Pao-chin's unusual talent for composing poems is shown again when she creates ten riddles about the places that she has visited in different provinces. The subtlety of these riddles is admired by all the people present.
Suddenly, Hsi-jen's brother arrives and asks the Chia family's permission to take Hsi-jen home because their mother is ill. In order to send Hsi-jen home properly, Hsi-feng must first arrange for a matron and a couple of young maids to accompany her; in addition, four older attendants escort Hsi-jen's carriage. Hsijen is asked to dress smartly, with good clothes, elegant pearls, and a good hand-stove, the latter supplied by Hsi-feng . When she is ready to leave, Hsi-jen looks more like a lady than a maid.
The Chia family treats Hsi-jen very well, but this does not mean that they consider her an equal. It simply indicates that Hsi-jen is a faithful maid, obedient to her masters and to all the feudal rules and norms of the social system. They treat Hsi-jen generously in order to let her set an example for all of their other maids. At the same time, they have an opportunity to show off their social position and wealth and thereby spread their influence in the country.
During Hsi-jen's absence, Ching-wen and Sheh-yueh are asked to take care of Pao-yu's daily needs. Carelessly, Ching-wen catches cold, and a doctor has to be sent for to treat her mild case of influenza. Ping-erh arrives to have a word with Sheh-yueh and tells her that Mrs. Sung saw Chui-erh steal one of Ping-erh's bracelets. In order to keep the theft from Pao-yu, Ping-erh conceals the theft of the bracelet and makes up a story that the bracelet was loose and fell off in the snow-covered grass. When the snow melts, she'll find it.
Ping-erh does this in order to save face for Pao-yu, but the conversation between Ping-erh and Sheh-yueh is overheard by Pao-yu, who then tells Chingwen about the theft.
Feeling that it is a disgrace to all the maids in Pao-yu's apartment, Ching-wen flares up and jabs Chui-erh with a hairpin and asks Nanny Sung to tell Chui-erh's family to come and take their thieving daughter away. This is Cling-wen's own decision; she does not consult Pao-yu or anybody else. Chui-erh's mother is outraged, but she has to do what she is asked to do.
This incident shows us that Ching-wen is dominated by those in power within the feudal slavery system. After all, the maids are all "sisters," as it were, in the same trench. She should have shown some sympathy for Chui-erh by exhorting her never to steal again — rather than kicking her out forever in the name of the master. Chui-erh's punishment is too extreme and too excessive.
It is important to note, however, that Ching-wen is a clever and intelligent maid who often helps others at the expense of her own interests. When Pao-yu's golden peacock-feather cape (made in Russia and given to him by Lady Dowager) was burned in the back, Ching-wen tried her best to darn it for Pao-yu — in spite of her poor health.
Another episode worth mentioning concerns the subjects for poems suggested by Pao-yu and Pao-chai. Pao-yu suggests writing about the narcissus and the winter-plum, while Pao-chai suggests that the first shih of couplets should be about the Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate, and all the words that rhyme with "Hsien" should be used — not a single one left out. Here, we see that Pao-yu and Pao-chai have completely different tastes in poetry. Pao-yu opts for the unconventional system, while Pao-chai insists on a rigid poetical form, clearly indicative of the degree that feudal officialdom has invaded her soul.
An ancestral sacrifice is to be carried out on New Year's Eve in the Ning Mansion, and people both high and low in breeding (in both Ning and Jung Mansions) are hard at work preparing for the grand event, when Bailiff Wu from Black Mountain Village is announced. He has come to pay his taxes and rent to the Chia family; altogether, there are 36 categories and almost 40,000 items, ranging from poultry and livestock to silver. He has traveled one month and two days in order to arrive at the capital and pay his landlord, yet Chia Chen is not satisfied with the long list of goods. He tells Bailiff Wu, "You're trying to defraud us again. What use is this paltry sum?"
