Summary and Analysis
Volume II: Chapters 41-50
Chapter 41 continues Granny Liu's adventures in Grand View Garden. When her turn comes to add a poetic line to the collective poem, she says, "A huge pumpkin forms when the flowers fall," and the whole party bursts into gales of laughter. The Chia family is having such a good time making fun of Granny Liu that they encourage her to drink more wine, and they plead with her to taste some eggplant cooked "in a special way." Clearly, they are showing off their superiority, riches, and wealth.
Later, when the author describes Granny Liu drunkenly collapsing onto Pao-yu's bed, he again points out this aristocratic family's extravagance and sumptuousness, an ostentation that is the result of years of exploiting the laboring people. Note, though, that the author is careful in these scenes to color his social criticism with humor. For example, Granny Liu sometimes makes a spectacle of herself because of her ignorance of certain "modern furnishings" — for example, the mirror which has Western-style hinges, enabling it to open and shut. The author describes these scenes in a thoroughly humorous way without idealizing Granny Liu's country ways, even though he means for her to be representative of the laboring people. Granny may be dirty, simple, and ignorant — but she is certainly charming.
Note also how the author deals with the prejudices of the aristocracy. In the conversation between Pao-yu and Miao-yu in Green Lattice Nunnery, Pao-yu says, "That bowl [used by Granny Liu] may have been contaminated . . . you'd do better to give it to that poor woman." Miao-yu replies, "It's a good thing that I never drank out of it, or I'd have smashed it." After the visit, Pao-yu offers to send some young servants with buckets of water from the stream to wash Miao-yu's floor (from Granny Liu's "contamination"). All of these details show that, at times, Pao-yu (as well as the author) has a tendency to be extremely critical of the unsanitary and unhealthy qualities of poor people.
Chapter 42 finds Granny Liu leaving to go back home, loaded down with many gifts and presents from Hsi-feng and Lady Dowager. Even Lady Dowager's maid Yuan-yang presents Granny with two sets of clothes. Granny Liu, of course, repeatedly expresses her gratitude to all of them before she takes her leave.
Having heard Tai-yu quote some lines from The Western Chamber the other day, Pao-chai lectures her, telling her to stick to her needlework and to read "proper" books. Her advice fully reflects the beliefs of a faithful disciple of feudal ethics (with its inherent prejudice against women). Pao-chai is so persuasive that Tai-yu seemingly yields to her social pressures and prejudices.
However, in her heart, Tai-yu still retains her own romantic ideals and her keen sense of humor, as can be seen in her ironic reply to Pao-chai, when making fun of Hsi-chun: "I am too young to know the right way to talk; but as an elder sister [Pao-chai] to me, who else can I turn to?" Her witticism is understood only by Pao-chai and herself.
At Lady Dowager's suggestion, the family members and servants in both the Jung and Ning Mansions collectively make contributions to celebrate His-feng's birthday. More than one hundred and fifty taels are raised — enough for a fine feast and an opera performance given by hired, non-resident actresses. Madame Yu is responsible for the preparations.
On the appointed day, everybody is ready to begin the grand celebration, but Pao-yu is missing. Secretly, he slipped out early in the morning to go to the River Goddess Convent in order to burn incense as a token of his undying love for Chin-chuan. Everyone is concerned about his absence, but just as the feast begins, Pao-yu rushes in and is severely scolded by Lady Dowager for leaving without permission. His "excuse for going," he says, was to pay condolences for the death of one of the Prince of Peiching's favorite concubines. This sounds reasonable, so he is let off easily.
The contrast between the singing, the music, and the merrymaking in the Chia family and the melancholy mood of Yu-chuan (Chin-chuan's sister), who is sitting alone in tears on the porch by the entrance hall, is a graphic illustration of the author's genius for capturing the divided spirit of the feudal era. The rich people's luxurious life is built with the blood and tears of the laboring people. Of all the Chia family, only Pao-yu is sympathetic to the anniversary of Chin-chuan's death; he expresses his condolences to Yuchuan by wearing mourning clothes, and only after he has paid his respects to the dead does he go to join the others in the birthday celebration. This behavior is another illustration of Pao-yu's sincere sympathies for the oppressed poor.
