The Story of the Stone by Cao Xueqin is an animated, lively account of life in a large Chinese household in the mid-18th century Qing dynasty. It remains a fascinating novel for modern readers with its vivid and detailed descriptions of the minutiae of daily life – from clothing, food and interior design to education, marriage and death. For all its realism however, The Story of the Stone is not set entirely in reality. The very premise of the whole tale, that of a single rock left out of the goddess Nu-wa’s repairing of the sky, is one based on a magico-religious dream world. The rock is found by a Buddhist and a Taoist who take it down to the mortal world where it lives out a human life, that of Jia Bao-yu, before attaining Nirvana. Once a rock again, a Taoist copies the inscription on its surface ”from beginning to end and took it back with him to look for a publisher”. Cao Xueqin’s emphasis on dreams can be seen in the alternative titles for his masterpiece. A Dream of Red Mansions is the title by which the book is perhaps most commonly known. Twelve Young Ladies of Jinling is also a title suggested in chapter one. Both of these titles refer to the same dream. As David Hawkes explains, ‘hong lou’, red mansion, has the more specialised meaning of the residences of the daughters of rich men and thus, the young ladies themselves. The dream alluded to in these appellations occurs in the fifth chapter of volume one, The Golden Days.
Cousin Zhen’s wife, You-shi, has invited the women of the Rong-guo house, accompanied by Bao-yu, round for a flower viewing party. Needless to say, Bao-yu soon tires and asks to take a nap. Rather than going back to the Rong mansion, the wife of his nephew, Jia Rong, leads him to her chamber to sleep. Bao-yu immediately drops off into a vivid dream world. He meets the fairy of Disenchantment who shows him to the Land of Illusion and into the Department of the Ill-Fated Fair. Within this department is housed the ‘Jinling, Twelve Beauties of, Main Register’, a record of the twelve most notable females in Bau-yu’s own province of Jinling. The fairy of Disenchantment allows Bao-yu to read the fates of the twelve girls as recorded in the form of four-line verses. Bao-yu can make little sense of what he reads. Later, the quatrains are expanded into a series of twelve songs entitled A Dream of Golden Days. While the words are sung by a troupe of entertainers, Bao-yu reads along with the manuscript. He still does not understand. Indeed, both the verses in the register and in the song-cycle contain allusions and metaphors not immediately obvious and not easily deciphered. Yet at a most basic level, they provide an outline of the fate of twelve principle female characters in The Story of the Stone. Their fate unfolds throughout the course of the five volume novel. The Golden Days therefore, is only the beginning. But, by the end of the first volume, to what extent have the women already prepared the way for their future course?
The first verse in the Main Register is a joint record of Lin Dai-yu and Xue Bao-chai. These two young girls share the affection of Bao-yu and Grandmother Jia. In their own individual ways, they are both paragons. It seems odd therefore that they share only one verse between them. Hawkes puts forward the argument that Dai-yu and Bao-chai ”represent two complementary aspects of a single ideal woman”. Evidence for this interpretation lies in the first two lines of their quatrain: One was a pattern of female virtue, One a wit who made other wits seem slow. The combination of wit, or intelligence, and virtue were ideal traits in a Qing woman of the upper class. Arguably it was Dai-yu who held the upper hand in wit while Bao-chai, with her ”generous and accommodating disposition”, was the more virtuous. Although in the song-cycle there are two songs for Dai-yu and Bao-chai, it is not the case that one is dedicated to Dai-yu and one to Bao-chai. Albeit the second song is solely about Dai-yu, but there are references to both characters in the first song. The character ‘lin’ in Lin Dai-yu is made up of two tree radicals and has the meaning ‘forest’. ‘Xue’ in Xue Bao-chai sounds the same as the Chinese word for ‘snow’ while ‘bao chai’ can be translated as ‘precious’ or ‘gold hairpin’. Thus, the references come in the form of gold, flowers, snow and trees. Bao-yu is alluded to using jade or stone as he was born with a jade stone in his mouth. The first song, The Mistaken Marriage, refers to ”the marriage rites of gold and jade”. This foreshadows the marriage of Bao-chai (gold) and Bao-yu (jade). The speaker however, still remembers the relationship between ‘stone and flower’. There is indeed, a special bond between Bao-yu and Dai-yu.
