Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Dream of the Red Chamber

One of my little projects last year was to put together some thoughts on the dramatic adaptability of the Chinese classic, The Dream of the Red Chamber [紅樓夢] * & see below

A painting from a series of brush paintings by Qing Dynasty artist Sun Wen (1818-1904), depicting scenes from the novel Dream of the Red Chamber. Public domain

The original five-volume novel is like a Chinese Remembrance of Things Past, as if the author, Cao Xue-chin, tried to get down his entire life and the life of his family. Actually, the novel's family has a son who was born with a piece of jade from the roof of heaven in his mouth, so the book is also allegory, but it also more: a portrayal of  the decline of a feudal family, an account of the customs and manners of an 18th century Chinese mansion, an expression of the long-term workings of fate...

Thinking dramatically and operatically (since that was the scenario put to me) and looking for a principal storyline for an opera, I first latched onto the love story of Bao-yu (Precious Jade) and Dai-yu (Black Jade) and the triangle that is formed by the arrival of Bao-chai (Precious Virtue). That gives you your emphasis on emotions. But then I thought that a truly unique work would cover the influence on the central plot of the wheeling of greater external events. My western temperament cut the story so that it progressed through conflict. But the novel moves in a quite leisurely fashion, with outcomes slowly unfolding, especially novel 2, The Crab-Flower Club, which is taken up to a great extent with description of poetry games and so forth. I've included side-plots which convey the dark underside of the mansion - possible reasons for the Jias' decline - and the cruel foundations on which some of the surface brilliance of their household is built. But if the whole book is too big to be digested into a western stage form, there are shorter, more dramatically-succinct episodes in the novel which could serve as a stage work in their own right.

Why would this would need to be an opera rather than a very ornate play? There would be an interesting challenge for a composer in pitting together music which fulfils two different functions: music which punctuates the cycles of life and the structure and procedures of the society (funerals, weddings, celebrations, festivities, arrivals, departures) as opposed to music (the outpouring of song) which expresses emotion.

I’ve roughed out the sort of plot I could see emerging from what I’ve read so far. It’s built around certain ceremonial events. I’ve tried to convey some of the bigger revolutions happening outside the love story. Further reading might provide better illustrations of ‘something rotten in the Jung houses’ or better tableaux of decline or suggest more skilful ways to enfold information and ‘fast-forward’. On a smaller note, perhaps the chorus could be used to convey the size of the servant body – maybe even assigning a body of chorus to each principal. I was always intrigued by the pecking order among the servants - inside and outside servants (inside is more prestigious), chamber wives (servants who are concubines)...It reminded me of the complicated hypocritical world of slavery in antebellum America where the inside servants were sometimes siblings...

Below is a cast list and a rough synopsis. I’ve conflated some of the characters (without being completely aware of whether this cuts across a Chinese sense of relations) and changed some sequencing, such as the early flogging, the ransacking of the servants' quarter...

A page from the "Jimao manuscript" (one of the Rouge versions) of the novel, c. 1759. Public domain, due to expiry of the copyright.

The Dream of the Red Chamber – an opera based on Cao Xue-qin’s classic Chinese novel

Jia Bao-yu (treble)
Lin Dai-yu (treble)
Xue Bao-chai (soprano)
Wang Xi-feng (soprano)
Cousin Zhen (tenor)
Grandmother Jia (alto)
Jia Zheng (tenor)
Aunt Xue (alto)
Xue Pan (baritone)
Aroma (soprano)
Snowgoose (mezzo)
Jia Yu-cun (tenor)
Priest (bass)
The Prince of Beijing (baritone)
Goddess of Disenchantment (sop?)

Act One
In a country tavern, a poor scholar, Jia Yu-cun, meets a priest, who tells him about the Jia family of the Jung Mansion, to whom Yu-cun is distantly related. In particular, he tells Yu-cun about Jia Bao-yu (Precious Jade), a special boy in the latest generation who was born with a piece of jade in his mouth. The boy has some strange predilections; not only is he lazy (he neglects his studies), he prefers the company of girls and says he finds men unclean. But he is said to be descended from a piece of jade left unused by the Goddess Nu-gua after she repaired the dome of heaven, and is hoped to be a pivotal figure in restoring the fortunes of the Jia family. Jia Yu-cun sees an opportunity to advance himself through ‘family connections’, though the currently-powerful family is supposedly in decline.
The Jia family is burying Qin-shi, a daughter in-law from their Ning mansion, and Cousin Zhen (her father-in-law) has gone to suspiciously disproportionate lengths to make her funeral as sumptuous as possible (much to the resentment of servants who have had their rations further cut). On this 35th day of the 49-day(!) funeral, even the Prince of Beijing has come to express his condolences. As he is leaving, the Prince asks to meet Bao-yu, the fabled ‘boy with the jade’ whose presence is considered very auspicious for the Jias, from whom much is hoped by the royal family. We meet Bao-yu and his constant companion, his cousin Lin Dai-yu  (Black Jade) who has been living with the Jias for some time.

