Colin Huehns | September 2022 | London
Each of the 120 chapters in the mid-18th-century vernacular novel The Dream of the Red Chamber is preceded by a two-line poem that summarises its plot and mood. “Affected by the autumn sounds, stroking the qin strings, sorrowful of things past” is a translation of the first of the two lines of the poem at the head of the 87th chapter. This chapter is one of many in The Dream of the Red Chamber that makes a detailed exposition of music and is a treasure trove for exploring the role and practice of musical performance in contemporary Chinese society.
Everyone loves The Dream of the Red Chamber. Of all the well-known novels of early modern China – The Water Margin《水滸傳》, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms《三國演義》, The Journey to the West《西游記》 and The Golden Lotus《金瓶梅》, or the short story collection Weird Tales from a Conversation Studio《聊齋志異》– it is the one to which the modern reader returns the most readily for solace and inspiration. For the performing musician, faced with the task of plying his trade in the community, it excites empathy for fellow practitioners of the craft who lived some 300 years ago, with its rich descriptions of how they went about their work, who listened, what they listened to and indeed how they survived. The ethnographic interest extends far beyond the musical, however, and every chapter is packed with anecdote about how society worked, who its members were, what motivated them and how they interacted. Only against this backdrop can the musical episodes be fully understood.
Perhaps it is the author Cao Xueqin’s elegant but accessible language; perhaps it is the sensation throughout reading that something is about to go, or is gradually going, wrong, and that all the heady pleasures are merely transient; perhaps it is the intimacy of the situations described, which seems to immerse a reader in the narrative tapestry; or perhaps it is because we, as readers, effortlessly become the contemporaries who first appreciated the work when it was new; however approached, The Dream of the Red Chamber is not only a work that can be read from cover to cover in its entirety but also a collection of episodes that can be individually savoured. This series of selected chapters in translation makes a musical journey through some of these.
Describing the celebrations of the yuanxiao lantern festival on the 15th day of the New Year, Chapter 54 sees the Jia household at the height of their opulence. Mother Jia presides over a multitude of relations and servants. There is elaborate filial ritual of offering and accepting wine that mimics the ancient Confucian texts, but also earthy jokes told for all to enjoy. Amidst this hedonistic parade, music has an important role, and the Jia household even employs their own opera company that seems to perform non-stop throughout the proceedings as well as inviting strolling players from outside.
For the musicologist, the wealth of detail reveals many important traits relevant to the history of Chinese music. The chapter includes a lengthy discussion of the role of accompanying instruments in opera performance, and this backdrop is regarded as symbolising the emergence of new styles that coalesced into the Kunqu genre that is widely performed today. For erhu players such as myself, the chapter also includes the only instance in the whole of The Dream of the Red Chamber when this instrument is mentioned. This paucity may seem strange, given that almost every chapter in the novel describes musical performance, often in exquisite detail, but it also mirrors a similar lack in other classic Chinese fiction of the time.
So why this lack? The erhu is, after all, situated at the heart of modern Chinese music, and, even to the uninitiated, its sound is unmistakably “Chinese”. Associated with the rural poor, beggars, theatrical entertainers, and ladies of the “entertainment industry”, the erhu was probably considered inappropriate for inclusion in the artistic works of the upper ranks of society, but the vernacular novels of the Ming and Qing dynasties, of which The Dream of the Red Chamber is undoubtedly a fine specimen, do describe a world that reflects society around them as it really was, warts and all, so an explanation for the phenomenon should be sought elsewhere.
Most likely, the erhu was rare until the mid-18th century, which is when The Dream of the Red Chamber was written, after which it became more widespread, and, in this respect, Chapter 54 also represents a turning point. We cannot even be sure that an erhu was intended here, as the term used is xianzi 絃子, which could indicate a plucked instrument like a sanxian 三絃 or a bowed instrument like the erxian 二絃, the latter an early precursor to the erhu. A huqin (胡琴; the generic term for instruments of the erhu family) seems to fit the context best, though, as the two performers in the small ensemble are blind, as huqin players often were, and appear to be roaming vernacular musicians who visited the Jia household from time to time, just as was typical of huqin players. The music they play is principally accompaniments to storytelling, a role commonly adopted by girl performers of this type, but – as needy musicians – they are happy to turn their hand to anything, in this case drumming to accompany drinking games.
Against this cultural backdrop, a human drama is played out. Mother Jia comes off best, and modern readers will be impressed with her tirade against the stereotypical characters of the stories the blind musicians had in their repertoire, and in particular her pointed comments satirising the subservient role of young women. The principal male protagonist Jia Baoyu, an archetypal “pretty boy”, gives a less favourable impression, and modern readers are left wondering how he could have attracted and retained the affections of so many young women, whether members of the family or servants, and why they did not look elsewhere. Most heart-breaking is the final paragraph of the chapter, where we learn that Sister Feng had a miscarriage soon after, perhaps due to the exertions of the festival. A harsh dose of reality, and suddenly all the merrymaking seems a little tarnished.
The Dream of the Red Chamber
Supreme Lady Shi1 breaks down the rank rottenness of outmoded conventions.
Wang Xifeng2 copies the behaviour of child-like romping in brightly coloured striped clothes [as an effort of filial piety].
And besides, it is said, Jia Zhen3 [a distant cousin of Jia Lian4 and of the same generation] and Jia Lian [a grandson of Supreme Lady Shi and also Wang Xifeng’s husband] had prepared in secret a large basketful of money, and whenever Mother Jia5 [Supreme Lady Shi] indicated that a sum was to be bestowed for services rendered, they swiftly ordered their manservants to distribute the money quickly, and, as long as there was a tinkle of money cascading on the counter, Mother Jia was extremely happy. Jia Zhen and Jia Lian thereupon arose, and the manservants immediately brought over a new silver flask for warming wine and placed it into Jia Lian’s hands, who, following Jia Zhen, proceeded into the inner areas of the residence.