Although Bao-yu, ”a child…whom nature had endowed with the eccentric obtuseness of a simpleton”, fails to recognise it, Dai-yu is an intensely jealous character and resents any time he spends with Bao-chai and not her. Bao-yu struggles to understand the cause of Dai-yu’s mainly irrational sulks, yet always attempts to comfort her: Take kinship first: you are my cousin on Father’s side; cousin Bao is only a mother-cousin. That makes you much the closer kin. And as for length of acquaintance: it was you who came here first. You and I have practicaly grown up together…Why should I ever be any less close to you because of her? There is a profound love between Bao-yu and Dai-yu that seems to grow with the progression of the first volume. They share an understanding ”so intense that it was almost as if they had grown into a single person.” The speaker suggests however, that later on Dai-yu (”that fairy wood”) dies. Thus, even a wife ”so courteous and so kind” as Bao-chai is no substitute for the wife that Dai-yu could have been. Their marriage, even though ”others all commend it”, is a mistake. This is succeeded by Hope Betrayed which deals specifically with the close relationship between Dai-yu (”a flower from paradise”) and Bao-yu (”a pure jade without spot or stain”). They are clearly meant for each other but the poem augurs future disaster. The pain heartache that stems from such an ardent love will all be in vain. In one sense these two poems pose an insurrmountable contradiction. Fate, the belief in which provides the premise for this entire dream scene, will have them be together but they are not.
They are meant to be but cannot and this inability is portrayed as some kind of mistake, a going against the natural order. Is there then, even such a thing as fate? This question aside, it can be seen that, in the case of Dai-yu and Bao-chai, their journey has barely begun by the end of The Golden Days. Their relationship with Bao-yu is entirely platonic (physically at least) and, although it is perhaps assumed that one of them, most likely Dai-yu, will be be Bao-yu’s future bride, this is only hinted at in jest among the maids and is a source of great embarassement to Dai-yu. The second quatrain and the third poem can be interpretted as Yuan-chun’s fate. Yuan-chun, daughter of Lady Wang and Jia Zheng, is Bao-yu’s elder sister. The first two lines describe her, age twenty, leaving her family to live in the emperor’s palace as a royal concubine. As can be seen by the subsequent effort put into a lavish garden compund in honour fo her visit, this was a position held in great esteem. Although out of modesty, Yuan-chun later changes the name, the setting for her reunion with her family within Prospect Garden initially bears the inscription ‘Precinct of the Celsetial Visitant’. Hence perhaps, the use of the phrase ”pomegranate-time”. Hawkes stresses the ”redness’ of the original Chinese text, the colour red being a symbol of good-fortune and prosperity. Although much of this sense has inevitably been lost in translation, the red skin of the pomegranate could perhaps be taken as emphasising the great advantages such a position could bestow on both concubine and family.
The second half of the quatrain however, does not bode so well for the future. Although Yuan-chun is superior if not in beauty and intelligence then in success to her half-sister Tan-chun and her cousins, Ying-chun and Xi-chun (the ”three springs”), her charmed life will come to an end ”when hare meets tiger”. Hare and tiger refer to Chinese years. Thus, this prophecy specifies that the date of Yuan-chun’s death will fall at the end of a tiger year and at the beginning of a rabbit year. The third song, Mutability, again prophesises Yuan-chun’s departure from the Rong-guo household to the emperor’s palace. It goes on to describe her appearing before her parents in a dream to pay her ”final duty”, forewarning again of her death. By the end of The Golden Days Yuan-chun has indeed left home to become a royal concubine. Although the location of the Jia clan in The Story of the Stone is questionable, it is clear that Yuan-chun and her family feel cut off from each other in spirit if not by physical distance.
Their reunion in chapter eighteen is an emotional one and although the emperor allows visits in the palace once a month, special permission must be granted for a once-yearly return to the family home. It is for this reason, ”so far the road back home did seem”, that Yuan-chun will be forced to pay her final filial duties in a dream. (Hawkes points out that this dream sequence never in fact took place. He suggests that Xueqin used the material for this episode in chapter thirteen instead, when Qin-shi appears before Xi-feng in a dream.) Tan-chun, half-sister to Yuan-chun, one of the ”three springs” referred to above and daughter of Jia Zheng and a concubine, is the subject of the fourth quatraine in the Main Register. She is ”by far the most gifted of the three springs” as well as possessing a kind, generous nature.
The first line, ”Blessed with a shrewd mind and a noble heart”, is countered however, by the second, ”Yet born in time of twilight and decay”. Although The golden Days is essentially a story set in the happy, carefree years of childhood, the bigger picture reveals a time of political and social upheaval, a sense of which permeates many aspects of the novel. Tan-chun’s prophesised marriage in the final two lines will thus perhaps be related to economic considerations. The marriage will clearly not be a happy one. The very title of the fourth song, From Dear Ones Parted, suggests the insuperable distance between Tan-chun and her home and her intense homsickness. The song has Tan-chun referring to ”our rising, falling”, meaning the rise and fall of the Jia family. As a result of this, ”each in another land must be, each for himself must fend as best he may”, again suggesting that the marriage will be one of economic convenience. Apart from allusions to her wit and good character, we learn little about Tan-chun in the first volume of The Story of the Stone. There are however, hints to be found as to her fate. In chapter 22, she attends Grandmother Jia’s riddle party. Asked to compose a riddle, the answer to Tan-chun’s is ‘a kite’.
