This essay covers a series of material cultural matters that are specific to the social context in which the scenes in The Story of the Stone were situated. Many of these matters were painstakingly and ingeniously dealt with in the David Hawkes and John Minford translation. For the convenience of casual readers, the translators tried their best to substitute a Western metaphor or saying for a Chinese one, so as to convey the meaning without resorting to a footnote. But, further explanation of the background of the novel is needed for readers who want to appreciate the novel with its full indigenous flavor.
There are numerous pictorial designs in traditional Chinese culture that have been passed down through many generations and carry culturally significant messages. Cao Xueqin made extensive use of them, and they register with the knowing reader of the novel as well as with the knowing viewer of these images.
When Xi-feng, nicknamed Hot Pepper Feng 鳳辣子, makes her flamboyant entrance in the novel, she wears a fashionable wig ornamented by a gold filigree circlet framing the Eight Treasures formed by wirework and clustered pearls (1.3.91). The expression eight treasures (babao 八寶) can refer to two or three different sets of designs in Chinese decorative arts: the Eight Buddhist Emblems, the Emblems of the Eight Taoist Immortals, and a third set of miscellaneous treasures. The first is also known as the Eight Auspicious Emblems (ba ji xiang 八吉祥), consisting of the wheel, the conch, the umbrella, the canopy, the lotus flower or bamboo, the vase, the fish, and the knot (sometimes one of these is replaced by the flaming pearl) (fig. 1). They were introduced from Tibetan Lamaist art when the Mongols ruled China during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and became auspicious decorative elements in the following centuries.
The second set is of objects associated with each individual immortal in the Eight Taoist Immortals (an ba xian 暗八仙): the fan of Zhong Liquan, the double gourd of Iron-Crutch Li, the bamboo drum of Zhang Guolao, the lotus or bamboo colander of He Xiangu, the flower basket of Lan Caihe, the sword of Lü Dongbin, the castanets of Imperial Uncle Cao, and the flute of Han Xiangzi (fig. 2). This set of designs became popular after the appearance of the Eight Immortals as a decorative theme during the twelfth century and was in vogue in the following centuries. The Eight Treasures design also appeared on ingots used as gifts. Among the ingots prepared in the Ning-guo mansion, there were some with this design, translated by Hawkes as “others with patterns of auspicious flowers” (2.53.557).
Xi-feng’s chignon is fastened with five pins, the head of each shaped as a flying feng 鳳 bird, from whose beak pearls are suspended on tiny chains (1.3.91) 綰著朝陽五鳳掛珠釵. The word feng in Xi-feng’s name refers to the Chinese bird that is a roughly equivalent to the phoenix and in Chinese culture the noblest in the kingdom of birds. The feng 鳳 bird is often used as the female counterpart of the most powerful creature, the long 龍 dragon. According to Qing court convention, ladies from the imperial family wore nine phoenix pins; officials’ wives were allowed to wear no more than five (fig. 3). Therefore the five pins on Xi-feng’s chignon not only echo her name (熙鳳“bright phoenix”) but also reflect her status.
Later it is mentioned in passing that Ying-chun also has a gold filigree phoenix pin studded with strings of pearls (3.73.445).
When Dai-yu enters the Hall of Exalted Felicity 榮禧堂, she sees “a long vertical scroll with an ink-painting of a dragon emerging from clouds and waves” (1.3.95). The earliest extant picture of this kind was painted by Chen Rong (active in the first half of the thirteenth century) (fig. 4). Early images of a long dragon in mists and clouds were associated with Taoist transcendental practices. Later on, this kind of ink painting of dragons formed a particular genre whose purpose was to advertise its owner’s status, and thus they were understood as symbolizing the saying dailou suichao 待漏隨朝, “waiting for the water-dropping timer to strike the hour for the court audience with the emperor,” associated with the daily activity of a high-ranking official. On the one hand, the Chinese word for tidal waves, (chao 潮), which were prominently represented in the painting, puns on the word for “having an audience with the emperor” (chao 朝). On the other hand, the dragon symbolizes the emperor. In these different ways, both phonetically and pictorially, many levels of meaning are conveyed by one image.
At Qin-shi’s 秦氏 funeral, the prince of Bei-jing 北靜王 is dressed in a white formal court robe in mourning (1.15.288) (江牙海水五爪坐龍白蟒袍). The deep hem of his robe is embellished with a conventional design of gnarled rock peaks rising among buffeting crested waves and shiny flinging spray, known as haishui jiangya 海水江牙, which came to be popular first in the Ming dynasty and was exclusively a court motif in the Qing, symbolizing the unity of the country and the peace prevailing in the universe (fig. 5).
As Bao-yu is led to Qin-shi’s bedroom to have a nap, his nostrils are assailed by joint-dissolving perfume, and his eyes feast on an exhibition of light erotica (1.5.125–7 ). When introducing these amorous objects and images to the reader, Cao Xueqin playfully makes references to an array of well-known femmes fatales in the history of China. On the wall hangs a scroll painting attributed to the sixteenth-century Suzhou painter Tang Yin, one of whose legendary specialties was making pinup-like pictures of beauties for the nouveau riche merchant class in rising cities. The painting is euphemistically entitled Begonia’s Spring Slumber (海棠春睡圖), alluding to a Tang dynasty emperor’s remark about his favorite concubine Lady Yang, who appeared half-awake at an audience with him, too exhausted from intoxication the night before to make a proper bow to the Minghuang emperor. The emperor remarked with a grin, “My lady is not completely awake yet, nor is the begonia in the garden fully awakened to a full blossom”. A poem entitled “On the Painting of Begonia Blossom and a Beauty ” in Tang Yin’s extant works shows that the artist did paintings with similar titles. Hawkes renders the content of the painting as “depicting a beautiful woman asleep underneath an apple tree” (127). His translation of haitang 海棠 as “apple” is tantamount, for readers in a non-Western culture, to saying that Eve gave Adam a peach instead of an apple since the image of a young woman sitting among blossoms of begonia would evoke mental associations quite different from those evoked by a young woman sitting under a tree burdened by apples.