Jia Zhen first went up to Aunt Li’s6 place at the table and, bending, took a cup, and turned. Jia Lian quickly poured a wine cup and, after, came to Aunt Xue7 and also poured some wine. The two ladies immediately began laughing and chattering: “You two gentlemen, please sit down; there is no need for so much ceremony.” Thereupon, except for the two ladies, Xing and Wang [Jia Baoyu’s mother],8 the entire company left their places, and all stood by the side with their arms hanging loosely. Jia Zhen and Jia Lian came to Mother Jia’s dais, and, because it was low, the two of them bent the knee and knelt, and Jia Zhen in front held a cup, while Jia Lian behind held a wine vessel. Although only the two of them held the wine, Jia Cong9 [another grandson of Mother Jia] and his brothers had all entered as one line in due order following them, and, seeing that the two had knelt down, all knelt down as one line too. Jia Baoyu [another grandson of Mother Jia and the main male protagonist in The Dream of the Red Chamber] also quickly knelt down. Xiangyun10 [Baoyu’s childhood sweetheart and a distant member of the Shi family] quietly nudged him and, smiling, said: “What are you doing kneeling down now and helping them once more? What about doing this: you should also go and pour a round of drinks, wouldn’t that be better?” Baoyu laughed quietly and said: “Wait a while and then I’ll go and pour.” So saying, he waited until the other two had finished pouring, rose, and once more poured wine for the two ladies, Xing and Wang. Jia Zhen smiled and said: “Sisters, how goes it?” Mother Jia and the others said: “You can take your leave now; they would like to be at ease for a while.” At this, Jia Zhen and his companions departed.
By that time, evening had reached the two drumbeats sounded by the watch [about 9pm], and the opera that was being performed was eight scenes titled “Watching the Lamps” from The Tale of Eight Righteousnesses,11 and the action was just at the point of reaching an exuberant excitement. Baoyu thus left his place and went out. Mother Jia asked: “Where are you going? The firecrackers outside are intense. Take care not to be burnt by burning paper falling from the sky.” Baoyu laughed and answered: “I am not going far; I am just going out for a moment and then I will be back.” Mother Jia ordered the serving women: “Follow him, but carefully.”
Thereupon, Baoyu went outside, and only Sheyue12 and Qiuwen13, a few of the maidservants, followed. Mother Jia therefore said: “Why is Xiren14 [another of the maidservants] not to be seen anywhere? Recently, she has begun to give herself airs and taken it upon herself to instruct the young girls on their comings and goings.” Lady Wang quickly arose and, with a smile, said: “Her mother passed away a few days ago, so in her feverish filial piety it is inappropriate for her serve in front of us.” Mother Jia nodded her head and, smiling, said: “Regarding the relationship of servants to their masters and mistresses, whether to abide by filial piety or not is a matter that should not be raised. If she were still in my train, would she not be here now? Instances like these have gone so far as to become a precedent.” Sister Feng15 [Wang Xifeng] hurriedly came across and answered with a smile: “This evening’s absence is not an act of filial piety; in the courtyard there, they will be watching the candle-lamps and fireworks, and it will be most exhilarating. Here, once the opera has begun to be sung, who doesn’t come from the courtyard there and steal a look or two, and she is altogether sensitive and alert, and observes and looks after all that is going on everywhere. And besides, when the opera is over here and all have dispersed, and the Bao brothers [Baoyu and his brothers] return to go to sleep, all will be as it should in its completeness. If she had come here once more, everyone would also not have taken the care that they should, and when the opera had dispersed and all had returned, the quilts would be cold and the hot water for tea would not be ready, and all would be most inappropriately managed, so naturally I asked her not to come. If the Venerable Ancestor [Mother Jia] had asked her to come, however, I would have had her come, no question about it.”
1 Supreme Lady Shi 史太君. Where, as here, a name consists of a surname and a term that denotes familial rank, the surname is given last.
2 Wang Xifeng 王熙鳳. Where, as here, a name is given in full, Chinese word order is followed, with the surname (Wang王) first and the given name (Xifeng 熙鳳) next as one word. The meaning of the characters that comprise the given name are indicated, here 熙鳳: bright/harmoniously happy/prosperous – cock phoenix.
3 Jia Zhen 賈珍. 珍: a precious object made of jade.
4 Jia Lian 賈璉. 璉: a jade vessel used in sacrificial ceremonies at the ancestral temple.
5 Mother Jia 賈母.
6 Aunt Li 李嬸娘.
7 Aunt Xue 薛姨媽. Unlike English, Chinese usually differentiates between paternal and maternal relatives, while also indicating precise familial rank. The terminology is complex and differs according to historical period and region. Here, Aunt Li is a paternal aunt and Aunt Xue is a maternal aunt.
8 Lady Xing 邢夫人; Lady Wang 王夫人. Jia Baoyu 賈寶玉. 寶玉: jewel – jade.
9 Jia Cong 賈琮. 琮: a square-shaped jade vessel with a circular internal bowl.
10 Shi Xiangyun 史湘雲. 湘 is a placename 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〉; 雲: cloud.
11 The Tale of Eight Righteousnesses《八義記》; “Watching the Lamps” 〈觀燈〉.
12 Sheyue 麝月: musk – moon. Servants do not usually have surnames.
13 Qiuwen 秋紋: autumn – patterns.
14 Xiren 襲人: literally, “assail – person”; here it is her goodness that floods forth like a flower’s perfume and “assails” those around her.
15 Sister Feng 鳳姐兒. 鳳: cock phoenix; 兒 is a suffix that implies a diminutive and is usually used in conjunction with this lady’s name.
