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Dream of the Red Chamber
ENGLISH 390: MULTICULTURAL LITERATURE
8 JUNE 1998
Emperors Kang His, Yung Cheng, and Chien Lung reigned during the eighteenth century when Dream of the Red Chamber was written. Depending on the translation of the Chinese:
the book can be called A Dream of Red Mansions (Zhang 1). This period of time, known as the Manchurian, Qing, or Ching Dynasty, was the last Chinese imperial dynasty. Manchu aristocrats governed China during the Kangschien Golden Age of the eighteenth century. While the aristocrats, royal families and bureaucratic landlords lived in red mansions, the peasants lived in poverty. The aristocrats, royal families and landlords exploited peasants politically and economically (Zhang 7).
In the novel, the author Tsao Hseuh-Chin described the lifestyle and decline of the Chia, Shih, Wang, and Hsueh families. The Chia family seemed to represent the group as a whole, and many events within the families seemed to represent the reality of the time. The four families were followed through several generations and the struggle for power by different family members comprised many a chapter. As one looks at the parallels between the life of the author, Tsao Hseuh-Chin, and the events that took place within the Chia family, one can easily see the correlation. The author appeared to use the events in the lives of the Chia family members to comment on the social, political and economic standards of the Qing Dynasty. The author created various events and situations in the Chia family to expose the corruption and extortion so prevalent during that time period (Zhang 87).
In the first chapter of the book, Dream of the Red Chamber, a small landlord Chen Shih-yin was forced into bankruptcy and sought refuge with his father-in-law. During the Qing Dynasty social turbulence and economical corruption often forced smaller landlords into bankruptcy. The name Chen Shih-yin means, "To keep the true facts hidden," a commentary probably used by the author to expose the corruption of the feudal system (Zhang 7).
The books author related the Chia family to the feudal politics and corrupt officials of this dynasty when he wove the story of Chia Chen purchasing a title of official rank for his son, Chia Jung. For the price of a thousand ounces of silver to the Ministry of Civil Service, Chia Jung received a special appointment, and the family received prestige and power.
Lady Wang decided to suppress the servants to maintain absolute rule. Wang Shan-paos wife led a search of all the maids rooms. The search served as a large-scale repression of the servants by the Chia family, just as the emperor Chien Lung suppressed the peasants.
Chinas top ruling leaders fought for power in the late years of Kang Hiss reign. Kang Hiss fourth son, Yin Chen, manipulated people and power to gain his fathers position. The emperor Chien Lung followed his example. Once he was the ruling power he sealed peoples doors, searched their houses, and confiscated their properties (Zhang 8). Tsao Hseuh-chin obviously wrote from personal experience, because during the reign of Chien Lung the Tsao family home was searched and their properties seized. The author depicted the
emperors reign of forced submission with detailed clarity. Thus he presented a honest picture of the Qing Dynasty (Zhang 6).
Towards the end of the novel the Emperor, who is not given an actual name, brought charges against Chia Chen and Chia Sheh. As a result, they were arrested, the Imperial Guards confiscated their properties, and the Yungkuo and Ningkuo mansions were taken over and searched. The usurious loans made by Phoenix were discovered. The Chia family underwent great financial reversals, a direct parallel to the authors family during the Qing Dynasty (Zhang 6). In the novel, the search was under the supervision of the prince, a good friend of Yung-kuofu and Pao-yu. The prince used his influence to encourage leniency on behalf of his friends, just as the rulers of the Qing Dynasty granted favors to those who found favor with them. The author again exposed the corruption of the Qing Dynasty officials.
By extrapolating a correlation of the situations and events that took place within The Dream of the Red Chamber to the Qing Dynasty, the reader can gain new insights and understanding into the lives of the people during the rule of the emperors. These insights foster a greater appreciation for living in a democratic country where, unlike during the Qing dynasty, people can choose their educational path and procure employment based on skills. The American constitution provides protection from undue seizure of land, houses, and personal property. The people of China did not have such rights during the Qing Dynasty. They still do not have these freedoms under present communist rule.
