Late Imperial China
The Story of the Stone [Literary Excerpt]
Many adult voices advocated the need for a good moral upbringing as part of a rigorous education for children during the later Ming and Qing dynasties, an aspect seen in the primers that were repeatedly published during this period. Yet other realms of popular literature caught the attention of a broad class of educated elites. Here we also find rich descriptions of childhood that complicate a moralistic tone. One of the most famous novels of the period is The Story of the Stone (also known as Dream of the Red Chamber) by Cao Xueqin (d. 1763). Cao offers an extended tale of a grand family in the 18th century that focuses upon two young characters, the young heir Bao-yu and the beautiful Dai-yu, amidst a rich narrative of family intrigue, daily life, and culture. In the selection offered here, we gain a view of Bao-yu's own life as a young and poetic lad who embraces life in the quieter quarters amongst his female cousins and their maids. Here we see a vision that celebrates diverse joys and, perhaps, satirizes the staples of a proper Confucian upbringing.
Cao Xueqin. The Story of the Stone. Transl. by David Hawkes. New York: Penguin Classics, 1973, 460–4 (adapted).
Primary Source Text
Life for Bao-yu after his removal into the garden became utterly and completely satisfying. Every day was spent in the company of his maids and cousins in the most amiable and delightful occupations, such as: reading, practicing calligraphing, strumming on the qin, playing Go, painting, composing verses, embroidering in coloured silks, competitive flower collecting, making flower-sprays, singing, word games, and guess fingers. In a word, he was blissfully happy. . .
Then, quite suddenly, in the midst of this placid, agreeable existence, he was discontented. He got up one day feeling out of sorts. Nothing he did brought any relief. Whether he stayed indoors or went out into the garden, he remained bored and miserable. The garden's female population were mostly still in that age of innocence when freedom from inhibition is the fruit of ignorance. Waking and sleeping they surrounded him, and their mindless giggling was constantly in his ears. How could they understand the restless feelings that now consumed him? In his present mood of discontent he was bored with the garden and its inmates; yet his attempts to find distraction outside it ended in the same emptiness and ennui.
Tealeaf saw how it was with him and racked his brains for a remedy. Unfortunately all the things he could think of seemed to be things that Bao-yu had already tried and grown tired of. But no, there was something he had not yet tried. As soon as Tealeaf thought of it, he set off to the book-stalls and bought a pile of books – books of a kind Bao-yu had never heard about – to give as a present to his young master. His purchases included: Old Inklubber's Stories Old and New; The Secret History of Flying Swallow; Sister of Flying Swallow; The Infamous Loves of Empress Wu; The Jade Ring Concubine, or Peeps in the Inner Palace… and a heap of playbooks – mostly romantic comedies and the like.
Bao-yu took one look at this gift and was enraptured; but Tealeaf uttered a warning: "Don't take these into the garden! If you do, and anyone finds out about them, I'll be in real trouble – more than just a bellyful!"
The injunction was one with which Bao-yu was most unwilling to comply. After a good deal of hesitation he picked out a few of the chaster volumes to keep by his bed and read when no one was about, and left the cruder, more forthright ones behind, hidden somewhere in his outer study.
One day after lunch – it was round about the Midwash of the third month, as our forefathers, who measured the passage of time by their infrequent ablutions, were wont to say – Bao-yu set off for Drenched Blossoms Weir with the volumes of Western Chamber under his arm, and sitting down on a rock underneath the peach-tree which grew there beside the bridge, he took up the first volume and began, very attentively, to read the play. He had just reached the line "The red flowers in their hosts are falling" when a little gust of wind blew over and a shower of petals suddenly rained down from the tree above, covering his clothes, his book, and all the ground about him. . . a voice behind him said, "What are you doing here?"
He looked around and saw that it was Dai-yu. She was carrying a garden hoe with a muslin bag hanging from the end of it on her shoulder and a garden broom in her hand.
"You've come at just the right moment," said Bao-yu, smiling at her. "Here, sweep these petals up and tip them in the water for me! I've just tipped one lot in myself."
"It isn't a good idea to tip them in the water," said Dai-yu. "The water you see here is clean, but farther on beyond the weir, where it flows past people's houses, there are all sorts of muck and impurity, and in the end they get spoiled just the same. In that corner over there I've got a grave for the flowers, and what I'm doing now is sweeping them up and putting them back in this silk bag to bury them there, so that they can gradually turn back into earth. Isn't that a cleaner way of disposing of them?"
Bao-yu was full of admiration for this idea. "Just let me put this book somewhere and I'll give you a hand."
"What book?" said Dai-yu.
"Oh. . . the Doctrine of the Mean and The Greater Learning," he said, hastily concealing it.
"Don't try to fool me!" said Dai-yu. "You would have done much better to let me look at it in the first place, instead of hiding it so guiltily."
"In your case, coz, I have nothing to be afraid of," said Bao-yu; "but if I do let you look, you must promise not to tell anyone. It's marvelous stuff. Once you start reading it, you'll even stop wanting to eat!"
He handed the book to her, and Dai-yu put down her things and looked. The more she read, the more she liked it, and before very long she had read several acts. She felt the power of the words and their lingering fragrance. Long after she had finished reading, when she had laid down the book and was sitting there rapt and silent, the lines continued to ring on in her head.
"Well," said Bao-yu, "is it good?"
Dai-yu smiled and nodded.
Bao-yu laughed: "How can I, full of sickness and woe, withstand that face which kingdoms could o'erthrow?"
How to Cite This Source
Sue Fernsebner, "Late Imperial China," in Children and Youth in History, Item #221, http://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/teaching-modules/221 (accessed March 28, 2017).
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