In Search of the Music of The Dream of the Red Chamber: Chapter 87

Colin Huehns | December 2022 | London


The authorship of the later chapters of The Dream of the Red Chamber is a matter for fierce debate. At the opening of Chapter 87 reference is made to a set of poems composed and quoted in full in Chapter 38 (to be published in a future edition of Vantage). The citations are exact and the whole effect is to unify both chapters into a single narrative. Whoever wrote Chapter 87 certainly had Chapter 38 in front of him when he penned his text.

The same spread of characters is still present in Chapter 87, but we sense more unease underneath their relationships. Darker forces are at work, minds are preoccupied with unsettled thoughts, and their conversations seem more barbed than those of the hedonist atmosphere of earlier parts of the novel. The literary style is also more complex and dwells more on psychological interactions than sumptuous description. In this context, the qin zither, as a vehicle for communing with and revealing the inner self, is a perfect rhetorical device and deployed in a timely and effective fashion.

Coming directly after Chapter 86 (published in a previous edition of Vantage), in which Daiyu1 (one of the principal female protagonists of The Dream of the Red Chamber) outlines the philosophy of the qin in detail, Chapter 87 includes her performance on the instrument itself as she strokes the strings in search of solace. It is as if the theory that she expounded in Chapter 86 is fully realised in practice in Chapter 87. The account includes two named qin pieces and description of the customary process of combining already existing qin music with new poetic composition into an elegant and refined musical whole. Later, Baoyu2 (the principal male protagonist of the novel) and Miaoyu3 (a nun) listen to her playing from outside her window. The emotion that she projects infects them – a “projection effect” that is itself a classical facet of the qin ethos and perhaps best understood as a private and cathartic release of feelings immediately perceived by an informed listener. Miaoyu is, moreover, sufficiently sophisticated that she notices the rhyme schemes implicit in Daiyu’s sung text, and her knowledge even extends to tuning and mode and their emotional impact.

A string snaps, and Miaoyu immediately perceives it as a portend of impending catastrophe. So too, the breaking of the Rope of Destiny as woven by the three Norns, daughters of Erda, the Goddess of Nature, at the opening to Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. Unable to bear the implications, Miaoyu leaves immediately to take solace in chan meditation.

Wagner’s is a melodramatic tale of gods and heroes, but The Dream of the Red Chamber is embedded in a much more recognisable humankind and their muddle-headed preoccupations. Miaoyu’s obsession with chan meditation does her no good, however, and the author lampoons this in a passage that recounts her psychosis that follows. Never fully recovered, her life lurches on, just as do all those in the novel. Perhaps Xichun with her studied analysis of weiqi4 stratagems at the close of the chapter has the best answer to the impending doom that awaits.

Her whole name is Lin Daiyu 林黛玉. “Lin” 林 is the surname and “Daiyu” 黛玉 is the given name. In this translation, surnames and given names are separated respectively as two distinct words. Most given names consist of two characters or syllables, though some have only one. Although the characters that comprise surnames carry meaning in other contexts, they rarely do when used simply as surnames and so are not translated. The characters of given names are, however, chosen for their meaning. Here, 黛玉: black eyebrow mascara – jade.

Jia Baoyu 賈寶玉寶玉: jewel – jade.

Miaoyu 妙玉: excellent – jade. This is not her original name but one she took on when becoming a nun.

Weiqi 圍棋, a board game that is sometimes translated as “Go”.

Chapter 87

Affected by autumn sounds, stroking qin strings, sorrowful of things past

In the quietude of chan meditation, walking on fire, the entrance of the deviant demon [suffering from psychosis caused by excessive chan meditation]

And besides, it is said, the serving woman whom Daiyu had asked to go to Baochai’s5 [another of the principal female protagonists] home had come back, and after offering felicitous salutations she presented a letter; Daiyu had her go and drink some tea as a refreshment. When Daiyu opened the letter from Baochai, she saw that the following had been written:

The calendrical Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches of the day your younger sister was born have cast an inauspicious lot, and her family’s fate has been extremely harsh; her sisters, whether older or younger, are alone and enfeebled, and her mother is in her fading and weakening years; and moreover, curses and derision, like tigers roaring and dogs whining, have not ceased morning, noon, and night; and still more, she has suffered cruel calamity and deadly disaster, not simply as if startled by the wind or drenched by torrential rain. Tossing and turning in the depths of the night, how is this anxious mood to be endured! Those whose hearts beat together with mine, could they not extend their mercifulness in my direction? Recalling the poetry circle of the flowering crab apple tree that we formed in the season of crystalline late autumn, and the poems that were composed, “Towards Chrysanthemums” and “Holding a Crab Pincer” [in joy at eating the delicacy], as we formed our alliance in happiness harmonious, I still remember the lines [of your poem “Asking Chrysanthemums”6 ]: “In solitary demeanour, proud to the world, whom do you accompany in your hermithood? The others have opened their flowers, why are you so late?”7 And I could not help but sigh at their overwhelming fragrance of cold chasteness; such a different person from myself! These emotions in my breast touched my mood, and so I have sketchily penned four stanzas. Let it not be said that this is a bitter plaint of unreason, rather that its meaning is that of a long song couched as weeping.

