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.

A Closer Look At A Chinese Dream, Part 2.

China’s most famous novel, The Story of the Stone, was not published until thirty years after the author’s death.  Then many different versions circulated with dubious claims to authenticity.  What we do know is that Cao Xueqin left an unfinished novel of eighty chapters and whoever completed the next forty chapters remains a mystery.  But what Cao wrote is unique in its multifaceted blending of the supernatural, the physical world of nature, the day-to-day world and especially the belief in a girl’s superiority both intellectually and morally.  Such a belief runs contrary to a Western thesis that women are inherently irrational, overly emotional humans that cannot be trusted to make wise and thoughtful decisions.  This thesis limited women severely in what they were allowed to do in Western civilization.  However, it is the complexity of feminine existence and its interaction with a male dominated world that the author proposes to examine.  He enters this world through Bao-Yu the main character of the novel, an androgynous figure, who likes to view girls in their every day activities, enjoys combing their hair, watches them put on their clothes.  He also has a personal maid of his own, Aroma, who attends to his needs.  As for his opinion of girls, Bao-Yu states, ” …the pure essence of humanity is all concentrated in the female of the species and that males are its mere dregs and scourings…”  He believes that he has no chance of achieving a true understanding of life if his girl cousins are unable to achieve it.  Thus, the author takes pains to point out the skills and inherent intelligence of the girls and women to juxtapose them with the awkwardness and foolishness of the male characters.  Bao-Yu, demonstrating both male and female elements, is the perfect bridge and guide into the male and female realms.

The Story of the Stone begins when the goddess Nu-wa sets about repairing the sky.  To do this, she makes use of thousands and thousands of large building blocks.  But, alas, one block of stone is left, being thought of as unworthy.  It does, however, possess the power of shrinking or growing, a power that is given to it by the goddess.  The stone, thoroughly ashamed, shrinks in size and is taken off by a Taoist monk, Mysterioso to spend its days in the mortal world accompanied by a Buddhist, Impervioso.  As it lives among mortals it acquires a history that is inscribed on the stone when it finishes it’s earthly existence to become a huge block of stone once more.  The stone is set up in the Incredible Crags of the Great Fable Mountains when another Taoist, Vanitas, sees it thousands of years later.  Upon reading the stone’s inscription, the monk learns of its history and of many details of the stone’s life.  He enters into conversation with the stone about another kind of worthiness:   whether the the stone’s complex and intricate life should be published.  The stone argues that his women and their actions and his verses could entertain and perhaps instruct other humans.  In the end, the monk concurs and copies the story from beginning to end to take it to a publisher.  And so the allegorical nature of the novel is set.  Void(Truth) contemplates Form (Illusion) and mixes with Passion to become Form that awakens to become Truth.