Mother Jia heard these words and quickly said: “What you say is very reasonable, and you must have thought the matter through most thoroughly; quickly, don’t ask her to come. But, as for when her mother passed away, how was that something I didn’t know of?” Sister Feng smiled and said: “Recently, Xiren had herself been back in the train of the Venerable Supreme Lady your good self; how could you have forgotten this?” Mother Jia thought for a while and said with a smile: “I remember now. My memory has resumed normality.” Everyone laughed and said: “What caused the Venerable Supreme Lady to remember these matters?” Mother Jia then sighed and said: “I thought of her waiting on me from when she was small, and waiting on Little Yun [Xiangyun], and in the end I have given her to a demon who has bewitched her these past few years. She is also not a servant whose roots are embedded in the earth of our household, and she has not received any grace or favour from us, so as her mother has passed away, I thought to give her several silver tael for her to spend on her mother’s funeral, but I had forgotten entirely.” Sister Feng said: “Recently, Supreme Lady bestowed 40 silver tael on her, and this is so.” Mother Jia heard this and nodded her head: “Let this be an end of the matter. It so happens that Yuanyang’s16 [another maidservant] mother has also recently passed away. Thinking that her mother and father were far away in the south, I did not have her return home to observe due filial piety. Now that both find themselves passing through the full ceremonial of mourning a mother’s passing, why not have the two of them live together as companions?” And she once more ordered a servant woman to take some fruit, delicacies, pastries and the like to give to them to eat. Hupo17 [another maidservant] smiled and said: “Why wait until now? She has long since gone and done so.” So saying, everyone resumed drinking wine and watching the opera.
And besides, it is said, Baoyu came directly back to the courtyard. The assembled serving women, having seen him return to his quarters, did not follow him there and simply sat in the vestibule for making tea that was in the courtyard gate warming themselves on the fire, stealing time to drink wine and play cards with the women looking after brewing the tea. When Baoyu reached the courtyard, although the lamps were splendidly lit, there was no sound of anyone’s voices. Sheyue said: “Haven’t they all fallen asleep? Let’s go in quietly and give them a shock.” Thereupon, everyone crept on tiptoes, furtively entering the mirrored wall to take a look. All they could see was Xiren and another person lying at an oblique angle to one another on the earthen kang bed, and, at one end, two old women were dozing.
Baoyu waited until the two were asleep before entering, and he suddenly heard Yuanyang cough once, so he said: “Everything under Heaven is known to be unpredictable. Logically, given that you are here all by yourself, and your father and mother were in the world outside, and every year they tore backwards and forwards, hither and thither, with nothing definite to hang onto, thinking that you would not be able to send them onwards with a decent funeral, how unexpected, then, that they died here this year, and you were able to go out and send them onwards.” Xiren said: “It is so. I also did not ever think that I would be able to see my parents’ funeral. I reported their deaths to the Supreme Lady, and she bestowed 40 silver tael on me, which was sufficient to support me in dealing with the matter. I had not dared to presume so much would be offered.” Baoyu heard this, quickly turned, and said quietly to Sheyue and her companion: “Who could have known that she had also come here. No sooner had I entered, than she went off in a sulk once more. It would be better for us to go back and let the two of them talk together in peace and quiet. Xiren is here and in a very oppressed mood, so thankfully she came at just the right moment.” So saying, he came out quietly. He then walked past the ornamental stone mountains and behind them, where he stood still, lifting his clothes. Sheyue and Qiuwen stood stock still and, facing the other way, they left, chuckling to themselves, saying: “When squatting down and removing undergarments, take care that the wind doesn’t blow on your abdomen.” Behind them, the two maidservants knew that he was urinating, so they hurriedly departed and went out into the vestibule for making tea in order to get boiled water ready.
Here, Baoyu had just walked across, and two young women could be seen coming across to meet him, and they asked: “Who is it?” Qiuwen said: “Baoyu is here, and he calls out high and low; be careful that you are not shocked!” The women quickly laughed and said: “We had no idea. Such great matters are sent down to cause disaster, and the young ladies are kept hard at work with them day after day!” So saying, they had already come directly in front of Baoyu. Sheyue and her companion asked: “What are you holding in your hands?” The young women said: “It is gold that the Venerable Supreme Lady has bestowed, which is to be spent feeding the two young ladies.” Qiuwen smiled and said: “Outside, they are singing The Tale of Eight Righteousnesses and haven’t sung The Box of the Primal Ether,18 so how could ‘The Woman of the Golden Flower’ [a water spirit, also a god of fertility, and a character in The Box of Primal Ether] come running out?” Baoyu ordered: “Open them up and let me cast a glance.” Qiuwen and Sheyue hurriedly went forward and opened the two boxes, and the two young women quickly squatted on their haunches. Baoyu could see that the boxes were full of all sorts of fruits and tea-pastries of a superior quality such as could be set at table, so he nodded his head and left. Sheyue and her companion quickly tossed the lids of the boxes back untidily and followed him; Baoyu laughed and said: “These two women are amiable and polite and speak daintily and tactfully. They must be exhausted by their everyday labours, but they still offer sympathy for the daily workload of others and are not of the type that blows their own trumpets.” Sheyue said: “These two are of an excellent sort; yet where they are deficient in intelligence, such deficiency is all too evident.” Baoyu said: “You are enlightened people, and so should pardon them as rough and ready and deserving of pity and let that be the end of it,” and while speaking he went out of the courtyard gate.
16 Yuanyang 鴛鴦: male and female mandarin ducks.
17 Hupo 琥珀: amber.
18 The Box of Primal Ether《混元盒》.
Those serving women, although engaged in drinking wine and playing cards, nonetheless constantly emerged to investigate what was going on, and they saw Baoyu come out and followed him. On reaching the covered walkway of the flowery pavilion, they saw two maidservants, one proffering a small ewer and the other brandishing a cloth and holding a flask containing a moisturising ointment of fragrant honey, who had been waiting there for a long time. Qiuwen first swiftly extended her hand out into the ewer to test what was there and then said: “The older you are the more careless you have become. Where have you got this cold water from?” The maidservant smiled and said: “It was like this, miss; today, I was anxious that the water might be cold, so I poured in boiling water, but it has still cooled.” As she was speaking, an elderly serving woman who could, by coincidence, be seen carrying a kettle of boiling water came over, and the maidservant said: “Worthy grandmother, come over here and pour me some water.” The serving woman said: “Sister, this water is for brewing tea for the Venerable Supreme Lady; you should go and ladle some yourself. Have you become too big for your boots?” Qiuwen said: “I don’t care in whose train you serve! Don’t you give it to me; just pay attention to pouring some water from the Venerable Supreme Lady’s tea-kettle for us to wash our hands!” The serving woman turned her head to look back at Qiuwen and quickly lifted the kettle to pour a little in. Qiuwen said: “Enough! For someone old as you to have so little knowledge of how to do anything! Who doesn’t know that you are in the Venerable Supreme Lady’s train? You dare to wish for things that you should not wish for.” The serving woman smiled and said: “My eyes see everything as a blur, and I did not recognise the young lady.” Baoyu washed his hands, and then the maidservant took the small vessel and poured some ointment into his hands, and Baoyu rubbed it into his hands. Qiuwen and Sheyue took advantage of the hot water to wash their own hands and went into the company with Baoyu.
