Summary and Analysis
Volume I: Chapters 7-15
From this chapter to Chapter 15, the author focuses mostly on the hostess of the Jung Mansion — Wang Hsi-feng (Phoenix).
In Chapter 7, Aunt Hsueh and Mrs. Chou go on an errand to deliver twelve sprays of gauze flowers to the girls in the Jung Mansion. Here, Tai-yu's overly sensitive character is revealed when she bitterly remarks that everyone else had their pick of the flowers before she did: "I might have known . . . I wouldn't get mine till the others had taken their pick."
Invited by Madame Yu (Chia Chen's wife) and Chin Ko-ching (Chia Jung's wife), Hsi-feng goes to the Ning Mansion to visit them, accompanied by Pao-yu, who insists on going with her. While they are visiting, one of the girl's lithe and handsome brothers, Chin Chung, arrives. Both Hsi-feng and Pao-yu are struck by Chin Chung's civilized, pleasing manner. Instantly, Pao-yu feels ashamed of himself. He regrets being born into a noble family; he wishes that he were the son of a poor scholar; that way, he would have met Chin Chung long ago. Clearly, Pao-yu despises the fact that "nobility" and "wealth" create social barriers; however, despite the fact that Chin Chung comes from an impoverished family, Pao-yu responds to him immediately. The two boys become best friends and decide to go to school together.
Later, it is necessary for someone to see Chin Chung home, and Chiao Ta is chosen for the task. Chiao Ta is furious that he must do such menial labor; he thinks that because he saved the master's great-grandfather's life several times in the past, such errands are beneath him.
He curses full blast, especially at Chia Jung and Chia Chen, as though they were descendants of a houseful of rutting dogs and bitches in heat, "day in and day out, scratching in the ashes." (Here, the author is saying, figuratively, that there is an illegal and immoral relationship taking place between Chia Chen and his daughter-in-law, Chin Ko-ching.) Chiao Ta's curse clearly reflects the rottenness of the feudal rulers' lives.
In Chapter 8, Pao-yu goes to visit Pao-chai (Precious Virtue) to ask if she's feeling better, and Pao-chai takes the opportunity to examine Pao-yu's Precious Jade of Spiritual Understanding, on which is inscribed: "Never Lose, Never Forget, Eternal Life, Lasting Prosperity." Afterward, Pao-yu insists on looking at Pao-chai's golden locket, on which eight characters are inscribed: "Never Leave, Never Abandon, Fresh Youth, Eternally Lasting." The two lines on Pao-yu's piece of jade match the eight characters on Pao-chai's golden locket. In other words, according to the feudalistic concept of marriage, these two young people are destined to marry. In addition, the author also uses them as a symbol of feudal fatalism.
As Pao-yu and Pao-chai are exchanging views about the piece of jade and the golden locket, Tai-yu (Black Jade) arrives to see Pao-chai. The delicate, strained relationship between the three young people begins to develop here. The different characters and personalities of these three characters are described so carefully in this tense scene that the reader can visualize their presence. Without a doubt, Pao-yu's affection for Tai-yu, and Tai-yu's love for Pao-yu have begun developing because of a mutual affinity and love for one another.
In Chapter 9, Pao-yu and his good friend Chin Chung leave to study at the Chia family clan school, accompanied by Pao-yu's servant Li Kuei Nanny Li's son) and several other servants. Pao-yu's father, Chia Cheng, asks Li Kuei to give his compliments to the principal and requests that he make his pupils learn the Four Books instead of the Book of Songs. This is proof that Chia Cheng wants to train Pao-yu to be an honorable and outstanding heir for the aristocratic family and maintain all of the conventions of the feudal social system and order.
The clan school is far from being a "model school." It turns out to be a hodgepodge where pupils of all kinds are enrolled — including the murderer Hsueh Pan and some other youths whose adolescent hormones are ripe and rampant.
One day, the principal, Chia Tai-ju goes home early on business, asking his eldest grandson, Chia Jui, to take charge of the class. It is not long until latent jealousies erupt and, within minutes, a scrimmage ensues between Chin Chung, Ming-yen, and Chin Jung. Then the whole schoolroom becomes a bedlam. At this point, Pao-yu threatens to report the whole affair to the principal unless Chin Jung formally kowtows to Chin Chung. Chia Jui has to force the offender to obey, and finally Chin Jung kowtows to Chin Chung.
This incident, centering around teenage homoeroticism, vividly captures the rottenness of the feudal education system and the purposelessness of many of the aristocratic descendants.
Chapter 10 describes how Chin Jung's paternal aunt, now Chia Huang's wife, learns about the scandalous behavior of the boys at school and how she vows to visit Madame Yu and Chin Ko-ching, intending to tell them about Chin Chung's behavior at school and vent her anger toward Chin Jung. However, when she learns about Chin Ku-cling's unusual and alarming illness and when she considers how politely Madame Yu and Chia Chen treat her, she swallows her anger and leaves in peace.
