In this lyrical reimagining of the Chinese classic Dream of the Red Chamber,set against the breathtaking backdrop of eighteenth-century Beijing, the lives of three unforgettable women collide in the inner chambers of the Jia mansion. When orphaned Daiyu leaves her home in the provinces to take shelter with her cousins in the Capital, she is drawn into a world of opulent splendor, presided over by the ruthless, scheming Xifeng and the prim, repressed Baochai. As she learns the secrets behind their glittering fašades, she finds herself entangled in a web of intrigue and hidden passions, reaching from the petty gossip of the servants' quarters all the way to the Imperial Palace. When a political coup overthrows the emperor and plunges the once-mighty family into grinding poverty, each woman must choose between love and duty, friendship and survival. In this dazzling debut, Pauline A. Chen draws the reader deep into the secret, exquisite world of the women's quarters of an aristocratic household, where the burnish of wealth and refinement mask a harsher truth: marriageable girls are traded like chattel for the family's advancement, and to choose to love is to risk everything.
Lin Daiyu crushes apricot kernels and black sesame seeds in a marble mortar. She scrapes the medicine into a bowl of stewed bird’s nests and stirs it with a porcelain spoon. She brings the bowl to her mother’s bed near the window. Propped against her bolsters, Daiyu’s mother sips the dose, grimacing a little. Daiyu watches every mouthful, as if by her vigilance she can somehow will the medicine to work.
Mrs. Lin lies back, exhausted even by the act of drinking. “Daiyu,” she says, her voice a reedy thread.
“I want to show you something.”
“What is it?”
“Go and look in the bottom of my old trunk.”
Daiyu kneels before the wardrobe and opens the battered chest where the family keeps their winter clothes. She rummages beneath the piles of bulky padded trousers and quilted jackets, and finds a flat bundle in a crimson brocade wrapping cloth.
“Yes, that’s it. Bring it here.”
Her mother’s thin fingers struggle with the knot, and Daiyu leans over to help. Inside are two flat boxes. Mrs. Lin opens one to reveal a necklace of reddish gold in the form of a coiling dragon. In the other is a tiara of flying golden phoenixes, a string of pearls arching from each beak.
“These are from your dowry, aren’t they?”
Mrs. Lin does not seem to hear the question. “Help me up,” she says.
Daiyu climbs onto the bed and adjusts the pillows so that her mother is sitting upright. Her mother places the tiara on her uncombed hair. “Bring me a mirror.”
Reluctantly, Daiyu gets the one on the dressing table. Leaning against the cushions, her mother tilts the tiny bronze hand-mirror back and forth, catching little glimpses of herself on the polished surface. “What a fine young lady I was back then, looking down my nose at everything. Why, I’d never even touched, let alone worn, silks like these, made by common weavers.” Her fingers pluck at the worn honey-colored material of her robe. “Everything we wore was made in the Palace by the Imperial Weavers. Even our maids didn’t wear such stuff!”
Daiyu’s mother laughs a little, as if marveling at her younger self.
“I was fond of fine things in those days, and my parents spoiled me by giving me anything I wanted. My eldest brother, Jing, didn’t mind, but my second brother, Zheng, was always jealous.”
Daiyu sits by her mother’s feet, watching the play of expression on her face.
“I remember one New Year’s, when our grandfather—the first Duke of Rongguo—was still alive. He asked us to write lantern riddles in verse. When he read what the three of us had written, he said it was a pity I hadn’t been born a boy, for I would have been sure to win the Jias glory if I had been allowed to take the Civil Service Exams.”
Daiyu nods. Her mother loved poetry, and had taught Daiyu the rules of meter and rhyme as soon as she could read.
“As it was, Zheng had to take the Exams I don’t know how many times until he passed. Your father passed the first time, of course. But in the end, Zheng did pretty well for himself.” To Daiyu, her mother’s voice sounds slightly grudging. “Under-Secretary in the Ministry of Works. Zheng always was a hard worker.”
“What about your eldest brother?”
“Jing never did pass. All he did was fritter away my father’s money on concubines and gambling.” The reminiscent smile fades from Mrs. Lin’s face, and her expression grows somber. She hands Daiyu the mirror and plucks the tiara off her hair. “And now Zheng is the only one of us who is still alive, and living at Rongguo Mansion with my mother.”
“Do I have any cousins there?” Daiyu says.
“Well, there’s the famous Baoyu, of course.”
“Why is he famous?”
“Haven’t I told you about him?” Her mother’s delicate eyebrows arch in surprise. “He’s Zheng’s son. He was the one born with the jade in his mouth. That’s why your grandmother named him ‘Baoyu,’ ‘Precious Jade.’ ”
“How could a person be born with a jade in his mouth?”
“Who knows?” Mrs. Lin shrugs. “All I know is that my mother—your grandmother—thinks it’s a miracle, and spoils him to death. His own mother died when he was barely twelve or thirteen, and from all I’ve heard he’s turned into a rare handful. He skips school every other day, and runs around with his girl cousins in the Women’s Quarters instead of studying.”
