honglou meng


It’s finally Spring, and I’m feeling the seasonal desire to read Cao Xueqin’s Story of the StoneShitou Ji 石头记)[aka Dream of the Red Chamber (Honglou Meng 红楼梦)].  Story of the Stone is a Ming novel (some would argue it’s the Ming novel) that follows a once-great family’s inevitable decline with a perspective on the inner chambers. The novel is most famous for its detailed depictions of female characters.  (In some ways it reminds me of Jane Austen’s novels.)

I miss weepy Lin Daiyu, hardass Wang Xifeng, silly Shi Xiangyun, and the wonderful, lovable, gender-ambiguous Jia Baoyu.  And I know Lacey and Chelsea feel the same.

The picture is Daiyu and Baoyu reading the notoriously risque play, Story of the Western Wing (Xixiang ji 西厢记).

     They had been moving on meanwhile, and he now led them into the largest of the little thatched buildings, from whose simple interior with its paper windows and plain deal furniture all hint of urban refinement had been banished.  Jia Zheng was inwardly pleased.  He stared hard at Bao-yu:

     ‘How do you like this place, then?’

     With secret winks and nods the literary gentlemen urged Bao-yu to make a favourable reply, but he willfully ignored their promptings.

     'Not nearly as much as “The Phoenix Dance”.’

     His father snorted disgustedly.

     'Ignoramus!  You have eyes only for painted halls and gaudy pavilions–the rubbishy trappings of wealth.  What can you know of the beauty that lies in quietness and natural simplicity?  This is the consequence of your refusal to study properly.’

     'Your rebuke is, of course, justified, Father,’ Bao-yu replied promptly, 'but then I have never really understood what it is the ancients meant by “natural”.’

     The literary gentlemen, who had observed a vein of mulishness in Bao-yu which boded trouble, were surprised by the seeming naivete of this reply.

     'Why, fancy not knowing what “natural” means–you who have such a good understanding of so much else!  “Natural” is that which is of nature, that is to say, that which is produced by nature as opposed to that which is produced by human artifice.’

     'There you are, you see!’ said Bao-yu.  'A farm set down in the middle of a place like this is obviously the product of human artifice.  There are no neighboring villages, no distant prospects of city walls; the mountain at the back doesn’t belong to any system; there is no pagoda rising from some tree-hid monastery in the hills above; there is no bridge below leading to a near-by market town.  It sticks up out of nowhere, in total isolation from everything else.  It isn’t even a particularly remarkable view–not nearly so “natural” in either form or spirit as those other places we have seen.  The bamboos in those other places may have been planted by human hand and the streams diverted out of their natural courses, but there was no appearance of artifice.  That’s why, when the ancients use the term “natural” I have my doubts about what they really meant.’“