Chin Chen returns from the capital for a month's home-leave, just in time for the celebration of Lady Dowager's eightieth birthday. All of the royal relatives, including the Prince of Peiching, the Prince of Nanan, and the Imperial Consort, Yuan-chun, come to offer congratulations. The celebration is marked by ostentation and extravagance; streams of messengers arrive with so many gifts that a large table covered with red felt has to be set up in order to display all the old lady's gifts. All of the ladies, the masters, the mistresses, and the maids and servants in the Jung Mansion are kept on their toes. Madame Yu leaves the Ning Mansion and comes to help Hsi-feng manage the domestic affairs and help entertain the guests.
Because two of Madame Yu's maids who are in charge of meal service are negligent, Hsi-feng has them tied up, awaiting their punishment. When Lady Hsing learns about this, she is deeply resentful because one of the women is a relative. She loudly criticizes Hsi-feng the next day in front of everybody, hoping to make Hsi-feng lose face. This episode exposes the raw nerves of the tension between a mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law; at the same time, the fact that Hsi-feng orders Madame Yu's maids to be tied up reveals a rivalry between the Jung and Ning Mansions. The old lady's eightieth birthday is another turning point in the fortunes of the Chin family. From now on, they will rapidly decline, socially and economically, with avalanche speed.
The chapter ends with Yuan-yang's discovering Ssu-chi (Ying-chun's maid) making love with her cousin, and Yuan-yang promising not to tell anyone.
Fearing terrible consequences, Ssu-chi's cousin is reported to have run away, and Ssu-chi herself is confined to her bed as a result of over-worry. Yuan-yang comes to her to restate her vow of silence, and Ssu-chi is extremely grateful.
Meanwhile, Hsi-feng has been out of sorts for a month, so Yuan-yang goes to see her. Chin Lien seizes this opportunity to ask Yuan-yang to borrow a case of the old lady's gold and silver utensils so that he can pawn them and thereby cover his enormous debts. This episode is additional proof that the Chin family is financially strapped due to their long years of extravagant waste. It will be extremely difficult for the Chin family to survive much longer.
In Chapter 73, Chin Cheng decides that he will test Pao-yu's scholarship, and Pao-yu naturally becomes very nervous. He is "saved," however when Venturina dashes in and says that someone has just "jumped down from the top of the wall." Pao-yu pretends to fall ill from shock, and thus he avoids being tested by his father. This incident makes everybody very on-edge.
Tan-chun goes to Lady Dowager and tells her that ever since Hsi-feng has been ill, the servants have been disorderly. Some have even formed gambling clubs — drinking and leaving the gates unlocked. Fraught with anger, the old lady orders that the culprits be caught, given forty lashes, and dismissed from service. Furthermore, all the cards and dice are to be burned.
Later, Numskull, the old lady's maid, shows Lady Hsing a pouch on which two naked figures are locked in an embrace. Lady Hsing is shocked at this piece of pornography. Immediately she goes to see Yingchun and asks her to be more strict with her nurse. Ying-chun's maid Hsiu-chu reminds Ying-chun that a gold filigree phoenix tiara is missing; her nurse must have pawned it to raise money for gambling. Yingchun, however, dare not ask the nanny about it.
The detailed description of Ying-chun's weakness exposes fully the conflicts between the masters and the servants, who are reluctant to lead a conventional life and, in turn, try to rebel against their masters. Accordingly, the masters of the Chia family have to suppress their servants in order to maintain their absolute rule.
In Chapter 74, Lady Hsing presents the pornographic pouch to Lady Wang, who is choked with rage the moment she sees it. She leaves immediately, planning to blame Hsi-feng for her carelessness — leaving a thing like that on a rock in the Garden in broad daylight! Hsi-feng easily counters Lady Wang's accusations by enumerating five reasons why the pouch does not belong to her. Then she suggests using this "discovery" as a pretext to dismiss some of the old, obstreperous servants. But, on second thought, they decide instead to make a thorough — and surprise — search that evening of all the maids' rooms.
The search begins with Hsi-jen's cases. When it is Ching-wen's turn, she angrily flings back the lid of one of her cases and then raises the case bottom-side up in both hands, emptying out all the contents. Her bold resistance to the unfair, imperious command is fully revealed here. Her indomitable, rebellious spirit will not allow her to meekly succumb to unfair accusations — especially when Lady Wang calls her a vamp and orders her out of Pao-yu's quarters.