Scenes from Dream of the Red Chamber. Public domain artwork by Xu Baozhuan (1810-1873).
After the Prince has left, Wang Xi-feng, a sister-in-law of the Jung mansion who was been in charge of the funeral, orders 20 strokes of the cane for one of the resentful servants who was late for work. She believes it is even more important than ever now to maintain discipline and ignores the servant’s pleas for mercy for all the good work she has done the family throughout her life.
Into this scene of punishment, Aunt Xue (Wang Xi-feng’s aunt) and Aunt Xue’s children, the brutish Xue Pan and the beautiful but conventional Bao-chai (Precious Virtue), arrive at the Jung mansion. Wang Xi-feng is overjoyed. Her cousin, Xue Pan has just gotten off a murder charge when his case was brought before Yu-cun, the new prefect sponsored by the Jias. (Interestingly, the man Xue Pan had murdered, Feng Yuan, had been trying to steal Lotus, the daughter of the man who became Scene I’s priest when his daughter (Lotus) was kidnapped by Xue Pan several years ago.) After the elders have retired, Bao-chai meets Bao-yu and Dai-yu, and after Bao-chai retires to clean up after her journey, Bao-yu and Dai-yu renew their sense of destined compatibility. Even though it has been disturbed by Bao-chai’s arrival, they dare to think of it blooming into love and marriage.

Act Two
In a dream, Bao-yu is led by his heavenly relative the Goddess of Disenchantment to the Illusory ‘Land of the Great Void’, where she teaches him about sex and he dreams he has made love to Qin-shi, his recently-departed niece. Upon waking, Bao-yu tells Aroma, his maid, that he should teach her what the Goddess has taught him. After some pro-forma resistance from Aroma, which includes three conditions: (1) apply yourself to your studies, (2) stop saying the first thing that comes into your head: think first, and (3) forget your fascination with girls’ cosmetics, she agrees to let him have sex with her. As she explains, she fully accepts that she was given to Bao-yu “to be used to the fullest extent”; that is the way things are.
Outside her Bamboo Lodge in the Mansion’s garden Dai-yu is thinking of Bao-yu, and sentimentally gives voice to a line from The Western Chamber: “Day after day a drowsy dream of love”. On his morning stroll, Bao-yu overhears her and playfully teases her, but she resents his making fun of her (feeling that the other girls of the mansion have already teased her enough because of her attraction to him). Before he can make amends, Bao-chai interrupts them. She is interested in seeing Bao-yu’s jade with its famous inscription: “Never Lose, Never Forget, Eternal Life, Lasting Prosperity”. She shows him her golden locket. On it is inscribed: “Never Leave, Never Abandon, Fresh Youth, Eternally Lasting”. The lines match. All three know that, according to the feudalistic concept of marriage, Bao-yu and Bao-chai are therefore destined to marry. Fragile Dai-yu bursts into tears as her own dreams of marrying Bao-yu seem shattered. At a loss over her emotional excess, Bao-yu cannot look for sympathy from Bao-chai who supports the feudal way of doing things.
Alone, he begins reading the book he should have been studying: Zhuaang Zu (one of the most important works of Taoism), and is especially moved by the concept of letting things take their own course; that people cannot go against their nature.
Because he is jealous that Bao-yu is heir to the Jia fortune, Xue Pan tells Jia Zheng (Bao-yu’s father) that a servant girl drowned herself because Bao-yu tried to rape her. Already tired of Bao-yu’s ‘idiosyncracies’ and to assert his authority, Jia Zheng beats the boy mercilessly until Grandmother Jia (Lady Dowager) intervenes. She is against using force to discipline the boy, and hopes that a carrot-rather-than-stick approach will help him mature into the sort of household head that the family will eventually need. Jia Zheng, however, already worried about the precariousness of the family’s position, despairs of Bao-yu ever devoting himself to serious things.
Aroma, Bao-yu’s servant, tells Wang Xi-feng that she agrees with Bao-chai that Bao-yu’s flogging would never have occurred if Bao-yu had paid more attention to his position in a family that needs to restore its fortunes. Wang Xi-feng is impressed by this servant. Flattered, Aroma tells Wang Xi-feng about Bao-yu’s and Bao-chai’s matching amulets.
More trouble for the family: Bao-yu’s old wet nurse, Nanny Li, comes to petition the Jias for financial assistance. Her family has fallen on hard times. But the Jias say they cannot help. Nanni Li is resentful of the Jias’rejection of her, a loyal old retainer, even though Jia Zheng explains, “Our fortunes are not as they were. All this is just for appearances”.
Yet, during sumptuous and elaborate celebrations for her birthday, Grandmother Jia raises with Jia Zheng, her son, the question of Bao-yu’s marriage. When Wang Xi-feng suggests an auspicious match between ‘precious jade’ and ‘gold locket’ - that is, between Bao-yu and Bao-chai - Grandmother Jia nods her consent; Jia Zheng assents. Wang Xi-feng and Aunt Xi choose an auspicious day for Bao-yu and Bao-chai to marry.
After Grandmother Jia’s birthday celebrations, Bao-yu goes to see Dai-yu. For his part he continues to feel undying devotion to her, but she feels that something is awry.
In the eleventh month, the withered crab-apple trees in Happy Red Court suddenly blossom, and people rush to see. Nanny Li and Xi-feng take the unseasonal flowering to be an evil omen, while Dai-yu is secretly thrilled when Snowgoose, her maid, interprets the flowering as predicting a happy occurrence soon in Bao-yu’s life (could it be their marriage?)...For some reason, Bao-yu himself feels sad. He is not wearing his jade; nor does he find it on returning home! He becomes more and more distraught, alarming Aroma as he bemoans the realm of human suffering and longs for Dai-yu’s consoling companionship.
Since the jade has not been found in Bao-yu’s house, Xi-feng supervises the ransacking of the servants’ quarters. The family are grateful to ‘Fengy’ for her energetic prosecution of their interests, and she takes the opportunity to outline a scheme by which Bao-yu can be married to Bao-chai. The family’s gratitude to her for continuing to devise strategies that will ensure the “most propitious turns of events”, overshadows the news that a couple of old servants have suicided out of shame for being accused of theft.
Having been informed of the secret marriage plans by Snowgoose, Dai-yu has collapsed and vomited blood. Snowgoose hurries to report Dai-yu’s condition to Grandmother Jia, and Wang Xi-feng. The old lady is furious. If Dai-yu’s illness is caused by love for Bao-yu, she has no sympathy for her. “Parents organise marriages,” she says. The old lady has no time for this talk of ‘Free love’ and ‘free marriage’.
Dai-yu burns her manuscript book as well as Bao-yu’s mementoes. Recognizing Dai-yu’s critical condition, Snowgoose orders Dai-yu’s other maids to get her after-life things ready.
The wedding ceremony begins. The family remarks that Bao-yu now seems better and more rational, but he believes he is marrying Dai-yu. Lifting the bride’s veil he finds that it is Bao-chai and collapses. At the same time news is brought in that Dai-yu has died, “in admirable obedience to her love”. But Grandmother Jia extols Bao-chai and proclaims that the family’s fortune depends on them obeying the precepts of society. After the wedding guests have left, Bao-yu learns that the Prince of Beijing has made him a replica of his missing jade, but, unconsoled about mounting losses, he tells Bao-chai that he will continue to mourn for Dai-yu.

