu truly suffers and is sympathetic to Pao-yu. Her eyes are swollen, and her face is bathed in tears. Clearly, Pao-yu and Tai-yu are much alike; both of them are rebels against the age-old feudal oppression. Pao-yu's attitude is, "I would die happily for people like them, and yet I am still alive" showing that, although he has been severely beaten, Pao-yu still wants to have his own way. He will never reconcile himself to submitting to his family's feudal principles.
In Chapter 35, we see Lady Dowager publicly praising Pao-chai — and not praising Tai-yu. This foreshadows her later decision that Pao-chai will be Pao-yu's wife.
Tired of Garden life, Pao-yu goes out in search of Ling-kuan, who plays young ladies' parts and is said to be the best singer among the twelve actresses in Pear Fragrance Court. When he finds her, Pao-yu realizes that she is none other than the girl who was repeatedly writing chiang on the ground not long ago. Later, he learns that Chia Chiang is in love with her. Chiang bought her a bird to amuse her — and then let it fly away to satisfy her wishes. A discovery dawns on Pao-yu: Everyone will have their share of love. All love is predestined.
Pao-yu's longing to have the freedom to love whomever he wishes and marry whomever he chooses is strong evidence of his rebellion against feudal bondage and a superstitious concept of marriage. These themes are clearly stated in his dream, which is accidentally overheard by Pao-chai when Hsi-jen, who needs to run an errand, asks Pao-chai to take over the embroidering of a charming design of mandarin ducks on a stomacher that Hsi-jen is making for Pao-yu.
Pao-yu calls out in his dream, "Who believes what those bonzes and Taoists say? A match between gold and jade? Nonsense! Between wood and stone more likely, I'd say." This statement shows that Pao-yu does not surrender — even though he is beaten black and blue. His abhorrence of feudal fatalism in marriage is strongly presented here, and it is, no doubt, a heavy blow to Pao-chai when she hears him.
While chatting with Hsi-jen, Pao-yu expresses his views on death and reputation. He says, "Those vulgar sods believe that ministers who die for remonstrating with the emperor and generals who die in battle win immortal fame as fine, upright men. Their deaths, however, are not worthy ones because they have no thought of the country's welfare. In their hearts, they just want to win glory by dying. Civil officials are even worse. They learn by heart a few passages from books, and if the government has the slightest fault, they demonstrate at random, hoping to win fame as loyal men. So they die to win a reputation — not for the sake of noble principles."
Pao-yu's views fully illustrate his hatred for anyone who selfishly seeks fame, fortune, and glory in a feudal society at the expense of the country's welfare. On the other hand, however, Pao-yu has not realized that the feudal system is the root of all of these evils. He still believes that "The sovereign receives his mandate from heaven. Heaven wouldn't entrust such an onerous task to anyone but a benevolent sage." He pins his hopes on a wise emperor. That is his illusion and his limitation.
Chapters 37 and 38 are important because they forcefully express the author's desire to change the social position of women as part of his rebellion against feudal ethics and conventions.
Pao-yu receives a letter from his third sister, Tan-chun, in which she suggests that a poetry club be formed so that the girls in the Garden can amuse themselves. Tan-chun cannot see any reason why the girls should be excluded from cultural gatherings and why literary genius should be confined only to men. Pao-yu is delighted with the idea, so he dashes off to meet with Tai-yu, Pao-chai, and the other girls in the family who have already gathered in the Studio of Autumn Freshness.
After some discussion, a poetry club is established, and the members decide to meet twice a month; each one is given a pen name. For their first assignment, they choose "Begonia" as the subject for their poems, and Pao-chai's poem wins first place. Before adjourning, they decide to name their club the "Begonia Club."
Next day, Hsiang-yun is invited to join them, and they decide to write poems about chrysanthemums. Tai-yu's poem is judged to be the best, so Tai-yu, the Queen of Bamboo, wins first place. Later, while eating crabs during a poetry club party, Pao-chai composes a satire on crabs that clearly reveals her innermost thoughts about the poetry rebels, who comment, "It takes real talent to get deep significance into such a small subject as eating crabs. But as a satire, this is a bit too hard on the world." Pao-chai is unmistakably one of the young guardians of the old system of feudalism.
Chapter 39 opens with Granny Liu paying her respects for the second time to the Chia family in order to receive more alms — just as the entire family is getting the largest crabs ready for a feast for Lady Dowager and Lady Wang. Thus, the old village lady has another opportunity to see for herself what kind of an extravagant life the Chia family leads. She knows for a fact that one crab banquet costs twenty taels of silver — enough to keep country folk for a whole year. By using Granny Liu's observations, the author is able to point out that this sumptuous way of living relies on the exploitation and oppression of laboring people, such as Granny Liu. Granny Liu's family suffers from terrible poverty and is forced to turn to the aristocratic Chia family for alms. What a satire this situation is on the system of feudalism! This is a concrete embodiment of class contradictions in the feudal society.
From the conversation between Granny Liu and Lady Dowager and other family members, we can see Granny Liu's simplicity and innocence. She can understand something on the surface, but, seemingly, she cannot comprehend the deeper essence of the matter. For instance, Granny Liu says, "If we were like you, who'd do the farming? We'd like to eat fish and meat ourselves, only we can't afford it." This frank statement illustrates the root of many of the evils in this feudal society. When Granny Liu is asked to tell them some country stories to amuse them, she makes some up. She fabricates a tragic tale about a pretty girl of seventeen, and the romantic Pao-yu takes it so seriously that he asks one of his servants to go and look for the shrine that was built in the girl's honor.
Realizing that Granny Liu's tales and gossip about country life delight Lady Dowager, Pao-yu, and others, Hsi-feng asks Granny Liu to stay with Lady Dowager for dinner and, later, tour Grand View Garden. Granny Liu is pleased to accept the invitation. She is extremely impressed by the beautiful scenery in the Garden and especially in awe of the fanciful and sumptuous decorations in the rooms. She says, "The wardrobes alone are bigger and higher than one of our whole rooms." The sharp contrast between the lifestyle of this rich, feudal family and that of one of the laboring poor is vividly presented to us. Later, Granny Liu is invited to join the family members in a drinking game, which she tries to decline, but finally agrees to participate in because she wants to please Lady Dowager and get some financial help. However, Granny Liu is not obsequious in currying favor. Her talk is wise and humorous, as is seen in her adages concerning country life, which are composed impromptu over wine. From Granny Liu's behavior among the Chia family members, we see that she is a typical representative of the laboring people — a simple, honest, and wise person, no matter how poor she is. The author's sympathy for the laboring poor cannot escape the readers' attention, despite the multitude of humorous, enjoyable short episodes in this chapter.