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DREAM OF THE RED CHAMBER
MAIN • SCHOLAR • DREAM OF THE RED CHAMBER
Four thousand six hundred and twenty-three years ago the heavens were out of repair. So the Goddess of Works set to work and prepared 36,501 blocks of precious jade, each 240 feet square by 120 feet in depth. Of these, however, she only used 36,500, and cast aside the single remaining block upon one of the celestial peaks. This stone, under the process of preparation, had become as it were spiritualised. It could expand or contract. It could move. It was conscious of the existence of an eternal world, and it was hurt at not having been called upon to accomplish its divine mission.
One day a Buddhist and a Taoist priest, who happened to be passing that way, sat down for a while to rest, and noticed the disconsolate stone which lay there, no bigger than the pendant of a lady's fan
"Indeed, my friend, you are not wanting in spirituality," said the Buddhist priest to the stone, as he picked it up and laughingly held it forth upon the palm of his hand. "But we cannot be certain that you will ever prove to be of any real use; and, moreover, you lack an inscription, without which your destiny must necessarily remain unfulfilled."
Thereupon he put the stone in his sleeve and rose to proceed on his journey.
"And what, if I may ask," inquired his companion, "do you intend to do with the stone you are thus carrying away?"
"I mean," replied the other, "to send it down to earth, to play its allotted part in the fortunes of a certain family now anxiously expecting its arrival. You see, when the Goddess of Works rejected this stone, it used to fill up its time by roaming about the heavens, until chance brought it alongside of a lovely crimson flower. Being struck with the great beauty of this flower, the stone remained there for some time, tending its protegee with the most loving care, and daily moistening its roots with the choicest nectar of the sky, until at length, yielding to the influence of disinterested love, the flower changed its form and became a most beautiful girl.
"'Dear stone,' cried the girl, in her new-found ecstasy of life, 'the moisture you have bestowed upon me here I will repay you in our future state with my tears!'"
Ages afterwards, another priest, in search of light, saw this self-same stone lying in its old place, but with a record inscribed upon ita record of how it had not been used to repair the heavens, and how it subsequently went down into the world of mortals, with a full description of all it did, and saw, and heard while in that state.
"Brother Stone," said the priest, "your record is not
one that deals with the deeds of heroes among men. It does not stir us with stories either of virtuous states men or of deathless patriots. It seems to be but a simple tale of the loves of maidens and youths, hardly important enough to attract the attention of the great busy world."
"Sir Priest," replied the stone, "what you say is indeed true; and what is more, my poor story is adorned by no rhetorical flourish nor literary art. Still, the world of mortals being what it is, and its complexion so far determined by the play of human passion, I cannot but think that the tale here inscribed may be of some use, if only to throw a further charm around the banquet hour, or to aid in dispelling those morning clouds which gather over last night's excess."
Thereupon the priest looked once more at the stone, and saw that it bore a plain unvarnished tale of
"Beauty and anguish walking hand in hand
The downward slope to death,"
telling how a woman's artless love had developed into deep, destroying passion; and how from the thrall of a lost love one soul had been raised to a sublimer, if not a purer conception of man's mission upon earth. He therefore copied it out from beginning to end. Here it is:
Under a dynasty which the author leaves unnamed, two brothers had greatly distinguished themselves by efficient service to the State. In return, they had been loaded with marks of Imperial favor. They had been created nobles of the highest rank. They had amassed wealth. The palaces assigned to them were near together in Peking, and there their immediate descendants were enjoying the fruits of ancestral success when this story opens.
The brothers had each a son and heir; but at the date at which we are now, fathers and sons had all four passed away. The wife of one of the sons only was still alive, a hale and hearty old lady of about eighty years of age. Of her children, one was a daughter. She had married and gone away south, and her daughter, Tai-yü, is the heroine of this tale. The son of the old lady's second son and first cousin to Tai-yü is the hero, living with his grandmother. His name is Pao-yü.
