Today’s look at the two grand old ladies of Honglou meng 紅樓夢 was first conceived of and published as a shorter post for the “Older Women in Translation” month on the Global Literature in Translation Initiative blog, curated by Caroline Lodge of book word. I am very thankful to Caroline for accepting my submission. Make sure to check out her fascinating series!
There aren’t many interesting older women in traditional Chinese novel, apart from the stereotypical “70-year-old widowed mother” that is rhetorically invoked by characters as a person they need to take care of. This makes the meeting of Dowager Jia 賈母 (also Grandmother Jia) and Granny Liu 劉姥姥 in Dream of the Red Chamber 紅樓夢 (first print 1791) by Cao Xueqin 曹雪芹 (1715 or 1724 – 1763 or 1764) so fascinating.
This book is one of the most famous Chinese novels and describes the life in an elite household of late imperial China. It is mostly focused on the day to day life of the youngest generation, a group of cousins – all female except for the protagonist Jia Baoyu 賈寶玉 – and in some part on the squabble and intrigues of their parents and married relatives. Only occasionally their routines are punctuated by receptions in the living quarters of the revered Dowager Jia and by visits from outsiders such as the peasant woman Granny Liu in chapter 40 of the 120 chapter novel.
The Jia family is, however, in general decline due to changing circumstances and the ineptitude of its male descendants, culminating in an imperial raid of the clan’s premises that makes it necessary for Dowager Jia to use her jewelry and valuables to bail out her children and grandchildren. Not soon after she passes away with the knowledge of the clan’s imminent ruin, that is described in the remaining chapters.
Cao Xueqin wrote Honglou meng to commemorate the talented young women he had met in his youth, before the decline of his own clan’s fortunes. His melancholy view on women is reflected in Jia Baoyu’s famous assessment that, while young girls are pure creatures, marriage irrevocably corrupts them. Even though the narrative follows its teenage protagonist into a world of brilliant female youth, it treats its side characters with the same care. Consequently, both “old ladies” are portrayed as realistic and interesting characters during their appearances.
Throughout most of the novel, the Dowager Jia is presented as a respected yet distant authority figure, sometimes receiving family members in audience in her living quarters and joining them on special occasions. She has long since retired from her duties as a household manager, handing over management of the vast family compound to her daughters- and granddaughters-in-law, enjoying the spoils of decades of hard work in the clan of her husband, whom she outlived. She demands respect from all other household members and holds onto what she believes her due, even in instances when this goes against the wishes and interests – both reasonable and not – of her two sons.
Despite the demands of patriarchy that would see her living for the Jia clan alone, she shows attachment to both her birth family and her deceased daughter by allowing her neglected grandniece Shi Xiangyun 史湘雲 and her orphaned granddaughter Lin Daiyu 林黛玉 to stay in the Jia family household and receive similar treatment to the Jia patrilineal offspring. She is no just authority figure either, having clear favorites among the Jia clan, such as her talented yet spoilt grandson Jia Baoyu and granddaughter-in-law Wang Xifeng 王熙鳳, whose astute (and sometimes aggressive) management of the household reminds her of her own youth.
It is through the latter that she is introduced to Granny Liu, a peasant woman whose whose son-in-law had a superficial connection to the Wang clan. When lack of money to support themselves prompts her son-in-law to take out his frustration on his wife, Granny Liu decides to take matters into her own hand: To protect her daughter from further abuse, she intends to procure funds from the Jia family by paying a visit to Wang Xifeng with her small grandson in tow for extra sympathy points. Xifeng, always eager to please the Dowager and remains in her good graces, sees some entertainment value in the simple country woman and invites her inside for a meeting. Her instincts prove right and Dowager Jia not only gives Granny Liu the much needed handouts, but also a tour of the spectacular garden that the novel centers around.
While both woman live in vastly different circumstances and even though Granny Liu expertly plays the part of bumbling country fool for the Dowager’s amusement throughout her visit, a brief moment of kinship shines through in the meeting of these two old women. Both have presumably lived a live full of hardship, though of different kind, one living in poverty, one standing her ground against the jealousy of other household members. Both have outlived their husbands and are spectators for the lives of their children and grandchildren. Both in very different ways defy the stereotype of the helpless “70-year-old mother” utterly dependent on her children for her own livelihood.
Their circumstances and actions might at times feel strange to 21st c. readers, especially those unfamiliar with Chinese literature and its female characters. Nevertheless, their characters are quite rounded and realistic, even if their ways of managing things doesn’t always make them likable. Their meeting is a high-point in this novel about a group of young people.
Seeing that Dream of the Red Chamber is very much a story of youth, you shouldn’t turn to it to read about older women (or even middle aged ones for that matter). But if you come across this novel as part of a quest for world literature, genre-defining masterworks, or even just to check out the book all the Chinese readers rave about, you might want to pay some special attention to those two remarkable women.
The Story of the Stone, translated by David Hawkes and John Minford, 1973-1980, on Worldcat.org
A Dream of Red Mansions, translated by Glady Yang and Yang Hsien-yi, 1978-1980, on Worldcat.org
Der Traum der roten Kammer oder die Geschichte vom Stein, translated into German by Rainer Schwarz and Martin Woesler, 2006-2009, on Worldcat.org