The four families, and their lives, served as a backdrop for the love story of Chia Pao-yu and Lin Tai-yu (Black Jade). These two main characters were woven through the novel, and shared a connection through the meanings found in jade. Lin Tai-yus name is "Black Jade," and Chia Pao-yu is born with a piece of jade in his mouth. The jades actual color is never revealed. It is just described as "brilliantly colored jade (Tsao 21). Both of their names contain "yu," which means "jade" (Dream 163). The Chinese, according to a pamphlet from the National Palace Museum, considered jades qualities of form and markings as a means of commanding mystical forces to communicate with the spiritual realm and to obtain divine wisdom (Chinese Jades) One side of Pao-yus pendant was inscribed: "Precious Jade of Spiritual Understanding--Never LoseNever forgetImmortal Life Everlasting" (Tsao 65). Throughout the novel a Buddhist monk and a Taoist priest appeared and disappeared after communicating truth and wisdom to Pao-yu. The jades in the National Palace Museum from the Ching (Qing) Imperial Court frequently bear emblems of the emperor, symbols, inscriptions and marks, so it is no surprise that Pao-yus jade would be inscribed.
The Chinese people still seek truth and wisdom from Buddhist and Taoist priests. Taiwan has thousands worship temples for Buddhists and Taoists, and every village has its own special village temple where the monks and priests can be consulted. Jade is still an important stone for the Chinese people. It is fashioned into pendants for religious symbols, and is considered to have spiritual protective powers. Certain types and styles of jade are quite costly, and are
considered signs of wealth. Taipei, Taiwan has a jade shopping district called Jade Alley, and Taichung, Taiwan has an area locally known as The Jade Market. Jade Alley is a collection of small shops that specialize in jade products and jewelry. The Jade Market is a collection of vendors that display their jade and other jewelry on various tables in Taichungs main downtown district. The Jade Market is only open on Saturdays, and if one can recognize good quality jade and speak enough Mandarin Chinese to barter well, wonderful items, including carved jade pendants, can be purchased very reasonably.
There is a cicada form of jade, meaning a jade carved stone. These were decorative jade pendants, such as Pao-yus, worn primarily during the Han dynasty and the Warring period. A male wearing such a pendant symbolized he had the virtue of not going or striving beyond his bounds, and had no political and material pursuits (Artistic Conception). Pao-yu certainly had no desire to learn and study, to go beyond his bounds. He wasnt interested in the political positions he could obtain after passing the Civil Service Examination. He wasnt interested in material pursuits, although the family clan was counting on him to restore their wealth and societal position.
Jade pendants were also worn for protection. The jade was considered to have "vigilant" powers and could warn the wearer about wrong actions he might take due to carelessness, and to guard or protect him from harmful situations (Jade Apparatus). Pao-yus jade was inscribed, on the reverse side, with: "Destroys Evil Spirits--Cures Malignant maladies--Foretells Blessings and Calamities" (Tsao 64). In the novel, the monk reappeared when Pao-yu was on
the verge of death, requested the jade piece, stroked the jade, and restored its powers. It was then hung over the doorway and Phoenix and Pao-yu recovered.
Jade stones are categorized into three main color categories: white jades, yellow jades (a greenish yellow), and green jades (Nature of Jade). Black is not a normal and usual color for jade. Black jade is created when white jade or bluish-white jade contains heavy concentrations of hematite, turning it into a grey or black color (Chinese Jades). Lin Tai-yu, Back Jade, was a cousin to Pao-yu. She was an outsider of lower status because her relationship to the Chia clan was through her mother, just as the black color in jade is through the infusion of hematite into white jade. Hematite is a form of metal and in Chinese medicine in the Mutual Control Order of the Five Phases, metal controls the lungs (Kaptchuk
349). Black Jade was physically weak in the novel. She died after vomiting up blood, apparently from a lung disease that is recognized today as tuberculosis.