The two noble families were now at the very zenith of wealth and power. Their palatial establishments were filled with every luxury. Feasting and theatricals were the order of the day, and, to crown all, Pao-yü's sister had been chosen to be one of the seventy-two wives allotted to the Emperor of China. No-one stopped to think that human events are governed by an inevitable law of change. He who is mighty today shall be low tomorrow: the rich shall be made poor, and the poor rich. or if any one, more youghtful than the rest, did pause awhile in knowledge of the appointments of Heaven, he was inclined to hope that the crash would not come, at any rate, in his own day.
Things were in this state when Tai-yü's mother died, and her father decided to place his motherless daughter under the care of her grandmother at Peking. Accompanied by her governess, the young lady set out at once for the capital, and reached her destination in safety. It is not necessary to dwell upon her beauty nor upon her genius, though both are minutely described in the original text. Suffice it to say that during the years which have elapsed since she first became known to the public, many
brave men are said to have died for love of this entrancing heroine of fiction.
Tai-yü was received most kindly by all, especially so by her grandmother, who shed bitter tears of sorrow over the premature death of Tai-yü's mother, her lost and favorite child. She was introduced to her aunts and cousins, and cousins and aunts, in such numbers that the poor girl must have wondered how ever she should remember all their names. Then they sat down and talked. They asked her all about her mother, and how she fell ill, and what medicine she took, and how she died and was buried, until the old grandmother wept again.
"And what medicine do you take, my dear?" asked the old lady, seeing that Tai-yü herself seemed very delicate, and carried on her clear cheek a suspicious looking flush.
"Oh, I have done nothing ever since I could eat," replied Tai-yü, "but take medicine of some kind or other. I have also seen all the best doctors, but they have not done me any particular good. When I was only three years of age, a nasty old priest came and wanted my parents to let me be a nun. He said it was the only way to save me."
"Oh, we will soon cure you here," said her grand mother, smiling. "We will make you well in no time."
Tai-yü was then taken to see more of her relatives, including her aunt, the mother of Pao-yü, who warned her against his peculiar temper, which she said was very uncertain and variable.
"What! the one with the jade?" asked Tai-yü. "But we shall not be together," she immediately added, somewhat surprised at this rather unusual warning.
"Oh yes, you will," said her aunt. "He is dreadfully spoilt by his grandmother, who allows him to have his own way in everything. Instead of being hard at work, as he ought to be by now, he idles away his time with the girls, thinking only how he can enjoy himself, without any idea of making a career or adding new glory to the family name. Beware of him, I tell you.'
The dinner-hour had now arrived, and after the meal Tai-yü was questioned as to the progress she had made in her studies. She was already deep in the mysteries of the Four Books, and it was agreed on all sides that she was far ahead of her cousins, when suddenly a noise was heard outside, and in came a most elegantly dressed youth about a year older than Tai-yü, wearing a cap lavishly adorned uith pearls. His face was like the full autumn moon, his complexion like morning flowers in spring. Pencilled eyebrows, a well-cut shapely nose, and eyes like rippling waves were among the details which went to make up an unquestionably handsome exterior. Around his neck hung a curious piece of jade; and as soon as Tai-yü became fully conscious of his presence, a thrill passed through her delicate frame. She felt that somewhere or other she had looked upon that face before.
Pao-yüfor it was hesaluted his grandmother with great respect, and then went off to see his mother; and while he is absent it may be as well to say a few words about the young gentleman's early days.
Pao-yü, a name which means Precious Jade, was so called because he was born, to the great astonishment of everybody, with a small tablet of jade in his moutha beautifully bright mirror-like tablet, bearing a legend inscribed in the quaint old style of several yousand years ago. A family consultation resulted in a decision
that this stone was some divine talisman, the purpose of which was not for the moment clear, but was doubtless to be revealed in time. One thing was certain. As this tablet had come into the world with the child, so it should accompany him through life; and accordingly Pao-yü was accustomed to wear it suspended around his neck.
The news of this singular phenomenon spread far and wide. Even Tai-yü had heard of it long before she came to take up her abode with the family.
