In Search of the Music of The Dream of the Red Chamber: Chapter 86

Colin Huehns | London | December 2022

As The Dream of the Red Chamber progresses, the Jia household disintegrates. The opening to Chapter 86 represents one incident in the inevitable downward slide. Xue Pan has murdered a waiter at a restaurant in a fit of rage because the wine was not to his liking, and a monstrous bribe has to be paid in order for him to be spuriously pronounced ‘not guilty’ of the capital charge and released. The greed of the judicial officials and their ready lust for corruption leap off the page, and the author seems to dwell on the minutiae of the process with evident satisfaction.

Against this, the subsequent love scene between Jia Baoyu and Lin Daiyu, the principal male and female protagonists of the novel, is all the more poignant. Here, it is Lin Daiyu with whom we, as readers, share the most sympathy. Given her chronic bad health, presumably caused by unrequited love for Jia Baoyu, as the quintessential Confucian scholar – albeit a young woman – she takes solace in the qin zither and gives him a classical exposition of the philosophical background to the instrument.

Jia Baoyu, even though he affects the Confucian attributes of the young scholar, is remarkably ignorant of the qin and its accoutrements. He is also impervious to Lin Daiyu’s self-evident adoring love for him and the emotional needs that entails and seems instead only preoccupied with arranging for the bevy of his admirers to perform the qin together in competition for his enjoyment. He understands neither the qin nor her, and deserves neither.

The moral and social decline of the Jia household appear inevitable.

Chapter 86

On receipt of a surreptitious bribe, an old official overturns the records of a court case.

To relieve the boredom of inactivity, a virtuous lady makes exposition of a book on the qin.

It is said that when Aunt Xue1 had heard the letter from Xue Ke [her nephew]2 read to her, she summoned a manservant and asked him: ‘You have heard what your Master [Xue Pan,3 her son] has said; how did he actually hit someone so that they were killed?’ The manservant said: ‘Your humble servant has not heard the precise facts; that day, Master told Second Master [Xue Ke] and said…’ So saying, he turned his head to look around him and, seeing that there was no one there, continued: ‘Master said: ever since the fracas in his household had become so serious, he had lost heart, so he had wanted to go the South to lay out his wares for sale. On that day, he was thinking of arranging for someone to go with him, a person who lived a couple of hundred li away from the town. The Master had gone to find him and had by chance met with [the theatrical troupe leader] Jiang Yuhan,4 who had previously been friendly with Master and who was bringing some actors into the town. Master ate a meal and drank some wine with him at a small restaurant. Because the waiter had eyed Jiang Yuhan with the great disdain, Master became very angry. Later, Jiang Yuhan left. The next day, Master invited the person he was seeking to drink wine with him. After the wine had been consumed, he thought of the events of the day before and had the waiter change the wine, but at that juncture the waiter responded tardily, and Master started cursing him roundly. The waiter refused to admit blame, so Master took a wine bowl and went to hit him with it. Who would have thought it, but he was also a rascal, and he stretched his head out for Master to hit. Master took the bowl and smashed it over his head, and straightaway blood came spurting out, and he ended up lying on the floor. At first, he also cursed, but then he was silent.’ Aunt Xue said: ‘How was it that no one intervened to stop it?’ The manservant said: ‘Not having heard Master say I should, your humble servant dared not be so presumptuous.’ Aunt Xue said: ‘First you go and rest.’ The servant assented and withdrew.

1 Aunt Xue 薛姨媽.

2 Xue Ke 薛蝌.

3 Xue Pan 薛蟠. As is so often the case with siblings, the given names of both Xue Ke and Xue Pan are related and share the same classifier, in this case the ‘insect’ radical . Their meanings in this context are obscure.

4 Jiang Yuhan 蔣玉函. 玉函: jade – letter.

At this juncture, Aunt Xue came herself to see Lady Wang [Jia Baoyu’s mother; Baoyu: the main male protagonist in The Dream of the Red Chamber]5 and enjoined Lady Wang to transmit the request for assistance to Jia Zheng [Mother Jia’s son and Jia Baoyu’s father].6 Jia Zheng asked around back and forth, but to no avail, and could only make vague promises, saying that he was waiting for Xue Ke to submit his plea and would then see how the county authorities assessed it before passing judgment. For her part, Aunt Xue went once more to the pawnshop and redeemed some silver, and had a manservant take the money to Jia Zheng forthwith. Three days later, as expected, a letter came in reply. Aunt Xue received it, and had a maidservant inform Baochai7 [a young lady of the Xue family and one of the principal female protagonists in The Dream of the Red Chamber, who eventually marries Jia Baoyu], who came over immediately to read it. The letter was written thus:

I took the silver tael and at the yamen [local government headquarters] passed on money to all and sundry. Elder Brother [Xue Pan] is in prison but has not been greatly subject to deprivation or torture, so Supreme Lady should be reassured. The only problem is the people here are extremely cunning, and they do not even permit relatives of the victim to see the evidence, and even the friend whose assistance Elder Brother had solicited is helping them. Li Xiang8 [a member of the Xue household] and I are both unfamiliar with this place and its people, but thankfully we found a kind-hearted gentleman, slipped him some silver, and have managed to formulate a plan. He said that we must get hold of Wu Liang,9 who had been drinking with Elder Brother, and have someone guarantee that he would come, slip him some silver tael, and get him to make appropriate remonstrations. If he doesn’t cooperate, then have it said that Third Zhang10 [the waiter] was assaulted and killed by him, thereby forcibly transferring the guilt onto the shoulders of someone from another locality. If he is unable to defend himself against the accusation, then the whole matter is easily settled. I went along with this gentleman’s plan, and as expected Wu Liang made an appearance. At present, we are in the process of making a ‘financial exhortation’ to relatives of the victim to furnish appropriate witnesses. We have also composed a plea, which we submitted a few days ago and which was assessed today; please see the text of the plea below so you are aware of what it says.