An evolution into a season of sadness

So too is crystalline late autumn

In the emotional throes of a family beset by disconsolation

Alone am I suffering anxiety

The North Hall was mother’s8

How can sorrow be forgot

With nothing to alleviate the sorrow

My heart is moaning, moaning

Clouds rumbling and roaring

The autumn wind is sour

Walking the Middle Court

The frosty leaves are dry

Whither going, whence coming

Abandoning me, they are happy

With silent words, I think of her

Grieved to my lungs and liver

Let the sturgeon have its pool

Let the cranes their rafter

Those of fishy scales hidden lurk

How splendid the feathered and furred!

Scratching my head in enquiry

A confused and blurry expanse

In high Heaven and deepest earth

Who knows my eternal wounds?

The Milky Way’s bright luminescence

The chill air pierces

The moon’s lustre crosswise slanting

In the jade hourglass, the sand has sunk

An anxious heart of fiery flame

Emits my doleful lament

Lamenting and yet lamenting

Sent to my soul-music friend


Daiyu read it and was wounded to the core; moreover, she thought: “Elder Sister Bao[chai] hasn’t sent this to anyone else and has only sent it to me, so it also has the meaning of ‘one intellect empathising with another’.” Just as she was sighing deeply, she heard that there was someone outside who said: “Is Elder Sister Lin [Daiyu] at home?” At once, Daiyu took Baochai’s letter and folded it up, and then gave voice in answer: “Who is it?” No sooner had she asked than she saw several people came in, and these were Tanchun[a young lady of the Jia household], Xiangyun10 [another young lady and a distant member of the Shi family], Li Wen11 [another young lady], and Li Qi12 [a younger sister of Li Wen]. They offered each other felicitous greetings, and Xueyan13 [one of Daiyu’s maidservants] poured tea, which everyone drank, and they started chatting together.

Because she had called to mind Poems of the Chrysanthemum Flowers14  of yesteryear, Daiyu said: “After Elder Sister Bao had moved out, she found reason to come here on two occasions, but recently, she has simply been too busy and not come at all, and this is truly strange. It seems to me that she has made up her mind never to come here again!” Tanchun smiled and said: “How can she not come again! At any rate, she will want to find good cause to come. It so happens that her respected female in-laws have recently been rather moody, and our Aunt [Xue] is now elderly, to say nothing of the business of Elder Brother Xue,15 so it has naturally fallen to Elder Sister Bao to look after everything. Given all this, how can her skills at writing poetry be compared to those of yesteryear?”

6 “Towards Chrysanthemums” 〈對菊〉 and “Asking Chrysanthemums” 〈問菊〉. These poems are two of a suite of 12 composed in appreciation of chrysanthemums (and titled as such) by members of the circle in Chapter 38. “Holding a Crab Pincer” 〈持螯〉 appears later in the chapter, the first of three untitled poems in appreciation of eating crabs. 持螯 are the first two characters of a little-used four-character chengyu set phrase 把酒持螯 that means “taking – wine – holding – crab pincer” and indicates an event of great happiness, whose origin is the events narrated in Chapter 38. This latter chapter will be published in a future issue of Vantage.

7 Chrysanthemums flower in late autumn.

8 Baochai’s mother is Aunt Xue 薛姨媽, a senior member of the Xue family, one of the principal families in The Dream of the Red Chamber.

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

10 Shi Xiangyun 史湘雲. is a place name and the name of a river. It carries strong classical, poetic, and romantic connotations. The third and fourth poems, often interpreted as love-songs, of the ancient poet Qu Yuan’s 屈原 (c.340–278 BCE) Nine Songs 《九歌》 are respectively titled “The Lord of the Xiang River” 〈湘君〉 and “The Lady of the Xiang River”〈湘夫人〉; : cloud.

11 Li Wen 李紋. : pattern.

12 Li Qi 李綺. : damask.

13 Xueyan 雪雁: snow – goose. Servants do not usually have surnames, so their names are given as one word.

14 “Poems of the Chrysanthemum Flowers”: 《菊花詩》. This term refers to the entire cycle of 12 poems composed in appreciation of chrysanthemums in Chapter 38.

15 Elder Brother Xue 薛大哥. His full name is Xue Pan 薛蟠. The meaning of his given name “Pan” in this context is obscure, but the character is classified by the “insect” radical .

They were just saying this when suddenly they heard hu-la-la the sound of a gust of wind that had blown up a host of fallen leaves that struck the paper window coverings. The wind stopped for a while, and a fresh fragrance penetrated the room. Everyone smelt it and said with one voice: “Where has this fragrant wind come from? What is its fragrance?” Daiyu said: “It smells just like sweet-scented osmanthus.” Tanchun smiled and said: “Elder Sister Lin has never managed to rid herself of the Southern dialect. In the ninth month, how can there possibly be sweet-scented osmanthus?” Daiyu laughed and said: “Absolutely! Otherwise, why did I not say it ‘was’ the fragrance of sweet-scented osmanthus and only that it seemed ‘like’ it.” Xiangyun said: “Third Elder Sister [Tanchun], you shouldn’t have said that! Do you not remember: ‘Lotus flowers for 10 li, sweet-scented osmanthus in the third autumnal month?’ In the South, this would have been the time of the flowering of late sweet-scented osmanthus; it is just that you have never seen them. Wait until you go to the South sometime in the future, and you will naturally become aware of this.” Tanchun smiled and said: “What business could possibly have me go to the South? And besides, this is something that I have known for some time, so there is no need for you all to make such a meal of it.”