And so Pao-yü grew up, a willful, wayward boy. He was a bright, clever fellow and full of fun, but strongly disliked books. He declared, in fact, that he could not read at all unless he had as fellow-students a young lady on each side of him in order to keep his brain clear! And when his father beat him, as was frequently the case, he would cry out, "Dear sister! Dear sister!" all the time, in order, as he afterwards explained to his cousins, to ease the pain. Women, he argued, are made of water, with clear and mobile minds, while men are mostly made of mud, mere lumps of unformed clay.
By this time he had returned from seeing his mother and was formally introduced to Tai-yü.
"Ha!" he cried, "I have seen her before somewhere. What makes her eyes so red? Indeed, cousin Tai-yü, we shall have to call you Cry-baby if you cry so much."
Here some reference was made to his jade tablet, and. this put him into an angry mood at once. None of his cousins had any, he said, and he was not going to wear his any more. A family scene ensued, during which Tai-yü went off to bed and cried herself to sleep.
Shortly after this, Pao-yü's mother's sister was compelled by circumstances to seek a residence in the capital. She brought with her a daughter, Pao-ch'ai, another cousin to Pao-yü, but about a year older than he was; and besides receiving a warm welcome, the two were invited to settle themselves down in the large family mansion of their relatives. Thus it was that destiny brought Pao-yü and his two cousins together under the same roof.
The three soon became fast friends. Pao-ch'ai had been carefully educated by her father, and was able to hold her own even against the accomplished Tai-yü. Pao-yü loved the society of either or both. He was always happy so long as he had a pretty girl by his side, and was, moreover, fascinated by the wit of these two young ladies in particular.
He had, however, occasional fits of moody depression, varied by discontent with his superfluous worldly surroundings.
"How am I any better," he would say, "than a wallowing hog? Why was I born and bred amid this splendid magnificence of wealth, instead of in some coldly furnished household where I could have enjoyed the pure communion of friends? These silks and satins, these rich meats and choice wines, of what use are they to this perishable body of mine? O wealth! O power! I curse you both, you cankerworms of my earthly career."
All these morbid thoughts, however, were speedily dispelled by the presence of his fair cousins, with whom, in fact, Pao-yü spent most of the time he ought to have devoted to his books. He was always running across to see either one or other of these young ladies, or meeting both of them in general assembly at his grandmother's. It was at a tete-a-tete with Pao-ch'ai that she made him show her his marvellous piece of jade, with the inscription, which she read as follows:
"Lose me not, forget me not,
Eternal life shall be your lot."
The indiscretion of a slave-girl here let Pao-yü become aware that Pao-ch'ai herself possessed a wonderful gold amulet, upon which also were certain words inscribed, and of course Pao-yü insisted on seeing it at once. On it was written
"Let not this token wander from your side,
And youth perennial shall with you abide."
In the middle of this interesting scene, Tai-yü walks in, and seeing how intimately the two are engaged, "hopes she doesn't intrude." But even in those early days the ring of her voice betrayed symptoms of that jealousy to which later on she succumbed. Meanwhile she almost monopolises the society of Pao-yü, and he, on his side, finds himself daily more and more attracted by the sprightly mischievous humour of the beautiful Tai-yü, as compared with the quieter and more orthodox loveliness of Pao-ch'ai. Pao-chai does not know what jealousy means. She too loves to bandy words, exchange verses, or puzzle over riddles with her mercurial cousin; but she never allows her thoughts to wander towards him otherwise than is consistent with the strictest maidenly reserve.
Not so Tai-yü. She had been already for some time Pao-yü's chief companion when they were joined by Pao-ch'ai. She had come to regard the handsome boy almost as a part of herself, though not conscious of the fact until called upon to share his society with another. And so it was that although Pao-yü showed an open preference for herself, she still was jealous of the lesser attentions he paid to Pao-ch'ai. As often as not these same attentions originated in an irresistible impulse to tease. Pao-yü and Tai-yü were already lovers in so far that they were always quarrelling; the more so, that their quarrels invariably ended, as they should end, in the renewal of their love. As a rule, Tai-yü fell back upon the last resort of all womentears; and of course Pao-yü, who was not by any means wanting in chivalry, had no alternative but to wipe them away.