Baoyu then requested a vessel of warmed wine and, starting with Aunt Li, poured for each in turn. The two of them [Mother Jia and Aunt Li], smiling, also made room for him to sit. Mother Jia then said: “He is but a youth; let him do the pouring. Let everyone drink this cup down.” So saying, she downed the whole cup. Ladies Xing and Wang also swiftly downed their cups, so Aunt Xue and Aunt Li also had to drink their cups down. Mother Jia also ordered Baoyu, saying: “You should also pour for all your older and younger sisters, and you are not allowed to pour in a disorderly manner, and all should be invited to drink their glasses down.” Baoyu heard what was said, assented, and poured for each in turn.
When he came to Daiyu19 [one of the principle female protagonists in The Dream of the Red Chamber], she refused to drink, and instead took the cup and put it to Baoyu’s lips. Baoyu drank it down in one go, and Daiyu, smiling, said: “Thank you very much.” Baoyu poured a cup for her. Sister Feng then said with a laugh: “Baoyu, don’t you go drinking cold wine. Take care whether your hands tremble or tomorrow you won’t be able to write characters or draw a bowstring.” Baoyu said: “I haven’t drunk any cold wine.” Sister Feng said, smilingly: “I know you haven’t; I am just, to no purpose, enjoining you to do what is right.” After that, Baoyu poured for all the company in the inner areas, except for Jia Rong’s20 [Jia Zhen’s son] wife, who had hers poured by a maidservant who was ordered to do so. He went out again to the covered walkway and once more poured for Jia Zhen and the others. After sitting for a while, he re-entered the inner areas and returned to sit at his former place.
A little while after the soup had been served, sweetened yuanxiao21 dumplings were then offered. Mother Jia then ordered: “Let the opera be halted temporarily; the young children [the actors] are a pitiable sight; let them be given bubbling soup and hot food, and when they have eaten, let the opera be sung once more.” So she ordered all sorts of fruits, yuanxiao dumplings, and so on to be brought out for them to eat. The opera was halted for a while, and then a serving woman brought out two blind girls who performed on musical instruments for a living and were often visitors to the household; two low stools were placed next to one other for them to sit on. Mother Jia ordered them to sit down, and a xianzi [huqin or sanxian]22 and a pipa were passed across to them; she then asked Aunt Li and Aunt Xue: “Which book would you like to listen to?” The two answered: “We have no preference, and everything is good.” Mother Jia then asked: “Recently, which new books have you added to your repertoire?” The two girl performers answered: “We have a passage from a new book, which is a story of the remnant tail of the Tang dynasty and the ensuing Five Dynasties.” Mother Jia asked what its title was, and the girl performers answered: “It is called The Cock Phoenix Entreats the Hen Phoenix.”23 Mother Jia said: “This is certainly a good title. Do you know how it arose? First give a rough idea, and it seems fine, then more can be said.”
The girl performers said: “This book is set in the remnant tail of the Tang dynasty. There was once a lordly gentleman who was originally from Jinling and called Wang Zhong,24 and who had once served as a zaifu25 minister for two dynasties but had now retired to his hereditary estate on account of his advanced age. He had just one son at his knees as his only issue, who was called Wang Xifeng.” When the gathering heard this, they burst out laughing. Mother Jia smiled and said: “This replicates our old girl Feng’s name!” A young woman swiftly came up and nudged one of the girl performers, saying: “This is Second Lady’s name; let’s have less of this nonsense.” Mother Jia said: “Simply tell it as it is.” The girl performers, laughing quickly, stood up smartly and said: “We should be killed! We did not know that it was the Lady’s name [and thus to be avoided as taboo].” Sister Feng smiled and said: “What is there to be afraid of! Just tell your tale. Recurrences of given names and surnames are plentiful.”
19 Lin Daiyu 林黛玉. 黛玉: black eyebrow mascara – jade.
20 Jia Rong 賈蓉. 蓉: the meaning of this character in this context is obscure, but probably indicates a plant of some sort.
21 Yuanxiao 元宵. Here, special sweetened dumplings prepared for the yuanxiao festival, the lantern festival on the 15th day of the New Year.
22 Xianzi 絃子; huqin 胡琴; sanxian 三絃.
23 The Cock Phoenix Entreats the Hen Phoenix《鳳求鸞》.
24 Wang Zhong 王忠. 忠: loyal.
25 Zaifu 宰輔. Usually written as zaixiang 宰相, for example, as given below.
The girl performers carried on speaking: “That year, Lord Wang had sent his son to the Capital to take the imperial examinations. One day, when it was pouring with rain, he had reached a village where he sought to take refuge. Who could have imagined it, but there lived in the village a lordly gentleman who was surnamed Li, whose family had been friendly with Lord Wang for generations, and thus he invited Wang’s son to stay in his reading studio. This lordly gentleman Li had at his knee only a daughter ‘worth a thousand gold tael’. This girl’s fragrant name was Chuluan,26 and she was highly proficient in the four attributes of the gentleman: the qin zither, chess, calligraphy, and painting.”