Act Three
Walking through the mansion’s Grand View Garden, Wang Xi-feng sees the ghost of Qin-shi who makes it clear she was the object of her father-in-law’s incestuous desires and warns Wang Xi-feng of the Jia family’s pending doom. In horror, Wang Xi-feng goes to the temple to pray. She draws some divination lots, and [Aroma] interprets the oracle as a good omen: Wang Xi-feng will ‘return home in splendor’. Snowgoose, Dai-yu’s maid however, thinks that the oracle could mean something else.
The Jias receive news that their family is now under imperial scrutiny and on top of that comes news that Xue Pan has killed a waiter by smashing a bowl over his head. Despite the family’s troubles, Aunt Xue is not particularly worried because Yu-cun the magistrate can always be leaned on. A priest turns up with what he claims to be Bao-yu’s jade, but the family ask him to come back when they have raised the money he demands for its return.
Hearing from Aroma that Wang Xi-feng is ill, Bao-yu and Bao-chai hurry to her quarters to find she is already dead and laid out for her funeral. Jia Zheng explains that her funeral cannot be arranged as ‘sumptuously’ as the funeral Wang Xi-feng arranged for Qin-shi because the Jias have less money now. Bao-yu says the priest can keep the jade of spiritual understanding.
Back in their quarters, Bao-yu asks Bao-chai’s permission to sleep outside; he claims it will help him sleep; in reality he wants to dream of Dai-yu.
The emperor grants the Jias a slight reprieve; Jia Zheng will be forgiven his shortfalls but will have to take up a governorship in the provinces; Xue Pan will probably get off but the district governor, suspicious of Jia Yu-cun, must first look into his case, and Bao-chai is finally pregnant, but Bao-yu, who has become more and more impressed by Taiost philosophy, has disappeared.
One day in the provinces, Jia Zheng comes across a figure with a shaved head. It is none other than Bao-yu, but before Zheng can tell the young man he is returning from the funeral of Grandmother Jia, a priest urges Bao-yu to hurry away. They both vanish without a trace.
Travelling once more through the countryside, Jia Yu-cun meets up once again with the priest he met in a tavern in Act 1. He tells him that The Board of Punishment (sufficiently paid) exonerated Xue Pan, who agreed to turn over a new leaf by marrying his concubine, Lotus (the priest’s kidnapped daughter). Meanwhile, Yu-cun himself has been ordered home and stripped of his rank. The priest tells Yu-cun that the Illusory Land of the Great Voids is the Blessed Land of Truth. There, the good people are favored by fortune, while the dissolute people meet with calamity. But Yu-cun has begun to feel that out in the world the wheel continues to turn, each living thing has within itself the seeds of its own improvement, the seeds of its own dissolution.


For an updated brief synopsis, please see my blog of 12 April, 2015

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