Pao-yu frequently joined the woman in their quarters. He not only watched them, but also participated in their morning routines. In one instance, described in chapter fifteen, he even tried River Mists rouge when he thought she wasnt looking. For the Chinese woman, the morning ritual of dressing wasnt complete until she had put on her heavy make-up. The make-up ritual consisted of a coat of white powder to make the complexion appear fairer, followed by adding deep pink rouge to lips and cheeks. Eyebrows were considered beautiful when they were arched enough to resemble a willow leaf. This was accomplished by tweezing them and then redrawing them with a pencil or charcoal. More elaborate make-up was applied for gala events. A Chinese woman deleted her
usual make-up routine only upon two occasions: a time of mourning and her wedding day (Aero 57).
The National Palace Museum in Taipei, Taiwan contains an entire room filled with clothing, and accessories such as necklaces, belts and ornaments. Also displayed are brush holders, brushes and combs, hairpins, and hairpieces containing woven beads of jade and pearls. Some of these items, all from the Qing Dynasty, are portrayed in photographs contained in the book The National Palace Museum in Photographs (126-130). One can view these photographs and visualize, as Pao-yu did, the women using and dressing themselves with such items. Apart from traditional Chinese theater and certain Chinese festival celebrations, much of the ancient beauty practices have been discarded. Women in Taiwan currently prefer to follow more modern make-up practices.
Beauty rituals were accomplished by the use of a mirror; however, the author tied a mirror to a common rumor regarding a mirror of the Qing Dynasty
emperor. Chia Jui became ill and requested to see the Taoists priest who came around claiming to cure sicknesses of the soul. The priest told him he needed the magic mirror to cure his disease of "impure thoughts and self-destructive habits" (Tsao 89). He was directed to look only at the reverse side. Upon following directions he saw a gruesome skeleton starting back at him. He turned the mirror over to find himself wafted into a world where he fulfilled his desires. Chinese mirrors were metal and believed to confer good fortune on the owner and even possess magical properties. Some were decorated on the back with
Taoist patterns. The mirrors, called "light-penetration mirrors," were unusual because upon exposure to the sun, the patterns would seem to pass through and
be reflected. Hence, Chia Jui was able to waft into a dream world upon looking into the mirror. During the Chin Dynasty Emperor Shih-Huang-Ti supposedly possessed a mirror that could reflect the inner parts of those who gazed into it. Hence in the novel, Chia Jui could see his skeleton in the magic mirror (Aero 163).
The Chinese in Taiwan have Ghost Month during the time period of October. They believe that the heavens open up and allow the ghosts of departed ancestors and other spirits to descend to earth during the time period they call, in English, Ghost Month. To prevent invasion from evil or unwanted angry spirits they set up mirrors. The belief is that the ghost or spirit will see its image, be frightened, and leave the immediate area and not bother them. It is very interesting living in a large Chinese apartment complex with one hundred twenty two Chinese families during this time period because it is one time period during the calendar year when Buddhist and Taoist religious rituals are broadly demonstrated. Mirrors are seen over doorways, on cars, and on worship tables situated outside homes and businesses.
Pao-yu resisted and avoided his fathers attempts to force him to study for the Civil Service Examination. Pao-yu spent some of his time composing antithetical couplets, which did bring some approval from his father. Chia Cheng, however, reprimanded him and told him to study the "types of essays required in the Examinations" (Tsao 111). Wealth and prestige were dependent upon
power. Power, both in the novel and real Chinese life, was obtained through the Civil Service Examination. The examination system graded and licensed students with academic degrees, which brought privilege and appointments.
The Chia family was relying on Pao-yu to continue their lineage of wealth and prestige through the power he would obtain. A candidate began his studies of philosophical and historical subjects and the poetical classics of Confucianism as a teenager. Passages in the novel indicate that Pao-yu had a tutor at various times, and that his father held him accountable and quizzed him on what he had learned. Only the high officials, nobility, or the wealthy had the resources to provide tutors and thus the opportunity for advancement once again a commentary on the status of the times.