Li Wen and Li Qi simply pursed their lips and smiled. Daiyu said: “Younger Sister, this is only saying something in an incomplete fashion. As the saying goes: ‘Mankind is celestial immortals walking on the earth.’ Today here, tomorrow you don’t know where; for example, I was originally from the South, and yet how was it that I ended up here?” Xiangyun clapped her hands and, laughing, said: “Today, Third Elder Sister has been comprehensively trounced by Elder Sister Lin. It’s not just that Elder Sister Lin is someone from the South who has come here, but we ourselves are also different from one another: some were originally Northerners, others had their roots in the South but were brought up in the North, and still others were brought up in the South but came here to the North. Today, we are all gathered in one place, so we can see that everyone has their fate. In general, as far as places and people are concerned, it is always the case that each has their own destiny.” Everyone heard this and nodded their heads, but Tanchun only smiled. They chatted a little more and then dispersed. Daiyu went with them to the gateway to bid them farewell. All said: “Your health has improved at long last, so don’t come out any further or you’ll catch cold.”

Thereupon, Daiyu, talking while she was standing in the gateway, exchanged eager words with the four of them once more and then watched as they left the courtyard. Coming back inside again and sitting down, she could see that the woodland birds were already returning to their roosts in the mountains, and the evening sun was sinking in the west. Because Shi Xiangyun had spoken those words about the South, she thought: “If my father and mother were still with us… the landscape of the South with its spring flowers and autumn moon, waters fine and mountains bright, the 24 bridges of Yangzhou, and remnant reminders of the Six Dynasties; with many servants in attendance and a latitude in all aspects of behaviour, and also no words that need be avoided. Regarding matters of etiquette like the fragrant carriage and painted pleasure boat, the red apricot and green curtain, only I respect these. These days, now that I am living on someone else’s patch, even if a lot of concern is shown for me, I still have to be careful in all respects. What sins did I commit in a past life for me to be so lonely and desolate in this one! Truly is it as the emperor-poet Li Houzhu said: ‘These days, I can only wash my face in tears.’” While engrossed in her thoughts, she was unconscious and unaware of whither her spirit had travelled.

Zijuan [a maidservant] walked over and, seeing the situation, thought that it must have been that the talk just now of the South and North had momentarily touched a sore spot in Daiyu’s heart, and so she asked: “You young ladies were speaking together for quite some time, and thinking that you will have tired yourself out once more, I had Xueyan tell the kitchens just now to prepare a bowl of ham and cabbage soup, and to add some dried shrimps to it and garnish it with celery lettuce and purple seaweed. Do you think that this would be good?” Daiyu said: “It’ll be alright.” Zijuan said: “They have also boiled up some glutinous rice porridge.” Daiyu nodded her head and said: “The porridge must be made by the two of you yourselves and not in the kitchens for all to be well.” Zijuan said: “I too am worried that it would be prepared in an unhygienic manner in the kitchens. Let’s make it ourselves. As far as the soup is concerned, I told Xueyan to have a word with Mrs Liu [the chief cook] and have her prepare it more hygienically. Mrs Liu said: When the ingredients had all been added, she would take it into another room and have Wu’er [Mrs Liu’s daughter] watch it simmer.” Daiyu said: “It’s not that I resent her as dirty, it’s just that I’ve been ill for so many days. Insufficient and unprepared, that’s what all she does is. This time, it’s the business of making soup and porridge once more, which rather makes one irritated.”

16 Daiyu uses the term 木樨, Tanchun the term 桂花, hence the dialectical difference. Both refer here to the same plant.

17 The citation comes from the poem “Supreme Scenery of the South-East” 《東南形勝》to the set rhythm and rhyme scheme “Watching the Sea’s Tides” 《望海潮》by Liu Yong 劉永 (984–1053). It describes the West Lake of Hangzhou.

18 Li Houzhu 李後主, also known as Li Yu 李煜 (937–978), a poet and the last ruler of the short-lived Southern Tang dynasty that was overthrown by the Song dynasty. Daiyu’s citation is not found his works but comes instead from Lu You’s 陸游 (1125–1210) novel Avoiding the Summer Heat: Wide-Ranging Jottings《避暑漫抄》that tells of Li Houzhu’s tragic captivity as a deposed emperor in the hands of the newly-established Song dynasty. Daiyu’s citation is not exact and should be: “In these days and nights, I can only wash my face in tears.” “此中日夕只以眼淚洗面。” The original Chinese she cites is: “此閒日中只以眼淚洗面。

19 Zijuan 紫鵑: purple – cuckoo.

20 Mrs Liu 柳嫂.

21 Wu’er 五兒: : five; : a diminutive suffix.

As she was talking, the rims of her eyes reddened again. Zijuan said: “Miss, this talk is a little over the top. You are a granddaughter of Supreme Lady22 and are also dear to Supreme Lady’s heart. Can other people not request grace and favour in front of you, and is this cause to complain?” Daiyu nodded her head and thereupon also asked: “This Wu’er that you are talking about: isn’t she the girl who was in the same place on that day as Fangguan23 [a servant] of the retinue of Second Master Bao[yu]?” Zijuan said: “Yes, it’s her.” Daiyu said: “Haven’t I heard that she would like to come in and live here with us?” Zijuan said: “Yes, but it didn’t happen because she suffered a bout of sickness; later, when she had recovered, she wanted to come in and live here, just at the time when Qingwen24 [another servant in Jia Baoyu’s retinue] and the others were making trouble, which delayed her moving in.” Daiyu said: “I can see that she is a girl with clean hair and a clean face.”