On Qin-shi’s table “stood an antique mirror that had once graced the retiring room of the lascivious empress Wu Zetian” (127) (武則天當日鏡室中設的寶鏡). Cao Xueqin includes Empress Wu’s mirror here because it supposedly was a fixture in her daytime lovemaking chamber. The mirror serves as a prelude to Bao-yu’s learning of the “art of love” from the fairy Disenchantment 警幻仙子 (146–47) and his experiment in that art with his closest maid, Aroma 襲人, in the next chapter (1.6.149–50). Beside the mirror lies “the golden platter on which Flying Swallow once danced for her emperor’s delight” (1.5.127 )(飛燕立著舞過的金盤). Flying Swallow was a court entertainer living around 25 BCE. Her fleeting and swift dancing feats caught the attention of Emperor Chengdi (r. 32–7 BCE) of the Han dynasty, who was so besotted by her sexual charm that he made her empress after disposing of the original one. Flying Swallow’s movements were so light that, according to legend, she could swirl on a crystal platter held high by court ladies. Cao Xueqin may have mistaken the crystal platter on which Flying Swallow danced for a golden one. He certainly employed poetic license when he made up a “papaw that An Lushan bruised Yang Guifei’s breast with” (my trans.)(安祿山擲過傷了太真乳的木瓜). Historical textual sources record only that An Lushan (or An Rokhan), an eighth-century Chinese general of Sogdian and Turkish descent, once bruised Yang Guifei’s breast with his powerful hand during a heated tryst with her. The bruise was so prominent that Lady Yang had to invent a piece of clothing to hide it in public.
The couch in Qin-shi’s room is said to have been slept on by the fifth-century Princess Shouyang(壽昌公主于含章殿下臥的寶榻) (fig. 6), whose forehead once caught a falling plum flower while she was taking a nap. The flower petals consequently left a five-petal mark on her fine skin. The colored patch on the princess’s forehead set a new fashion for palace ladies to follow. Later, this makeup feature acquired the name of Plum-flower patch or Shouyang patch 壽陽妝 and spread from court ladies to commoners’ wives (fig. 7). In poetry on women’s life in inner chambers, this makeup technique is also referred to as flower yellow 花黃 or stamen yellow 蕊黃. Because Princess Shouyang made a name for herself with this cosmetic mark, her couch was arranged among other objects associated with celebrity fashion setters and femmes fatales.
To match the royal bed, Princess Tongchang’s bed curtain is fashioned out of strings of real pearls, thus known as clustered pearl net(同昌公主制的連珠帳), which is part of her famously luxurious dowry, which her father, Emperor Yizong of the late Tang (r. 860–74), almost emptied the state treasury to prepare. Both the last two items were related to princesses and, some believe, were employed by the author to indicate that Qin-shi was born a princess into the family of a deceased emperor’s political opponent and was later secretly adopted by the Jia family
The gauze coverlet on Qin-shi’s bed is said to have been washed by Xi Shi 西施 (西子浣過的紗衾), which is a dazzling association with another of the Four Beauties of Ancient China (the previous one was Yang Guifei). Xi Shi, born as a commoner, washed gauze by the river of her village before she was discovered by the court and became the king’s favorite court lady. Even the headrest on Qin-shi’s bed is linked with romance, referred to as “the double head-rest that Hong-niang once carried for her amorous mistress” (1.5.127)(紅娘抱過的鴛枕). Hong-niang (Crimson) is the quick-witted maid of Ying-ying, the heroine of the famous Yuan dynasty play The Story of the Western Wing(Xixiang ji 西廂記). The play was composed around a love affair between the daughter of a late cabinet minister and a poor scholar, Zhang, during their temporary stay in a monastery. When eventually Ying-ying decided to go to Scholar Zhang’s lodge to consummate their love, Hong-niang helped her carry the pillow and duvet because the scholar was too poor to have bedding suitable for a lady (fig. 8). It is cheeky of Cao Xueqin to associate the beddings in Qin-shi’s chamber with the gauze washed by Xi Shi and the bridal pillow used by Ying-ying and Scholar Zhang, since both Xi Shi and Ying-ying lived more than a thousand years earlier and neither gauze nor pillow would have lasted that long – and, of course, Ying-ying is a fictional character.
The interpretive mechanism of expressing a message with a picture, known as pun rebus, is widely used in Chinese decorative arts. When Grandmother Jia 賈母 saw Qin-zhong 秦鐘, the younger brother of Qin-shi, for the first time, she handed him a embroidered hebao 荷包 purse and a small statue of the Star Deity of Kui 魁星, who is an acolyte of the god of literature. Hawkes did not translate these two items; instead, he opted for an English expression: literary success was “in the bag ” to cover them (1.8.199). In fact, the images of the two items together form a pun rebus, conveying the message, “May you be blessed by the God of Literature and lead a harmonious life” (wenxing hehe 文星和合), to the reader, as the Chinese text clearly spells out.
The meaning of a pun rebus is generally conventional, easily recognized by members of the speech community - people who speak the language and are familiar with the culture. In the message conveyed by the combination of these two gifts, the first part is both symbolic and gesturing in the sense that the act of giving a statue of the Star Deity of Kui means, “May you be blessed by this deity.” The image of the deity itself is a rebus. The Chinese character
kui 魁 for “number one” or “the star that blesses those who sit for civil-service examinations” is formed by the character for “demon” (gui 鬼) with the character for a bushel measure (dou 斗) nested in one of its long and curved strokes.(fig.11)
The second part of the message conveyed by Grandmother Jia’s gift also works as a linguistic game. The embroidered cloth purse is known in Chinese as hebao 荷包 (fig. 10), while the Chinese expression for “living in peace and harmony” is hehe 和合. Because the first syllables of these two expressions make a pun, a cloth purse can be used to convey, conventionally, the message “May you live a trouble-free life,” as Cao Xueqin actually wrote: “In addition, Grandmother Jia gave Qin Zhong an embroidered purse and a figurine of Star Deity of Kui in solid gold, in order to shower him with the blessing from this god and to wish him a trouble-free life” (my trans.; Hawkes’s trans. is on 1.8.199;
賈母與了一個荷包並一個金魁星, 取文星和合之意 [1: 128].
When the imperial concubine Yuan-chun 元春 returns to the Jia mansions to have a family reunion, she bestows on Grandmother Jia, among other luxurious presents, “ten medallions of red gold with a design showing an ingot, a writing-brush and a sceptre, which in the riddling rebus-language used by makers of such objects meant ‘All your heart’s desire–’ ” (1.18.372). “All your heart’s desire” is Hawkes’s translation of the auspicious wish biding ruyi 必定如意 [1:249], but his translation is incomplete. How is this message conveyed by the combination of a writing brush, an ingot, and a sceptre? The writing brush is known in Chinese as bi 筆 and the ingot as ding 錠.
