Sunday, April 12, 2015

Red Chamber 2, 紅樓夢

Further to my 20 November 2012 post on The Dream of the Red Chamber, I've come up with a shorter synopsis. I was wondering how short I could get it and still maintain the sense of larger events circling the central love triangle, a sense of mounting sequence, and yet still opportunities for ceremonial ('occasional') music as well as expression of the overriding emotional story. There are elisions that might seem like liberties to those who know the original but I thought I'd make them in the interest of 'integration'.

The Path of the Jade, based on Cao Xueh-Qin’s Dream of the Red Chamber 紅樓夢

Jia Bao-yu (‘Master Bao’), the boy with the jade 
Lin Dai-yu, (Miss Lin) his cousin, destined to be his bride 
Xue Bao-chai (‘Miss Bao’), female cousin to the Jias and Wang Xi-feng 
Jia Zheng, Bao’s father 
Madam Jia, Bao’s mother 
Grandmother Jia, matriarch of them all 
Wang Xi-feng, the family’s female enforcer, a close cousin of the Jias 
Aunt Hsueh, aunt to the younger Jias and Wang Xi-feng 
Hsueh-pan, male cousin to the Jias and Wang Xi-feng
Yu-tcun, a poor young civil servant, distantly related to the Jias 
The Drunk Priest 
Snowflake, a servant girl 
Aroma, a servant girl, Bao’s personal servant 
The Goddess of Disenchantment 
Cousin Qin-shi 

Prologue: In a tavern some distance from the capital Beijing, a poor young civil servant named Yu-tcun meets a failed priest who tells him of Jia Bao-yu (Master Bao), Yu-tcun’s distant relative, who was born with a piece of jade from the Goddess of Heaven’s roof in his mouth. Though the Jia family’s fortune is not what it was (and it is hoped that the heavenly boy  Master Bao will arrest its steady decline),Yu-tcun sees opportunity to exploit his tenuous connections with a still-distinguished family. He and the priest reflect on the skill required to cushion life’s downward plunges.

Act I:
No expense has been spared at the Jia mansion for Cousin Qin-shi’s funeral. Maybe a big funeral, showing proper respect for a relative, will persuade the gods to restore the Jia crops, refill their rivers, and replenish their treasure chests. Daughter-in-law Wang Xi-feng orders Snowflake, a servant-girl, whipped for coming late on this 39th day of the 49-day ceremonies. Into this scene of punishment arrive other relatives, and Wang Xi-feng is overjoyed to greet her Aunt Hsueh and cousins Bao-chai (Miss Bao) and the oafish Hsueh-pan. The Hsuehs have fallen on hard times and need help. The Jias will entertain them royally, though it means stretching resources.

In their favourite part of the mansion garden, teenage lovers Master Bao and Lin Dai-yu, escape the ceremonies and renew their childhood vows of love (Not much longer, surely, until we’re married). Finding them, Miss Bao wants to see Master Bao’s famous jade. Its poetic inscription matches that on Miss Bao’s amulet. Devastated, Dai-yu knows that the rules of feudalism destine Miss Bao for Master Bao (Not much longer surely until they’re married) and she runs away, tearful.

Attending Wang Xi-feng, servant-girl Aroma says she approves of Snowflake’s whipping. Dependent on the family for her livelihood, Aroma fears lax discipline and decadence. Wang Xi-feng is also relieved to have this servant’s approval of the lavish funeral for Cousin Qin-shi at a time of savage cutbacks to the servants’ rations.

Lin Dai-yu reminds Master Bao that she had come down from Heaven a Crimson Dew Flower grateful to Master Bao for watering her and giving her sentient life. Unable to pacify Miss Lin who sees her dreams of marriage turn to dust, Master Bao turns to Miss Bao for comfort, but she is unsympathetic. A paragon of the old values that guarantee family health and who regards Dai-yu as sickly, Miss Bao asserts the stability of feudal tradition.

Act II
In a dream, the Goddess of Disenchantment teaches her human relative Master Bao, the pleasures of sex which will strengthen him through even a prescribed marriage. Master Bao wants to try these out on Aroma. Believing that she was given to the Jia family for Master Bao’s use, Aroma is compelled to agree but she extracts from him promises to apply himself and work on becoming a fit heir for the mansion. All livelihoods depend on it!