After numerous toasts at the feast, Hsi-feng gets thoroughly drunk, so Ping-erh accompanies her back to her quarters. On the way, however, Hsi-feng catches sight of one of her young maids trying to run away surreptitiously. When the girl is brought before her, Hsi-feng beats her savagely until the maid confesses that Hsi-feng 's husband, Chia Lien, is having an affair with Pao Erh's wife (Pao Erh is one of Chia Lien's servants).
Creeping around the house, Hsi-feng explodes with rage and jealousy when she overhears a conversation between Chia Lien and Pao Erh's wife. Chia Lien says that he will promote Ping-erh to be his wife after Hsi-feng 's death.
Hsi-feng bursts into the room and storms at Chia Lien, Pao-Erh's wife, and Ping-erh. Retaliating, Chia Lien threatens to kill Hsi-feng with his sword. This threat so terrifies Hsi-feng that she hurries back to let Lady Dowager know what has happened. Lady Dowager makes Chia Lien apologize to Hsi-feng and Ping-erh. Afterward, Pao Erh's wife hangs herself because of the disgrace. Chia Lien secretly pays for her funeral because Hsi-feng is strongly against paying anything to Pao Erh's family.
From this scene involving (1) Chia Lien's illicit relations with Pao Erh's wife and (2) Lady Dowager's leniency towards Chia Lien's adultery ("He [Chia Lien] is only a boy and as greedy as a cat. This sort of thing can't be helped. All young men go through such stages."), we see that in the feudal era, there was a strong social prejudice against women. Their position in society was extremely low. It was considered wrong for a woman to be jealous of her husband's flirtations with other women. Meanwhile, however, Chia Lien — because he is a man — goes free from all punishment. He is asked only to apologize to his wife. In that era, it was clearly a man's world.
In Chapter 45, Granny Lai arrives with an invitation for Hsi-feng and Lady Dowager, as well as for the other ladies, to come to a feast at her home. (Granny Lai served the predecessors of the Chia family. After retirement, she is still respected and popular. Even Lady Dowager treats her well. That's why her son Lai Ta is now working in the Jung Mansion as a general manager of the servants and housework.) The occasion will celebrate her grandson's being promoted to the post of district magistrate. Hsi-feng promises to come but says that she's not going to bring any presents. She also says that she will keep the son of Chou Jui's wife in her service — only after he receives forty strokes for getting drunk and swearing, as well as for disrupting preparations for her birthday party. Once again, we see Hsi-feng 's strength and power. Later, Pao-chai drops in to chat with Tai-yu, who is suffering from a bad autumn cough. Hoping to cure Tai-yu's illness, Pao-chai sends two serving women to give her a big package of the best quality bird's nest and a packet of fine sugar. This gesture touches Tai-yu so much that she confesses to Pao-chai that she had earlier suspected Pao-chai's motives, but ever since the advice against indiscriminate reading, Tai-yu must admit that she has misjudged her. This heart-to-heart talk strengthens their friendship. The end of the chapter finds Pao-yu coming to visit Tai-yu even though it is raining outside. Tai-yu appreciates Pao-yu's concern very much and, in return, she shows her concern for him, although she feels that there is a certain distance between them.
In Chapter 46, the author focuses first on Elder Master Chia Sheh's lechery. His animal-like amorousness causes him to send his wife, Lady Hsing, to talk to Hsi-feng and arrange for him to obtain Yuan-yang (Lady Dowager's favorite servant girl) for his concubine. First, however, Lady Hsing talks to Yuan-yang, who says that she won't be Elder Master's concubine. Lady Hsing then asks her sister-in-law and her brother Chin Wen-chiang to persuade Yuan yang to give her consent. After further consulting with Hsijen and Ping-erh, Yuan-yang is still firm in her refusal. Her attitude arouses Chia Sheh's rage, and he threatens her, saying, "No matter whom she marries, she will still be within my reach, unless she dies or remains single all her life." Yuan-yang remains unmoved. She declares to Lady Dowager and all present, "My mind's made up. I shall never marry so long as I live, neither Pao-yu with his precious jade, nor someone born with silver or gold, not even a Heavenly King or an Emperor. If your ladyship tries to force me, I'll kill myself rather than marry . . . I mean to serve Your Ladyship till the end of your life." Realizing how destructively stubborn the girl is. Lady Dowager blames Lady Wang for plotting against her in secret. Later, however, Lady Dowager feels apologetic toward Lady Wang and asks Pao-yu to make an apology for her.