If the two words for ‘pen’ and ‘ingot’ are combined, they result in bi-ding, which puns on the Chinese expression bi ding 必定 for “definitely”. Furthermore, the ornamental sceptre is named ruyi 如意, literally meaning “all your heart’s desire,” because its shape was developed from a back scratcher, which can reach one’s itchy spots one cannot reach with one’s hands. Together, the three seemingly unrelated objects form a pun rebus with the message “May every wish of yours definitely come true” (biding ruyi 必定如意).
In the silk purses that Faithful 鴛鴦 prepares as gifts for Grannie Liu, there are also two gold ingots bearing this pun rebus design (2.42.330) (两箇笔锭如意的錁子). Usually, the design is incised or carved on the surface of an ingot. In Hawkes’s translation we read, “a golden ‘Heart’s Desire’ medallion with a device showing an ingot, a writing-brush and a scepter.” Much of the cultural nuance behind the carved design is lost.(fig. 12)
Grandmother Jia also receives from Yuan-chun “ten silver medallions with a design showing a stone chime flanked by a pair of little fish (carrying the rebus-message ‘Blessings in abundance’)” (1.18.372). “Blessings in abundance” translates the auspicious wish jiqing youyu 吉慶有餘 (1:249). This is another common pun rebus design. The Chinese triangular chime is called qing 磬, and the action of striking the chime is known as jiqing 擊磬, which puns on the word for “blessings” (jiqing 吉慶); another way of expressing the meaning of jiqing 吉慶 pictorially is through the juxtaposition of the chime qing with a ji (戟 halberd, as shown in the middle of the snuff bottle in fig. 13). The Chinese expression for “fish” is yu 魚, which is a pun on the word for “abundance” ( yu 餘). The combination yields the pun rebus message jiqing youyu 吉慶有餘, i.e. “Blessings in abundance” (fig. 13).
In chapter 29, when Bao-yu arrives at the Taoist temple of the Lunar Goddess 清虛觀 for the purification ceremonies, Abbot Zhang’s friends and students give him many Taoist trinkets (賈母聽說,向盤內看時,只見也有金璜,也有玉玦,或有事事如意,或有歲歲平安,皆是珠穿寶貫,玉琢金鏤…)
as presents to show their appreciation in witnessing Bao-yu’s legendary Magic Jade. Among these presents, Hawkes mentions “a tiny scepter and persimmons with the rebus-meaning ‘success in all things’” (2.29.79). As a matter of fact, one of the trinkets is one shaped in the combination of a scepter and some persimmons, as is vindicated by a Qing-dynasty jade piece. Again, the scepter (ruyi 如意) puns with the wish “all your heart’s desire” (ruyi 如意). The fruit persimmon is pronounced shi 柿, and a group of persimmons may be referred to as shishi 柿柿, which puns on the Chinese expression for “all things” or “everything ” (shishi 事事). Thus, the image of the scepter meaning “all your heart’s desire” and that of persimmons meaning “all things” are combined to form the pun rebus message “May your wishes come true in all things” (shishi ruyi 事事如意) (fig. 14).
On the tray that Abbot Zhang presents to Bao-yu there is also a trinket bearing the design of quails pecking under stalks with ears of grains(2.29.79). In Chinese, an ear of grains is called sui 穗, and many of them together may be referred to as suisui 穗穗, which is a pun on the expression for “year after year ” (suisui 歲歲). The Chinese name for quail is anchun 鵪鶉, the first syllable of which puns on the word for “peace” (an 安). The combination of ears of grain and quails thus results in a pun rebus design conveying the message “May you enjoy peace throughout the years” (suisui ping’an 歲歲平安)(fig. 15) .
On the evening of the fifteenth day of the first month of the Chinese New Year 正月十五 , Grandmother Jia holds a feast to entertain the whole family. Beside each table are antique porcelain vases with different flower arrangements, one of which, in Hawkes’s translation of the text, is called “riches in a jade hall” (2.53.578). This arrangement is also a pun rebus design consisting of blossoms of magnolia, crabapple, and peony. Magnolia is yulan 玉蘭 in Chinese, and crabapple is haitang 海棠. When the two flowers combine, the first syllable of yulan and the second syllable of haitang form the combination yutang, which puns on the expression for “jade hall” or “grand household” (yutang 玉堂) in Chinese. Peony has been called the flower of the rich and prestigious (fuguihua 富貴花) since at least the eighth century. The arrangement of the three flowers — magnolia, crabapple, and peony — results in a pun rebus design with the message “May your household be honoured with prestige and enjoy great wealth.” (yutang fugui 玉堂富貴, fig.16).
Cao Xueqin describes the game of Match My Plant 鬥草 in chapter 62, with participants including Periwinkle 小螺, Caltrop 香菱, Parfumée 芳官, Etamine 蕊官, Nenuphar 藕官, and Cardamome 豆官. The participants are tested on their knowledge of plants and literacy through their performance in matching the name of a presented plant (3.62.211). Again, the game involves knowledge that is specific to Chinese language and culture. For example, one young woman says, “I’ve got some Guanyin willow [ guanyin liu 觀音柳].” Another responds, “I’ve got some Luohan pine [luohan song 羅漢松].” In this matching pair, “willow” and “pine” are different trees, while “Guanyin” and “Luohan” are different Buddhist figures. Guanyin was the name that the Chinese gave to a disciple of Amitabha Buddha–Avalokitesvara, who was sinocised as Goddess of Mercy, while a Luohan, the Chinese name for an arhat, was a spiritual practitioner who had reached the culmination of the spiritual life. One game participant says, “I’ve got a peony [mudan 牡丹] from The Peony Pavilion [mudan ting 牡丹亭].” Another responds, “I’ve got a loquat from The Story of the Lute [ pipa ji 琵琶記].” This pair could be said to match because there is a pun between the Chinese name for the loquat (pipa 枇杷) and that for the lute ( pipa.琵琶), both of which are pronounced pipa. In another round, Cardamome says, “I’ve got an elder-and-younger-sisters-flower [ jiemei hua 姐妹花].”After nobody is able to match it for a while, Caltrop eventually comes up with the answer: “I’ve got a husband-and-wife orchid [ fuqi hui 夫妻蕙]”.
