Chin-kuei and Pao-chan work out a cunning plan to seduce Hsueh Ko. They plan to treat him warmly, do favors for him from time to time, then eventually invite him in and get him drunk. If he refuses to do as they want, they will accuse him of trying to seduce Chin-kuei; thus they will frighten him into giving in to them.
Hsueh Pan's case has not been settled yet because the provincial governor wants to try the case himself. Hsueh Pan's letter to his mother reveals the situation: the governor has not received a bribe; therefore, Hsueh Pan urges his mother to send silver as soon as possible — making clear once again the greed and decadence of the court officials.
Without Pao-yu's knowledge, Lady Wang and Aunt Hsueh choose a day after the old lady's birthday for Pao-yu and Pao-chai's marriage.
Pao-yu goes to see Tai-yu, who sounds him out about his love for her; he professes to be loyal and true to her.
In Chapter 92, invited by Lady Dowager to attend the "cold-dispelling" party, Pao-yu arrives a bit earlier than the young ladies, so he has a chance to talk to Chiao-chieh, who has read The Book of Filial Woman and The Lives of the Chaste Martyrs. Pao-yu instructs Chiao-chieh on the virtuous stories of famous beauties, such as Wang Chiang and Hsi Shih, and such chaste ladies as Tsao-shih. These descriptions are another instance of Kno Ngo's distortion of Pao-yu's original character. Under Tsao Hsueh-chin's pen, Pao-yu was never described as a person who preached feudal order, the virtues of feudal ladies, filial piety to parents and emperors, women's natural inferiority, or women's three obediences to men. The young man who was originally presented to us was against the feudal system, but here he becomes a person who propagandizes for the absolute maintenance of feudal order.
A representative of Ssu-chi's mother comes to see Hsi-feng and asks for a favor because Ssu-chi has committed suicide by smashing her head against a wall because of her mother's opposition to a marriage between Ssu-chi and her cousin, an episode that vividly presents the cruelty of the feudal rulers and the rebellious spirit of the oppressed against their ruthless oppressors. Feng Tzu-ying comes to visit Chin Cheng with four novelties from the south and from overseas, and he urges Chin Cheng (and later Lady Dowager and Hsi-feng ) to buy them; unfortunately, they all say that they cannot afford the price of twenty thousand taels. As Chin Sheh explains, "Our family isn't what it was. We're simply keeping up appearances," a fact that we are already aware of.
The first part of Chapter 93 finds Pao-yu going to the opera with Chia Sheh at the Duke of Linan's place, where Pao-yu meets his old friend Chiang Yu-han, who gives an excellent performance in a scene from The Oil Vendor and the Courtesan. Two bailiffs report that two loaded carts for rent have been commandeered and the produce dumped on the ground. All the servants in charge are out, and the magistrate to whom the incident is reported is out as well.
Mr. Chen, whose fortunes have declined and whose family is scattered, sends his servant's son Pao Yung with a letter of recommendation to ask for employment with the Chin family. Chin Cheng has to accept him because Mr. Chen is his good friend.
A poster on the gate exposes the fact that the amorous supervisor Chin Chin has been drinking, whoring, and gambling in Water Moon Convent. Chin Lien is asked to investigate the matter. Since Chin Chin was recommended by Hsi-feng , and in order to save face and the family's reputation, Chin Lien tries to cover up the real situation by asking Chin Chin to deny any inappropriate behavior in the convent and, also, to deny that he has been trying to convince Chin Cheng to sell some of the novices in the convent to faraway places. This is blatant hypocrisy on the part of Chin Lien, Chin Chin, and some of the nuns.
In Chapter 94, although it is the eleventh month, the crab-apple trees in Happy Red Court that have been withered for a year suddenly burst into blossom. People are so amazed that everyone (except the ailing Hsi-feng ) rushes over to have a look at the wonderful, flowering phenomenon. They all have different opinions about this out-of-season blossoming. Some say that it is auspicious; others think that it is a flower-monster making trouble. Tanchun believes it to be an evil omen, although she keeps silent, while Tai-yu agrees with Li Wan's opinion that a happy occurrence will soon take place in Pao-yu's life; she says this in order to please Lady Dowager. Here, Tai-yu is portrayed as a creature of conceit, one who is eager to please and flatter others, behavior that is inconsistent with earlier characterizations of her as a rebellious girl.
Pao-yu feels sad; the crab-apples withered on the same day that Ching-wen died, yet despite the fact that the Garden is filled with lovely, beautiful blossoms, nothing can bring Ching-wen back. Pao-yu does not wear his jade when he goes to look at the blossoms, and when he returns home, he finds that the jade is missing! After a careful search everywhere, no one can find any trace of the precious piece of jade.
