Summary and Analysis
This chapter and the next thirty-nine chapters were written by Kno Ngo, Tsao Hsueh-chin's contemporary. The continuation of the story sometimes follows Tsao Hsueh-chin's creative intent — such as the tragic end of the devoted love between Pao-yu and Tai-yu, the description of the search of both the Jung and Ning Mansions, the exile of Chin Sheh and Chin Chen, and the deaths of Lady Dowager and Wang Hsi-feng , all of which illustrate the decline of the Chin family.
More often than not, however, Kno Ngo violates the original author's intent; for example, his depiction of the social and economic revival of the four families. Kno's changes in the story and tone dilute the original tragic atmosphere of the novel and weaken the force of its strong anti-feudal message. In addition, Kno Ngo distorts the characters of Chin Pao-yu and Lin Tai-yu, describing them as submissive followers of feudal rites and ethics rather than the rebels against feudal society, which they were in volumes I and II.
Chapter 81 finds Pao-yu still sad about Ying-chun's misfortune. Lady Wang's clichéd remarks, "A married daughter — spilt water" and "Marry a dog and follow the dog," make Pno-yu burst into tears in front of Tai-yu, to whom he confides his sorrow.
While taking a stroll in the Garden, Pao-yu joins Tan-chun and some other girls who are fishing until he is called by Chin Cheng to come immediately. Chin Cheng has decided to send Pao-yu back to the family school to study classics and practice calligraphy.
Pao-yu's godmother, Priestess Ma, is reported to have been arrested by the police and taken to prison to be put to death because she is allegedly a witch who practices black magic.
Returning from school in Chapter 82, Pao-yu goes to see Tai-yu and complains to her about the ridiculous eight-section essays and the claim that they "voice the views of the sages." Pao-yu's disgust with the essays, which can be used to "wangle a degree and make a living," suggests the decline and decadence of feudal education and reveals Pao-yu's rebellious spirit — pitted against officialdom — as well as his indifference to rank and riches.
However, instead of agreeing with Pno-yu's complaints, Tai-yu praises the essays and advises Pao-yu to "follow the scholarly way" and ensure himself of an official career. Tai-yu's worldly-wise talk annoys Pao-yu because she never used to be like this. Obviously, Kao Ngo has distorted the image of Tai-yu as a rebel against the feudal morals which were presented in the previous 80 chapters.
Next day, Pao-yu is late for school, and the teacher orders him to paraphrase some classics and then spend one month revising all the classics and another month reading essays, after which he will be asked to write about some subjects which will be determined by the teacher.
That night, Tai-yu has a nightmare in which she dreams that she is married off. She begs Lady Dowager to let her stay, but she is rejected. Alone with Pao-yu, Tai-yu and he confess their devoted love to one another, and Pao-yu is even ready to kill himself in order to prove his faithfulness, an act which shocks Tai-yu so much that she awakens. Tai-yu is in poor health, and her sputum that morning is found flecked with blood.
In Chapter 83, Hsi-jen comes to see Tai-yu and reports that Pao-yu cried out in the middle of the night recently because of a pain in his heart. A doctor is sent for to cure his illness, and Lady Dowager orders the doctor to check on Tai-yu's health after he treats Pao-yu.
When Mrs. Chou comes to ask Hsi-feng for more money on behalf of Tai-yu, Hsi-feng reveals the enormous financial difficulties of the Chin family; unfortunately, Hsi-feng says, the family members want to keep up an outward show of affluence — a further indication of the Chia family's rapid decline.
The Imperial Consort is reported to have fallen ill, and members of the Chia family are given permission to visit her. Upon seeing her kinsfolk, Yuanchun sighs with emotion; she envies the daughters of the humble people who can stay close to their fathers and brothers. Yuan-chun's distress illustrates the lonely and tragic lives of the concubines — no matter how luxurious their life in the palace may be. Chin-kuei argues with Hsueh Pan's second wife, Pao-chan, and Aunt Hsueh and Pao-chai come over to persuade them not to make a scene. Chin-kuei not only turns a deaf ear to their advice, but also taunts them. Her disrespectful attitude towards Aunt Hsueh and Pao-chai serves as one more convincing example of the decline of the Hsueh family.