As she was talking, a serving woman brought some soup over from outside. When Xueyan came out to take it, the serving woman said: “Mrs Liu has said to answer the young lady that this was prepared specially by her daughter Wu’er as she didn’t dare prepare it herself in the great kitchen, fearing that the young lady might dislike it as dirty.” Xueyan promised to pass this on and took the soup and brought it inside. Daiyu, who was in the room, had already heard what was said and urged Xueyan: “Tell the serving woman to go back and thank Mrs Liu for having taken the trouble.” Xueyan came out to tell her, and the old serving woman took her leave.

At this juncture, Xueyan took Daiyu’s bowl and chopsticks and placed them safely on a small table; thereupon she asked Daiyu: “There is also the dish ‘five-flavoured turnip’ that comes from our homeland, the South; with sesame seed oil and vinegar mixed in, wouldn’t that be fine?” Daiyu said: “We could do that, but it isn’t necessary for anyone to go to so much trouble;” and without further ado, porridge was ladled out. Daiyu had only finished half the bowl, using a small soupspoon to feed herself two mouthfuls, when she put the bowl down. The two maidservants took the utensils away, wiped the small table clean, and carried it away too, replacing it with the small table that was more usually placed there. Daiyu rinsed out her mouth, washed her hands, and said: “Zijuan, have you topped up the perfumed incense?” Zijuan said: “I am about to go and add some.” Daiyu said: “You should both take the soup and mix it with the porridge and eat it up. Its flavour is good and besides it has been prepared hygienically; let me go myself and top up the perfumed incense.” The two of them agreed with this and went to drink the soup in the antechamber.

Here in the chamber itself, Daiyu filled up the perfumed incense and sat herself down, seeking to take out a book to read, and all she could hear was the wind in the courtyard blowing directly from the western to the eastern side, passing through the branches of the trees, which thus sounded ceaselessly xi-liu-hua-la. For a time, the iron bells that were shaped like horses and hung from the eaves sought only to strike randomly one against the other ding-ding-dang-dang. After a while, Xueyan had finished eating, and she came inside to wait on her mistress. Daiyu then asked: “The weather has become cold. A couple of days ago, I asked the two of you to take out some woollen clothes and air them. Have they been aired?” Xueyan said: “They have all been aired.” Daiyu said: “Take one of them and drape it across my shoulders.”

Xueyan left to do as she was bid and brought back a bundle of woollen clothes in her arms, and, opening the felt sack in which they were, gave it to Daiyu to pick for herself. All that could be seen was a coarse silk bag tucked inside. Daiyu reached out her hand, took it out, and opening it to have a look, found that it was an old handkerchief that Baoyu had sent to her when he was ill, on which he had written a poem, whereon were still found teary streaks; wrapped inside, the perfume pouch torn by the scissors, the fan sheath, and the tassel of Baoyu’s “soul-traversing” jade25 were still there. Originally, when the clothes were being aired, these keepsakes had been taken out of the trunk, and Zijuan had feared that they might be lost, so she had tucked them into the felt bag. Daiyu had barely caught sight of them than she stopped dead in her tracks, and when she had looked at them, no longer speaking of wearing the cloak, she took the “two-square” oblong handkerchief into her hands and looked blankly at the old poem; and having looked for a while, without being aware of it, her tears fell su-su.

Zijuan came in from the antechamber and saw that Xueyan held a felt bag of clothes in her cupped hands, so she stood dumbfounded to one side. On the small table were placed the perfume pouch torn by the scissors and the two- or three-segment fan sheath as well as the tassel that had been wrenched off. Daiyu held the two-square old handkerchief on which were written the remnant traces of characters and wept bitter tears at them; the characters read:

Let he who has lost meaning meet matters that have lost meaning

Amidst newly sobbed traces are traces of older sobbing

Zijuan saw that matters had come to this pass, and knowing that touching the objects had wounded Daiyu’s feelings and that past matters were welling up in her breast, she predicted that reassuring her would have no benefit, so she had no choice but, smiling, to say: “Miss, what are you doing by looking at these things? They all belong to the years when Second Master Bao and Miss were younger – sometimes getting along well; at others, completely at odds – laughing words born of quarrels. If the situation had been like the present, when all is mutual admiration and respect, then would these things have been trampled on and ruined to no purpose whatsoever?” Zijuan’s words were intended to make Daiyu happy and open out her heart, but unexpectedly, they had raised yet again the old affair with Baoyu when Daiyu had first arrived in the household and yet another flood of pearly tears streamed out, and Zijuan had once more to reassure her: “Xueyan is waiting here; Miss, you should throw a cape across your shoulders.”

22 Supreme Lady Shi史太太. Also known as Mother Jia 賈母.

23 Hua Fangguan: 花芳官. 芳官: fragrant – official. Formerly a member of the theatrical troupe of the Jia household and on its disbanding, a servant in Jia Baoyu’s retinue.

24 Qingwen 晴雯: clear sky – patterned clouds.

25 “Soul-traversing” jade 通靈玉. One of Baoyu’s emblems that links him to a mythological past.