Yuan-yang's resistance to being "bought and sold," as it were, is the author's condemnation of the system of slavery in this era; it is also a protest against the corrupt concubine arrangement. The price for Yuan-yang's temporary triumph is great — she loses all hope of happiness. When Lady Dowager dies, she will be at Chia Sheh's mercy.
Lady Hsing's arrival reawakens Lady Dowager's anger and frustration about the concubine issue. Lady Hsing is extremely mortified and humiliated and can only stand by, feeling embarrassed, watching Lady Dowager play cards with Hsi-feng , Lady Wang, and Lady Hsueh, until her son Chia Lien arrives.
Later, Lady Hsing repeats to her husband that Lady Dowager will not give up Yuan-yang, so Chia Sheh purchases a seventeen-year-old girl instead.
On the fourteenth, all of the people who were invited by Granny Lai go to the celebration feast, where everybody is impressed by a certain Liu Hsiang-lien, the son of a good family, who lost both parents at an early age. In particular, Hsueh Pan has been longing to meet this man, mistakenly thinking that the man is a homosexual merely because he acts in romantic operas about young scholars and beauties.
Disgusted with Hsueh Pan's flirtations, Liu Hsiang-lien plays a trick on him. He "invites" Hsueh Pan to meet him by the bridge outside the North Gate. Punctually, both of them slip away from the feast. When Hsueh Pan gets there, however, romance is not the name of the game. Hsiang-lien viciously beats up Hsueh Pan and makes him drink filthy marsh water. Then, to avoid any reprisals, Hsiang-lien runs away, leaving Hsueh Pan in a state of remorse and hatred.
The conflict between Hsueh and Liu is symbolic of the conflict between powerful, aristocratic landlords, who think that they can take whatever they choose, and people who are ineffectual simply because they have little or no social standing. Hsueh Pan's defeat and humiliation is another indication that the feudal society is decaying and becoming less powerful.
When Hsueh Pan learns that Chang Teh-hui, the manager of the Hsueh pawnshop, is going away on business to settle the family's annual accounts in their hometown and that, on his way back, he plans to purchase sacrificial paper and scented fans, Hsueh Pan is determined to go with him, intending to learn practical matters from Chang about transactions and dealings and, at the same time, enjoy some sightseeing. Lady Hsueh is against her son's going, but finally she has to give in to her son's demands. She makes Chang promise to take good care of Hsueh Pan.
Because Hsueh Pan will be away for a year, Pao-chai suggests — to Hsiang ling's great joy — that Hsiang-ling come and live with her in Grand View Garden. Now Pao-chai will have the opportunity to teach Hsiang-ling the art of writing poetry and thereby satisfy Hsiang-ling's lifelong dream.
With Tai-yu's help, Hsiang-ling is taught the rules and the rhyme schemes for writing poetry, and after much hard work and many brain-racked and sleepless nights, Hsiang-ling's poetry improves considerably — to everybody's surprise and satisfaction.
This episode shows us that the author was firmly on the side of talented women in feudal society. In that era, vast numbers of men (and certainly no women) were not allowed to enjoy the freedom of speech, the freedom to gather, or the freedom to read. In this book, however, the author openly discusses how the ladies in Grand View Garden gather together and establish a poetry club, and, here, even a common maid is enthusiastic about learning to write poetry. This "heresy" is a challenge to feudal society — something quite rebellious and extremely dangerous at the time.