She read the text of the plea aloud thus:

Plaintiff XX submits this plea because his elder brother who has suffered an unexpected catastrophe and seeks on his behalf to remove the stain of guilt of a wrongful conviction. Your dutiful servant’s elder brother Xue Pan, whose original residency was in Nanjing but was temporarily sojourning in the Western Capital,11 on XX year, XX month, XX day had prepared monies to make a trip to the South to participate in trading activities. Having departed for not yet even a few days, a valet delivered a letter back to his home stating that he had been accused of a capital offence and taken before the Criminal High Court, and thus was I aware that my brother had mistakenly caused injury to someone surnamed Zhang. On getting to the gaol, according to my brother’s weeping confession, he had in fact never previously known the man surnamed Zhang, and there had been no enmity between them. It so happened that there had been a quarrel over changing the wine, and my brother had spilt some wine on the floor. By complete coincidence, when Third Zhang was bending down to wipe up the stuff off the floor, my brother’s hand slipped, and a wine bowl accidentally fell onto Zhang’s forehead, and he was killed by the blow. Receiving most merciful arrest and interrogation, my brother, terrified of the torture used to extract confession, admitted that a fight had been the cause of death. In meek supplication and in appeal to the benevolent kindness of a higher court, in knowledge of a wrongful conviction, sentence has not yet been passed. For my brother to kept be in prison while this appeal is made so that the truth will out contravenes relevant decrees that forbid this. Out of consideration for the ties of kinship, risking death in recompense, this plea is humbly submitted on behalf of a brother. It is made begging in prostration that this appeal will meet with the milk of human kindness and permission be granted to re-examine the evidence and carry out cross examination in court, and if kindnesses were to extend thus far, the whole of our family would aspire to crown ourselves in a wreath of munificent benevolence, eternally, for evermore, world without end! In impassioned supplication is made this plea.

The official assessment was thus:

On examination of the scene of the murder, the evidence is watertight. And besides, no torture has been applied to extract a confession. Your brother has himself admitted that he killed the victim in a fight, and his confession is intrinsic to the case. Now, you have come from far away, and you were not an onlooker as the incident took place, so why have you fabricated a text and made specious accusations? Reason demands that you should be punished for your crime, but in consideration of your sincere feelings for your brother, you are forgiven. Permission is not granted.

Having heard up to this point, Aunt Xue said: ‘Isn’t this a situation that cannot be rescued? How can it be made good?’ Baochai said: ‘I haven’t read to the end of Second Brother’s letter. There is more to follow.’ Therefore, she read aloud once more: ‘There are crucial questions that you should ask the bearer of the letter in order to become aware of.’

5 Lady Wang 珙뤼훙. Jia Baoyu 賈寶玉. 寶玉: jewel – jade.

6 Xue Baochai 薛寶釵. 寶釵: jewel – hairpin.

7 Xue Baochai 薛寶釵. 寶釵: jewel – hairpin.

8 Li Xiang 李祥. : auspicious.

9 Wu Liang 吳良. : good.

10 Third Zhang 張三.

11 Western Capital 西京. This appellation usually refers to Xi’an, but this city does not fit the context, so it is unclear which place the text indicates.

Aunt Xue then asked the person who had come with the letter. He spoke thus: ‘In the ranks of county officialdom, there have long since been those who are aware of the abundance of our family’s wealth. You will have to scheme to acquire grace and favour in the capital and present a great gift, and then a retrial could take place, and a lighter sentence be passed. Supreme Lady will have to act quickly this time, for, if there is delay, Master will probably suffer torture.’ Aunt Xue listened and had the manservant take his leave, and went immediately to the Jia family residence to outline the situation from beginning to end to Lady Wang and beseech the help of Jia Zheng. Jia Zheng was only willing to have someone speak on their behalf to the head of the county administration but unwilling to put any silver on the table. Aunt Xue thought that he was probably no use at all, so she requested Sister Feng [Jia Lian’s wife]12 and Jia Lian [a younger member of the family of the same generation as Jia Baoyu] to make the move and speak for them. After several thousand tael of silver had been spent, the head of the county administration was bought over.