The Chinese called the examination system pu-pu ching-yun, or Ladder to the Clouds. There were four rungs on the ladder. The first rung was the examination held in each district capital. After paying a stiff fee, the candidate would write for a day and a night in a small cell to obtain his hsiu-tsai , or Flowers of Talent degree. This degree provided minimum elite status. Next came the triennial examinations held in the provincial capitals. The candidate brought his writing instruments, candles, and food to a large area filled with
thousands of examination cells each measuring six feet deep and three feet wide. After passing this three day long examination the candidate received the chu-jen, or Scholar degree. The third level of triennial examination was held in the imperial capital. This was the Metropolitan Examination held under the Board of Rites. Passage of this important examination would award the candidate the
chin-shih degree necessary to provide the right to hold office. Those that passed would be allowed to become poets, historians, or chancellors in their provinces. Last, there was the Palace Examination that took place on bended knee in the presence of the emperor. The novel indicates that Pao-yu was about fifteen when he started his studies. Candidates were about the age of twenty-three before they took the first examination (Aero 50-51). As an interesting note, one could deduce that the story in the novel took place over a time span of five to eight years.
The same Civil Service Examination system no longer exists; however, Taiwans schools use an examination system to determine which student progresses into certain fields of education. These examinations are conducted at different age levels, and the students path of public education is determined by their test results. Just as the wealthy in the novel and in the Qing Dynasty had money to provide tutors for their children, the Chinese use their financial resources to provide the best tutors and after-school courses for their children. In Taiwan, American educators are considered premier teachers, and seldom lack in tutoring opportunities. The types of school Taiwanese children attend, and the grades on various examinations determine family esteem within the immediate family, relatives and the community.
The author, or the second author, tied the jade, the Civil Service Examinations, and the prestige and power of the Chia family together in the last chapters. Pao-yus jade disappeared, and with it the power that protected him. He was married, through deceit, to Precious Virtue. His family fell from favor with
the emperor, and as described in the beginning of this paper, lost their power, properties, possessions, and mansions. His beloved Matriarch grandmother died. He became listless and unable to concentrate and study for the pending examinations. He finally became ill enough that all hope was lost until the monk appeared. Power was restored to the jade, and power was restored to Pao-yu. He took the examination and passed in seventh place. The emperor was very pleased and granted pardon to Chia Sheh and Chia Gen, and restored their titles and properties. The emperor also bestowed the title of "The Immortal of Literary Exquisiteness" to Pao-yu, and thus power and prestige was restored to his family (Tsao 328). The monk who restored the jades power, in the meantime, had enlightened Pao-yu. Pao-yu and the monk disappeared, just as the power of the Qing Dynasty emperor and his rulers disappeared through the uprising of the peasants.
The novel had one last commentary on the Qing Dynasty at the end of the text. The reader will never know whether the correlation was actually intended by the author. Hsueh Pan was thrown into prison and exiled and Cassia seduced his disloyal cousin and tried to poison Lotus. Cassia accidentally killed herself, just as the corrupt emperors and rulers of the Qing Dynasty unintentionally brought about their own fate through repression of their people. Lotus died in childbirth and the novel ended, just as the Qing Dynasty died and exists no longer.
Aero, Rita. Things Chinese. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1980. 50- 51,57,163.
Artistic Conception. Archaic Jade Definition. Online. Internet. http://22.214.171.124/index1.htm. [accessed 19 May 1998].
Chinese Jades. The National palace Museum. [Taiwan]: n.p., n.d.
Dream of the Red Chamber Narrative Frame. Humanities 210 Course Packet: Multicultural Literature [unpubl.] Spring 1998. 163.
Hsiao-feng, Chang, and Tung Min. The National Museum in photographs. n.p. 1986. 126-130.
Jade Apparatus. Archaic Jade Definition. Online. Internet. http://126.96.36.199/index1.htm. [accessed 19 May 1998].
Kaptchuk, Ted J. The Web That Has No Weaver. Chicago: Congdon & Week, Inc. 1983. 347-349.
Nature of Jade. Archaic Jade Definition. Online. Internet. http://188.8.131.52/index1.htm. [accessed 16 May 1998].
Tsao, Hsueh-chin. Dream of the Red Chamber. New York: Doubleday. 1989. 64, 89,111,127, 328.
Zhang, Xiugui. Dream of the Red Chamber Notes. Lincoln: Cliffs Notes Incorporated. 1991. 1, 6-8, 87.
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