Dr. Chang Yu-shih arrives to treat Chin Ko-ching, and his diagnosis and prescription are uncanny. In detail, Dr. Chang implies in his explanations that Chin Ko-ching's failing health is a result of her lustful desires and her unclean relationship with Chia Chen, her father-in-law. Here is the proof of Chiao Ta's assertion that there has been some "scratching in the ashes." Koching's critical illness is a metaphor for her present condition and for the era itself, preparing us for her untimely death in Chapter 13.
Chapter 11 opens and we see that Hsi-feng (Phoenix) frequently goes to visit the ailing Ko-ching. One day while she is leaving by a side gate, Chia Jui the schoolmaster's grandson) happens to see her.
Immediately, he is infatuated with her and begins a feverish, unrequited courtship. Instead of confronting Chia Jui, however, and telling him that his attentions are unwelcome, Hsi-feng half-seriously threatens to kill Chia Jui ("the beast," she calls him) in order to let him know that she is a strong and independent woman. This scene reveals that Hsi-feng may oftentimes seem to be honey-tongued, but she is capable of being ruthless when crossed. Chia Jui, on the other hand, is easily taken in by her superficial femininity.
Chapter 12 provides us with a vivid description of how Hsi-feng sets a vicious trap for Chia Jui — how she lets him wait for her in the western entrance hall in the freezingly cold winter wind. Later, we see him being beaten by his grandfather, Chia Tai-ju, and still later, we see him caught while making love to Chia Jung (by mistake, in the dark) and blackmailed for one hundred taels of silver. Finally, we see a bucket of slop being emptied over Chia Jui's head.
All this is too much for the lustful Chia Jui. Before the year is out, he is confined to a sickbed, and at the end of the chapter, he dies a tragic death, looking at a vision of Hsi-feng , beckoning to him from a small mirror, urging him to make love to her. Interestingly, he was given the mirror by the lame Taoist from the Land of the Great Void.
Suddenly, Chin Ko-ching dies of a lingering, mysterious illness, and Chia Chen (her father-in-law and lover) in order to make her funeral as respectable and as sumptuous as possible, spends 1200 taels of silver to buy a position for Chia Jung (her husband) as an officer of the fifth rank in the Imperial Guard. In addition, Chia Chen decides that he won't use cedar boards for her coffin; he will use the rare and expensive Chiang wood and will bury her, after forty-nine days, with proper Buddhist rites.
Because Chia Chen's wife is ill, Pao-yu suggests that Hsi-feng (Phoenix) be appointed to take care of the household matters in the Ning Mansion. Chia Chen is overjoyed at this suggestion, and Hsi-feng , because of her strong desire to display her administrative abilities, is eager to accept the offer.
In Chapter 14, we see that Hsi-feng deals with the domestic affairs of the Ning Mansion conscientiously and competently. She disciplines all of the servants alike — men and women — giving twenty strokes to all latecomers to work. A new sense of order pervades the Ning Mansion.
Meanwhile, news arrives that Lin Ju-hai has died and that Lin Tai-yu (Black Jade), accompanied by Chia Lien, has gone home to perform the necessary funeral rites. This bit of news should alert us to the possibility of Tai-yu's staying with the Chia family afterward.
When the funeral procession for Ko-ching is held, the sight is spectacular. The procession is expensive and is composed of more than a hundred people, including all the relatives and aristocratic officials, plus dukes, marquises, earls, and viscounts. Even the Prince of Peiching comes to express his condolences on the death of Ko-ching and asks for a meeting with Pao-yu, whom he has heard was born with a piece of jade in his mouth.
Reflecting on the events in Chapters 13 and 14 we see that the Ning Mansion spends forty-nine days and an enormous amount of money on burial rites for a daughter-in-law. As officials of all ranks come to show their respects the Chia family takes this opportunity to parade their power and wealth so that they can securely retain their bonding with aristocrats and military officials and thereby maintain their social and political ranking.
In order to complete the funeral rites for Chin Ko-ching, Hsi-feng stays at Steamed-Bread Convent, along with Pao-yu and Chin Chung, attending three days of requiems for the dead. While there, Hsi-feng promises the Abbess to write a letter to General Yun, the military governor of Changan, asking him to convince the former inspector of Changan to drop his suit against a certain Mr. Li and, in addition, to cancel his engagement to Chin-ko (the daughter of the wealthy Mr. Chang) so that Mr. Li can marry Chin-ko. If the inspector agrees, Chang will be so overjoyed that he will give a fortune to Steamed-Bread Convent.
As part of the bargain, though, Hsi-feng charges Chang three thousand taels. This is another example of Hsi-feng 's greedy connivings. We will also see that Hsi-feng is misusing her family power and people will die, indirectly, as a result of her machinations. However, writing a simple letter does not trouble her; she admits frankly to the Abbess, "I've never believed all that talk about Hell and retribution. I do what I please and am always as good as my words." This clearly exposes the selfishness and cruelty of the ruling classes.
While staying at the convent with Hsi-feng and Pao-yu, Chin Chung makes use of the opportunity to make love to Chin-neng, a novice at the convent, but is caught in the act and teased by Pao-yu.