Xue Ke for his part and in situ had also smoothed everything over. After that, the head of the county administration hung out his badge of office and presided over the courtroom, and a whole array of neighbours, witnesses, and relatives of the victim were assembled, all present and correct, and Xue Pan was brought forth from prison. The clerk of the criminal department called a roll that listed them one by one. The head of the county administration then summoned an officer to state clearly the original confession. He then summoned the relative of the victim Mrs Zhang Wang13 and the uncle of the victim Second Zhang14 to submit to questioning. Mrs Zhang Wang wept as she reported: ‘Your humble servant’s husband was called Big Zhang,15 and he lived in a southern locality and died in the eighteenth year [of the reign of an emperor]. His eldest son and second son also died. The only one left was the son who died here, and he was called Third Zhang, was 23 years old, and had not yet taken a wife. Because your humble servant’s house is poor, and there were no means to support it, he took a job as a waiter in the Li family restaurant. At noon that day, the Li family restaurant sent a man to get me to come over who said: “Your son has been hit and killed by someone.” Your Honour of the Azure Heaven my Benefactor! Your humble servant almost died a death of shock! I ran over there and saw that my son had had his head broken, blood was pouring out, and he was lying on the ground gasping. He couldn’t speak in answer to any questions, and after a while he died. Your humble servant would like to get hold of this bastard and fight him to the death!’ The assembled officers of the yamen called out a command, and Mrs Zhang Wang kowtowed and said: ‘I beseech Your Honour of the Azure Heaven to clean off the stain of this wrongful act! Your humble servant had only this son.’

The head of the county administration then called: ‘Stand down.’ He also summoned the proprietor of the Li family restaurant and asked him: ‘This fellow, Third Zhang, was he a hired hand at your restaurant?’ Second Li16 answered: ‘He wasn’t a hired hand, he was a waiter.’ The head of the county administration said: ‘That day, at the scene of the murder, you have said that Xue Pan took a bowl and smashed Third Zhang with it and that is how he died. Did you see it with your own eyes?’ Second Li said: ‘Your humble servant was at the counter and heard that in the restaurant someone was requesting wine, and a short while later, I heard someone say: “Oh how terrible! Someone has been hit and injured!” Your humble servant ran into the restaurant and saw Third Zhang lying on the floor, and he couldn’t speak at all. I called an officer of the watch and at the same time went to tell his mother. How they had actually come to blows, I simply do not know; I beseech Your Worship to ask those drinking wine and then you would know.’ The head of the county administration bellowed: ‘In your first deposition following interrogation, you said that you had seen the incident with your own eyes. How can you now say that you had not seen it!’ Second Li said: ‘That day, your humble servant was still in a state of shock and was talking nonsense.’

The yamen officer called out a command once more. The head of the county administration then summoned Wu Liang and asked him: ‘Were you drinking wine together at the same place? How did Xue Pan strike? Make your deposition truthfully!’ Wu Liang said: ‘Your humble servant was at home that day, and good Master Xue here invited me to drink some wine with him. He was disappointed that the wine was of poor quality and wanted it changed, but Third Zhang was not willing to do so. Master Xue became angry and splashed wine on his face, and I don’t know how it happened, but his head ended up being hit. That is what I saw with my own eyes.’ The head of the county administration said: ‘Stuff and nonsense; that day at the scene of the murder, Xue Pan himself admitted that he had taken a bowl and smashed him with it causing death. You said that you had seen it with your own eyes. How is it that your deposition today does not match? Hit him across the face!’ The yamen officer received the order and prepared to strike. Wu Liang, begging for mercy, said: ‘Pan Xue had not in fact got into a fight with Third Zhang. The wine bowl slipped from his hand and hit his head. I beseech Your Honour to ask Xue Pan and show me your gracious mercy!’

12 Sister Feng 鳳姐兒. : cock phoenix; is a suffix that implies a diminutive and is usually used in conjunction with this lady’s name. Jia Lian 賈璉. : a jade vessel used in sacrificial ceremonies at the ancestral temple.

13 Mrs Zhang Wang 張王氏. The first character [Zhang] is her husband’s surname, the second character [Wang] is her father’s surname, and the third indicates her relationships to individuals of these surnames and is translated here as ‘Mrs’. 14 Second Zhang 張二.

15 Big Zhang 大張.

16 Second Li 李二.

The head of the county administration summoned Xue Pan and asked him: ‘What exactly caused the enmity between you and Third Zhang? How did he actually die? Make a truthful confession.’ Xue Pan said: ‘Begging Your Worshipful Honour to look on me with benevolence, your humble servant did not, in truth, strike him, but because he was unwilling to exchange the wine I took the wine and poured it on the ground. But involuntarily my hand slipped for a moment, and the wine bowl accidentally hit his head. Your humble servant tried immediately to stop the bleeding, but who would have thought it, the flow could not be stemmed and instead increased, and after a while he died. That day at the scene of the incident, I was afraid that Your Worshipful Honour would have me beaten, so I said that I had taken the bowl and smashed him with it. I only beg that Your Worshipful Honour will look upon me with benevolence!’ The head of the county administration bellowed: ‘What addle-headed fool is this! The county administrator asks you how you struck him, and you confessed that it was after a dispute about not changing the wine that you struck him. Today you change your story that your hand slipped and that was how he was hit!’ The head of the county administration put on a great show of the power at his disposal and wanted beatings and thumbscrews. Xue Pan bit his lip and held to his story. The head of the county administration summoned the pathologist: ‘Make a full and truthful report of the report you filled in regarding the wounds received at the scene of the murder that day.’ The pathologist made his report, saying: ‘On that day, I examined Third Zhang’s body and found that there was no mark of injury on it, except for his forehead where there was a wound caused by a china vessel, one cun inch and seven fen cents long, and five cents deep; the skin was broken and the skull on the forehead was fractured, with a crack of three cents. The wound was caused by a blow.’