Mother Jia interposed quickly: “No wonder it is called The Cock Phoenix Entreats the Hen Phoenix. No need to say any more; I have already guessed: This Wang Xifeng naturally requests the hand of Miss Chuluan in marriage.” The girl performers, smiling, said: “Has the Venerable Ancestor heard this book before?” The gathering said: “Venerable Supreme Lady has not heard it before! And since she hasn’t heard it before, it must simply be a guess.” Mother Jia laughed and said: “Books of this sort are composed according to formula and, when all’s said and done, consist of only a fine lady and a talented gentleman, and are of no interest whatsoever. To take someone’s daughter and portray her as quite so bad, and moreover to say she is a ‘fine lady’, is nothing more than describing her as so characterless that she lacks even a shadow. You only need to open your mouth, and it is lordly gentlemen and their like, and if her father is not a shangshu27 official then he is a zaixiang28 minister. There is a daughter, and she must be loved like a precious jewel. This girl must be adept at letters and wise in etiquette, and there is nothing that she does not have knowledge of in order to qualify as an ‘unrivalled fine lady’. She only has to see a pure and handsome man, regardless of whether a relative or a friend, and she thinks only of the most important matter of her entire life [her marital destiny], and forgets her father and mother, forgets her books, and ghosts are no longer ghosts, thieves are no longer thieves, and spades are no longer spades; how, in the tiniest respect, does this resemble a fine lady? And even if her mind is stuffed full of eloquent essays ready to be written, having done things of this sort, she cannot be regarded as a ‘fine lady’.
“As for the male protagonist, with his mind stuffed full of eloquent essays ready to be written yet to behave in such a dastardly way, surely it is not possible for the rule of law to regard him as a talented gentleman and not to prosecute him as a heinous criminal case. Clearly those who compose such books have simply gagged their own mouths. In addition, since the story narrates a tale of a girl from a large scholarly family that has served as officials down the generations, who are also knowledgeable of etiquette and well-read, and even the Lady of the Household is cognisant of books and can differentiate ceremonial, given that the Lord has retired to his hereditary estate on account of his advanced age, and older female relatives and maidservants who wait on the girl are naturally not few in number, notwithstanding all these factors, how is it that in these books, all of which describe matters of this sort, that only the girl herself and one close maid know what is going on? Think about it: what are these people busying themselves with? Is this not a case of the words in the front of the text not answering those behind it?”
Everyone heard this and, laughing, said: “Venerable Supreme Lady’s viewpoint has ridiculed the absurdities of the situation.” Mother Jia smiled and said: “There is a reason for this: the people who compose these books are either jealous of wealthy families or their needs do not match their desires, so they write them to denigrate those in question. There is also a class of people who, having read them, have had their minds perverted, and think solely to obtain a fine lady and then all will be well, so they are composed simply to gain pleasure. How can they possibly know the rationale of families of well-read scholars who have served as officials down the generations! Setting aside the large families described in these books, nowadays, taking even those commonly encountered middle-ranking families such as ours as a starting point, such things simply do not happen. Just don’t let their fabrications cause your chin to drop off! So, we have always forbidden recitation of these books, and even the maidservants do not understand their language. These last few years, I have grown old, and my sisterly companions live far away. Sometimes I feel depressed and have thought to have had a few sentences recited for me to listen to, but no sooner have the performers come than I have quickly had them stop.” Aunt Li and Aunt Xue both laughed and said: “These are the rules of a household of high status, yet even in our house none of these vulgar words are spoken for the young to listen to.”
Sister Feng came across to pour wine and, smiling, said: “Stop, stop! The wine is cold. The Venerable Ancestor has a parched mouth; let her lubricate her throat before once more exposing falsehood. This chapter should be called ‘The Tale of Exposing Falsehood’,29 and it is being enacted in this dynasty, in this place, in this year, in this month, on this day, at this time. The Venerable Ancestor’s ‘when opening one’s mouth, it is difficult to speak the words of two households’ and ‘when a flower opens two buds, each expresses a branch’. ‘Whether truth or falsehood, express neither; once more put into rectitude those observing the lamps and watching opera.’ The Venerable Ancestor should let these two relatives [the girl performers] drink some cups of wine and view a couple of opera scenes, and then once more from the language of the successive dynasties initiate her exposition; how about it?” At the same time as speaking, she poured the wine and also smiled. She had not even finished, and yet everyone was already falling over themselves in laughter.
26 Chuluan 雛鸞: chick – hen phoenix.
27 Shangshu 尚書.
28 Zaixiang 宰相.
29 “The Tale of exposing Falsehood” 《掰謊記》.
30 Ling Poem of the General《將軍令》. “Ling” 즈 poems are colloquial verse, usually short and witty in character. The verb used here is 對, which often means “match”. The precise meaning is for the performers to match poetical compositions to the prescribed melodies of Ling Poem of the General according to its rhythm and rhyme scheme.
31 Xue Baoqin 薛寶琴. 寶琴: jewel – qin zither.
32 Xue Baochai 薛寶釵. 寶釵: jewel – hairpin.
33 Mrs Lou 婁氏: The suffix 氏 after a single surname indicates a married women’s father’s surname, not her husband’s surname.
34 Jia Lan 賈藍. 藍: blue.
35 Jia Lan 賈蘭. 蘭: orchid.
36 Mrs You 尤氏.
37 Li Wan 李紈. 紈: a type of fine silk.
38 Mrs Hu 胡氏.
39 Jia Huang 賈璜. 璜: a semi-circular jade item.
At this juncture, Mother Jia smiled and said: “I am thinking: although these people are off to have fun, there should still be great-grandchildren in couples at their appropriate places for the table to be complete. For Jia Rong to be here completes the picture. Jia Rong! Sit with your wife in one place, and all will be fully united.” Then, the serving women of the family distributed playbills, and Mother Jia, smiling, said: “Our womanly talk is getting to be most excitable, and we are almost about to begin quarrelling. And besides, those children [actors] have been working through the night, and it is getting cold. Let’s make an end of it and let them take a rest, and call out our own children [actors] and have them sing a couple of scenes on this stage, so they can view them.” The serving women heard this and went into action in response, and straight away, on the one hand, they had someone transmit the order to the Greater Audience Garden40 [the private household theatrical troupe and the place where they perform] and, on the other, went to the Second Gate to pass on orders for the manservants to carry out instructions and be in attendance. The manservants went immediately to the opera rehearsal room and led all the adult members of the troupe out with them and just left the children there.
