In continuing to read A Dream of Red Mansions, we find that the second quarter of the book has far less temper tantrums and more intrigue about life and politics within the Jia family. What we also start to get more details of, are the sort of mannerisms, traditions and general social standards prevalent in late-Imperial China, some of which continue to this day.
It seems that the main hobby of all well educated people in Qing Dynasty China was writing poetry as there are chapters about how the kids start and run a poetry club. There’s more filler in these chapters than a season of Days of Our Lives. Man, those were some slow chapters. However, I do admire the effort taken to transform poems written in Chinese into the equivalent English rhymes and prose.
Another issue within the Jia family that becomes obvious is the family income and expenses given the sheer number of people paid to serve the household and maintain the standards expected of a family in their position. For example, the descriptions of the kinds of expense and extravagance required for the New Year Festival is mind boggling.
One thing that always hits home throughout this part of the book is just how wasteful the Jia clan is with their wealth without any consideration for the future. By far their largest expense is having multiple servants and maids waiting on each member of the family and if one of them moves around, they take totally unnecessary escorts. It’s no wonder they run into money problems!
We are also exposed to the state of the art in medical science available at the time and really does go some way to explain why when anyone gets sick in China there are about a bazillion opinions given to said sick person from friends and relatives about treatments and medicines. That’s because in general, there are many doctors and they all have their own opinions about people’s sicknesses.
We also start to have a few plays on words with homonyms and the such. The main character’s name, Jia Baoyu, when pronounced in Mandarin sounds like “fake precious jade”, since there are multiple words with the pronunciation of jia, even with the same intonations, despite many words not having the same meaning. This is true of many words in Mandarin. In fact, if you used a different intonation on words, you could end up with completely different meanings! One chapter deals with Baoyu in fact learning there was another boy who looked very similar and shared his name and they meet in a dream. The main difference is that the family’s name, in this case, is Zhen, which leads to his name being a homonym for “real precious jade”.
A Dream of Red Mansions is still not an easy read even though the main characters have gotten progressively less annoying. There are, of course, characters that you love to hate, but they appear so rarely in the main narrative that you don’t ever feel like flinging the book (or in this case, your Kindle) into the wall because of frustration at these people. Sometimes though, I wonder if reading the book in English does result in some parts of the book – mostly in the poetry – that is lost in translation? Either way, I’ll be reading on until the end.