Only with this did Daiyu put the handkerchief down. Zijuan hurriedly picked it up and wrapped the perfume pouch and the other items in it and took them away. Daiyu draped a fur-lined cloak over her shoulders and desolately walked into the antechamber and sat down. Turning her head, she could see that on the table, the letter that contained the poem that Baochai had written had not yet been put away, so she took it out and looked it through again twice, and sighing, said: “The circumstances we have encountered are different, but our wounded hearts are of a common nature. This being so, for me to compose four stanzas too is something that cannot be avoided; these could be transcribed into a qin score that could be played and sung, and tomorrow written out and sent off, taking on the role of a harmonious poetic answer to the original composition.” She then asked Xueyan to bring in the brush-pen and inkstone from the table outside, and after moistening the brush-pen with ink, wielded it and composed four stanzas. Following this, she took a qin score and transcribed it out, borrowing two cao26 pieces Ah! The Orchid27 and Thinking of the Virtuous,28 and assembling the sweet musical sounds of their rhythm and rhyme schemes, matched these perfectly with her poetic compositions; she then wrote this out in preparation for sending to Baochai. She also asked Xueyan to take out from the trunk her short qin that she had brought with her, tuned the strings, and practised the fingering. Daiyu was fundamentally an extremely intelligent person and had studied the qin in the South for some time, and although her hands were out-of-practice, once she had organised her thought, the familiarity returned. She stroked the strings for a while, but as it was already deep into the night, she had Zijuan take the qin and put it away and went to sleep, and no more need be said here on the matter.

And besides it is said that Baoyu got up on the next day and, having combed his hair and washed his face, just as he was taking Beiming29 [Baoyu’s manservant] to the study he saw Moyu30 [another of Baoyu’s manservants] running over, grinning, who raised his head and said: “How convenient it is for Second Master today. Supreme Master31 [Jia Dairu, an elderly scholar of the Jia family] is not in the study, and the others have all concluded their lessons for the moment.” Baoyu said: “Is that really so?” Moyu said: “If Second Master doesn’t believe me, isn’t that Third Master32 [Jia Huan, a younger half-brother of Jia Baoyu] and Elder Brother Lan33 [Jia Lan] coming here.” When Baoyu looked, he could see Jia Huan and Jia Lan following some young manservants, laughing and smiling, their mouths uttering ji-ji-gua-gua; it was not quite clear what they were saying, and they met him head-on.

On seeing Baoyu, they let their hands fall to their sides and stood still. Baoyu asked: “Why have the two of you come back?” Jia Huan said: “Today, Supreme Master was busy with other matters and said that we should have a day off from our studies and that tomorrow we should go to class instead.” Baoyu listened, and turned around and went directly to Mother Jia [Supreme Lady] and Jia Zheng’s34 [Mother Jia’s second son and Baoyu’s father] quarters to report this, returning afterwards to the Joyful Red Courtyard35 [his quarters]. There, Xiren36 [his chief maidservant and confidante] asked him: “How is it that you have come back again?” Baoyu told her. He had only sat down for a moment than he went outside again, and Xiren said: “Where are you going in such a busy manner? Having just finished your studies for the day, as I see it, you ought to take a rest in preparation for future exertions.” Baoyu halted, lowered his head, and said: “What you say is quite right, but even though, against the odds, a day off has been declared, we haven’t dispersed completely, so you ought to take pity on me somewhat.” Xiren saw that he was speaking in a pitiable manner, and so, smiling, said: “Young Master, go if you like.” So saying, she carried his food over, and Baoyu, completely confounded, had to eat his meal. Having hurriedly bolted it down in two or three mouthfuls, he rinsed his mouth and, swift as whiff of smoke, went straight to Daiyu’s room.

He walked up to the doorway and saw that Xueyan was drying a silk cloth in the courtyard, so he asked: “What has the young lady eaten?” Xueyan said: “She got up early and ate half a bowl of porridge but was too lazy to eat a proper meal. At the moment, she is taking a nap. Second Master should take his walk elsewhere and, on the way back, come in again.” Baoyu had no choice but to return to his quarters. Feeling that there was nowhere worth going to, suddenly, he thought that he hadn’t seen Xichun37 [a female cousin] for many days, so he strolled over to her chamber, the Autumn Wind Studio.38 He had just arrived under her window, when he realised that all was completely quiet and there were no voices to be heard. Baoyu surmised that she would be taking her siesta and that it would be inappropriate to go in. He was just on the point of leaving when he heard a barely audible sound from inside the room but couldn’t work out what it was. He stopped stock still and listened intently. After a long while, the sound “pa” could be heard once more. Baoyu had not yet taken in clearly what was going on when he heard someone say: “You have moved a piece here; why haven’t you responded there?” Only then did Baoyu realise that a game of weiqi was being played.

26 Cao . Cao pieces tend concentrate on particular emotional states or aspects of instrumental technique.

27 Ah! The Orchid 《猗蘭》. A sorrowful and lamenting qin piece said to have been composed by Confucius himself.

28 Thinking of the Virtuous 《思賢》.

29 Beiming 焙茗: bake – tea.

30 Moyu 墨雨: ink – rain.

31 Supreme Master 太爺. Jia Dairu 賈代儒. 代儒: generation – Confucian.

32 Third Master 三爺. Jia Huan 賈環. : a type of jade circlet.

33 Elder Brother Lan 藍哥. Jia Lan 賈蘭. : orchid.

34 Jia Zheng 賈政. : government.

35 The Joyful Red Courtyard 怡紅院.

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

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

38 Autumn Wind Studio 蓼風軒.

His impatience was simply because he could not discern to whom this person’s voice belonged. Then, after a while, he heard Xichun say: “What is there to be afraid of? You take my piece like this; I respond by taking your piece in this way. You take my piece again like this; I respond again by taking your piece in this way. Slowly still, move by move, in the end, all is connected.” The other person said once more: “Do I really want to take your pieces like this?” Xichun said: “Ahah! There is also a counterattack move in the offing hidden here; I haven’t any defensive preparation against it.” Baoyu listened and listened, and found the voice to be extremely familiar; however, it didn’t belong to any of the sisters and cousins and, thinking that there wouldn’t be any outsiders in Xichun’s room, he gently pulled back the curtain and went in.