On one particular occasion, Tai-yü declared that she would die; upon which Pao-yü said that in that case he would become a monk and devote his life to Buddha; but in this instance it was he who shed the tears and she who had to wipe them away.
All this time Tai-yü and Pao-ch'ai were on terms of scrupulous courtesy. Tai-yü's father had recently died, and her fortunes now seemed to be bound up more closely than ever with those of the family in which she lived. She had a handsome gold ornament given her to match Pao-ch'ai's amulet, and the three young people spent their days together, thinking only how to get the most enjoyment out of every passing hour. Sometimes, however, a shade of serious thought would darken Tai-yü's moments of enforced solitude; and one day Pao-yü surprised her in a secluded part of the garden, engaged in burying flowers which had been blown down by the wind, while singing the following lines:
Flowers fade and fly,
and flying fill the sky;
Their bloom departs, their perfume gone,
yet who stands pitying by?
And wandering threads of gossamer
on the summer-house are seen,
And falling catkins lightly dew-steeped
strike the embroidered screen.
A girl within the inner rooms,
I mourn that spring is done,
A veil of sorrow binds my heart,
and solace there is none.
I pass into the garden,
and I turn to use my hoe,
Treading over fallen glories
as I lightly come and go.
There are willow-sprays and flowers of elm,
and these have scent enough.
I care not if the peach and plum,
are stripped from every bough.
The peach-tree and the plum-tree too
next year may bloom again,
But next year, in the inner rooms,
tell me, shall I remain?
By the third moon new fragrant nests
shall see the light of day,
New swallows fly among the beams,
each on its thoughtless way.
Next year once more they'll seek their food
among the painted flowers,
But I may go, and beams may go,
and with them swallow bowers.
Three hundred days and sixty make
a year, and therein lurk
Daggers of wind and swords of frost
to do their cruel work.
How long will last the fair fresh flower
which bright and brighter glows?
One morning its petals float away,
but to where no-one knows.
Gay bloooming buds attract the eye,
faded they're lost to sight;
Oh, let me sadly bury them
beside these steps tonight.
Alone, unseen, I seize my hoe,
with many a bitter tear;
They fall upon the naked stem
and stains of blood appear.
The night-jar now has ceased to mourn,
the dawn comes on apace,
I seize my hoe and close the gates,
leaving the burying-place;
But not until sunbeams dot the wall
does slumber soothe my care,
The cold rain pattering on the pane
as I lie shivering there.
You wonder that with flowing tears
my youthful cheek is wet;
They partly rise from angry thoughts,
and partly from regret.
Regret that spring comes suddenly;
and anger that it cannot last.
No sound to announce its approach,
or warn us when it's passed.
Last night within the garden
sad songs were faintly heard,
Sung, as I knew, by spirits,
spirits of flower and bird.
We cannot keep them here with us,
these much-loved birds and flowers,
They sing but for a season's space,
and bloom a few short hours.
If only I on a feathered wing
might soar aloft and fly,
With flower spirits I would seek
the rooms within the sky.
But high in the air
What grave is there?
No, give me an embroidered bag
within to lay their charms,
And Mother Earth, pure Mother Earth,
shall hide them in her arms.
Thus those sweet forms which spotless came
shall spotless go again,
Nor pass dirty with mud and filth
along some filthy drain.
Farewell, dear flowes, forever now,
thus buried as was best,
I have not yet divined when I
with you shall sink to rest.
I who can bury flowers like this
a laughing-stock shall be;
I cannot say in days to come
what hands shall bury me.
See how when spring begins to fail
each opening flower fades;
So too there is a time of age
and death for beautiful maids;
And when the fleeting spring is gone,
and days of beauty over,
Flowers fall, and lovely maidens die,
and both are known no more.
Abstract and translation by Henry Giles
Chinese Literature (Appleton, 1909)
Edited and footnotes by Richard Hooker