When the search team arrives at Tan-chun's quarters, she too feels insulted and orders her maids to open her cases and her dressing-case so that everything can be inspected by the haughty Hsi-feng and Mrs. Wang Shan-pao, Lady Hsing's "eyes and ears." When Tan-chun expresses her indignation at the search, Mrs. Wang makes an insulting, belittling comment that Tan-chun answers with a slap across Mrs. Wang's ears.
Unfortunately, her resistance doesn't stop the search, nor can she do anything to help the unfortunate fate of the maids. When the search team uncovers some stolen goods from Hsi-chun's maid in Ju-hua's case, the eccentric Hsi-chun decides to ask Madame Yu to take Ju-hua away.
Ying-chun is asleep when the search party arrives; her maid, Ssu-chi, is Mrs. Wang's granddaughter. A love-knot and a letter and a man's silk socks are found in Ssu-chi's case, making Mrs. Wang feel overwhelmed with shame and mortification.
This chapter, focusing on a thorough search of the maids' things, is an important chapter in the book because it is a portent of the ever-quickening decline of the Chin family. The search is also proof of the large-scale suppression by the Chia family. In addition, the search is an impressive demonstration of the intensification of the contradictions among the feudal ruling members and the sharp conflicts between the aristocratic masters and their rebellious servants.
Chapter 75 opens with the news that the Chen family has been raided, their property confiscated, and the family members fetched to the capital to stand trial. This is an ominous sign; later, the Chin family will also be raided.
Unable to go out to amuse himself because of mourning rites, Chin Chen invites some profligates from wealthy families, including Hsueh Pan and Hsing Teh-chuan (Lady Hsing's brother) to while away their time at his home. First, they practice archery, and then they indulge in gambling, drinking, and debauchery, another instance of the aristocrats' lecherous and shameful way of life.
Agreeing to Chin Chen's request, Madame Yu attends a family party on the night of the Moon Festival. While they are playing drinking games outside, they hear long, drawn-out sighing coming from the direction of the ancestral temple, and a gust of wind causes some partition windows to slam inside the temple, making everyone apprehensive.
The next day, the Moon Festival is celebrated by Lady Dowager and all the family members in the Garden, but the atmosphere is not as lively as it has been in years past. The noble masters try their best to stand on ceremony in order to maintain the rites of feudal order, but their hypocrisy and their perfunctory formalities are sharply juxtaposed with a decaying, dissolute lifestyle. It is little wonder that their ancestors "heaved a long sigh" the night before.
While Pao-chai and Pao-chin celebrate the Moon Festival in their home, Pao-yu is listless because of Ching-wen's illness. Tai-yu, meantime, is disconsolate and tries to slip away unseen to weep, but Hsiang-ling follows her and tries to comfort her. Together, they decide to write a poem together to celebrate the Festival. They go to the Concave Crystal Lodge to enjoy the moonlight on the water and receive additional inspiration. Each girl's writing complements the other's extremely well, yet the tone is a bit melancholy. By accident, they meet Miao-yu in the Garden, who has also come out to enjoy the bright moonlight. They ask Miao-yu to participate in writing the poem, and her lines add some needed color to the melancholy creation.
After the Moon Festival, Lady Wang summons Chou-Jui's wife and questions her about the result of the recent search of the Garden. Lady Wang is shocked and enraged when she learns about Ssu-chi's conduct. Immediately she orders Ssu-chi to pack her things and leave, and Ssu-chi has no choice. She must obey. Pao-yu is overcome with sadness when he learns that she is leaving.
Madame Wang's next target is Ching-wen, who is not well, but that doesn't matter to Lady Wang. She sends two serving-women to carry Ching-wen away — no matter how ill she is. Out of sympathy and concern, Pao-yu slips out on the sly and visits Ching-wen in her cousin's home. They exchange gifts as keepsakes to symbolize their undying friendship for one another. Very soon, however, Ching-wen dies a tragic death.
This chapter reveals the ruthless suppression of the young girls. Ching-wen is driven away simply because she is beautiful and has a sharp tongue and because Lady Wang suspects her of having illicit relations with Pao-yu. Lady Wang's prejudice against Ching-wen is not satisfied, however, even when she learns that Ching-wen is dead. Ironically, Ching-wen is pure and chaste, while Hsi-jen is the servant who has had illicit ties with Pao-yu. However, the latter serves as Pao-yu's "supervisor" and watches over Pao-yu for Lady Dowager and Lady Wang, so she is "above suspicion." The satire on the different fates of the two maids convincingly reveals the hypocrisy and cruelty of the feudal rulers.