In The Story of the Stone, Cao Xueqin not only adorns the rooms in the Jia family mansion with rare treasures created in the long history of the Chinese civilization but also clothes his characters with the most fashionable garments and feeds them all sorts of unusual delicacies.
The author’s knowledge was naturally limited to the observation of his family collection and friends’ collections, the books he had access to, and the gossip he heard from his relatives and friends of noble and prestigious origins. Compared with modern scholarship based on extensive excavations, auctioned traditional works of art, and the former imperial collections, Cao Xueqin’s descriptions of the luxurious things in aristocratic households were sometimes fanciful and inaccurate.
Readers of Stone may sometimes find it difficult to match the psychological and intellectual development of the protagonists with their age. For example, Bao-yu is described as “the thirteen-year-old heir apparent of Sir Jia of Rongguo House” (1.23.461), while he could write a series of poems and give sophisticated comments that impressed Sir Jia’s literati friends (1.17.335–46) and have a sophisticated emotional involvement with Dai-yu. In a similarly exaggerated manner, Cao Xueqin is a zealous interior designer, adorning rooms in the Jia mansions with the most extravagant works of art imaginable. Scholars take different approaches to them, but my position here is to respect his intentions. That is, I interpret the objects according to the literal meaning of their names. If Cao mentions something that could not have existed historically, I point that out, but I do not judge whether the Jia family could have owned it or not. For example, it has been argued that in chapter 41 the Cheng Hua 成化 (r. 1465 - 87) cup that Adamantina 妙玉 eventually gives away (2.41.312–16) had to be a Kangxi (r. 1661 - 1722) era copy because many fine copies of Cheng Hua cups were made in that reign. However, when Bao-yu saves the “soiled” cup by asking Adamantina to let Grannie Liu have it, he sincerely means that Grannie Liu could sell it and “live for quite a long while on the proceeds” (2.41.315). This example shows that Cao Xueqin did not think that the Cheng Hua teacup was a newly-constructed fake.
In the Taoist temple of the Lunar Goddess, among the trinkets that Abbot Zhang’s friends and students present to Bao-yu are some “gold crescents and C-shaped jade pieces” (2.29.79)(只見也有金璜,也有玉玦). In the original Chinese text, “crescents” are huang 璜 and “C-shaped jade pieces” are jue 玦, both of which belong to the earliest forms shaped out of jade in China. Huang is basically a crescent, while jue is a thick ring with a gap in it.
The stone the Chinese call jade (yu 玉) includes a variety of tough and compact minerals. It was distinguished from ordinary stones six millennia ago and has been held dear by the Chinese ever since, ever since. Innumerable jade objects have been unearthed in various parts of the Chinese landmass despite the fact that it is one of the most difficult materials to work with. Nowhere else in the world has a stone been so culturally defined and worshipped over such a long period of time, its influence permeating many aspects of people’s lives. More than five hundred Chinese characters with the radical denoting jade (including the huang and jue characters) have been created. Many are names of different types and forms of jade. They all have connotations related to value, beauty, power, and riches. Confucius was said to have summarized the eleven human virtues embedded in jade—such as humanity, represented by its warm glow; wisdom, by its firm texture; moral integrity, by its edgeless shape; politeness, by its weightiness; and loyalty, by its prevailing beauty. These abstract human qualities have grown to be jade’s intrinsic attributes in China. The stone has impressed the Chinese to such an extent that the Chinese vision of paradise is one bathed in the silvery glow of jade, as opposed to the golden beams in the heaven of the West.
Earliest jade products include ornaments like pendants, tools like axes, and ritual objects like shamanistic figures. During the first millennium BCE, jade began to be used to cover different parts of a deceased body, which indicates that it was believed to have supernatural power. It was worked into a variety of elaborate jewelry forms. In the last millennium, more jade was used to create sculpture, modeled after either natural forms or archaic bronzes, to embody political authority and cultural values. In late imperial China almost everybody with a decent livelihood was in possession of some jade, usually attached to the body, as a charm. It was against this background of rich connotations that Cao Xueqin endowed his protagonist, Bao-yu, with a magic jade in his mouth at birth.
In her first appearance in one common version of the novel, not the one Hawkes based his translation on, Xi-feng has a pair of rose-colored jade fish pendants with pea-green tassels attached to the waistband of her skirt (1.3.91 is where this text might have been)(豆綠宮絳雙衡比目玫瑰珮). Pairs of jade carving usually embody meanings relating to love, matrimony, and harmony in life (fig. 20).
Cao Xueqin places a white jade chime suspended on a Japanese lacquered wooden frame (洋漆架上悬着一个白玉比目磬) on the long table beside a bronze tripod (ding 鼎) complete to Tan-chun’s image as a noble lady with educated taste (2.40.292)(白玉比目磬). Hawkes’s translation misses the bronze ding, which is a crucial item for Tan-chun’s extravagant yet scholarly interior plan. In seventeenth- and eighteenth-century China it was fashionable to have a dangling musical stone in a scholar’s studio. The chime was shaped out of a piece of antique jade. When a conversation embarked on mundane matters such as inflation in the marketplace, the speaker would apologetically strike the stone in order to let the audience “clean their ears 清耳.” Since the musical stone was also a part of the religious ensemble in a temple, its appearance in a scholar’s study also served as a reminder of the scholar’s unworldliness (fig. 21).
When Grandmother Jia and Grannie Liu, a relative coming from the countryside, visit Green Bower Hermitage 櫳翠庵, Adamantina “poured tea for Bao-yu in the green jade mug that she normally drank from herself ” (仍將前番自己常日吃茶的那隻綠玉斗來斟與寶玉 2.41.313). From the surroundings, readers may sense that Adamantina has exquisite taste. She offers Bao-yu her own choice tea mug (luyu dou 綠玉斗) because she recognizes and appreciates his exceptional human quality. On seeing the jade piece, Bao-yu jokingly challenges Adamantina’s offer, calling it a “common old thing 俗器 ” (2.41.314). Adamantina responds by telling Bao-yu that he may not be able to find such a fine piece in his own household (fig. 22).