Chapter 84 reveals that the Imperial Consort's recovery sets everybody at ease, and since Yuan-chun is very concerned about Pao-yu's health, Lady Dowager raises the question of Pao-yu's marriage. When Hsifeng suggests a match between "precious jade" and "gold locket" — that is, between Pao-yu and Pao-chai — Lady Dowager nods her consent.
Hsi-feng 's daughter Chiao-chieh needs some cow bezoar because of an illness. Luckily, Aunt Hsueh is able to offer her some, and Hsi-feng is extremely grateful. Unfortunately, Lady Chao's son, Chia Huan, is eager to have a look at the cow bezoar, and he carelessly overturns the skillet into the fire. He is severely criticized by Hsi-feng , deepening Lady Chao's resentment toward her.
Although Chin Cheng is pleased with Pao-yu's test results, he further instructs Pao-yu on how to write a good essay and how to grasp meaning and logic, all of which is agreeable to Pao-yu. Pao-yu's docility to his father is counter to the intent of the original author, Tsao Hsueh-chin, because in this scene, Pao-yu seems to be considering cooperating with his father's feudal expectations by pursuing an official career, as well as fame — a distorted image of a once-rebellious hero in this period of feudal decline.
Chapter 85 begins by focusing on the Prince of Peiching's birthday. Chin Sheh and Chin Cheng decide to take Chin Chen, Chia Lien, and Pao-yu to offer congratulations. Pao-yu was earlier impressed by the Prince's distinguished appearance and manners, and the Prince was so intrigued by Pao-yu's jade that he had a replica made, which he now gives to Pao-yu as a gift.
Pao-yu's father has been promoted to the position of vice minister because of his fine work and because of Governor Wu's recommendation. Pao-yu is very pleased.
Here, the author again distorts the character of Pao-yu. In Chapter 16, the original author describes Pao-yu as being indifferent to Yuan-chun's being chosen as the Imperial Consort, but here, Pao-yu is so delighted with his father's promotion that he goes to Lady Dowager, Lady Wang, and Lady Hsing in order to share his happiness.
To celebrate Chia Cheng's promotion, a stream of kinsmen comes and goes, and operas are prepared for the occasion. The celebration day happens, by chance, to be on Tai-yu's birthday, so everybody is doubly pleased. At the height of their merriment, however, a servant from the Hsueh family rushes in and says that Hsueh Ko, Aunt Hsueh, and Pao-chin must hurry home. When they arrive, they discover that Hsueh Pan has been arrested by the county yamen for killing a man.
Chapter 86 is concerned with the corruption and decadence of feudal officials. Hsueh Pan killed a poor waiter, Chang San, by hitting him with a wine bowl, and, according to law, he should be punished. However, upon receiving several thousand taels as a bribe, the magistrate reopens the case and changes the original verdict of murder to the much lesser charge of "unintentional accident." This behavior makes clear the corruption and greed of the local officials who hold trials for their own financial benefit and at the expense of the law.
When Pao-yu goes to visit Tai-yu, he finds her playing a lute. Her playing is so enticing that Pao-yu asks her to teach him to read musical characters and to play the lute. Pao-yu is greatly impressed by Tai-yu's erudition and the talent which she displays.
In Chapter 87, Pao-chai sends a letter to Tai-yu to confide her grief and sorrow. The letter touches Tai-yu so deeply that when Hsiang-yun, Li Wan, Tan-chun, and Li Chi come to visit her and talk of the south, Tai-yu begins daydreaming, thinking of her home and her happy past, when she was waited on by many maids. It was a time when she could do whatever she pleased. Here again, Kao Ngo's emphasis on Tai-yu's longing for the old days, when she was being waited on by maids, emphasizing her conceit and her self-centeredness — all these details run counter to her feelings and her personality as Tsao Hsueh-chin portrayed them in earlier chapters.
Pao-yu finds Miao-yu and Hsi-chun playing chess together, and he asks Miao-yu how she can spare the time to descend from her nunnery to the mundane world. When Miao-yu returns to the nunnery and remembers Pao-yu's joking, her imagination runs wild. She imagines that many young lordlings have come to ask for her hand, and then brigands kidnap her and threaten her with swords and clubs. The doctor suggests that Miao-yu's "fit" is a result of her practicing yoga and allowing evil thoughts to cross her mind — a diagnosis that foreshadows a later development in the novel. Hsi-chun feels very sorry for Miao-yu, but regrets that she herself lives in a big feudal family and can't become a nun, which is a foreshadowing of Hsi-chun's future.