This image of a kite as associated with Tan-chun symbolizes her departure ”a thousand miles” away, her flight from the nest. Her riddle also foreshadows her unhappiness once in the marriage: My strength all goes when once the bond is parted, And on the wind I drift off broken hearted. This description of drifting off in the wind ties in with the suggestion in the song that she will be taken to her new husband by boat ”through rain and wind”. Like Tan-chun, relatively little reference is made to Shi Xiang-yun, the subject of the fourth quatrain and fifth song. She is the daughter of Grandmother Jia’s brother’s son. Orphaned as a young girl, she first lived with Grandmother Jia before moving in with her uncle, Shi Ding, and his wife. It seems from both the register and the song, that Xiang-yun is destined to find the man of her dreams, ”a perfect, gentle husband”. But happiness will be fleeting: Soon you must mourn your bright sun’s early setting. The Xiang flows and the Chu clouds sail away. The Xiang was a river flowing through the ancient kingdom of Chu. This was believed to be home to a goddess of lovers. But soon ”the clouds of Gao-tang faded, the waters of the Xiang ran dry.” This suggests another calamity, perhaps the sudden death of her husband. There is no intimation of Xiang-yun’s fate in The Golden Days. The main scene involving her is one of comic relief as Dai-yu teases her about her lisp and Xiang-yun responds good-humouredly. The impression created is of a happy-go-lucky, lively young girl, quite a contrast from the rather intense and moody Dai-yu.
This is best illustrated in Xueqin’s description of them asleep: Dai-yu was tightly cocooned in a quilt of apricot-coloured damask, the picture of tranquil repose. Xiang-yun, by contrast, lay with her hank of jet black hair tumbled untidily beside the pillow, a white arm with its two gold bracelets thown carelessly outside the bedding and two white shoulders exposed above the peach-pink coverlet, which barely reached her armpits. ‘A tomboy, even in her sleep!’ Bao-yu muttered… The sixth woman included in the register is the only one of the twelve who is not a member of the Jia family. Adamantina nevertheless lives among them in Prospect Garden after Yuan-chun issues an edict stating that the garden is not to be closed up. She is a nun and this is reflected in the descriptions of her ”otherworldliness” and her ”grace and wit to match the gods” that set her ”with the rest at odds. Nauseous to [her] the world’s rank diet.” Her final destination however, is clearly one of disrepute. In both the quatrain and the song, she ends up in the mud, impure and shameful. The fact that down here, ”only wealthy rakes might bless their luck” suggests that Adamantina will end her days as perhaps a prostitute. By the end of The Golden Days however, she is still a nun who ”looks down on common flesh and blood” The seventh of the Twelve Beauties of Jinling is Ying-chun, the eldest of the three springs. She is Jia She’s daughter by a concubine.
With the arrival of Dai-yu and Bao-chai, the three springs are relugated to a secondary position in Grandmother Jia’s affections. Ying-chun is thus a rather underdeveloped character in The Golden Days. The sixth entry in the register and the seventh poem both suggest that she will be married off to a violent, unfaithful and cruel bully. There is no hint of this fate in the first volume of the novel. The Golden Days gives away equally little about the subject of the next quatrain and song, Xi-chun. Sister of Cousin Zhen and the youngest of the three springs, seems destined to seek release ”from youth’s extravagance” and ”to win chaste quietness and heavenly peace” by becoming a Buddhist nun. Wang Xi-feng on the other hand, wife of Jia Lian and cousin to Bao-yu, plays a far more prominent role in The Golden Days. She is a very strong character, a feminist role-model. She has all the qualities of the ideal wife with her managerial prowess and deference to her elders, and yet she always manages to be on top. This combination of cunning and virtue can best be seen in the chapters dealing with Qin-shi’s funeral. Having been relegated posthumously to the status of a Noble Dame, the funeral is a grand affair. The sheer cost and man-power involved is staggering and Xi-feng is put in charge of it all. Nevertheless, she manages it with ”the decisiveness of a little general”.
On the night of the wake, her maturity and superior social skills are further demonstrated when it is left entirely to her to do the honours. Xi-feng’s vivacious charm and social assurance stood out in striking contrast…She was in her element, and if she took any notice of her humbler sisters it was only to throw out an occassional order or to bend them in some other way to her imperious will. This can be juxtaposed with the episode in the next chapter when, after the funeral, Xi-feng, Bao-yu and Qin-zhong spend the night in the Water-moon Priory. The prioress Euergesia, catching Xi-feng alone, tells her the story of a benefactor of the priory called Zhang. He is desperate to call off his daughter’s engagement to the son of a captain in the Chang-an garrison. The captain however, is being thoroughly unreasonable and refusing to take back the betrothal-gifts. Euergesia beseeches Xi-feng to use her unfluence to get Jia Zheng to write a letter to General Yun asking him to ”have a word with” the captain because ”It is hardly likely that he would refuse to obey his commading officer.” Xi-feng coyly turns her down until Euergesia questions Xi-feng’s ability. Xi-feng ‘relents’ and agrees to take part for the the not so small sum of three thousand taels of silver.