On the first day Dai-yu enters the Rong mansion, she is led to a side apartment, where Lady Wang normally spends her leisure hours. In this room, opposite the table that holds the incense-burning set, there is an identical table on which stands a stoneware vase with seasonal flowers in it (1.3.96)(右邊幾上擺著汝窯美人觚). The author presents the vase as a Ru-ware “beauty gu vase” which Hawkes renders as “a narrow-waisted Ru-ware imitation gu.” A gu 觚 was a tall, slender-waisted vase with a trumpet-like mouth and a splayed foot ring and, because of this shape, it is considered to resemble a beautiful woman. It was a typical Bronze Age ceremonial vessel (fig. 23).
Ru 汝 ware was one of the five famous wares in China at the turn of the first millennium, the other four being Jun 鈞, Guan 官,
Ge 哥, and Ding 定. Among them, Ru ware has the fewest pieces extant (no more than a hundred) and has been treasured for its subtle bluish-green celadon glaze with a fine crackling that resembles the veins on a cicada’s wing. The finest Ru ware vessels were produced for the sole use of the Huizong 徽宗 emperor of the Song dynasty (r. 1100–26), who developed an exquisite taste for art. The Percival David Foundation, housed in the British Museum in London, has many excellent specimens of this ware.
Cao Xueqin also puts a conspicuous, bushel-sized Ru ware flowerpot (hua-nang 花囊) in Tan-chun’s room (2.40.292)
(那一邊設著斗大的一個汝窯花囊), to show the impeccably orthodox taste of a young woman who, although her mother was a concubine in the Jia family, is striving to emphasize her aristocratic identity. As a matter of fact, neither the slender-waisted gu vase nor the huanang flowerpot is among the surviving Ru ware vessels. So it is most likely that the author furnished his heroines’ inner chambers with grand brand-names such as Ru ware, along with other famous and rare objects, in order to set the tone for his readers instead of trying to be historically accurate. Maybe it was because of the great rarity of Ru ware vessels that Hawkes made the gu vase in Lady Wang’s quarters an imitation. But he did not apply the “imitation” label to the Ru ware dish in Xi-feng’s outer room (2.27.29)(外頭屋裏桌子上汝窯盤子架兒) or to the huanang pot in Tan-chun’s room.
In Green Bower Hermitage, Adamantina first serves Grandmother Jia with a small “covered teacup of Cheng Hua enameled porcelain” (2.41.312)(成窯五彩小蓋鐘). The Chenghua 成化 reign of the Ming dynasty (1465–87) was known for porcelain pieces with exquisite bodies, shapes, and decoration, especially the matching colors (doucai 斗彩) decoration (fig. 28). According to the first history of Chinese ceramics, published around the time of the preparation of Stone, a pair of Chenghua teacups cost 100,000 cash coins at the beginning of the seventeenth century, an amount that would maintain a middle-class household for a year. In the novel, Cao Xueqin pushes Adamantina’s mysophobia to the extreme: the nun will throw away this expensive piece of porcelain just because Grannie Liu had a sip from it! Fortunately, Bao-yu asks Adamantina to let Grannie Liu have the teacup so that she could sell it in exchange of daily necessities (2.41.315) (“那茶杯虽然脏了,白撂了岂不可惜?依我说,不如就给那贫婆子罢,他卖了也可以度日”).
At a banquet entertaining Grannie Liu from the country, Grandmother Jia asks Xi feng to give Grannie Liu a dish, qiexiang 茄鯗, with dried eggplant as its main ingredient. The dish sounds simple, but the author gives elaborate procedures for its preparation, which have puzzled even the best translators. The most time-consuming step is to immerse finely sliced, recently ripened eggplant in chicken stock. Then slices are steamed to suck in the chicken flavor and then sun-dried. This immersion, steaming, and drying are repeated nine times before the eggplant is finally crispy and ready for use (把五月里的新茄包兒摘下來，把皮和穰子去盡，只要凈肉，切成頭髮細的絲兒，曬乾了。挐一隻肥母雞，靠出老湯來。把這茄子絲上蒸籠的雞湯入了味，再挐出來曬乾。如此九蒸九曬，必定曬脆了。盛在磁罐子里封嚴了。要吃時挐出一碟子來用炒的雞爪子一拌
cf. Hawkes’s simplified rendition in 2.41.306-07). When Adamantina offers Grandmother Jia tea during her visit to Green Bower Hermitage, the matriarch warns the nun, “I don’t drink Liuan [六安] tea” (2.41.312). Fortunately, Adamantina has done her homework for Grand mother Jia’s particular taste for tea and has a perfect answer: she is serving a tea called “Old Man’s Eyebrows” [laojunmei 老君眉]. Liuan tea, a green tea from Anhui 安徽 Province, became known during the eighth century and famous during the second half of the last millennium. Because it was believed to have a cooling effect on the body according to the yin-yang theory of traditional Chinese medicine, Grandmother Jia was afraid that it would be unsuitable for her aging stomach. But Old Man’s Eyebrows tea, also known as White Peony, was a specialty white tea produced in Fujian Province. It made its name by being served as tribute to the court in the eighteenth century. The tea was so called because its leaf was narrow and long and its bud had fine white hair. The color of the liquid brewed from this tea was yellowish and its taste subtle; that was why Grannie Liu found it “a bit on the weak side” (2.41.312).
After serving tea for the party headed by Grandmother Jia, Adamantina leads Bao-chai and Dai-Yu to a side room, and Bao-yu follows. The nun treats them as special guests, making tea for them with water from snow collected from the petals of plum blossoms at the Coiled Incense Temple 蟠香寺 on Mount Xuan-mu 玄墓. This water is so precious that the nun has kept it underground in a “water-jar decorated with demon-face-blue kiln-transformation glaze 鬼臉青的花磁甕一甕” for five years (my trans. ; Hawkes’s trans. on 315). A sixteenth-century pharmacopoeia specifies that melted snow has a cooling effect on the body and is recommended for connoisseurs to make tea and cook congee, a tradition cherished by men of letters as early as the eighth century.
The patriarchs of Cao Xueqin’s family served as commissioners of the Imperial Textile Mills 江寧織造 in the commercial center and the most fertile land of China, in both Suzhou and Nanjing, for three generations. Most probably because of this family connection, Cao Xueqin had an encyclopedic knowledge of the finest fabrics and most fashionable clothing of the time, both domestically produced or imported.