This episode marks a major turning point in the Chin family's decline. From now on, a new series of misfortunes will soon befall the family.
In Chapter 95, the Imperial Consort Yuan-chun falls ill a second time, and, according to the Imperial physicians, she is in critical condition. Accordingly, palace officials ask permission to prepare for her death. Immediately, Lady Dowager and Lady Wang are sent for. Shortly after they arrive at the palace, a eunuch announces the death of Imperial Consort Chin. Her death keeps family members busy going to the palace to mourn and attend to a multitude of age-old funeral traditions.
Yuan-chun's death is a heavy blow to the Chin family, whose prosperity is, to some extent, directly related to Yuan-chun's being in the Emperor's favor. After her death, the Chin family will gradually lose that favor, along with its power and influence.
With the loss of the Jade of Spiritual Understanding, Pao-yum becomes more and more deranged — until he finally loses his mind. A few days later, a man comes to the Jung Mansion, claiming to have brought the missing jade. He says that he wants to see one of the masters to hand over the jade to him in exchange for the offered reward of ten thousand taels. The jade, however, turns out to be counterfeit, although it is identical in shape and design to Pao-yu's.
In Chapter 96, when Lady Wang learns that her brother Wang Tzu-teng died on the road while traveling to his newly appointed job as General Secretary, she breaks into tears; her hopes for the Wangs' prosperity, in spite of a multitude of misfortunes, is rapidly vanishing.
In the meantime, Chin Cheng's work in the Ministry of Works is judged to be first class, and the Emperor, in recognition of Chia Cheng's frugality and circumspection, appoints him Grain commissioner of Kiangsi.
Before he leaves for his new post, Chin Cheng is summoned to see Lady Dowager and Lady Wang. They ask his consent for an immediate marriage between Pao-yu and Pao-chai, hoping that Pao-chai's "golden locket" may bring the "jade" back and that this happy event may ward off further evils.
Hsi-jen's report about Pao-yu's love for Tai-yu causes Hsi-feng to suggest a cunning plan: They will "palm off a dummy" on Pao-yu. That is, Pao-yu will be told that he will marry Tai-yu, but, in reality, Pao-chai will take her place. This is a secret plan and one intended to keep Tai-yu ignorant of what is actually taking place. However, Tai-yu meets the old lady's maid Numskull, who informs her of the secret marriage plans. With mixed feelings of bitterness and pain, Tai-yu visits Pao-yu. She seems to be as deranged as he is, so Tzu-chuan escorts her home. As soon as they arrive there, Tai-yu falls to the floor and vomits blood.
Chapters 96, 97, and 98 are both the climax of the love conflicts in the novel and the best-written of the last forty chapters. Hsi-feng takes advantage of Pao-yu's derangement to secretly plan his marriage to Pao-chai. In reality, what we have here is the feudal family's authority becoming increasingly cruel and ruthless in its suppression of the true, sincere love between Pao-yu and Tai-yu. Pao-yu and Tai-yu are determined to marry one another, but the feudal marriage system (represented by Lady Dowager, Lady Wang, and His-feng) will try every means possible to prevent them from doing so. The result will be a terrible tragedy.
The news of Pao-yu's impending marriage to Pao-chai so enrages Tai-yu that, after her hemorrhage, she longs to die quickly. Tzu-chuan hurries to report Tai-yu's critical condition to Lady Dowager, Lady Wang, and Hsi-feng , and they immediately hurry back to Tai-yu's apartment. Aware that Tai-yu's sudden illness was probably caused by her fondness for Pao-yu, the old lady is extremely displeased. In her opinion, boys and girls, even though partial to one another when young, should keep their distance from one another while growing up. The old lady says sternly that if Tai-yu's illness is caused because of her love for Pao-yu, she doesn't care if the girl is cured or not. The old lady states clearly her adamant stand on love and marriage: All marriages should be arranged by parents; even the mention of "free love" and "free marriage" is improper. The old lady's suppression of Tai-yu's and Pao-yu's love for one another leads directly to Tai-yu's tragic death and Pao-yu's madness.
Out of indignation and disappointment, Tai-yu burns her manuscript book, as well as Pao-yu's white, silk handkerchief. Tai-yu is near death, a state that terrifies Tzu-chuan so thoroughly that she hurries to report to the masters, but she fails to find anybody.
