Dream of the Red Chamber

The virtues of music

ONCE home again, Pao-yu 寶玉 (yu is pronounced as yii) was changing his clothes when he remembered the sash given to him by Chiang Yu-han. He asked His-jen 襲人, “Do you still have that red sash which you refused to wear the other year?”

“I put it away,” she said. “Why do you ask?”

“Oh, for no special reason.”

“Didn’t you hear how Master Pan got charged with murder through mixing with such riffraff? Why bring that up again? You’d better study quietly and forget about such trifles, instead of worrying your head over nothing.”

“I’m not doing anything wrong, am I?” he demanded. “It just happened to cross my mind. What does it matter whether you have it or not? I ask one little question, and listen to the way you run on!”

“I didn’t mean to nag.” She smiled. “But someone who studies the Classics and knows the rules of proprietary ought to aim high. Then, when the one you love comes, she will be pleased and respect you.”

This reminded Pao-yu of something. “On bother!!” he exclaimed. “There was such a crowd with the old lady just now that I wasn’t able to talk with Cousin Lin. She paid me no attention either. By the time I left, she’d already gone. She must be in her place now. I’ll drop in to see her.” With that he started out.

“Don’t be too long,” said Hsi-jen. “I shouldn’t have said that, getting you all worked up.”

Pao-yu made no reply but went off with lowered head to Bamboo Lodge 瀟湘館 where Tai-yu, bending over her desk, was reading.

He approached her with a smile. “Have you been back long?” he asked.

“You cut me, so why should I stay there?” she asked archly.

“There were so many people talking, I couldn’t get a word in. That’s why I didn’t speak to you.”

He had been eyeing Tai-yu’s book, but could not recognise the characters in it. Some looked familiar; others were combinations of various radicals and numerals. In puzzled surprise he observed, “You’re getting more erudite, Cousin, all the time, reading something so esoteric!”

Tai-yu burst out laughing. “What a scholar!” she teased. “Have you never seen a zither score 琴谱 before?”

“Of course I have. But how come I don’t know any of those characters there? Do you understand them, Cousin?”

“Would I read it if I didn’t?”

“I don’t believe you. I’ve never seen you playing a lute. We have several hanging in our study. The other year a scholar called, Chi Hao-ku I think his name was. My father asked him to play, but when he took the zithers down he said none of them was any good and proposed, ‘If you like, sir, I’ll bring my own lute some day to play for you.’ But he never turned up again, probably because my father’s no connoisseur. Why have you been hiding this accomplishment from me?”

“I’m no good at it really,” she said. “The other day, feeling a bit better, I rummaged through the books on the big bookcase and found a set of lute scores which looked intriguing. It gives a lucid account of musical theory and clear instructions for playing. Playing the zither was truly an art the men of old cultivated to achieve tranquillity and integrity. In Yangchow, I heard it explained and learned to play, but then I gave up and that was the end of that. As the saying goes, ‘Three days without playing, and fingers become thumbs.’

“The other day when I read those scores, there were no words to the music, only titles. Then I found a score somewhere else with words set to the music, which made it more interesting. It’s really hard to play well. We read that when the musician Kuang played the zither, he could summon up wind and thunder, dragons and phoenixes. Even the sage Confucius learned from the musician Hsiang, and as soon as he played a piece he realised that this was King Wen’s music. Then there was the musician who, playing of mountains and streams, met a man of true understanding…”

Here her eyelashes fluttered and, slowly, she lowered her head.

By now Pao-yu’s enthusiasm was aroused.

“Dear Cousin, how fascinating you make it sound!” he exclaimed. “But I can’t read any of those characters. Won’t you teach me a few of them?”

“You don’t have to be taught. Once I explain, you’ll catch on.”

“I’m a stupid fellow, so tell me what that character like ‘big’ 大  with a hook to it means, and the one that has a ‘five’ 五 in it.”

Tai-yu rejoined gaily, “The one made up of ‘big’ and ‘nine’ means that you must thumb the ninth note of the lute. The hook combined with ‘five’ means that you must pluck the fifth string with your right hand. They’re not characters actually but musical signs, which are very easy to follow. Then there are various methods of fingering: whirring, stroking, plucking, damping, tapping, sliding, gliding, pushing and so forth.”

Pao-yu was delighted. “Good cousin, since you understand all about it, why don’t we learn to play the lute?” he proposed.