In Chapter 88, it is reported that Pao Erh is fighting with Chou Jui's adopted son Ho San. Chin Chen and Chin Lien order Pao Erh and Ho San to be tied up. Chia Lien gives Chou Jui several kicks and the other two are given fifty lashes each. This episode reflects the growing friction between masters and servants. The servants are becoming courageous enough to tell on others in front of the masters, and they even dare to fight with one another in the house. Their defiance is one more sign of the Chin family's decline. China Chen and Chia Lien's doings cause gossip among the servants — Chia Chen is a debauchee, Chia Lien has lost interest in Pao Erh's wife, and so forth. This episode convincingly shows us that the concept that the masters are very kind to their servants and the servants are very loyal to their masters is sheer propaganda.
Pao Erh's being beaten eventually leads to his exposure of the Chia family's crimes and the search of the family mansion. Ho San's being whipped leads to his conspiracy with outside brigands in Chapter 111. Hsi-feng refuses to accept Chin Yun's present of some fashionable embroidery because she does not want to promise him that she can secure a job for him.
Ping-erh informs Hsi-feng that a girl has been frightened by the appearance of ghosts in the courtyard; consequently, at midnight, Hsi-feng finds herself shivering with fear and waking with a start — all ominous signs of the Chia family's impending decline.
At the sight of the peacock-feather cape, in Chapter 89, the cape which was mended long ago by Ching-wen, Pao-yu asks to be left alone in Cling-wen's old room; there, he offers her some incense and fruit as sacrifices. In addition, he writes a poem of mourning for her, and then he burns the poem to ashes. Afterward, he visits Tai-yu, advising her not to play the flute too much, although it is a refined instrument, because no one wins wealth, nobility, or long life from playing it — only grief and longing accompany flute playing. Here we can trace another example of Kao Ngo's distortion of Pao-yu's original personality.
Tai-yu overhears a conversation between Tzu-chuan and Hsueh-yen about Pao-yu's engagement to a good-looking daughter of a wealthy prefect. Because of the rumor, Tai-yu decides to ruin her health and hasten her death. Therefore, she begins to eat less and less until she refuses both rice and congee. To do Kao Ngo justice, Tai-yu's refusing rice and congee enriches and develops her original tragic character. Pao-yu's engagement, after all, is only a rumor, but it is a blow to Tai-yu's ideal of love, and she is rebelling against the feudal marriage system in her devotion to true love. However, Kao Ngo contradicts himself when he describes Tai-yu's character. Her sincere love for Pao-yu is adamant and rebellious, yet her earlier good opinion of lucrative, official careers indicates that she supports the feudal system, as Pao-chai and Hsiang-yun do. There is no explanation for this contradiction except perhaps it reflects a similar dichotomy in the author because of his social class.
In Chapter 90, while Tzu-chuan reports to Lady Dowager and Lady Wang that Tai-yu is near death, Taiyu overhears a secret conversation between two maids about the truth of Pao-yu's engagement — that is, the old lady decided long ago on one of the girls in the Garden for Pao-yu's bride — and that no other girls would even be considered. This conversation literally saves Tai-yu's life. When Lady Dowager, Lady Wang, and others hurry in to see Tai-yu, the young girl feels much better and asks for some water. All of the domestics know of Tai-yu's strange illness, as well as her remarkable recovery, and they are all puzzled. Only Lady Dowager has an inkling of the reason for Tai-yu's behavior. In spite of this, however, Lady Dowager, Lady Wang, and Wang Hsi-feng do not feel that Tai-yu would be an appropriate wife for Pao-yu. They decide, instead, on Pao-chai. This episode emphasizes Tai-yu's extreme faithfulness to Pao-yu and their devotion to one another. At this point, a tragic end seems inevitable for her.
Hsiu-yen has lost a red jacket, so Hsi-feng sends her a red crepe jacket and other warm clothes, which she has to accept, although they make her depressed. Hsiu-yen is an honest and sensible girl, although not rich, who is going to marry Aunt Hsueh's nephew Hsueh Ko, an honest and kindhearted man.
Pao-chan, encouraged by Chin-kuei, comes with food and wine to visit Hsueh Ko, supposedly to express the family's gratitude for his help in the settlement of Hsueh Pan's case.