On the first encounter of Dai-yu and her relatives at the Rong-guo mansion, she is struck by Xi-feng, a ‘fairy princess’ (恍若神妃仙子) dressed more beautifully than any woman present. The satin with butterfly and floral design of her bright-red fitted jacket comes from Japan and is a material worn only by the rich. Her slate-blue robe is lined with ermine, and rainbow colors are woven into the smooth blue silk fabric with the special kesi (緙絲) technique. Xi-feng matches her fur and kesi fabric with an accordion pleat sewn from imported turquoise crepe decorated with a scattered-flower pattern (1.3.91)(身上穿着缕金百蝶穿花大红洋缎窄褃袄，外罩五彩刻丝石青银鼠褂；下着翡翠撒花洋绉裙).
Xi-feng seems to adore the kesi fabric, the most expensive kind of decorated silk, because she also wears a slate-blue kesi silk cape lined with gray squirrel when receiving Grannie Liu (1.6.160)(石青刻絲灰鼠披風) and gives Aroma a kesi robe of her own as a visiting home present (2.51.517)(石青刻絲八團天馬皮褂子). The robe given to Aroma has a lining made of the fur from the bellies of foxes living in northeast China and is decorated with eight flower roundels. According to the dress codes of the Qing court, the wives of dukes and of the courtiers of the third rank could wear auspicious garment (jifu 吉服) robes adorned with eight flower roundels (fig. 32). In the novel, the design on the robe that Bao-yu wears at his first appearance (1.3.100) is none other than the eight flower roundels embroidered on Japanese damask satin in a raised manner (外罩石青起花八團倭鍛排穗褂)—perhaps because he is in his early teens and the codes for children’s dress overlapped with those for women. Hawkes thought that all the “eight large medallions” were “on the front” of the robe, but in fact one was on the chest, two were symmetrically arranged on either side above the deep hem, three were counterparts on the back, and the remaining two were on the shoulders.
Just like Xi-feng, who wears a fur-lined robe, Bao-yu, who has just come from outside, wears one as well. His robe is not “with tasseled borders,” as Hawkes rendered it (1.3.100), but has a lining of sheepskin with tassel-like braids of wool(石青起花八團倭鍛排穗褂). The special sheep used for such a lining, raised on the Northern side of the Great Wall, were particularly cold-resistant. The Manchu officials treasured this sheepskin even more than sable for its insulating properties. An interesting contrast can be drawn between Bao-yu’s robe and Grandmother Jia’s black crepe robe, which has a lining of pelt with tightly wound curls of fur from the skin of an aborted karakul lamb (2.42.328)(青皺綢一斗珠的羊皮褂子).
On another occasion, Xi-feng is presented as the fashion model in the Jia family again when she receives Grannie Liu in her own apartment (1.6.159–60)(紫貂昭君套). This time she wears a purplish sable forehead warmer with a pearl-studded bandeau underneath it. Often made of fluffy fur, the warmer was semicircular and can be complementary to an ordinary hat (fig. 33). It was also known as the ‘Zhaojun Hood 昭君套’ because it was said to have been worn by Lady Wang Zhaojun 王昭君 of the Han dynasty (she entered the imperial harem in 40 BCE) on her journey to Central Asia. Lady Wang was married to the ruler of a Xiong-nu 匈奴 tribe by the Han emperor Yuan 漢元帝 (48–33 BCE) as a ‘political bride’ between the two sides during one of the ruler’s homage trips paid to the Han court. The practice of sending ‘political brides’ to marry chieftains of the nomad tribes in the north was a strategy adopted by the court on the Central Plains of China to maintain a peaceful relationship for centuries. On her way to the far northwest, Lady Zhaojun needed something more than an ordinary hat to keep herself warm because of the harsh weather beyond the Great Wall. In a later chapter, Shi Xiang-yun arrives on a snowy day wearing a scarlet felt Zhaojun Hood lined with golden silk inside and embellished with a cloud design cut into the surface to show the golden background and the design is further accentuated by a light-yellow lining (2.49.479)(挖雲鵝黃片金裏大紅猩猩氈昭君套). The same cut-and-lined decorative technique is used on Dai-yu’s red Mongolian lamb-leather boots: a cloud design cut into the surface and accented with the lining of a lighter-coloured material underneath. The design on the boots is bordered with gold (478)(
Cao Xueqin’s family history as bond servants to the Manchu emperors may account for his acquaintance with fur of all kinds, because fur naturally appealed to the upper echelons of the nomadic Manchus. Xi-feng’s peach-pink inner jacket with a sprigged design (桃紅撒花襖)is matched by her bright-red imported crepe skirt with a “silver squirrel” lining, which could be made of either ermine or white sable (1.6.160)(大紅洋縐銀鼠皮裙). An overcoat worn by Jia Zhen is covered with lynx fur on the outside (2.53.565)(猞猁狲大裘). Because lynx skin was rare and expensive, during the Kangxi reign it was decreed that only members of the imperial family and officials above the third rank could wear it. In the novel, Jia Zhen is given the hereditary title of honorable colonel of the third rank (1.13.263)(世襲三品爵威烈將軍) and is therefore qualified to wear this fur. Xiang-yun’s fur coat, a gift from Grandmother Jia, has sable’s heads on the outside and long-haired black squirrel on the inside (2.49.479)(貂鼠腦袋面子大毛黑灰鼠裏子裏外發燒大褂子). Underneath, Xiang-yun wears not “a short riding-skirt,” as Hawkes puts it, but a silvery pink damask satin knee-length robe with a lining of fox belly fur(水紅裝緞狐肷褶子). Bao-yu appears his Manchu-style waist-coat, with buttoned-on detachable sleeves like eagle wings. The coat is lined with “sea-dragon’s fur”(fig.34), which is the folk name for otter fur (481)(海龍皮小小鷹膀褂).
No material is more exotic than what Grandmother Jia refers to as “peacock gold fabric” (2.52.544)(雀金呢). The material is said to be of Russian origin, woven with yarn made from twisted barbs of peacock feather(哦啰斯國拿孔雀毛拈了線織的). It was fashioned into a snow cape that glittered and gleamed like the flaunting fan tail of a peacock(烏雲豹的氅衣). The cape also had the practical virtue of being waterproof. Bao-qin’s rain cape is made of a material woven from the golden-green soft feathers on a drake’s head and neck (2.49. 474, 485)(寶琴所披之斗篷…野鴨子頭上的毛作的).