This episode convincingly reflects the sharp conflict between the peasants and the landlords. The landlord's parasitic life relies on the cruel exploitation of the peasants. No matter how wretched the harvests or how much the peasants suffer (regardless of droughts, floods, or hail storms), the master allows no excuse. The peasants simply have to tighten their belts and pay their rent in full to the landlord. This is a key chapter, highlighting the evidence of the landlords' exploitation of the peasants, as well as their greedy and extravagant lifestyles.
From the ancestral sacrifice carried out in the Ning Mansion and the evening banquet given by Lady Dowager for the Lantern Festival in the Jung Mansion, we see the strict forms of the hierarchical system of a feudal family. When the ancestral sacrificial ceremony is held, all the places and seats are arranged for the members of both mansions, according to their generations and their importance. The holy rites and the pious atmosphere permeate the hall; everyone is silent. Nothing can be heard except the sound of kneeling and the rustling of silk and brocade. However, behind this order and magnificence, the contradictions and strife between father and son, between husband and wife, and between a wife and a concubine is intense and intricately woven. Here, in this exquisitely captured ceremony, the author offers us a poignant satire, exposing the gross hypocrisy of feudal ethics.
Afterward, the family members of the Jung and Ning Mansions enjoy the New Year feast and watch opera performances given by the young hired actresses. Then, two storytellers are brought in and asked to tell stories. When the story of "The Phoenix Seeks Its Mate" is suggested, Lady Dowager guesses the ending correctly. In fact, the old lady criticizes the sameness of all these stories. In her opinion, all of these stories are stereotyped; they all deal with talented scholars and lovely ladies. This criticism, however, does not mean that her attitude is the same as the author's, even though Tsao Hsueh-chin was also strongly opposed to stories about talented scholars and lovely ladies.
What Tsao Hsueh-chin valued most in literature were stories that allowed both young men and young women to have the freedom to choose their own spouses. This concept runs counter to the feudal marriage system. Lady Dowager doesn't like the stereotyped stories because she prefers stories that emphasize feudal morality. She dislikes stories about a young lady casting a glance at a handsome young scholar and instantly thinking about marriage, forgetting her parents, and getting up to all sorts of mischief — in short, behaving quite unlike a fine lady. Thus, when Lady Dowager hears the title "The Phoenix Seeks Its Mate," she cashes in on this opportunity to reinforce feudalistic philosophy and morality. Clearly, her attitude is a far cry from the author's.
Another episode in this chapter that is worth mentioning concerns a drinking game. The storytellers are asked to beat a drum, and whoever has the plum-blossom when the drum stops must drink a cup of wine and tell a joke. Since Wang Hsi-feng is very good at telling jokes, she soon has everybody prostrate with laughter. She wants very much to please Lady Dowager, the highest and most powerful authority in the Chia family, so that, hopefully, she (Hsi-feng ) will eventually be entrusted with the controlling power for the family. Hsi-feng is keen on power and makes the most of her present position and influence to play a skillful game of politics. Without a doubt, she plans to seize the ruling power of the Chia family when the time is right.
Later, because of Hsi-feng 's miscarriage, Lady Wang entrusts all of the domestic affairs to Li Wan and Tan-chun, with Pao-chai helping out in Lady Wang's apartment. Surprisingly, Tan-chun proves to be a very competent manager of domestic affairs; her talent and competence are especially evident when she has to cope with two difficult problems.
The first problem concerns the death of Tan-chun's uncle, Chao Kuo-chi, and the second problem concerns the fees for Chia Huan's and Chia Lan's refreshments and stationery at school. According to the rules, the payment for an inside concubine's relative's funeral should be twenty taels, but initially, out of ignorance of family rules, Li Wan promises to pay forty taels. After checking the records, however, Tanchun discerns the correct amount and pays Lady Chao twenty taels, causing Lady Chao to become furious. She argues with her daughter, whining that she has been treated like dirt in her own house, and that she had pinned all her hopes on her daughter to help her out. However, Tan-chun is firm; she refuses to help the "servant mother," which further infuriates Lady Chao, who curses Tan-chun as someone who has forgotten her roots.