“No,” she said. “The men of old made music to induce self-restraint, curb passion and suppress licence and extravagance. So anyone wanting to play the zither should choose some quiet, lofty studio either in an attic among forests and rocks, or on the summit of a hill or the bank of a stream. A fine, mild day should be chosen too, with cool breeze and a bright moon. Then one should burn incense and sit quietly, one’s mind a blank, one’s breathing regular, to become one with the spirit world and the Way. This is why the ancients said, ‘Hard to meet one who understands music.’

“When there are no understanding listeners, one should play to the cool breeze and bright moon, green pines and rugged rocks, wild monkeys and hoary cranes, conveying one’s emotions in solitude so as not to do injustice to the lute.

“Then again, good fingering and execution are needed. Before playing one must dress fittingly in a loose cape or long robe like the men of old, to be worthy of this instrument of the sage’s. This done, the hands should be washed, incense lit, and the lute player should sit lightly on the couch with the lute on his desk, its fifth note facing his heart. Only then, when mind and body are well-regulated, can the two hands be raised slowly. And whether soft or loud, fast or slow, the playing must be natural and dignified.”

“We’re only learning for fun!” exclaimed Pao-yu. “If you’re so particular, it’ll be too hard.”

While they were talking Tzu-chuan 紫鵑 had come in. She smiled at the sight of Pao-yu. “So you’re in good spirits today, Master Pao!” she remarked.

“My cousin’s conversation is so illuminating, I could never tire of listening,” he told her.

“That’s not what I meant,” said the maid. “You must have been in good spirits today to come here.”

“While she was unwell, I was afraid to disturb her; besides, I had to go to school. That’s why I gave the impression of keeping away…”

“Miss Lin’s only just better,” Tzu-chuan interrupted. “As you know that, Master Pao, you should let her rest now and not wear her out.”

“I was so intent on listening, I forgot that she might be tired.”

“It’s not tiring but fun to discuss such things,” said Tai-yu with a smile. “I’m only afraid you may not understand.”

“Well, anyway, I’ll get it clear gradually.” With that he stood up saying, “Really you’d better rest now. Tomorrow I’ll ask Tan-chun and Hsi-chun to learn to play the lute for me too.”

“You’re too spoilt!” chuckled Tai-yu. “If we all learn to play but you don’t understand, won’t that be a case of playing a lute to an ....” Here she recollected herself and broke off.

“So long as you can play, I’ll be only too glad to listen,” said Pao-yu cheerfully. “I don’t care if you think me an ox.”

Tai-yu blushed and smiled while Tzu-chuan and Hsueh-yen laughed.

Pao-yu was on his way out when along came Chiu-wen with a younger maid carrying a small pot of orchids. “Someone sent four pots of orchids to Her Ladyship,” she announced. “They’re too busy to enjoy them, so Her Ladyship told us to take one pot to Master Pao, one to Miss Lin.”

Tai-yu saw that a few sprays had double blooms. The sight stirred her, but whether with joy or with grief she did not know as she stared at them blankly. Pao-yu’s mind, however, was still set on the lute. “Now that you have these orchids, cousin,” he said, “you can play that tune The Orchid.” *

This remark upset Tai-yu. Going back to her room she gazed at the orchids, reflecting, “In spring, plants put out fresh blooms and luxuriant leaves. I’m still young, yet already I’m like a plant in late autumn. If my wish comes true, I may gradually grow stronger. If not, I fear be like a fading flower – how can I stand buffeting by rain and wind?” She could not hold back her tears. **

Tzu-chuan seeing this could not understand the reason. She thought, “Just now with Pao-yu here she was so happy. Why has looking at orchids made her sad again?” She was anxiously wondering how to comfort her mistress when a maid arrived with a message from Pao-chai 寶釵。To know what it was, read on.

– Chapter 84 excerpt, translated by Yang Hsien-yi & Gladys Yang

第八十六回, 寄閒情淑女解琴書

*Confucius while on his travels through different states, was often reviled. He was said to have played The Orchid to assert his integrity.

**草木當春,花鮮葉茂,想我年紀尚小, 便象三秋蒲柳。若是果能隨願,或者漸漸的好來, 不然隻恐似那花柳殘春,怎禁得風催雨送。 想到那裡,不禁又滴下淚來。

Note: The zither or qing is a fairly large 12-string instrument that is placed horizontally across a table. To play, the player leans forward and pluck the strings. The zither, which Confucius played regularly to liven his spirit, is often mistakenly translated in English as “lute”. The lute refers to a four-string guitar or pipa 琵琶 ]

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