Bao-yu's maid, Qinwen, (Aroma). Public domain. 
Too late! Bao’s father, Jia Zheng, thrashes him for neglecting his duties at a time of declining wealth. Nursing his wounds, Master Bao discards the text he has been set by his masters and finds unexpected comfort, instead, in The Great Text on the Inherent Nature of Things.

As more of the family property is pawned, Grandmother Jia and Master Bao’s parents (Jia Zheng and Madam Jia) worry about the need to restore the family’s former glory, and of the suitability of Lin Dai-yu who has long been considered Master Bao’s destined bride. Wang Xi-feng tells them of Master Bao and Miss Bao’s matching amulets (reported by Aroma) and says she knows how to arrange a more auspicious marriage.

Told of his forthcoming marriage, Master Bao is overjoyed, but Miss Lin is in seclusion, sick behind a closed door, when he comes to visit.

Choosing a date for the wedding, the family learn that their oafish guest Hsueh-pan has been arrested for killing a waiter, but Grandmother Jia assures Hsueh-pan’s cousin, their enforcer Wang Xi-feng, that the new magistrate Yu-tcun can be leaned on. He owes his position to Master Bao’s father, Jia Zheng.

The wedding day can therefore go ahead as scheduled. Master Bao is persuaded not to visit Miss Lin who needs all her strength. The family toasts the prospering of their dynasty. At the close of the sumptuous festivities, Master Bao raises the bride’s veil to discover it’s Miss Bao. News is brought that Lin Dai-yu has died, as Master Bao collapses.

Walking through the Grand View Garden, Wang Xi-feng sees the ghost of Cousin Qin-shi, the spitting image of the Goddess of Disenchantment, who tells Wang Xi-feng that her ‘treasured daughter’s funeral’ concealed the fact that she and her father had an incestuous relationship. Snowflake’s sneers aside, Aroma, the loyal servant, assures Wang Xi-feng that the apparition is a tribute to the vigilance with which Wang Xi-feng protects the family. But Wang Xi-feng is terrified by the vision.  

Meanwhile, having pressured Yu-tcun, Master Bao’s father has been accused by the emperor of corruption and ordered to appear at court. Master Bao’s mother and grandmother fearfully despair that the family’s fortunes will never be restored. Wang Xi-feng is in no mood for ‘waterworks’. She brings news that is both good and bad. Miss Bao is pregnant but Master Bao has disappeared. He has left behind his jade. No sooner does she reveal this news than she collapses dead at their feet, as Cousin Qin-shi’s ghost intimated. It is small comfort when the oafish Hsueh-pan returns, having been acquitted by the magistrate Yu-tcun who was paid off.

Travelling through the provinces to a remote governorship (the emperor’s punishment), Master Bao’s Father sees a priest of the Goddess of Heaven who looks like Master Bao, but before he can tell Master Bao about his son, Master Bao disappears. Bao’s Father reflects on the turn of events that has seen him, a former favourite of the emperor, bereft and exiled.

The nation resounds with bells announcing Grandmother Jia’s death. Returning to his village, stripped of rank, an older Yu-tcun meets again the priest he met at the outset of the story. The priest tells Yu-tcun that his latest instalment of the Jia family story is one of guilt punished, virtue rewarded. It would have required a mere nudge to produce a more favourable outcome. Yu-tcun agrees, but corrects the priest’s naivety. He sees the potential for rise and fall concurrently in all things. As they drink, Xue Bao-chai, back in Beijing, nurses her healthy baby. Grandmother Jia lies in her coffin, awaiting sufficient funds for burial. Madam Jia neglects household repairs while Aunt Hsueh dotes on being a grandmother. The Hsuehs have taken to wearing the robes of the mansion’s owners.

Possible doublings, if acted:

The Drunk Priest/ Hsueh-pan
Snowflake, a servant girl/ Father Jia Zheng
Dai-yu/ Goddess of Disenchantment/ Qin-shi

- GKW, April 8 2015

Other posts that might be of interest:

My first post on The Dream of the Red Chamber, 20 Nov 2012
and my program note on Tan Duns Nu-Shu, 15 Mar 2015

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