On looking, he found it was none other than Miaoyu, a nun of the Window-Lattice Jadeite Convent. As soon as Baoyu saw who it was, he did not dare startle her. Miaoyu and Xichun had reached a plane of deep concentration and had not noticed him. Baoyu stood on one side and watched their various tactics. Miaoyu, bending her head, asked Xichun: “Why don’t you want to take this piece in the ji corner?” Xichun said: “How could I not want it? In your area of the board, all your pieces are dead, so what is there for me to be afraid of?” Miaoyu said: “Don’t speak too soon – just you wait and see!” Xichun said: “When I have taken it, let’s see what your next move will be.” Miaoyu simply smiled faintly, reached for a piece that was on the edge of the board, and took a piece of Xichun’s in retaliation, thereby attacking an entire corner of Xichun’s, and smiling, said: “This is called: ‘Inverted removal of booted power.’”

Xichun had not yet answered a word when Baoyu, who was standing by the side, could no longer control himself and laughed out loud ha-ha, which made the two of them jump out of their skins. Xichun said: “What on earth are you doing here? Coming in like this without speaking a word and then making a mischief of yourself by startling us! How long ago was it that you came in?” Baoyu said: “I came in a while ago and saw the two of you fighting over this ji corner.” As he was talking, he made a respectful salutation to Miaoyu, and while also smiling, asked: “Sister Miao does not lightly emerge from the portal of chan meditation. What destiny has led her to descend to the ordinary mortal world today and travel therein.” Miaoyu listened and suddenly her face blushed and she did not answer, lowering her head to look at the weiqi-board. Baoyu felt that he had overstepped the mark and, hurriedly wearing a smile, said: “When all is said and done, those who have left their homes and entered the otherworldliness of monasticism cannot be compared to ordinary folk who have remained in their homes in this world. Above all, their hearts are still, and from stillness comes aptitude, and from aptitude comes intelligence.” Baoyu had not finished speaking than he perceived that Miaoyu had raised her eyes a fraction and cast him a glance, and then once more she bent her head, and the colour of her face gradually assumed a rosy glow. Baoyu saw that she was ignoring him, and so, embarrassed and chastened, had to sit down on one side.

It was Xichun’s move and, after an aeon, Miaoyu said: “Make your move.” She rose and adjusted her clothes and then sat down once again, asking Baoyu in a dazed manner: “Where have you come from?” Baoyu had hoped for just such an opening so he could explain what he had said earlier, but suddenly the thought also occurred to him: “Was this perhaps a barbed remark of Miaoyu’s?” And his face reddened, and he was unable to answer. Miaoyu smiled slightly and spoke with Xichun. Xichun also smiled and said: “Second Brother, what is there difficult to answer about this? Have you never heard the common expression ‘where have you come from’ before? This is worth blushing for only if one had seen a stranger.” When Miaoyu had heard this remark, she thought of herself and her situation, and her heart lurched and her face became hot and of necessity reddened, and she felt most embarrassed. She therefore stood up and said: “I have already been here for a long while and ought to return to the convent.” Because Xichun was familiar with the manner with which Miaoyu dealt with matters, she did not seek to detain her, but instead escorted her out of the gateway. Miaoyu smiled and said: “I haven’t come here for a long time, and the pathways wind this way and that, so on the way back, I am likely to get confused.” Baoyu said: “Do you want me to show you the way, how about that?” Miaoyu said: “I dare not make my own way; let Second Master go first and lead me.”

Thereupon, the two of them bade their farewells to Xichun and left the Autumn Wind Studio and, following a pathway that wound this way and that, passed close to the Xiaoxiang Chambers [Daiyu’s quarters], where they suddenly heard the sound ding-dong of strings being plucked. Miaoyu said: “Where does the sound of a qin come from?” Baoyu said: “It must be Younger Sister Lin [Daiyu] stroking the qin strings there.” Miaoyu said: “So she also knows how to play, yes? How is it that I have never heard anyone mention this before?” Baoyu told Daiyu’s entire story from beginning to end and thereupon said: “Let’s go and see her.” Miaoyu said: “Ever since ancient times there has only ever been ‘listening to the qin’, and there has never been ‘watching the qin’.” Baoyu laughed and said: “Didn’t I say from the start that I was an uncouth person?” So saying, the two of them walked over to just outside the Xiaoxiang Chambers and sat down on the ornamental mountain-stones there, listening quietly, profoundly aware that the mode and melody were pure and desolate, and they could hear a low voice lamenting:

The wind soughs xiao-xiao, the autumn air is deep

My beautiful beloved a thousand li distant, alone am I, singing a sinking lament

Looking distantly for my hometown, where is it?