Another key concept in this chapter concerns Chia Sheh who, with the help of the upstart Chia Yu-tsun, is determined to buy Stone Idiot's twenty unique fans, all made of rare varieties of bamboo. Stone Idiot, however, swears that he will never sell them. The scoundrel Chia Yu-tsun hears about Chia Sheh's frustration and concocts a scheme. He charges Stone Idiot with owing the government some money, and then he orders him to sell all his property to pay these debts. Thus the fans are seized.
Because Chia Lien fails to acquire the fans for his father, Chia Sheh beats him so severely that his face is torn in two places. This is a potent example of Chia Sheh's excessive anger and greed. He wants to obtain everything that catches his eye. After failing to get Yuan-yang for his concubine, he wants to get the Stone Idiot's antique fans. Again he fails. In contrasting Stone Idiot with Chia Sheh, we see that however weak and insignificant Stone Idiot is, he is strong in his determination and courageous in his fight against the powerful and influential landlord Chia Sheh. True, Stone Idiot finally succumbs to "government orders," but his rebellious spirit against evil forces has won generations of readers' support and sympathy. Similarly, the author's sympathetic attitude in his descriptions once again proves him to be a progressive writer of his time.
In Chapter 49, a group of people, both young and old, suddenly arrive for a temporary stay. They are: Lady Hsing's brother and sister-in-law and their daughter Hsiu-yen, Hsi-feng 's brother Wang Jen, Li Wan's widowed aunt and her daughters Li Wen and Li Chi, Hsueh Pan's cousin Hsueh Ko and his sister Pao-chin. The group also includes Hsiang-yun, who will be staying with Lady Dowager because her father will be going to a new provincial government post.
Altogether, there are now thirteen people living in Grand View Garden. They are: Ying-chun, Tan-chun, Hsi-chun, Pao-chai, Tai-yu, Hsiang-yun, Li Wan, Li Wen, Li Chi, Pao-chin, Hsiu-yen, Hsi-feng , and Pao-yu. The new members add much more fun and excitement to Garden life, and soon, amidst the fresh white snow and the bright red plum blossoms, a poetry club meeting is held, and all the newcomers are invited. Pao-yu and Hsiang-yun grill fresh venison (provided by Hsi-feng ), and when it is sampled, it is judged to be superb and delicious. Thus, everybody is eager to have a bite and gain special inspiration for writing poems.
This chapter uses the relatives from the Hsueh family, the Hsiang family, the Wang family, and the Shih family — all coming to stay with the Chia family — in order to show us further evidence of the economic and social decline of these families. They have come to ask for the auspices of the Chia family. The gathering of the young aristocratic ladies and gentlemen is only seemingly prosperous; there are all sorts of contradictions hidden behind it. The current happiness of the twelve beauties in the Garden also serves as a foil to their tragic ending later in the novel.
After Hsi-feng composes the first line, "The north wind blew hard all night," all of the girls and Pao-yu struggle for good lines in order to compose a joint, collective poem in couplets. All of the girls do a good job, but Pao-yu is better at composing a poem on his own. Therefore, he is "punished": He has to go to Miao-yu's and bring back a spray of red plum blossoms.
Pao-chin's contribution outshines all the others, and soon Lady Dowager comes to join in their fun. She asks the girls to make up some lantern riddles for them to enjoy after the New Year. Again Pao-chin displays a dazzling creativity. This causes the old lady to think about arranging a match between Pao-chin and Pao-yu, but knowing that Pao-chin is already engaged to the son of Academician Mei, she doesn't bring the matter up. However, the old lady now knows that Pao-chin is a girl who has already seen a lot of the world and has traveled to all sorts of beautiful places with her parents. Interestingly, since her father owns many shops in many cities, Pao-chin has actually visited half of the country and has seen a lot of foreign products in her home.
This information reveals to us that China's economy, with the development of foreign trade, had reached the stage of rising capitalism at that time. This development helped prepare the way for the development of democratic ideology, and thus readers can find some explanations and references for Pao-yu's and Tai-yu's rebellious natures.