As for Chia Huan's and Chia Lan's expenses at school, Tan-chun decides to cut back; to her, this amount of money should be included in their annual allowances. Tan-chun's economic reform in the Chia family is further discussed in Chapter 56. She plans to choose a few of the most reliable old women who know something about gardening to take care of the flowers and trees in the Garden. That way, the family can save four hundred taels a year. The proposal immediately gets the approval of Hsi-feng , Pao-chai, and all the others present. But Tan-chun's tight economic policies and her reform in distributing the money surprise the maids, especially Ping-erh, who sarcastically expresses her own opinions about the financial cuts.
Hsi-feng , however, is satisfied, and she praises Tan-chun's managing ability. She herself has long wanted to economize: "If we don't devise ways to save money in good time, another few years may see us bankrupt. Our expenses have increased while our income's dwindled; yet we still have to manage all affairs, large and small, according to our ancestors' old rules, in spite of less money coming in every year."
What Hsi-feng says about the economic situation in the Chia family is proof that the family is on a downhill financial decline. Yet, despite what seems to be inevitable ruin, Hsi-feng and Tan-chun are both desperately trying to prevent the Chia family from going bankrupt in order to maintain the family's former social position and economic prosperity.
Another thing we can see in this chapter is that Tan-chun, although a daughter of a concubine, is a legal daughter of the Chia family; furthermore, Hsi-feng is very fond of the capable Tan-chun and thinks that Tan-chun should be respected by all of the servants.
Hearing that Tai-yu will soon be returning to Soochow next year, Pao-yu is thunderstruck. His cheeks suddenly become flushed. Sweat breaks out on his forehead, his eyes stare into space, and his hands and feet turn cold. He is speechless and seems to have no feeling of pain when he is pinched.
Hsi-jen, Nanny Li, and all the other family members blame Tzu-chuan because she told this fib to Pao-yu in fun. The doctor is sent for, and Tzu-chuan is asked to wait on Pao-yu. Luckily, it doesn't take long for Pao-yu to recover — especially when he realizes that Tzu-chuan simply wanted to test his feelings for Taiyu.
This incident is proof of the deep and sincere love between Pao-yu and Tai-yu. Nobody seems to be able to separate them, but Lady Dowager and Aunt Hsueh look upon the situation as something trivial and amusing. They think that the young people's relationship is not serious, that it is only friendship because Pao-yu and Tai-yu have been close to one another ever since childhood.
With the permission of Lady Dowager and Aunt Hsueh, Hsiu-yen is to be betrothed to Hsueh Ku, and Aunt Hsueh takes this opportunity to preach her feudal philosophy of fatalism to Tai-yu, saying that "People a thousand li apart may be linked by marriage," but "if the Old Man of the Moon does not do his part, even if the parents on both sides are willing and the young people have been brought up together and think themselves destined for each other, they will never be united." These fatalistic remarks trouble Taiyu deeply, just as Aunt Hsueh knew they would; accordingly, we can measure her "concern and kindness" for Tai-yu as being hypocritical, treacherous, and selfish.
Coming from a poor family, Hsiu-yen is sometimes often short of daily necessities. Too shy to mention her needs to anybody, Hsiu-yen pawns her padded clothes to a pawnshop, which turns out to be one of Aunt Hsueh's pawnshops. When the pawnshop ticket is picked up by a maid and presented to Pao-chai, Tai-yu, and Aunt Hsueh, Aunt Hsueh has to explain what a pawn ticket is, and her explanation makes Tai-yu depressed. She says, "How clever people are at making money! Is your family shop the same, Aunt?"
Pao-chai jests, "All crows are black the world over. How could their shop be different?" Aunt Husueh is not amused, and the author never lets us forget in this chapter that no matter how "kind" Aunt Hsueh seems on the surface, her cruelty in exploiting the poor (including her own relative Hsiu-yen) is clearly evident.
In Chapter 58, the demise of the Grand Imperial Concubine is announced, and all titled ladies know that they will be required to go to court to mourn, according to their rank. Lady Dowager, Lady Wang, and Lady Hsing have to go every morning, leaving Madame Yu in charge of the two mansions, and Aunt Hsueh in charge of the girls and the maids in the Garden.