All in a moment, the instructor of the Theatrical Academy of Pear Fragrance41 brought “civilian” actors42 and others comprising 12 individuals out with him from a door in the corner of the winding covered walkway, and the serving women carried several soft cloth bundles with them because there was not enough time or sufficient need to bring out whole boxes of performance equipment, and predicting the several scenes that Mother was fond of listening to and their appropriate props and costumes, had them wrapped in the bundles. The serving women led the civilian actors inside, who, once they had come into view, simply stood with their arms hanging.
Mother Jia, smiling, said: “In this, the holiday time of first month of the year, why doesn’t your troupe-master let you go out so you can stroll about and pay your visits? What are you singing these days? The eight scenes of The Tale of Eight Righteousnesses that were performed just now simply gave me a headache. Let’s move to a purer and lighter style. Think about this for a moment: both Aunt Supreme Lady Xue, and Supreme Lady Li here of the same family as me have their own private theatrical troupes and have listened to I don’t know how many fine operas. These ladies have seen more fine operas than the ladies of our own household and have heard many excellent arias. The young actors of their companies are now members of the troupes of famous opera connoisseurs and, although they are youthful, are more proficient that those in large troupes. For better or worse, let’s not get into the business of comparing quality! We should do no less than establish new performance characteristics: have actors who take female roles sing the scene ‘Seeking a Dream’43 and use only a vertical xiao bamboo flute and a horizontal bamboo flute and a sheng mouth organ as accompanying instruments and not any others.”
The civilian actors smiled and said: “Venerable Ancestor speaks truly. The operas we perform are naturally unworthy of being viewed by Aunt Supreme Lady Xue and the Supreme Ladies and other ladies of your family; however, listen first to our stumbling and stammering efforts, and listen to another voice.” Mother Jia smiled and said: “That is exactly what I have in mind.” Aunt Li and Aunt Xue, laughing gaily, said: “What a perceptive youth; follow the directions of Venerable Supreme Lady and perform something of interest to us.” Mother Jia smiled and said: “The opera that we partake of here is just an informal amusement and not for external consumption as a business transaction, and so is probably not according to current fashion.” So saying, she summoned Actor Kui44 once more: “Sing the scene ‘Hui Ming Delivers a Letter’;45 and there is no need to put on make-up. Just perform these two scenes and let the two Supreme Ladies hear a little of the flavour of your rendition. I won’t forgive you if it is lacking in gusto.” The civilian actors and the others gave heed to their instructions and went quickly to get dressed for their roles and go on stage, first “Seeking a Dream” and second “Hui Ming delivers a Letter”.
The gathering was as quiet as a flock of house sparrows that had been stilled. Aunt Xue, smiling, said: “Although in actual fact I’ve seen several hundred troupes performing opera, I’ve never seen one accompanied only by the xiao and other wind instruments.” Mother Jia said: “Formerly there were those of this type, but like the recent Tale of the Western Chamber,46 also called Chu River Emotions47 to take one example, in most cases, the actor taking the xiaosheng48 role [young male roles] played the xiao as an accompaniment. Those situations where such an accompaniment was furnished for substantial sections were in fact few. This was also where people were making do with what they had got, so they don’t rank as anything remarkable.” She also indicated Xiangyun and said: “When I was as old as her, my grandfather kept a small operatic troupe in which, unusually, there was someone who played the qin, who had assembled a medley of ‘Listening to the Qin’ from The Tale of the Western Bower49, ‘Qin Flirtation’ from The Tale of the Jade Hairpin,50 and ‘The Barbarian Flute in Eighteen Movements’ from Sequel to the Pipa,51 and the result ended up close to being the real thing. Would that be more suitable than this?” Everyone said: “That would be even harder to put into effect.” Mother Jia then called the young women over and had them enjoin the civilian actors to play the suite The Lantern Moon Is Round on wind and stringed instruments.52 The young women accepted the instruction and went to implement it.
40 Greater Audience Garden 大觀園.
41 Theatrical Academy of Pear Fragrance 梨香院. The usage of “pear fragrance” in this context indicates a theatrical troupe.
42 The term here is 文官. The first of the characters, 文, means “civilian” as opposed to “military”, these being the two genres of opera narrative, and which are furnished with casts to match. The second character 官 usually means an “official” but here denotes an actor.
43 “Seeking a Dream”〈尋夢〉. The scene is from The Peony Pavilion《牡丹亭》.
44 Actor Kui 葵官.
45 “Hui Ming Delivers a Letter” 〈惠明下書〉. The scene is from The Southern Redaction of the Tale of the Western Bower《南西廂記》.
46 The Tale of the Western Chamber《西樓記》.
47 Chu River Emotions《楚江情》.
48 Xiaosheng 小生.
49 “Listening to the Qin”〈聽琴〉; The Tale of the Western Bower《西廂記》.
50 “Qin Flirtation”〈聽琴〉; The Tale of the Jade Hairpin《玉簪記》.
51 “The Barbarian Flute in Eighteen Movements” 〈胡笳十八拍〉; Sequel to the Pipa《續琵琶》.
52 The Lantern Moon Is Round《燈月圓》.
At that moment, Jia Rong and his wife were serving the company a round of drinks. Because Mother Jia was replete with happiness, Sister Feng, smiling, said: “Given that the girl performers are here, it would be better for us to ‘pass the plum’ and play a round of the drinking game ‘spring happiness reaches to the tips of the eyebrows’; how about it?” Mother Jia, smiling, said: “This is an excellent drinking game! And absolutely in season.” She quickly ordered that the black-lacquered, copper-studded, flower-decorated special drum dedicated to drinking games be brought out and gave it to the girl performers to strike. From above the dining area, a branch of red plum blossom was plucked down, and Mother Jia laughed and said: “Whoever’s hands it reaches when the drum stops has to drink a cup and recite their party piece to satisfy everyone.” Sister Feng laughed and said: “Take note of what I say: is there anyone here who resembles the Venerable Ancestor in that whatever she wants, she gets? Will what we do here necessarily be of no interest? Yet how can both the elegant and the crude be appreciated at the same time and the result remain acceptable? Better by far would be for whoever the plum branch reaches when the drum stops to be required to tell an anecdote.” When the gathering had heard this, knowing that she had long been adept at telling anecdotes and had in her stomach an unlimited store of fresh quips and bright remarks, given that she spoke in this manner, not only did all those present at the table like what they had heard, but none beneath them, both young and old and who served in various capacities, did not enjoy it. The maidservants thus went swiftly to find all their fellows, one sister to another, to tell them: “Come quickly and listen, Second Lady is about to tell anecdotes again.” The whole bevy of maidservants was thus squeezed into the one room.