The head of the county administration examined the pathologist’s report and found it to be in accordance with what had just been said. He had known all along that the clerk had changed the facts to reduce the level of injury caused, and he did not refute them and in the confusion that ensued, called for signatures of the verdict to be signed. Mrs Zhang Wang wept and shouted: ‘Your Honour of the Azure Heaven! Some days ago, we heard that there were many more wounds; how is it that today there is nothing?’ The head of the county administration said: ‘This woman is talking nonsense! We have here the pathologist’s report; do you not know?’ The uncle of the deceased, Second Zhang, was summoned and asked: ‘On your nephew’s dead body, do you know how many places he was wounded?’ Second Zhang made his deposition quickly: ‘On his head there was a wound.’ The head of the county administration said: ‘As has already been said.’ And he had the clerk take the pathologist’s report over to Mrs Zhang Wang so she could peruse it and had the court officer and the uncle of the victim indicate carefully so she could see. There were signatures of those at the scene of the incident and witness statements. All the depositions indicated that there had been no fight and no beating whatsoever and urged that signatures according to a verdict of accidental injury should be signed, and that Xue Pan should be imprisoned awaiting a detailed review of the case. The original guarantors were then ordered to lead the accused out, and the court was adjourned. Mrs Zhang Wang wept and shouted in a disorderly manner, so the head of the county administration had the assembled officers eject her from the building. Second Zhang advised Mrs Zhang Wang, saying: ‘Given a verdict of accidental injury, how can he still stand accused? Now that His Worshipful Honour has passed a clear judgment in accordance with the evidence, don’t cause any more trouble.’

When Xue Ke, who was outside, made his enquiries and was apprised of the situation, he felt a happiness well up in his heart, so he dispatched a servant back home to deliver a letter, waiting for the detailed judgment before returning himself, thinking it better also that a show of contrition was called for, and so he settled down to wait for a letter in reply. At that juncture, by the wayside, he heard knots of people gathered in twos and threes passing on news: ‘One of the high-ranking imperial concubines has passed away, and the emperor has suspended court for three days.’ As the place where they were was not far from the imperial tombs, the head of the county administration organised a workforce to re-lay the roadways, and, as could be imagined, for a while had not time to attend to other matters, so, given that staying here was unlikely to benefit matters, Xu Ke surmised that it would be better to go to the prison and tell his brother: ‘Wait here with a peaceful heart; I am going back home now and will return in a few days.’

Xue Pan was afraid that his mother might be distressed, so he asked for a message to be taken to her that said: ‘I am quite alright and there is nothing to worry about. I just have to pay fees to the yamen a few times before I can return home. Please don’t be too fond of all this silver money.’ Xue Ke left Li Xiang there to look after anything that arose and went straight back home. When he saw Aunt Xue, he gave a full account of the head of the county administration’s nefarious behaviour: how he had tried and judged the case, and eventually delivered a verdict of accidental injury: ‘If in the future the relatives of the victim choose to slip some silver themselves, then once allowance for contrition has been made, the matter will be over.’ When Aunt Xue had heard what was said, for the time being, she felt her heart was eased and said: ‘Our hope is that you will come into the household once more and look after its affairs. I should offer my thanks and leave the Jia family residence, and besides, the imperial concubine Zhou has passed away, so the members of the household are in and out of court, and the residence is completely empty. I think I should go to Aunt Supreme Lady’s place and look after them there and be a good companion; it is just that there is no one in our house; if you were to come here, all would be well.’

Xue Ke said: ‘I’ve been away and when I was there, I heard it said that the imperial concubine of the Jia17 family had passed away, and it was because of this that I hurried back. She was as fit as a fiddle, so how is it that she has died?’ Aunt Xue said: ‘Originally, she had suffered a bout of ill health last year but had recovered. This time, I haven’t heard it said what illness she had, but simply news that, in the residence, Venerable Supreme Lady had been feeling extremely unwell for several days, and she closed her eyes and saw Imperial Princess Lady Yuan,18 and no one was able to stop worrying until enquiries had been made and nothing was found to be amiss. In the evening three days ago, Venerable Supreme Lady said: “How has Princess Yuan managed to come here alone?” Everyone could only say that these were words that had been thought in an illness, and none should be trusted. Venerable Supreme Lady further said: “You don’t believe me; Princess Yuan also spoke with me thus: ‘Magnificence and lustrousness are easily dimmed; retreat and extracting oneself must be accomplished.’” Everyone then said: “Who has not had these thoughts? These are the ramblings back and forth of a mind of someone of advanced age thinking of issues deep in their heart.” And therefore no one gave the matter any weight.