Following the other official families' example, Madame Yu decides to dispense with the services of their twelve child actresses, and after a discussion, more than half of the actresses say that they are reluctant to go, but the others elect to leave. Those who prefer to stay on can live with their foster mothers. Wen-kuan will be kept by Lady Dowager, Fang-kuan is assigned to Pao-chai, Ou-kuan to Tai-yu, Kuei-kuan to Hsiang-yun, Tou-kuan to Pao-chin, Ai-kuan to Tan-chun, and Madame Yu herself takes Chia-kuan.
One day after his "brief illness," Pao-yu goes out into the Garden, hoping to see Tai-yu and enjoy the fine weather. There he happens to see Ou-kuan burning paper money and being dragged away by an irate matron. Out of sympathy, Pao-yu makes up a story to protect Ou-kuan and puts the matron in an awkward situation. Then Pao-yu finds out from Fang-kuan why Ou-kuan was burning the paper coins.
The burnt offering was for the late actress Ti-kuan, who used to play the role of young ladies, while Oukuan always played the role of young men. They were often cast as husband and wife, and thus, offstage, they naturally became extremely fond of one another. After Ti-kuan's death, Ou-kuan continued to mourn for her beloved and burned paper money in her memory at all the festivals. Pao-yu, being deeply romantic himself, is keenly moved by Ou-kuan's devotion and sacrifice.
This episode tells us that in feudal societies, the actresses and actors were at the bottom of the social ladder. They were bought by the Chia family for the purpose of entertaining the masters, yet their life was even harder than that of the servants. They were looked down on by both masters and servants alike, and now, when the government asks the high-ranking families to disband their opera troupes as part of the mourning traditions, the actresses find themselves in a dilemma. If they leave the Chia family, they will be bought and sold once more, and yet, if they stay on, they know that they will become lesser maids and be maltreated by the other servants.
Note that in this scene, Fang-kuan has to wash herself with water that her foster mother's daughter has already used. The ugliness of the feudal system is clearly exposed here. However, Pao-yu, as a young master, is proud that he can protect Ou-kuan; his sympathy for her is genuine. His attitude and actions are rebellious, when compared to the usual feudal aristocratic attitudes towards people in the lower social circles.
Awakening one morning, Hsiang-yun discovers that she needs some rose-nitric powder to cure a spring rash. Pao-chai suggests asking Tai-yu for some. Ying-erh and Jui-kuan agree to run the errand, and on their way to Bamboo Lodge, they pick up some twigs and flowers and fashion a basket, which pleases Tai-yu.
On their way back, Ying-erh asks Ou-kuan to go with them and wait for Tai-yu in Pao-chai's apartment. When Ying-erh picks more twigs to plait baskets, Chun-yen joins them, just shortly before Chun-yen's aunt, Fang-kuan's foster mother, criticizes them sharply for picking twigs and flowers.
Then Mother Ho arrives, looking for her daughter Chun-yen. Seeing that the place is getting messy, Mother Ho gives Chun-yen a good beating. Going to Pao-yu for help, Chun-yen meets Hsi-jen, who tries to pacify Mother Ho, but Mother Ho is reluctant to take her advice, so they send for Ping-erli, hoping that she can cope with her. Ping-erh says that Mother Ho should be given forty strokes and driven out. At last, Mother Ho is forced to admit her mistake and pleads to stay, which Pao-yu promises her that she can do. While Lady Dowager, Lady Wang, Chia Chen, and Chia Lien join the funeral cortege of the Imperial Concubine, numerous problems arise, one after another, in every household. In these two chapters, some of those problems are described in great detail.