Some materials have a foreign name. Duoluoni 哆囉呢, for example, was a woolen material with a wide width, imported from the West. It is used on Li Wan’s 李紈 front-buttoned coat (2.49.479) (青哆囉呢對襟褂子) and Bao-yu’s aubergine gown lined with fox fur (481)(茄色哆囉呢狐皮襖子). Bao-chai’s lotus-green “crane-profile” pelisse is knitted with imported lamb’s wool (479)(蓮青鬥紋錦上添花洋線番羓絲的鶴氅).
In stark contrast to Xi-feng’s extravagance, Bao-chai’s attire reveals her austerity. Though her family, the Nanking Xue (Jinling Xue 金陵薛), according to the Mandarin’s Life-Preserver 護官符, are so rich that “to count their money would take all day . . . 豐年好大雪，真珠如土金如鐵” (1.4.111), Bao-chai wears fairly ordinary clothes, such as a well-worn padded jacket and padded skirt
(棉襖、棉裙). But her mulberry-colored vest has a lining of both brown and white weasel fur, which Hawkes translates as ‘a pattern in gold and silver thread’ (1.8.187–88)(玫瑰紫二色金銀鼠比肩褂).
In Dai-yu’s eye, the maids working around Lady Wang all have better makeup and clothes than do the maids in other parts of the Rong-guo mansion. One maid wears a red silk damask dress and a black satin sleeveless jacket with scalloped borders of colored silk (1.3.97)(红绫袄、青缎掐牙背心). Sleeveless jackets were often worn by maids employed in rich households, because the jackets could keep the body warm and at the same time were practical for house chores. In many Chinese pictures depicting ladies with their entourage, the maids are often shown wearing a sleeveless jacket as an outer garment in contrast to their mistress’s long-sleeve outer robe or dress.
Parfumée once wears a short tunic with a harlequin pattern consisting of jade-colored, deep purple, and reddish-brown lozenges (3.63.221)(玉色紅青酡三色緞子鬥的水田小夾襖). Wearing clothes made of patchwork materials became fashionable at the beginning of the seventeenth century, though the practice was mentioned in poems as early as the eighth century. A garment made of such material was called paddy-fields-style garment (shuitianyi 水田衣) in traditional China, for the patchwork pattern resembled the lined or checkered rice fields in southern parts of the country. Patchwork clothes were also worn by Chinese scholars for their association with monks’ robes, which were made of materials collected from numerous households and had an anti-materialist connotation. On the Chinese stage, the paddy fields garment developed into a costume that identified the actresses wearing it as a nun — Adamantina wears one (5.109.186) (外罩一件水田青緞瓖邊長背心) (fig. 36).
The clothes that the characters wear in Stone are not distinctively of the Qing period. Cao Xueqin’s design for Bao-yu’s appearance was an example of his effort to make the historical setting of the story vague, perhaps in order to avoid political persecution. In chapter 3, when Baoyu makes his first appearance, he wears a gold-filigree coronet (fig.37) studded with gems and a golden headband in the form of two dragons fighting for a pearl over his brow (100)(頭上戴著束發嵌寶紫金冠，齊眉勒著二龍搶珠金抹額). Such a coronet was worn by young gentlemen from upper-class families in fifteenth- to seventeenth-century China. The coronet was also worn by actors playing princes and young generals on stage at least from the Qing dynasty onwards.
On Xi-feng’s birthday, Patience 平兒 becomes upset and her clothes are in disarray because her mistress Xi-feng wronged her and slapped her. When she is led to Bao-yu’s apartment to change her soiled clothes and redo her makeup, Bao-yu produces a porcelain box containing high-quality face powder. The box was made during the Xuande reign of the Ming dynasty (1425–35)(宣窑瓷盒), which was one of the most prolific periods of Chinese porcelain manufacture. These porcelains excelled in their materials, glazes, and variegated designs. In the box lies a row of ten elongated plantain lily buds (一排十根玉簪花棒). Pinching off one of the buds, Bao-yu explains to Patience that the powder in the bud is not based on ceruse, the common practice of the time, but is organic, made from the seeds of garden jalap (fig.38) with other finest ingredients (2.44.375–76)(這不是鉛粉，這是紫茉莉花種，研碎了兌上香料制的). If this is not the author’s invention, the scene may well indicate that the eighteenth-century Chinese cosmetic industry had a luxurious foundation powder with crushed flower seed as its base and with pearl, cinnabar, and gold and silver foils as ingredients — to achieve a perfect combination of lightness, whiteness, rosiness, and fragrance. Patience is amazed when she empties the contents of a lily bud onto her palm. The ingenious perfumer skillfully put the foundation powder inside the bud, letting the powder absorb the sweet scent of the plantain lily petals.
At the dinner party in the reception hall in Grandmother Jia’s rear courtyard on the evening of the Lantern Festival, beside each dining table is an ornamental table on which sits a porcelain dish holding a miniature landscape made out of mossy rocks adorned with snow-white Xuan pebbles (xuanshi 宣石) (2.53.577). Xuan stone was named after its production area, ancient Xuanzhou 宣州 in Anhui Province. Rich in quartz, the mineral was white. Landscape gardeners preferred it over the more common yellow sandstone and grayish limestone. Xuan stone was widely used in private gardens in Yangzhou, Jiangsu Province, to create a highlighted setting or even a mock snowscape.
In Lady Wang’s side apartment, Dai-yu notices an incense-burning set (1.3.96)(文王鼎匙箸香盒)which consists of a four-legged ding 鼎 pot, a vase for holding a bronze spatula with a rectangular blade and a pair of bronze chopsticks, and an incense container. The same arrangement is found at the dinner party during the Lantern Festival in Grandmother Jia’s courtyard (2.53.577) (爐瓶三事) Cao Xueqin deliberately gives a grand name to the four-legged pot for burning incense in, “King Wen Ding” 文王鼎 — literally the “bronze vessel made for King Wen of the Zhou dynasty (1045–256 BCE).” Ding pots, bronze ceremonial vessels with three or four legs, developed from earthenware cooking utensils. For more than a thousand years, especially between 1600 and 200 BCE, they were regarded as symbols of the political structure of the Golden Era in the history of China. King Wen, who around 1100–1050 BCE ruled the Zhou state in what today is Shaanxi Province, was respected for his benevolence and thus held as one of the few role models for kings and emperors throughout Chinese history. In the twelfth century, when the Huizong emperor (r. 1100–1126) had a catalog of ancient bronzes compiled, a King Wen ding was listed in the Illustrated Catalogue of the Antiquities of the Xuanhe Period (xuanhe bogu tu 宣和博古圖). It became one of the most famous ding pots. According to the archive in the Imperial Household Office 清宮檔, in 1754, when The Story of the Stone was being written, Tang Ying, the official responsible for the imperial porcelain production in the manufacture center, Jingdezhen, Jiangxi Province, presented the Qianlong emperor (r. 1735–96) with an incense-burning set made of porcelain, which included a King Wen ding, a bottle vase, and an incense container (fig.40). Obviously Cao Xueqin put such incense burners in the Jia mansions in order to emphasize the close connection of the family with the imperial court and the Jia family’s extravagant way of life.