‘It so happened that the next day from early in the morning onwards, a tremendous commotion was taking place. They were saying that the Princess Lady was seriously ill and that a proclamation had been issued for them to come to court and offer solicitous goodwill. Extremely surprised and suspicious, they hurried there. They had not yet emerged when it had already been heard in the household that the imperial concubine Zhou had passed away. Who would have thought that rumour from outside and doubtful hearts inside the household had, by coincidence, hit the same spot; is this or is this not peculiar?’ Baochai said: ‘Regardless of whether it’s crisscrossing rumours from outside, as long as the two characters “Princess Lady”19 are mentioned, then everyone becomes extremely agitated, and only later does the truth emerge. These last couple of days in the residence, the maidservants and serving women came to tell us that they knew early on that it was not the Princess Lady of our family. I said: “How can you be quite so sure?” She [a maidservant or serving woman] said: “A few years ago in the first month of the year, a fortune teller was recommended by some people of another province, who was said to be very accurate in his predictions. Venerable Supreme Lady had someone take the eight characters of Princess Yuan’s name and birthday and mix them with eight characters from the names and birthdays of some of the maidservants and sent them out to him for him to tell their fortunes. Of his own volition, he simply said: ‘The young lady who was born on the first day of the first month of the year has probably had the hour of her birth given incorrectly, otherwise she would truly be an aristocrat and would not have a residence such as this as her abode.’ The Master and everyone else said: ‘Never mind whether it is a mistake or not, tell her fortune according to the eight characters.’ That gentleman then said: ‘The jiashen [21st甲申] year, the first month, the bingyin [third 丙寅] day. In these four characters are the meanings “injure official” and “decay money”. Only the character carries the meaning “upright official” of the favourable “salary-horse” divination; this means that the household cannot be sustained economically, and no positive outlook is to be envisaged. These days are represented by yimao [52 乙卯] and, in early spring, “wood” is in the ascendency, and although this is “shoulder-to-shoulder” [比肩], how can it be known that the more , the better; just like good-quality timber, the more it undergoes chopping and planing, the more can it be fashioned into fine implements. The only cheerful aspect is that the fifth Heavenly Stem and “metal” [of the five elements] are valuable; in the fourth Earthly Branch , only “upright official” of the favourable “salary-horse” divination is in the ascendency; this is called “flying-heaven-salary-horse-pattern”.’ And he also said: ‘The daily accumulation of “specialist salary” is extremely valuable. “The two moralities of Heaven and the moon” are seated on the Heavenly Stem and Earthly Branch of the year of birth, which make it valuable to receive the favours bestowed in the pepper chamber [of love]. This girl, if the hour of her birth were accurate, would most definitely be the princess of a powerful patron.’

“Was this fortune not told with accuracy? We also remember that it was said: ‘Unfortunately, the magnificence and lustrousness will not last long, and probably when the mao 卯month of the yin 寅year is encountered, there will be 比 [“next to”] and also 比, 劫 [“calamity”] and also 劫; just like good-quality wood: if it is used to make objects that are too exquisitely intricate and of carven lattice, then its original quality is no longer as resilient.’” They had all forgotten these words, as they were only concerned with going blindly about their everyday business. When I thought of them, I brought them to the attention of our Great Lady [Mother Jia]. This year, when is the mao month of the yin year?’ Baochai had not yet finished her narration when Xue Ke anxiously interposed: ‘Don’t you go paying attention to matters that concern someone else. Given that we have this fortune teller of the Heavenly Immortals, I am thinking, this year, by which evil star has Elder Brother had his fate illuminated to have suffered this disaster? Quickly, set forth his eight characters, and I’ll have his fortune foretold and see if there are any obstacles.’ Baochai said: ‘The fortune teller came from another province, and I don’t know whether he’ll be in the capital again this year.’ So saying, she took Aunt Xue with her and went to the Jia residence.

17 Jia .

18 Imperial Princess Lady Yuan 元妃娘娘. Her original name was Jia Yuanchun 賈元春, and she was the daughter of Jia Zheng and Lady Wang; she had been admitted into the imperial entourage as a concubine. 元春: first – spring.

19 Princess Lady 娘娘.

Having got there, only Li Wan20 [one of the older generation of the extended family] and Tanchun21 [a daughter of Jia Zheng] and the others were at home to receive them, and they asked: ‘How did the matter concerning the Master go?’ Aunt Xue answered: ‘It awaits a detailed review by a higher court, but it looks like it is not so serious as to be a capital offence.’ Only on hearing this was the family able to ease the anxiety in their hearts. Tanchun then said: ‘Yesterday, Supreme Lady [Mother Jia] was thinking and said: “Last time there was a family matter of importance to attend to, it all depended on the Aunt Supreme Lady’s [Aunt Xue] intervention. This time, it is she who has an issue that requires attention, so it will indeed be difficult to bring the case to a resolution,” and she was unable to quell the unease in her heart.’ Aunt Xue said: ‘When I was waiting at home, I had also felt bad about it. It was just that when your Elder Brother had met with this misfortune, your Second Brother had also gone away to deal with the business, and at home there was only you, Elder Sister [Li Wan], so what use could I be? And besides, the young women of our family are not knowledgeable regarding how to manage matters, so I could not take myself out of my environment and come over and lend assistance. In these last few days, because the head of the county administration was busy preparing errands connected to the matter of the imperial concubine Zhou, he had no choice but to conclude the case, so your Second Brother has returned, and I was able, at last, to come over and pay a visit.’ Li Wan then said: ‘Aunt Supreme Lady, why not live with us for a few days, wouldn’t that be even better?’ Aunt Xue nodded her head and said: ‘I would also like to be here to be a companion for you and your sisters – of you, only Sister Bao[chai] is sufficiently calm and dispassionate.’ Xichun22 [a younger sister of Tanchun] said: ‘If Auntie is anxious about this, why doesn’t she invite Sister Bao over here too?’ Aunt Xue, laughing, said: ‘That’s not possible.’ Xichun said: ‘What do you mean, that’s not possible? How was it she was able to come over and live here before?’ Li Wan said: ‘You don’t understand. At present, there are serious matters afoot in her family, so how could she come?’ Xichun trusted that this was so and for this reason did not ask any more questions.