Thereupon, the opera over and the music ceased, Mother Jia took soup, fine pastries, and fruit and gave them to the civilian actors and the others to eat, and then ordered the drum to be sounded. The girl performers were both extremely familiar with these customs, and drummed either in an agitated manner or slowly, or like the sporadic dripping of an exhausted hourglass or as excitably as splitting beans, or like the galloping of a startled horse, or with the brightness of a sick tortoise; suddenly, they quietened their drumming, the plum branch was passed into Mother Jia’s hands, the drumming came to an appropriate stop, and everyone burst out in a peel of laughter. Jia Rong quickly went up to pour a cup, and the entire throng laughed, saying: “As a matter of course, Venerable Supreme Lady will be the first to have joy [drink wine], and we are relying on this joy [to hear something interesting].” Mother Jia laughed and said: “The wine itself is a simple enough proposition, but the anecdote is just a little difficult to utter.” Everyone said: “The Venerable, Supreme Lady tells them better than Lady Feng. Graciously bestow one on us, and let’s have a laugh.” Mother Jia, smiling, said: “Even though there aren’t any fresh and new bellyaching ones, you can’t be without old-faced thick-skinned me telling you one.” So she began:
“There was once a family in which 10 sons were being brought up, and they married 10 different wives, but only the tenth wife was intelligent and quick-witted, and blessed with an ingenious mind and clever mouth, and her mother- and father-in-law were fond of her most and spent all day saying that the other nine did not fulfil their obligations of filial piety. These nine wives felt most aggrieved, and they discussed the matter, saying: ‘We nine have hearts imbued with filial piety, but we don’t have a mouth quite as ingenious as that young filly,53 so our mother- and father-in-law and their siblings sing only her praises. To whom can we pour out our grievance?’ Someone with ideas said: ‘Let us go tomorrow to the temple of Yama, the King of Hell, and burn incense, and have a word with Old King Yama and ask him the question: why did he, when giving us rebirth as humans, give only this filly a clever mouth? And yet we are all lumped together with the crowd of clumsy mouths.’ The other eight of them listened and liked what they had heard, so they said: ‘This idea is not a bad one.’ The next day, they all went to King Yama’s temple and burnt incense.
“The nine of them all slept underneath the altar, nine souls awaiting the arrival of King Yama and his entourage. From leftwards he did not come; from rightwards he did not arrive. They were just getting worried when they saw Sun Xingzi [the Monkey King, Sun Wukong]54 riding a somersaulting cloud, coming towards them, and, seeing the nine souls, taking hold of his golden-bound staff, he sought to launch his assault. Shocked and terrified, the nine souls hurriedly knelt down and begged for mercy. Sun Xingzhe asked what the cause of all this was, and the nine quickly told him in detail. When Sun Xingzhe had heard them, he stamped his foot and, heaving a sigh, said: ‘With this as the reason, thank goodness you have met me! If you had waited for King Yama to come; this is something he should not know about.’ The nine of them, having heard this, beseeched him, saying: ‘Great Holiness, have pity on us and all will be well.’ Sun Xingzhe, laughing, said: ‘This is not a difficult matter: that day when you 10 wives were undergoing rebirth, by coincidence, I had gone to King Yama’s abode, and, because I had sprayed a shot of urine on the ground, it was drunk up by your younger sister-in-law. If you now want to be as quick-witted and clever-mouthed as she, I have plenty of urine, and I can spray a shot of urine for you to drink, and that will solve everything.’”
When she had finished, everyone burst out laughing. Sister Feng, smiling, said: “Excellent! Thankfully, we are all clumsy-mouthed and clumsy-cheeked, otherwise we would have all drunk the monkey’s urine!” Mrs You and Mrs Lou both laughed and said to Li Wan: “Of us here, who has drunk the monkey’s urine; don’t come the little innocent!” Aunt Xue smiled and said: “An anecdote in due season always causes laughter.”
So saying, the drums began to be struck again. The maidservants only wanted to hear Sister Feng’s anecdote, and so they surreptitiously explained this to the girl performers, with a cough acting as the prearranged signal. In a trice, the plum blossom had been passed round twice and had just got into Sister Feng’s hands when the maidservants deliberately coughed, and the girl performers stopped. Everyone laughed together and said: “This time we’ve really got her! Quickly, drink up the wine and tell us a good one, but don’t make us laugh so much that our tummies ache.”
53 The term here is 蹄子, which refers to a hooved animal. In early novels like The Dream of the Red Chamber, it is commonly employed to indicate women, often in derogatory contexts. It is a cruel term as it probably refers to the shape of a woman’s feet after they had been bound.
54 Sun Xingzi 孫行子; Sun Wukong孫悟空. 孫 is a surname and 行者 means “someone who moves”, so the appellation accentuates Sun Wukong’s athletic prowess.