From Mo-yu, a page, she learns the secret behind their absence: the wedding between Pao-yu and Pao-chai is to take place that evening. In her indignation, Tzu-chuan rushes home. Finding Tai-yu feverish and deeply flushed, she calls for Tai-yu's old nurse, Nanny Wang, and Li Wan, who has been left in charge of the Garden while the others are busy with wedding details. Li Wan, realizing Tai-yu's critical condition, orders Tzu-chuan to get Tai-yu's after-life things ready. Ping-erh hurries in to ask Tzu-chuan to help with the wedding, but Tzu-chuan refuses to leave Tai-yu, so Ping-erh has to ask Hsueh-yen to go instead. Pao-yu, who believes that he will soon marry Tai-yu feels better. He seems to be more rational, and, in fact, he can hardly wait to begin the ceremony. After the wedding, he is eager to take off Tai-yu's veil, but when he does, to his great surprise, the bride is not Tai-yu: It is Pao-chai!
Pao-yu is so stupefied and speechless that he falls into a sound sleep. Hsi-feng's scheme has succeeded, but the results are tragic. This is an effective indictment of the feudal system and its ethics. Kao Ngo here follows Hsueh-chin's creative intention in his major themes and presents the tragedy forcefully and impressively, making a significant contribution to the completion of the original love tragedy. The author sharply contrasts Pao-yu's sumptuous wedding and Tai-yu's stark death in the same scene, enhancing his artistic atmosphere, as well as arousing the reader's loathing for the feudal rulers and creating profound sympathy for the tragic fate of the young, rebellious victims.
In Chapter 98, at the same hour that Pao-yu and Pao-chai are married, Tai-yu breathes her last. Tai-yu has never wavered in pursuing her ideal of love, but when all hope of happiness vanishes, she chooses to die, expressing her defiance of feudal rulers and arousing the reader's sympathy and pity for this talented and strong-willed but badly treated and delicate young woman. She dies in the name of the freedom to love whomever she chooses.
As ill and deranged as Pao-yu seems to be, he is very clear about whom he hopes to marry. He believes that his marriage to Tai-yu is the most wonderful thing that has ever happened to him. Not surprisingly, when he realizes that his new bride is Pao-chai, he is speechless and can only stare uncomprehendingly. After a physician cures him and Pao-chai tells him of Tai-yu's death, he insists on mourning for her. All of these details reveal his faithfulness to Tai-yu. He married Pao-chai not of his own free will but because the marriage was arranged by the Chin family authorities. His devotion to Tai-yu and his resulting madness after her death reveal clearly that he is rebelling against the feudal marriage system and that he longs for liberation from its demands.
Pao-chai's character is also well drawn in these chapters. To please her mother and obey Lady Dowager and Lady Wang, she agrees to the marriage ruse, even though she must be temporarily disguised as Taiyu. She is a typical, obedient daughter of the feudal system, consistently following the feudal ethical code in order to keep favor with the Chin family. After her marriage, she immediately takes the responsibility of guiding and educating Pao-yu, using both soft and hard tactics to persuade him to be a devoted son and a loyal successor to the feudal family and a follower of expected feudal conventions.
Chapter 99 is an important complement to Chapter 4 — that is, it exposes the corruption and decadence among both high and low officials. Chin Cheng, in his new post as Grain commissioner of Kiangsi, is determined to be a good official in order to live up to his ancestors' reputations and exhibit his gratitude to the Emperor. Therefore, he issues stern prohibitions against any corruption by his inferiors, while he himself sets a good example for them to follow. However, his subordinates complain behind his back about his regulations, so the gateman, Li Shih-erh, tries to convince Chin Cheng to allow his subordinates to use their offices to extort money from the country people. Not long afterward, Chin Cheng finally yields to these suggestions in order to keep things running smoothly and to keep his inferiors from leaving. This situation emphasizes even greater depths of social corruption than we have seen before, and the scene thereby enhances the effectiveness of the novel's original intention to indict the feudal system. While reading a copy of The Court Gazette, Chin Cheng learns that Hsueh Pan's life is still in danger, although Chin Ching tried to save the murderer's life by appealing to the magistrate. Now, however, he fears that he himself might be involved, and no matter how determined he is to be a good official, it is obvious that Chin Cheng is, in this matter, vulnerable to corruption.
In Chapter 100, Aunt Hsueh realizes that her son's life is in jeopardy, and she weeps day and night in grief and rage because she has already spent a large sum of money on bribes. Only after Pao-chai tries to soothe her does she calm down.
With her husband away in prison, Chin-kuei constantly tries to entice Hsueh Ko; she rouges and powders her face like a vamp, trying to seize a chance to embrace him. Pao-chan, however, announces the arrival of Hsiangling — news that makes Chin-kuei suddenly hate Hsiang-ling to the marrow of her bones. Chia Cheng, behaving contrary to his own principles, begins to curry favor with his superiors, the garrison commander of Haimen and the governor, and he agrees to send his daughter Tan-chun to a faraway place to marry in order to further secure his position. Once again, corruption and hypocrisy are exposed.