Summary and Analysis
Volume I: Chapters 16-19
Yuan-chun (Cardinal Spring), the eldest daughter of Chia Cheng, is selected as "Chief Secretary of the Phoenix Palace with the title of Worthy and Virtuous Consort," and there is more good news: in the future, ladies of the court will be allowed to go home at regular intervals so that they won't get homesick and unhappy. Preparing for Yuan-chun's reunion, all of the Chia family members are thrilled with the news and busy designing a separate court to be built especially for Yuan-chun's visits home.
Meanwhile, the delicate young Chin Chung, Pao-yu's best friend, dies, admonishing Pao-yu to make a name for himself through his own efforts — instead of being content to be the heir of a "noble family." When the work on the new Grand View Garden is completed, Chia Cheng takes two cultured friends for a tour so that some tentative inscriptions for different locations in the Garden can be suggested for Yuan-chun's final approval. By chance, Pao-yu is in the Garden, still grieving over Chin Chung's death, so his father asks him to join them; he wants to test his son's talent. Happily, he discovers that Pao-yu's impromptu couplets are free from vulgar ostentation and full of originality; his son's poetry vividly describes the characteristics of each stop much better than the hackneyed clichés of the cultured elders. Chia Cheng, however, a proponent of feudal tradition and culture, refuses publicly to recognize his young son's superlative poetic genius. He belittles Pao-yu's creativity and originality.
Here is another example of the "generation gap" theme in this novel. The differing attitudes of Chia Cheng and his son, Pao-yu, represent two opposing views about the ideals of life and aesthetics. Pao-yu's rebellion against feudal vulgarity also exposes the poverty of the feudal scholars' imaginations.
In Chapter 17, then, the author presents superb penetrations and descriptions of the characters, along with picturesque descriptions of the Garden's scenery. The combination of psychological character portrayals, juxtaposed against the detailed descriptions of natural beauty makes it easy for us to see why Tsao Hsuehchin stands out among his literary contemporaries as one of China's best writers.
On the fifteenth day of the first month of the New Year, Yuan-chun, now the Imperial Consort, is allowed to visit her parents for the Feast of Lanterns. This special occasion is a cause of great celebration and anxiety for the entire Chia household. Everything must be arranged according to Imperial etiquette: Everybody — whether from a high station or a low station — must be dressed in their Imperial best; the new pleasure garden must be decorated with hangings and screens which are brilliantly embroidered with dancing dragons and flying phoenixes. An excited, if solemn, atmosphere pervades the whole house and the garden itself.
The Imperial Consort is greatly impressed by the magnificence of Grand View Garden and feels extremely happy when she learns that all of the poetic couplets were created by Pao-yu. She makes some changes, however, in Pao-yu's versions in order to make the inscriptions fit the scenic splendors even more perfectly.
Yuan-chun's reunion with her family reveals her unhappiness in court; she says, "Simple farmers who live on pickles and dress in homespun at least know the joys of family life together. What pleasure can I take in high rank and luxury when we are separated like this?" This statement is direct evidence that the glory of being a Consort to the Emperor is a hollow glory because the Consort must endure painful homesickness for her family. This attitude is critical; the author is exposing more of the flaws in the feudal system. All of the selected ladies and concubines have to wait on the Emperor at the expense of being separated from their parents. They are allowed to visit their parents only once a year.
At Yuan-chun's request, the girls and Pao-yu write inscriptions and poems to go with the pleasure garden. Of all the inscriptions and poems, Pao-chai's (Precious Virtue's) and Tai-yu's (Black Jade's) are judged to be the best.
In Chapter 19, Pao-yu secretly goes to see Hsi-jen (Pervading Fragrance) in her home and is startled and deeply saddened to hear that her family is planning to "buy her back." Hsi-jen says that she will demand to stay with Pao-yu's family — despite her family's plans — if Pao-yu agrees to three conditions. At this point, we should be aware that Hsi-jen is a conniver; the so-called "problem" of Hsi-jen's being "repurchased" by her family is an out-and-out fabrication. Hsi-jen makes up the story with her sweet tongue simply because she wants to make sure that she can help train Pao-yu to be a faithful scholar of his feudal family system.
As for the three conditions which she asks Pao-yu to observe, they are: (1) he will stop making sarcastic remarks about studying, (2) he will stop talking wildly, without thinking first, and (3) he will stop playing with girls' cosmetics and "running after everything in red."
Her three-point plan to reform Pao-yu is proof that Hsi-jen, although from a poor family and sold to the Chia family as a maid, is a devoted slave to her feudal masters. She has given much thought to persuading Pao-yu to renounce his rebellious behavior and "get back on the right track." She wants to mold him into the kind of a young man who his aristocratic family expects him to be. In order to win her masters' favor, Hsi-jen plays a special role in Pao-yu's "remolding," a role which she hopes will prevent Pao-yu from going astray.
Pao-yu agrees to the conditions and leaves, and later we see the love relationship between him and Tai-yu (Black Jade) beginning to develop even further. Their innocent, sweet feelings of love for one another are delineated through two interesting episodes: When Pao-yu attempts to share a pillow with her and, later, when he tries to satisfy his curiosity concerning where Tai-yu's sweet scent comes from. The author's skillful and refined depiction of their young love reveals his admiring and sympathetic attitude towards the young lovers.