Jui-kuan asks Chun-yen to give some rose-nitric powder to Fang-kuan as a present. When Pao-yu asks Fang-kuan what she has in her hand, she explains that it is rose-nitric powder for a spring rash. Chia Huan happens to overhear and asks for some, which Fang-kuan promises him. But when Fang-kuan discovers that she doesn't have enough, she wraps up a packet of jasmine powder and gives it to Chia Huan. His ignorance is sneered at by Lady Chao, who seizes this chance to bawl out the young actress. Encouraged by Mother Hsia, Ou-kuan's foster mother, Lady Chao rushes to Happy Red Court (Pao-yu's apartment) to insult Fang-kuan. First, she throws the powder in Fang-kuan's face, and then she curses her, calling her a painted whore. Feeling unjustly wronged, Fang-kuan argues back, saying, "We are all birds of a feather — all slaves here."
When Ou-kuan, Jul-kuan, Tou-kuan, and Kuei-kuan hear that Fang-kuan has been bullied by Lady Chao, they all come to Fang-kuan's defense, butting Lady Chao with their fists and heads. Madame Yu and Li Wan arrive on the scene and come to Lady Chao's rescue, asking her to go away with them.
Tan-chun, Lady Chao's daughter, feels ashamed for her mother's lack of dignity; she thinks that her mother must have been spurred on by someone else to make such a scene. Ai-kuan confides to Tan-chun that it was Mother Hsia who stirred up the trouble.
Mother Hsia's granddaughter Chan-chieh is serving in Tan-chun's apartment, so she asks Mother Hsia to be on her guard when Fang-kuan goes to speak to Mrs. Liu in order to prepare a cool, vinegary vegetable dish for supper.
Remembering that Fang-kuan is serving in Pao-yu's apartment, Mrs. Liu decides to use this opportunity to ask Fang-kuan to ask Pao-yu to secure a job for her daughter Wu-erh. After promising to do her a favor, Fang-kuan goes to ask Pao-yu for some rose-flavored juice for Liu Wu-erh. Receiving the juice, Wu-erh thanks Fang-kuan profusely. Wu-erh's cousin is ill in bed, and since her mother wants to give him some juice, she goes to her elder brother's home to present the juice to her nephew as a tonic.
It happens that Lady Chao's nephew Chien Huai is there to visit the patient (Chien Huai wants to marry Wu-erh, but she refuses to accept his proposal). When Mrs. Liu sees that Chien Huai is there, she rises to take her leave. Then her sister-in-law gives her a packet of Pachyma Cocos powder, which Wuerh wants to share with Fang-kuan. When Wu-erh goes to see Fang-kuan, she is quizzed by Mrs. Lin, who suspects Wu-erh because it is reported that things have disappeared in Lady Wang's rooms, so Wu-erh is to be watched during the night.
Meanwhile, Ping-erh discovers that there is a bottle of rose-flavored juice missing, and Ying-chun's maid Lien-hua tells on Mrs. Liu because Mrs. Liu did not serve her sister, Ssu-chi, the steamed, beaten egg that she had requested. In anger, Hsi-feng orders Wu-erh's mother to be given forty strokes and be driven out.
However, on the suggestion of Ping-erh, an investigation is made. Finally, Tsai-yun, urged by Lady Chao, admits that she committed the crime. Pao-yu, however, conceals the theft and says that he took the Pachyma Cocos powder without anybody's knowing. Hsi-feng , knowing that Pao-yu is lenient to the maids, suggests asking all the maids to kneel in the sun on shards of porcelain with nothing to eat or drink. Then they will confess. Finally, Ping-erh succeeds in persuading Hsi-feng to be more lenient to them whenever she can and mind her own business, if possible.
The differences in the lifestyles of the masters and the servants and the maids of the Chia family are more evidence of the fact that these servants and maids live on the bottom stratum of society, enslaved by their masters. Their destinies are not in their own hands. Therefore, resistance and rebellion seem to be inevitable. However, note that the quarrel between Mrs. Liu and her daughter Wu-erh, and the quarreling between the other slaves are similar to the quarrels between the masters and servants in the Chia family.
All of these conflicts shake the rules of existence of the big aristocratic family. Thus, in order to maintain their control, the aristocrats must always try their best to suppress all rebellion and get rid of unfaithful servants so as to consolidate authority. These incidents over rose-flavored juice and Pachyma Cocos powder are small and insignificant, but they are portents of stormy emotional crises, as well as social crises, in the future.