While they were conversing, Mother Jia and the others returned, and when they saw Aunt Xue they didn’t take the trouble to indulge in pleasantries but asked immediately after the matter pertaining to Xue Pan. Aunt Xue recounted it in detail from beginning to end. Listening on one side, when Baoyu heard the section of the narrative relating to Yiang Yuhan, he did not ask any questions in front of the others, but in his heart he pondered: ‘Given that he has returned to the capital, why did he not come to find me?’ And when they saw that Baoyu had not come across to join them, they wondered what the reason for this was. Deep in his heart, he was thinking about this in a daze when at that moment Daiyu23 [one of the main female protagonists of The Dream of the Red Chamber] came over to pay respectful greetings to the elders present. Baoyu felt a ripple of pleasure course through his heart, which interrupted his thoughts regarding Baochai, so he ate his dinner with the young sisters at the Venerable Supreme Lady’s quarters. Everyone then went their own ways, and Aunt Xue stayed the night in Venerable Supreme Lady’s suite.

Baoyu returned to his rooms and changed his clothes, and suddenly thought of the belt that Jiang Yuhan had given to him, and so he said to Xiren24 [one of the maidservants]: ‘The belt that you did not tie that year, do you still have it?’ Xiren said: ‘I have put it away; why are you asking about it?’ Baoyu said: ‘I am just asking.’ Xiren said: ‘Didn’t you hear how Master Xue got into an almighty kerfuffle with those good-for-nothings that almost cost him his life; what are you bringing this up for? You are just worrying yourself to no good end, and it would be better for you to get on with your studies, calmly and quietly, and put such non-urgent matters to one side.’ Baoyu said: ‘I am certainly not making a fuss about anything and just thought of it on the spur of the moment; I’m easy either way whatever the outcome. I was simply asking a question of no consequence whatsoever, and you come out with this retort.’ Xiren laughed and said: ‘It is not that I am poking my nose into where it doesn’t belong. If a person is knowledgeable of books and well-versed in the rites, he should be seeking to ingratiate himself with his superiors. And even if the love of your life were to come, you should just have her look on you with liking and respect.’ Baoyu was pricked by Xiren’s remarks and so he said: ‘Amazing! Just now when I was with the Venerable Supreme Lady, seeing that there were many people there, I didn’t engage in conversation with Sister Lin [Daiyu], and she took no notice of me either. And when we dispersed, she was the first to leave. At the moment, she’ll be in in her room, and if I went there, she would come and greet me.’ So saying, he left. Xiren said: ‘Come back quickly. This was only me taking the initiative just to make you happy.’

20 Li Wan 李紈. : a type of fine silk.

21 Jia Tanchun 賈探春. 探春: explore – spring.

22 Jia Xichun 賈惜春. 惜春: regret – spring.

23 Lin Daiyu 林黛玉. 黛玉: black eyebrow mascara – jade.

24 Xiren 襲人: literally, ‘assail – person’; here it is her goodness that floods forth like a flower’s perfume and ‘assails’ those around her.

Baoyu did not make an answer, and he bowed his head and went straight to the Xiaoxiang25 rooms [where Lin Daiyu lived]. He saw Daiyu leaning against a table reading a book. Baoyu walked over and placed himself in front of her and, smiling, said: ‘Younger Sister has come back early.’ Daiyu also smiled and said: ‘You ignored me, so what was there for me to do there?’ Baoyu both smiled and said: ‘There were so many of them all talking together that I couldn’t get a word in edgeways, and so I didn’t exchange words with you,’ and he looked at the book Daiyu was reading and could not recognise any of the characters on the page. Some of them resembled the character and others resembled the character ; and there was also a character next to which the character had a hook-stroke added, and in the middle was placed a character ; and there were also the characters and above which were added the character and under which was also the character . He looked at them and felt both strange and puzzled, so he said: ‘Recently, Younger Sister has become ever more erudite and has begun to read the Books of Heaven.’26 Daiyu let out the sound ‘chi’ in laughter and said: ‘You call yourself a literate person, but you haven’t ever even seen a qin score.’ Baoyu said: ‘How could I not know it was a qin score? But why don’t I recognise any of the characters on it? Little Sister, do you recognise them?’ Daiyu said: ‘If I didn’t recognise them, why would I be looking at them?’ Baoyu said: ‘I don’t believe you. I have never heard it said that you could play the qin. In our study are several of them hung up. A year or two ago, a gentleman who was proficient in music and connected to the household came here. His name was Ji Haogu,27 and Master troubled him to play a piece, so he took down a qin but said it could not be played and added: “If Venerable Gentleman is so inclined, I could come on another day with my own qin and take instruction from you.” Thinking that our Venerable Master did not understand the qin, he didn’t come again. How is that you have these hidden talents?’