Xi-feng is clearly fiscally-minded and savvy, never one to let an opportunity for profit slip by. The hush-hush manner in which this matter of the captain is broached also suggests that it is rather shady business. Yet, any qualms Xi-feng feigns to have about getting involved seem to be easily forgotten. Xi-feng is indeed, as the ninth song states, ”too shrewd by half”. She is too focused on self-advancement but with the fall of the Jia family later in The Story of the Stone, Xi-feng’s plotting and manouevering will all come to nothing: Like a great building’s tottering crash, Like flickering lampwick burned to ash… Although the exact nature of Xi-feng’s future is not specified, it is clear that it is not a bright one. She will, as the title of the ninth song says, be ”caught by her own cunning”. Although we see none of her decline in The Golden Days, there are hints of a fall to come. When Qin-shi appears to her in a dream, she warns Xi-feng of the future fall of the Jai family as a whole. She quotes a proverb: ”The higher the climb, the harder the fall.” Could this be referring equally to Xi-feng as to the family? Is there a reason why Qin-shi appears before Xi-feng specifically? The tenth Beautiy of Jinling, interestingly enough, does not even appear in the first volume. Qiao-jie, daughter of Xi-feng, nevertheless has some sort of trouble ahead of her. It seems that no one will be spared pain and grief as the Jia family declines. The penultimate Beauty included on the Main Register is Li Wan, mother of Jia Lan. Li Wan was married to Jia Zhu, brother of Bao-yu.
Jia Zhu died before the start of the novel as implied by the third line in the eleventh song, ”…the pleasures of the bridal bed” soon fled. The quatrain suggests that their son, Jia Lan, ”her Orchid”, will be successful. The song goes further to describe the ”awesome sight” of ”the head with cap and bands of office on, and gleaming bright upon his breast the gold insignia…” Jia Lan will later pass the civil service exam and become a high official. It is perhaps slightly far-fetched but one of the few mentions of Jia Lan comes in chapter nine, set in the Jia clan school house. As for Li Wan, there is no hint that ”the black night of death’s dark frontier lay close at hand.” It would seem that she tragically dies after her son’s appointment. Finally, there is Qin-shi, the twelfth Beauty of Jinling. She is the young wife of Jia Rong but dies of a mysterious unidentified disease half way through The Golden Days. Of all the women, Qin-shi is the only one whose whole fate is played out in the course of the first volume. It does not, however, run according to plan. Both the quatrain and the song, The Good Things Have an End, explicitly express that she will hang herself. The most likely reason for her suicide is the family’s discovery of her incestuous affair with her father-in-law, cousin Zhen: Say not our troubles all from Rong’s side came; For their beginning Ning must take the blame. Indeed, there are indications of such intrigue.
A drunken servant lets slip, in a fit of rage, ”Father-in-law pokes in the ashes…” The reader is clearly meant to take note of this comment, as Bao-yu subsequently questions Xi-feng as to it’s meaning. Xi-feng is quick in quashing any ideas Bao-yu may have on the subject and ”terrified by her vehemence, Bao-yu implored her forgiveness.” There is obviously something to hide. Cousin Zhen’s hysterical reaction after her death is also a sign that their relationship was not as it seemed. He is inconsolable, proclaiming: ”Now that she has been taken from us it’s plain to see that this senior branch of the family is doomed to extinction!” The poem accordingly, states that her death, ”the ruin of a mighty house protended.” Qin-shi’s suicide does not however, take place and she instead dies of natural causes. A reason for this discrepancy is put foward by Hawkes. While Xueqin did originally have Qin-shi hanging herself ”from painted beams”, a notation by one of the commentators on the original manuscript states that her ”ordered” Xueqin to remove the scene.
Xueqin reluctantly did so but, unenthusiastic about the change, failed to make the necessary alterations to the rest of the text. Having examined the fates of the Twelve Beauties of Jinling as expressed in the Main Register of the Department of the Ill Fated Fair and in the fairy of Disenchantment’s song cycle, it becomes immediately obvious that tradgedy lies ahead. With the decline of the Jia family will come a decline in the fortunes of each of the women. It is also clear that by the end of the first volume of The Story of the Stone the story has, in fact, barely begun. The Jia household is still powerful and rich, the child heros are still young and and insouciant, these are still the golden days.