In the Jia household, chairs were not upholstered but covered with backs and seat covers made of different fabrics, such as a silvery red brocade dotted with flowers (1.3.96)(銀紅撒花椅搭). Before upholstery was introduced to China, the Chinese used removable lined or padded covers and cushions to make their wooden seats more comfortable.
In Qin-shi’s bedroom, the painting Begonia’s Spring Slumber (海棠春睡圖), attributed to Tang Yin (1470–24), is flanked by a pair of scrolls containing a poetic couplet said to have been written by Qin Guan (1049–1100), whose style name, Taixu, meaning “illusion,” is the name Cao Xueqin uses for the dreamland (taixu huanjing 太虛幻境) that Bao-yu enters in his nap on Qin-shi’s bed (1.5.127). Apparently, the calligraphic scrolls are used to pave the way for Bao-yu’s dream trip. Later, Bao-yu gives Tan-chun, his half sister, a pair of calligraphic scrolls as a token of his brotherly love, and they were written by a famous calligrapher in the Chinese history, Yan Zhenqing 顏真卿 (709–85) (2.37.214). Yan was also known as Yan Lugong, lugong meaning “duke of Lu 魯公” (40.292). But both the calligraphic couplet scrolls were made up by Cao Xueqin, because the practice of hanging such scrolls was not in existence in either the eighth or the eleventh century, when Yan Lugong and Qin Guan 秦觀 respectively lived. With these impossible artifacts the author adorns the Jia residence with the aura of prestige.
The principal painting in Tan-chun’s room is a hanging scroll with a landscape scene (2.40.292), supposedly by the scholar-official Mi Fu 米芾 (1051–107) (米襄陽《煙雨圖》), alias Xiangyang, known for his unique pointillist manner of depicting mountain peaks in drifting mist characteristic of the landscape in southern China (fig. 28). However, hardly any credible specimen of Mi Fu’s painting has been handed down, and what we know about Mi Fu today is largely based on works by his imitators of later periods.
In the Land of Illusion, Bao-yu enters a room where, in addition to all the hallmarks of gracious living, he sees pieces of colored cotton wool on the windowsill beside spilled powder left by some woman who applied her makeup. Hawkes renders it as “some rouge-stained pieces of cotton-wool lying on the windowsill — evidently the aftermath of some fairy-woman’s toilet 窗下亦有唾絨，奩間時漬粉污” (1.5.138). In fact, traditionally, cotton wool was an amorous image in feminine space. When women did embroidery work, they had to cut the thread with their teeth when they finished a stitch. As a result, they often caught fabric between their teeth and needed to spit it out. As women often did their needlework near a window in order to take the advantage of the daylight, it was convenient for them to spit the wool out of the window. Thus the window sill became a natural place for the deposit of those bits that did not make it. Love poems made frequent reference to this image to indicate the presence of a young woman, who was either flirtatious and a good sport or melancholy and waiting to be wooed. Either type was a welcome target of the male gaze in traditional literature. The lyric writer Li Yu 李煜 (937–78) vividly describes a flirting episode in a song entitled “A Casket of Pearls 一斛珠”:
Leaning across the embroidered bed, she appeared so pampered, 繡床憑斜嬌無那
Indulgently chewing red silk-wool; 爛嚼紅茸
With a smile, she spit it across to her dearest lover. 笑向檀郎唾
(Li Yu ciji 9 [my trans.])
This link between a bit of silk wool and its amorous connotation in literature gives Bao-yu a thrill when noticing the detail.
During the outing in the Taoist temple of the lunar goddess, the Jia family party is entertained with popular episodes from famous plays. The full title of the second play is A Heap of Honors (Manchuang hu 滿床笏)(第二本是《滿床笏》) (2.29.80–81) . The musical drama centers on the sixtieth birthday party of the great Tang general
Guo Ziyi 郭子儀 (697–781), which is attended by many of his colleagues as well as his seven sons and eight sons-in-law. All the guests hold high office and come with a court tablet, hu 笏. The hu was a narrow rectangular form made of different materials, such as jade, ivory, or bamboo, and high-ranking officials carried it when they had an audience with the emperor at court. It was both a status symbol and a tool for taking notes. At Guo’s birthday party, there were so many court tablets carried to Guo’s household that a large dais was set aside to accommodate them. “A heap of court tablets on the bed” became a set expression to mean the great prestige that a family enjoyed in imperial China: the heap indicated there was an unusually large number of high-ranking officials in the family and in its social circle (fig.45). That is why Grandmother Jia feels she must show humility by saying, “It seems a bit conceited to have this second one performed,” when she hears that A Heap of Honors is among the plays chosen by the divine force (81)(賈母笑道:"這倒是第二本上?也罷了.神佛要這樣,也只得罷了."). Since the play’s theme was considered very lucky, it often appeared on furnishing and display vessels, such as a twelve-panel folding screen sent to Grandmother Jia from the Zhen family of Nanking (Nanjing 南京) (3.71.409–10). On this large screen, the narrative scenes of Guo Ziyi’s birthday party are woven into the silk fabric with the special kesi technique. Knowing the meaning of this story and of this design, readers will have a better understanding of the beginning of Zhen Shi-yin’s commentary on the Won-Done Song, where he uses the same image to create a drastic contrast between the peak and the downfall of an aristocratic family: “Shabby huts and abandoned halls are once where the bed was heaped with official tablets” (my trans., for 1.1.64) 陋室空堂,當年笏滿床 (1: 18).
Stone is a treasure house of objects reflecting the social and cultural life of eighteenth-century China, and a full appreciation of the novel calls for a matching repertoire of historical knowledge. Cao Xueqin drew on his life in an aristocratic family to fill his work with fascinating details, intermingling the fantastical and fictional with the real.