Leaning on the railings, tears moisten my tunic

After resting for a moment, they heard the voice once more lamenting:

The mountains are distant, the river long

Illuminating my chamber’s windows, the bright moonshine

Brilliantly iridescent, unsleeping, the Milky Way is hazy and mazy

My gauze shirt flimsy, the wind’s dew cool

Once more resting for a moment, Miaoyu said: “Earlier, the character (qin) matched in rhyme the last characters of each line of the first stanza; and now the character (yang) matches in rhyme the last characters of each line of the second stanza. Let’s carry on listening.” From inside, once more lamenting:

Of your sufferings, you yourself are not the cause; your misfortunes, are so irksome

You and I, hearts in mutuality, pondering the ancients, causes no resentment

39 The Chinese expression is: 檻外人, which means: “balustrade/cage/threshold – outside – person,” that is, a person who has removed themselves outside the ordinary of realms of society, in other words a nun, though the type of nun is not specified.

40 Window-Lattice Jadeite Convent 櫳翠庵.

41 Ji corner 畸角兒. A technical term in the game.

42 “Inverted removal of booted power” 到脫靴勢. Another technical term in the game.

43 Sister Miao 췸무. The first character is the first of the two that make up her name Miaoyu 妙玉. is a respectful term of address, usually used for a man in various contexts, but here, employed for a nun, is translated as “sister” as that would be the form of address employed in English in a Christian context, though Miaoyu is certainly not a Christian nun; no blood relationship is indicated.

44 Xiaoxiang Chambers 瀟湘舘. “Xiaoxiang” 瀟湘 is a citation from ancient texts and refers to celebrated women renowned for their beauty and femininity.

Miaoyu said: “This is in another metre, and how profound its anxious thought!” Baoyu said: “Although I don’t understand the song, when I am listening to the sound, I feel that it is excessively sorrowful.” Inside the room, the strings were tuned once more. Miaoyu said: “The deepest ‘gentleman’s’ string45 is tuned sharp, and unfortunately does not match the wuyi46 mode.” From inside, once more lamenting:

A person’s life in this world, is like the lightness of dust

In Heaven and on earth, are felt the travails of past lives

And even though the travails of past lives are felt, be not anxious

How like the moon in the Heavens is a pure heart!

Miaoyu listened, and huskily with a hoarse voice, said: “How can the altered note of the zhi degree47 suddenly be used? Its resonance can crack metal bells and stone chimes. This is nothing short of excessive.” Baoyu said: “‘Excessive’, and then what happens next?” Miaoyu said: “It is probably not sustainable.” They were just discussing this when they heard “beng”: the gentleman’s string snapped. Miaoyu stood up and left immediately. Baoyu said: “What is wrong?” Miaoyu said: “In the days to come, you will come to know what this means, and you won’t find it necessary to talk about it too much.” She left abruptly by herself. Baoyu felt that there was a bundle of doubt filling his entire stomach and, exhausted and dejected, returned to his Joyful Red Courtyard, and let no more be said of the matter.

And besides it is said that Miaoyu went back to the convent where a Daoist serving woman had long been waiting to receive her, and once inside, she shut the convent gate and sat for a while reciting aloud Daily Chants of the Gate to Chan Meditation48 once from beginning to end. Having eaten her evening meal, she lit incense and paid her obeisance to Buddha, ordering the Daoist serving woman to go and take her rest. Her own chan meditation bed and its backrest already tidy and in place, she controlled her breathing and let down the curtains, and sat down in the lotus position, curtailing and eliminating vagrant thoughts, pursuing a journey towards eternal truth.

She sat there until after the third watch, when she heard a sound gu-lu-lu coming from on top of the room. Miaoyu feared that it was a robber, so she got down from her chan meditation bed and went out as far as the front veranda, but all she could see were cloud shadows across the sky and the moonlight flooding magnificently. At that time, the weather was still not very cold, and she stood alone next to the railings for a while. Suddenly, she heard from the roof, two cats yowling in answer to one another. Then, Miaoyu suddenly recalled Baoyu’s remarks earlier that day, and involuntarily her heart leapt, and her face flushed to the ears. She immediately took control of her heart and spirit, went into her chan chamber, and sat down once more on her chan meditation bed. But to no avail: her spirit was still restless in its abode and for a while was like 10,000 horses galloping, and she felt that the chan meditation bed had begun to rock from side to side and that her body was already no longer in the convent. It seemed that a whole host of sons of the aristocracy or officialdom had come to win her hand in marriage, and several matchmakers were tugging her into a carriage to take her to her wedding, but she was unwilling to go. After a while, bandits came to rob her and brandishing knives and wielding clubs, forced her to part with money, and she could only weep and shout, begging for rescue.

The community of nuns and Daoist serving women in the convent had long since woken up with a start, and they carried lamps as they came to take care of what was going on, though all they see could was Miaoyu with her two hands spread apart and that she was foaming at the mouth. Even after anxious shouts to awaken her, all that could be seen were her eyes popping out of her head and both cheeks bright scarlet. She cursed: “I have the protection and blessing of Buddha – what would you ruffians dare to get away with?” Those assembled were shocked into a state of confusion, and all said: “We are here with you. Quickly come to your senses!” Miaoyu said: “I want to go back home! If there are good people amongst you, take me back home.” The Daoist serving woman said: “The home where you live is here.” So saying, they also had other nuns go immediately to offer prayers in front of Guanyin Buddha.

