A Closer Look At A Chinese Dream, Part 3.

As stated previously, The Story of the Stone is a multi-level creation involving the supernatural and earthly existence in a mysterious intricate pattern.  Thus, it should not be surprising that dreams and mirrors have important roles to play in the novel, especially in the first volume, for dreams and mirrors are pathways from the mundane to the supernatural realm.

In the novel the Fairy Disenchantment is first mentioned by the Buddhist monk while he is conversing with the Taoist priest:  “…, Disenchantment has got together a group of amorous young souls,…, and intends to send them down into the world to take part in the great illusion of human life.”  The stone is then taken to earth with the other romantic souls.  This will explain Bao-yu’s special connection with his girl cousins.

Jia Bao-Yu has a dream involving the Fairy Disenchantment and future fates of his female cousins.  She tells him:  “My business is with the romantic passions, love-debts, girlish heartbreaks and male philanderings of your dust-stained human world.”  The fairy takes him to The Land of Illusion.  On the stone archway is the couplet:  “Truth becomes fiction when the fiction’s true;  Real becomes not-real when the unreal’s real”.  Bao-Yu becomes quite curious when he sees a series of registers in cupboards, describing the lives of girls from different provinces.  The register that attracts him the most concerns the lives of Twelve Beauties of Jinling, his girl cousins.  Each item in the register contains a picture, but not of a person, but rather an image to convey a mood.  The picture is followed by a verse that hints at the girl’s inevitable fate.  These verses serve as clues and foreshadowings for the astute reader that can link these verses to the appropriate characters as they appear in the novel.  Here is a sample:  “Blessed with a shrewd mind and noble heart, Yet born in time of twilight and decay, In spring through tears at river’s bank you gaze, Borne by the wind a thousand miles away.”  All the futures of the girls are sad, because passion and the beauty that inspires it can only lead to unhappiness as a tenet of Buddhist doctrine.

Bao-Yu wants to continue looking, but the fairy takes him away from the registers, not wanting to disclose supernatural secrets.  However, she does take him to another room where he is treated to wine and a performance of twelve songs with a prelude and epilogue performed by twelve dancers.  The songs are from the Fairy Disenchantment’s suite, “A Dream of Golden Days.”  The Fairy explains to Bao-Yu that “each song is an elegy on a single person or event”.  She gives Bao-Yu a manuscript of her libretto so he can understand the songs and dances better.

Note:  Golden Days is the title of volume 1 of the novel.(Golden Days is the name given by David Hawkes).

Each song represents one of the twelve beauties of Jinling and each has a title.  For instance the title of the First Song is The Mistaken Marriage, the Second Song, Hope Betrayed, and so on.  Translator David Hawkes explains which song goes with which character in a fascinating appendix to volume 1.  In essence, not only the fates of the girls are portrayed in the songs, but also the tragic fate of the Ning-Guo household itself.

Note:  The first two songs refer to the two major girls in Bao-Yu’s life:  Lin Dai-Yu and Xue Bao-Chai.  Cousin Lin is a sickly(her symptoms imitate tuberculosis), overly emotional(she is called “Frowner” by her friends),though highly intelligent and cultured girl.  She shares Bao-Yu’s penchant for excess sentiment, a tendency to be hurt easily, flying into passion and doing the unconventional(Bao-Yu has done the unconventional by refusing to study for ten years and become learned as his father.  Instead, he reads what he wants to and plays with girls.)  Xue Bao-Chai is a strict Confucian, living a life based on decorum, balance, reason, able to confront problems with equanimity and to find solutions for them.  She is also highly intelligent with an impeccable sense of the aesthetic and an encyclopedic knowledge of Chinese culture.