Sister Feng thought for a moment, and then, smiling, said: “A family was once also celebrating the festival of the first month of the year, and all its members were viewing the lanterns with appreciation and drinking wine; all was well and truly extraordinarily boisterous. Ancestral Grandmother, Supreme Grandmother, wives, wives of grandchildren, wives of great-grandchildren, wives of bloodline grandchildren, grand-nephews, great-grandnephews, distant relatives of subsequent generations, any number of related grandchildren, granddaughters, granddaughters of the female line, great-nieces of younger and older sisters… Wow! Boy was it boisterous!” Everyone was listening to her and already laughing, saying: “Listening to this gobbledygook! I wonder who is going to get it in the neck!” Mrs You laughed and said: “If you bring me into it, I’ll slap you right across the face!” Sister Feng arose, clapped her hands and, smiling, said: “I am making a real effort here. If you don’t let me get a word in sideways, I won’t carry on.” Mother Jia laughed and said: “You just tell your tale; what happened next?” Sister Feng thought for a moment, and then laughing, said: “Next they all sat together in a room, drunk wine for the whole night long, and then dispersed.”
Everyone could see that she was speaking with serious words and a stern demeanour, and they had nothing more to say and stared blankly, waiting for her to continue, and felt that she had stopped in her tracks with an icy cold flavourlessness. Xiangyun looked at her for a long time. Sister Feng smiled and said: “Perhaps I should tell of another celebration of the festival of the first month of the year: it so happened that several people took sticks of firecrackers as large as rooms and went to set them off outside the city walls and had attracted 10,000 or more people to follow them to see what was going on. One particularly impatient individual could not wait long enough, so he secretly took burning incense and lit them. Suddenly, with a loud ‘pu-chi’ as if everyone had burst out laughing, the firecrackers were dispersed [all set off]. The individual who was carrying the sticks of firecrackers complained that the man who had sold them to him had not manufactured them with sufficiently sturdy insulating material, and that, before they had been lit, they had set off [dispersed].” Xiangyun said: “Surely the individual concerned had heard?” Sister Feng said: “Actually, he was deaf.” Everyone heard what had been said and thought for a while and couldn’t help but involuntarily bursting out laughing. And then they thought once more of the earlier anecdote that had not been finished and asked her, saying: “The one you told first, what was really going on? You should finish it.” Sister Feng banged once on the table and said: “How extraordinarily longwinded! The next day was the 16th of the month, and the New Year was over, the festival was also over, so as I saw, people would be quick to tidy up their affairs and could no longer be boisterous with no respite, so how could I possibly know what went on after that?” Everyone heard what was said and once more began laughing.
Sister Feng smiled and said: “Outside it is already well into the fourth watch of the night [about 1am] and, as far as I can say, the Venerable Ancestor is fatigued. We also ought to ‘as the deaf person who sets off firecrackers – disperse!’” Mrs You and the others used silk handkerchiefs to wipe their mouths and were doubled up with laughter, and, pointing to her, said: “You don’t half talk gobbledygook!” Mother Jia laughed and said: “This really is Feng, my old girl: ever more refined in nonsense!” At the same time as smiling, she suggested: “She has brought up firecrackers, so why don’t we light a few fireworks to alleviate the effects of the wine.” No sooner had Jia Rong heard this, than he went quickly out and took the manservants with him to erect screens and scaffolding inside the courtyard and hang fireworks on them in a correct and complete order. These fireworks were all items that had been presented as tributary gifts from many quarters, and, although they were not especially large, they were exquisitely made, in all colours, whole and complete according to established practice, and interspersed were other types of fireworks of different colours.
Daiyu was of a weak and breathless disposition and could not put up with the “pi-pa” crackling of the fireworks, so Mother Jia hugged her in her arms. Aunt Xue thereupon hugged Xiangyun, but Xiangyun smiled and said: “I am not afraid.” Baochai, laughingly, said: “She is particularly fond of setting off the biggest fireworks herself, so how could she be afraid of this!” Lady Wang then hugged Baoyu in her arms. Sister Feng laughed and said: “No one loves us!” Mrs You said, smiling: “I’m here and I’ll hug you in my arms. You are pouting and preening like a spoilt child once more. If you listen to the sound of setting off firecrackers, it’s like someone saying, ‘eat a honey-bee’s poo’. Today we are being extremely frivolous again.” Sister Feng smiled and said: “Wait until all are set off, then let us light some in the courtyard; I can light them even better than the manservants.” Interspersed with the conversation was the “se-se” sound outside of one after the other being set off. There were also many and various small fireworks of types like “a skyful of stars”, “seven dragons soar to the clouds”, “a crack of thunder on the level plain”, and “10 sounds flying to Heaven”. After the fireworks had all been lit, the actors were ordered to perform a rendition of “And So Fall the Lotus Flowers”.55 The whole of the stage was scattered with paper fragments; the children swept across the stage, fighting to pick up the paper for their amusement.
55 “And So Fall the Lotus Flowers”《蓮花落》.
When the soup was served, Mother Jia said: “The night is long, and I am beginning to feel a little hungry.” Sister Feng answered quickly: “There is a thick broth of duck meat that was prepared earlier.” Mother Jia said: “I will have some simple and light refreshment and no more.” Sister Feng swiftly added: “And there is also a thick rice broth with dates boiled in it, prepared for the Supreme Ladies if they wished to have vegetarian fare.” Mother Jia said: “Then let’s have some of that.” So saying, the dirty plates had already been removed, and both inside and outside, many dishes of fine delicacies were laid out. Everyone ate a little as fancy took them, washed their mouths out with tea brewed for the purpose, and then finally dispersed.
On the morning of the 17th, they went once more to the Ning family residence to pay their respects with formal ceremonial. The ritual was completed with the service of shutting the temple door and receiving back the image of the deceased, and then they returned. This was the day when Aunt Xue’s family had invited them to drink wine for the New Year. Mother Jia had felt for several days that she was getting tired, so she just sat there for a long while and then returned. From the 18th day onwards, if relatives and friends came with invitations or to attend banquets, Mother Jia did not join any of the gatherings, and Lady Xing, Lady Wang and Sister Feng were left to take care of the arrangements. Even Baoyu, except for going to Wang Ziteng’s [a very senior government official and related to the protagonists in The Dream of the Red Chamber] residence, did not visit anywhere else and simply said that Mother Jia had kept him at home to relieve her sense of oppression.
With that, the yuanxiao lantern festival was over, and Sister Feng suddenly had a miscarriage, so the whole household was in a panic. If you want to know what happened next, the next chapter will explain it fully.
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.