Having made a divination by drawing lots and leafing through divination books, they found that a dead soul from the underworld who lived in the south-western corner of the residence had been offended. Then, one among them said: “Yes, the south-western corner of Greater Audience Garden49 [the Jia family residence, where most of The Dream of the Red Chamber takes place] originally had no one living there, and a sinister and shady atmosphere of the underworld is to be found.” All the while, those getting soup and water were in busy disarray. The nun who had spoken had formerly been brought from the South, and thus more than any of the others, she naturally waited on Miaoyu more wholeheartedly, and moving around Miaoyu, sat on her chan meditation bed. Miaoyu turned her head and said: “Who are you?” The nun said: “It’s me.” Miaoyu looked her up and down carefully and said: “It’s really you!” And she hugged the nun and wu-wu-ye-ye broke out sobbing and said: “You are my mother. If you don’t rescue me, then my life won’t be worth living!” The nun brought her out of her trance while also massaging her. A Daoist serving woman poured tea for her to drink, and it was not until dawn that she was able to sleep.

The nun then sent someone off to get a doctor to come to take her pulse. There were those who said that it was anxious thoughts that had damaged her spleen, and others who said that it was overheating invading her womb,50 and others who said that it was harmful spirits that had been offended, and others who said it was caused by both internal and external “colds” combined; but in the final analysis, no firm conclusion could be drawn. Later, when a doctor was called to make an examination, he said: “Has she sat in meditation?” The Daoist serving woman said: “She often sits in meditation.” The doctor asked: “Did this illness come suddenly last night?” The Daoist serving woman answered: “Yes.” The doctor said: “The cause is an ‘ambulant demon entering fire’.” Those assembled asked: “Is there anything that can prevent this?” The doctor said: “Thankfully she has not practised sitting in meditation for long, and the demon has only made a shallow entrance, so she can be saved.” He wrote out a prescription for medicine that subdued a fiery heart, and she swallowed a dose, and the symptoms were somewhat alleviated.

45 “Gentleman’s” string 君絃.

46 Wuyi 無射.

47 Altered note of the zhi degree: 變徵.

48 Daily Chants of the Gate to Chan Meditation《禪門日誦》.

49 Greater Audience Garden 大觀園.

50 Overheating invading the womb 熱入血室 (literally: “heat – enter – blood – chamber”): a technical term in Chinese medicine for certain types of psychosis affecting women.

In the world outside, there were several waifs and strays who, when they heard about this, concocted and circulated many rumours, saying: “Given her age, how was she able to suppress herself any longer? And what is more, of such high-minded moral fibre and so nimble-witted in character and soul! After this, we simply have no idea into whose hands she will fly and who will get the benefit.” After a few days, although Miaoyu’s illness was a little better, her state-of-mind had still not resumed normality, and ever after her thoughts remained somewhat addled.

One day, when Xichun was sitting and resting, Caiping51 [Xichun’s maidservant] suddenly came in and reported: “Does Miss know of the business of Mother52 Miaoyu?” Xichun said: “What business is this?” Caiping said: “Yesterday, I heard Miss Xing53 [a young lady distantly related to the Jia family] and Greater Lady54 [Li Wan, Jia Lan’s mother] talking about it in their quarters: on the day that she had come back from playing weiqi with Miss, she was suddenly struck down at night by an evil fit, and from her mouth came random shouts, and she said that bandits had come to seize her and spirit her away. Up until now, she still hasn’t fully recovered. Miss, what do make of this – isn’t it a weird business?” Xichun listened to this, keeping silent and not uttering a word. Thereupon she thought: “Although Miaoyu is clean and pure, when it comes down to it, her link to the destinies of this mortal world of dust and ashes has not yet been broken. The pity of it is that I was born into a family like this, which makes it inappropriate for me to leave home and become a nun. But even if I were to do this, would there still be the cloying annoyance of deviant demons? If a single thought is not born, then the 10,000 predestined relationships are all silent.” As her pondering reached this point, her spirit suddenly came to a realisation as if she had obtained something, and so with the incantatory syllable “ji” on her lips, she said:

With greater creation as a basis, there are no limits

So, where should one live?

Since we come from the void

We should go back to the void

The divination over, she ordered her maidservant to burn incense. She sat in silent meditation for a while and then leafed through diagrams of weiqi positions and perused several passages in the works of Kong Rong55 and Wang Jixin.56 In them, the strategic layouts “luxuriant leaves wrap the crab”57 and “yellow orioles struggle with the rabbit”58 were no strangers to her; the layouts “36 games of killing in the corners”59 were, however, difficult to comprehend and difficult to remember on first encounter. Carrying on reading by herself, when she came to “10 dragons walk as horses”,60 she thought it particularly interesting. Just as she was sitting there thinking, she heard that outside someone had walked into the courtyard, so she called over to Caiping several times. She didn’t yet know who it was, but this will be explained in the next chapter.

51 Caiping 彩屏: colour – screen.

52 Mother 師父. “Mother” in the religious, not maternal, sense.

53 Miss Xing 邢姑娘. Her full name is Xing Xiuyan 邢岫煙. 岫煙: mountain – mist.

54 Greater Lady 大奶奶. An appellation used for Li Wan 李紈, a lady married into the Jia family. : a type of fine silk.

55 Kong Rong 孔融 (153–208). A well-known literary figure and descendent of Confucius. Records do not suggest that he was particularly interested in weiqi.

56 Wang Jixin 王積薪 (eighth century). A celebrated weiqi player.

57 Luxuriant leaves wrap the crab 茂葉包蟹.

58 Yellow orioles struggle with the rabbit 黃鶯搏兔.

59 36 games of killing in the corners 三十六局殺角.

60 10 dragons walk as horses 十龍走馬.

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.