The prelude’s first line reveals one of the main purposes of the novel:  the complex, often bewildering nature of love:  “When first the world from chaos rose, Tell me, how did love begin?  The wind and moonlight first did love compose.”  I offer some excerpts from the first two songs as they hint at the fates of Bao-Yu’s two female interests: Xue Bao-Chai and Lin Dai-Yu:  From First Song:  “Let others all commend the marriage rites of gold and jade;…  How true I find That every good some imperfection holds!  Even a wife so courteous and so kind No comfort brings to an afflicted mind.”  From Second Song:  “One was a flower from paradise, One a pure jade without spot or stain…  How many tears from those poor eyes could flow, Which every season rained upon her woe?

The author also uses Bao-Yu’s meeting with the Fairy Disenchantment as his sexual awakening(he is about 12) and the start of puberty.  She leads him into a bedroom with a fairy girl sitting in the middle of it.  He notes in her a mixture of Bao-Chai’s “Rose-fresh beauty” and Dai-Yu’s “delicate charm”.  The fairy accuses Bao-Yu of being “lustful”, because to her any awareness of female beauty whether felt by the body or perceived by the mind is lust, which inevitably defiles the pure flower of womanhood.  To her, to experience love and and all feelings of love are forms of lust, and Bao-Yu is the most lustful of all!    Because his lust is in the mind, females will find him ” a kind and understanding friend”.  However, he will be scoffed at and thought of as strange and “unpractical and eccentric” by the world of men.  In spite of this, Fairy Disenchantment encourages his desire, by teaching him the arts of love.  Bao-Yu becomes aware of the shapes of females around him and causes him to masturbate.  The act of “losing himself” is told in highly symbolic, expressive poetic terms:  “…,  there was a rumbling like thunder from inside the abyss and a multitude of demons and water monsters reached up and clutched at Bao-Yu to drag him down into the depths.”

Bao-Yu’s maid, Aroma, is about 14, and far more sophisticated than he.  He shares his secret with her and later they have sex.  Aroma will be his guide and companion throughout the novel.  Her common sense and matter of fact nature will help Bao-Yu through tempestuous times.  She is the third girl in his life and the one he will live with during his adolescence.

About Robert M. Weiss
From an early age, I've taken great pleasure in reading. Also, I learned to play my 78 player when I was quite young, and enjoyed listening to musicals and classical music. I remember sitting on the floor, and following the text and pictures of record readers, which were popular in the 1940s and 50s. My favorites were the Bozo and Disney albums. I also enjoyed watching the slow spinning of 16s as they spun out tales of adventure. I have always been attracted by rivers, and I love to sit on a boulder with my feet in the water, gazing into the mysteries of swirling currents. I especially like inner tubing on the Rogue River in Southern Oregon. Since my early youth, I've been interested in collecting minerals, which have taught me about the wonderful possibilities in colors and forms. Sometimes I try to imagine what the ancient Greeks must have felt when they began to discover physical laws in nature. I also remember that I had a special passion for numbers, and used to construct them out of stones. After teaching Russian for several years, I became a writer, interviewer, editor, and translator. I continue to delight in form, and am a problem solver at heart.

4 Responses to A Closer Look At A Chinese Dream, Part 3.

  1. BWitt says:

    Great post! You should keep in mind though, that Golden Days as a title was never part of the Chinese text, but introduced by Hawkes or his editors. The original novel would have been sold in a box set of different volumes that were just numbered and without titles. Still, Golden Days is quite an interesting choice by Hawkes. Are these the golden days? Or are they predicted here to arrive? Are they a distant (or even unattainable) dream? A memory?

  2. Thank you for your explanation and kind comment! I think Hawkes chose the title to heighten the contrast in mood between the succeeding volumes(Volume 3 is called The Warning Voice). If so, he was speaking about the Jia family’s rise and fall and not about the specific lives of the characters(There is much that is sad and troubling in Volume 1). Still, your thoughts are as valid as mine and further display the enticing complexity of the novel.

    • BWitt says:

      Oh yes, definitely. The Jia family is in its full splendour in the beginning, so that definitely are their “golden days”. But Golden Days is also the name of the libretto that is a prophesy about the main characters and I think that their golden days, ironically, come when the family is already in decline: when the children move into the garden and found their poetry club. So Hawkes actually makes good use of this ambiguity.

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