Daiyu said: ‘How could it possibly be that I really knew how to play? A couple of days ago, I felt a little better, so I took to browsing the books along the longer shelves, and, seeing a set of musical scores, felt especially attracted by their refinement. First, they gave lucid exposition of the rationale behind the qin, and then they made the fingering clear. It really was a skill that the ancients used for calming their hearts and cultivating their character. When I was in Yangzhou, I became an expert listener and had once studied to play myself, but I am out of practice, so it has all come to nothing. This is indeed the so-called: “After not playing for three days, my fingers have grown thistles and thorns.” These last few days, I have read several essays, but they did not contain musical notation, only the titles of the pieces. Looking in another place, I then found a book that had notation in it and became interested on reading it. After all, how to play well is, in reality, truly difficult. The books say that when Shi Kuang28 [an ancient player] played the qin, it brought thunder, wind, dragons and phoenixes. The Great Sage Confucius had once studied the qin with Shi Xiang,29 and no sooner was a piece played than it was evident it represented Wen, the ruler of Zhou.30 In the high mountains and flowing waters, a true friend who understands one’s music is found.’ When she had said this last remark, her eyelids fluttered slightly, and she slowly bowed her head.

Baoyu listened with great excitement and said: ‘My good Little Sister, what you are saying is truly interesting. It is just that I saw the characters on the page and didn’t recognise them. Could you teach some of them to me?’ Daiyu said: ‘There is no need for them to be taught. They are very intuitive and just need to be said in order to know what they mean.’ Baoyu said: ‘I am an ignoramus: you need to teach me that character with an additional hook-stroke on it and in the middle of which is the character .’ Daiyu smiled and said: ‘This and this mean use the thumb of the left hand to press the string at the ninth node of vibration. This with an additional means that the right hand is to hook [] the fifth string, and it isn’t a character, it is a sound; it really is very easy to understand. There are also the methods of playing: moan, rub, snatch, gather, strike, walk, fly, push31 and so on, which pay attention to the methods of plucking with the hands.’ Baoyu was so overjoyed that he could not restrain his hands and feet from dancing around: ‘Good Little Sister; since you are so evidently knowledgeable of qin lore, could we not study together?’

Daiyu said: ‘“The qin is to constrain oneself.”32 According to the system of the ancients, it evolved from controlling one’s body, nourishing and cultivating character and mood, suppressing vagrant desires, eliminating luxurious excess. If you want to play the qin, you must select a quiet room or a lofty studio, maybe on the top of a many-storied tower, maybe inside a forest of stones, maybe on a mountain peak, maybe on the water’s margins. And on encountering a time when Heaven and Earth are pure and in harmony, and the wind is keen and the moon is lustrous, burning incense and silently seated, and when in one’s mind there are no dispersed thoughts, when breath and blood are in harmony and equilibrium, only then can the spirits be made harmonious with the soul, and the Way be made harmonious with the ingenious. So the ancients said: “Someone who knows one’s music is hard to encounter.” If there is no one who knows my music, I would rather play for a while in solitariness to the keen wind and the bright moon, to the dark-green pines and the strange stones, and to the wild apes and the old cranes, and project my emotions onto them, so as not to disappoint this qin.

‘There is also another level. The fingering should be judicious and likewise tone production, and if there is a necessity to play the qin, then first garments and headgear must be tidy and complete, whether robes are made of the down of cranes or are the deeper clothes of office, they should be in appearance like to the ancients, and only then can the qin be called the instrument of the sages. After that, the hands should be washed and incense burnt, and only then can one’s body be allowed to approach the edge of the mat, and the qin placed on its support. Seated next to the fifth node of vibration, directly opposite the centre of one’s torso, both hands lifted in a cool and poised manner, this then is when the mind and body are both in rectitude. Knowledge is also required of the light and the heavy, the fast and the slow, the curled and the extended freely manipulated, and with posture and attitude solemnly respectful, then all can be well.’ Baoyu said: ‘We are studying for our amusement; if we pay the matter such close attention, everything becomes difficult.’

25 Xiaoxiang 瀟湘. The name is a citation from ancient texts and refers to celebrated women renowned for their beauty and femininity.

26 Books of Heaven 天書.

27 Ji Haogu 嵇好古. The surname cites the celebrated ancient qin player Ji Kang 嵇康 (224–263 or 223–262); 好古: likes – ancient.