Chapter 78 opens as Pao-chai is moving out of the Garden because she has to look after her mother at night and help with the housework.
When Pao-yu learns about Ching-wen's death, he is heartbroken, but the news of her becoming the Goddess of Flowers in Charge of the Hibiscus in heaven relieves his unhappiness a little. Thus, he decides to sacrifice at her shrine in honor of their dozen-year-long friendship.
Chin Cheng sends for Pao-yu, Chia Huan, and Chia Lan and asks them to work together in a joint poetry writing effort. Each of them will try their best to praise a certain Lin, the "Lovely General," the Fourth Mistress of Prince Heng, for her contribution in suppressing a peasant uprising. All three sons' poems are highly praised by the secretaries present, but Pao-yu's long narrative poem wins the highest praise of all because of his originality. From their eulogies about this female hero, we can see that peasant rebellions and uprisings have always been savagely repressed by feudal emperors. It also shows us that feudal sovereigns have always been confronted with quandaries and with forceful resistance by the peasants. Pao-yu is not interested in rank or honor. He writes poetry simply for his own enjoyment. Therefore, when he comes back to his apartment, he composes a long lament, entitled "Elegy for the Hibiscus Maid." He pours out all his warm and sincere feelings for Ching-wen into this elegy, expressing his deep sorrow, as well as his enmity, letting his imagination express his feelings of rebellion against the ugliness of society. This elegy serves as a key piece of work, fully revealing Pao-yu's rebellious spirit and the depths of his progressive, profound thoughts. Additionally, the elegy serves as an official denunciation of the cruelty and treachery of Pao-yu's family and of the feudal system as a whole.
When Chapter 79 opens, we learn that Chin Sheh has decided to marry Pao-yu's second sister, Ying-chun, to Sun Shao-tsu, who comes from a military family in Tatung Prefecture. Since the Sun family is not composed of well-known literati, Chin Cheng advises against the match. But Chin Sheh has already promised, so Ying-chun has to be moved out of the Garden. This makes Pao-yu depressed, and very soon he falls ill. Pao-yu's world is crumbling: the unjust search of the Garden, the dismissal of Ssu-chi, the death of Ching-wen, and the departure of Ying-chun — all these strike heavy blows against Pao-yu's sensitive nature. He feels that it is impossible to breathe fresh air any longer in the Garden; all of the innocent and pure girls have been driven away.
Meanwhile, Hsueh Pan is making plans to marry pretty Miss Hsia Chinkuei, whom he met while away on business. He gives a feast and an opera to celebrate his wedding, dreaming of the happiness that he will have with her afterward. Chin-kuei, however, turns out to be two-edged: pretty as a flower, but fierce as a termagant. She looks upon Hsiang-ling (Ying-lien; Lotus) as a thorn in her side. She is instantaneously jealous of her beauty, so she begins a plot against her: she will gain slow but strict control over Hsueh Pan, and then she will be free to mistreat Hsiang-ling.
Chin-kuei has noticed that Hsueh Pan has taken a fancy to her maid Pao-chan, so she pretends to be amiable about their mutual flirtations. In the meantime, however, she asks Hsiang-ling to run some errands for her, making sure that Hsiang-ling interrupts Hsueh Pan's amorous goings-on. Naturally, Hsueh Pan is furious with Hsiang-ling for "interrupting" — so furious, in fact, that he thrashes her with a door-bar, which pleases the cruel, scheming Chin-kuei. Finally Pao-chai asks the unhappy Hsiang-ling to live with her, and Chinkuei is rid of her at last.
The finely detailed portrayal of the family dispute and Chin-kuei's cruel cunning, in particular, characterize her as a manipulative shrew. The author is concerned here not only with the sharp conflicts between wives and concubines, but also with the cruel shamelessness that they use for their evil, selfish purposes. Also, we see again the decline of the power and the social position of the Hsueh family, whose authority can hardly be compared with a time before — when Hsueh Pan got off scot-free without being punished after he killed one of the local gentry.
Ying-chun's husband is revealed to be a good-for-nothing person who cares for nothing but women, gambling, and drinking. Ying-chun's tragic fate of falling into the hands of a villain also underscores the fact that the Chin family is still on a decline, and now, with their influence and power gone, it can do nothing about Ying-chun's being bullied.