28 Shi Kuang 師曠 (dates uncertain, spring and autumn period).

29 Shi Xiang 師襄.

30 Wen, the ruler of Zhou 周文王 (c.1152–c.1056 BCE).

31 Respectively: 吟、揉、綽、注、撞、走、飛、推.

32 This is an ancient quotation and the sources from which it is derived are numerous.

The two of them were speaking to one another when they saw Zijuan33 [a maidservant] come in, who saw Baoyu and, smiling, said: ‘Second Master Bao appears to be so happy today!’ Baoyu laughed and said: ‘Listening to Younger Sister’s fastidiousness has allowed the rays of enlightenment suddenly to shine, so the more I listened, the more I loved to listen.’ Zijuan said: ‘Not this happiness; I am talking of Second Master coming here to us.’ Baoyu said: ‘Recently, Little Sister has been feeling unwell, and I was afraid that I would annoy her. And besides, I am also going about my studies, so I will appear more distant.’ Zijuan did not wait for him to finish before saying: ‘My lady is also of good appearance. Second Master, put like this: sitting here, you ought to let my lady rest herself; don’t have her belabour herself by being fastidious.’ Baoyu smiled and said: ‘I was only paying attention to my love of listening to her and forgot that Little Sister might be belabouring herself.’ Daiyu laughed and said: ‘Speaking like this opens my heart in happiness and is not belabouring me in the slightest. I am only afraid that I am simply paying attention to speaking, and you are simply paying attention to not understanding.’ Baoyu said: ‘Either way, slowly I will come naturally to an understanding.’

So saying, he stood up and said: ‘Let’s really let Little Sister rest herself. Tomorrow, I will tell Third Little Sister and Fourth Little Sister to come here and have them all begin learning the qin so that I can listen.’ Daiyu laughed and said: ‘You really are keen to enjoy yourself. Even if everyone learnt how to play the qin, if you didn’t understand it, this would be wrong…’ When Daiyu had reached this point, she thought of something that was on her mind and sucked back her words and was unwilling to speak further. Baoyu then, smiling, said: ‘As long as you are all able to play, I would love to listen, and regardless of whether I am or not a “cow”.’34 Daiyu blushed and smiled, and Zijuan and Xueyan35 [another maidservant] also both smiled.

Thereupon he went out of the door and saw Qiuwen36 [one of Baoyu’s maidservants] leading a maidservant and carrying a small bowl of orchids, and she said: ‘At Supreme Lady’s place, someone had sent four bowls of orchids. Because there were serious matters going on there, she had no time to appreciate them, so she had me give Second Master a bowl, and Lady Lin [Daiyu] a bowl.’ When Daiyu looked, truly, there were several branches with pairs of buds, and suddenly her heart lurched, not knowing whether in happiness or sorrow, and she stared blankly at them in a daze. At that moment, Baoyu’s heart was entirely engrossed with the qin, and he said: ‘As Little Sister now has some orchids, she could play the Blossoming Orchids Piece.’37 Daiyu heard this, and instead her heart felt uncomfortable. On returning to her room, looking at the flowers, she thought: ‘The grasses and trees in the spring, their flowers are fresh and their leaves luxuriant; thinking that I am still young, I am like the purple willow in the third month of autumn. If there are fruits and they could grow freely in their own way, they might perhaps gradually flourish. Otherwise, they will probably be like the flowering willow in the last gasp of spring; how can it resist being pressed by the wind and driven by the rain.’ By the time her thought had reached this point, she could not prevent teary droplets from falling once more. Zijuan, next to her, could see this scene as it was unfolding, but could not work out the reason why: ‘Just now, Baoyu was so happy here, and now just looking carefully at the flowers, how can her heart have become so wounded once more?’ Just as she was worried that she would not be able to advise and sooth, she saw that Baochai had dispatched someone over. And if you do not yet know what the issue was, it will be explained in the next chapter.

33 Zijuan 紫鵑: purple – cuckoo.

34 This usage paraphrases the four-character set phrase ‘like playing a qin to cows’ 對牛彈琴, which describes the sensation of saying something to someone who is incapable of understanding, just as no matter how you play a qin to cows, they do not respond.

35 Xueyan 雪雁: snow – goose.

36 Qiuwen 秋紋: autumn – pattern.

37 Blossoming Orchids Piece《猗蘭操》.

About the Author: Dr Colin Huehns studied violin with Emanuel Hurwitz. His first experience in music from outside the Western Classical tradition came at King’s College, Cambridge, when he wrote a dissertation on the music of Hunza Valley and Gilgit, Pakistan, an interest which culminated in a PhD thesis awarded by Cambridge University for “Music in Northern Pakistan” in 1992.

He studied composition at the Royal Academy of Music and has remained active as a composer. Following a three-year British Academy Research Fellowship at Cambridge, Colin spent three years as a student at the Xi’an Music Conservatoire, studying the erhu with the distinguished virtuoso Jin Wei.

Since returning to the UK in 1999, he has taught electives in non-Western, traditional, and folk music at the Academy. He has also taught electives, which include learning the erhu, and Chinese and British members of the dulcimer family. As well as continuing to play the viol, viola, violin, rebec, Renaissance fiddle, and various dulcimers, his main teaching, research, performance, and composition interests now centre on his Chinese instruments, which include some 20 different members of the erhu, yangqin, and Mongolian horsehead fiddle families.

Colin’s erhu performances have included recitals in Munich, Leeds, Cambridge and Edinburgh, but he is particularly proud of having recorded two CDs of erhu music written especially for him.