“How old is he?” Daiyu asks.
“Eighteen—more than old enough to take the Exams. Your other male cousin, Lian, is more than twenty-five, but they gave up on his passing years ago. He’s Jing’s son. Like father, like son, I suppose. I don’t know how the Jias are going to keep up their prestige if they don’t have more sons entering the Civil Service. If Baoyu doesn’t pass—” Mrs. Lin pauses, coughing, then leans back against the pillows with her eyes shut, trying to catch her breath.
“Help me lie down.”
Daiyu climbs onto the bed and eases her mother into a lying position. She wipes her mother’s lips.
After Mrs. Lin’s breath has slowed, she says, still with her eyes closed, “You’ll have to go live with them, you know, after I die.”
“You won’t die,” Daiyu says quickly, but even to her own ears her voice lacks conviction.
“Yes, I will. And when I do, you’ll have to go to the Jias.”
“I’ll stay with Father.”
“I want you to go to the Capital.”
“Why?” Daiyu starts to cry.
“You’ll be able to make a good match there—someone from one of the big families. The Jias will see to that.”
“What does that matter?” Daiyu cries. “You didn’t have a match like that.” Though her father comes from an old and educated family, he had been the sole offspring of an only child; and now only distant members of the clan, whom she has never met, are still alive. “Why can’t I stay here?”
Her mother lies silent for a long time, staring at the ceiling. At last she says, “When I was young, I didn’t think anything mattered as long as I was with your father. Now, since I’ve gotten sick, I’ve realized how hard it is to be without any family.” Her eyes turn to Daiyu, and Daiyu sees they are full of tears. “I’m worried about what will happen to you when I’m gone. I don’t want you to have to struggle like I did . . .”
Her words fill Daiyu with something akin to panic. “But—but you’ve been happy with Father, haven’t you?”
Mrs. Lin doesn’t answer. Her eyes move past Daiyu to the phoenix tiara on the dressing table. “We should never have raised you like this.”
“Keeping so much to ourselves. You’ve never met people of your own age and background.” She looks back at Daiyu and her eyes are almost challenging. “Well, you’ll have to learn how to get along with other people at Rongguo. You’ll need to learn to think before you speak.” She puts out her hand, and Daiyu takes it, feeling how cool her fingers are. “Still, you mustn’t let them cow you. You’re strong enough to stand up to them.”
Daiyu wants to ask more questions, but her mother starts to cough again. This time she coughs so long and hard that Daiyu rushes to get a spittoon. Mrs. Lin spits out a mouthful of phlegm scarlet with fresh blood. When her mother finally stops coughing, Daiyu does not say anything more, just climbs into bed beside her. She feels how small and frail her mother has grown over the last six months, her limbs like twigs against her own strong, warm body; yet her mind shrinks from picturing a future without her. She nestles her face deeper in the crook of her mother’s neck, and sniffs for the last lingering scent of her skin not yet obscured by medicine and sickness.
Towards the end of the Forty-Nine Days mourning, a strange man appears at the temple where Daiyu and her father are keeping vigil beside her mother’s coffin. Like them, he wears mourning robes of undyed hemp. Daiyu’s father stares at the man unrecognizingly. Then he starts to his feet with a cry of surprise.
“Why, it’s Zheng, isn’t it?”
“Ruhai, old fellow. It’s been a long time!”
Daiyu scrambles from the floor, startled by her uncle’s unexpected arrival. She searches his careworn face and stocky figure for something of her mother. The only resemblance she can find is about the eyes: there is a little thickness to the eyelids, giving her uncle the same dreamy, slightly sleepy look as her mother, and as Daiyu herself.
Daiyu’s father tries to kowtow, but his brother-in-law catches him by the elbows. “I set out as soon as I got her letter,” Jia Zheng says. “When did she die?”
“More than a month ago.”
Jia Zheng’s eyes begin to water. “That’s probably just after she sent the letter. Did she suffer at the end?”
“Not too much. It was quicker than we expected.”
Daiyu turns away to hide her tears. Her father manages to control himself. He clasps her uncle’s hand. “I’m glad you’ve come. Will you stay the rest of mourning?”
“I’m afraid I can’t. I have some business in Nanjing. My barge is waiting for me at the dock.”
“You’ll come for dinner at least?”
“Yes, of course.”
For the rest of the day, Jia Zheng stays at the temple with them, kneeling before the spirit tablet. For the past six weeks, Daiyu and her father have come to the temple every morning, the mourning rituals and funeral arrangements drawing them together and organizing their days. Now, the presence of her uncle disrupts their silent rapport, making her self-conscious. She watches him mopping his streaming eyes, finding it odd that a stranger is sharing their grief.
Before dinner, her father accompanies Jia Zheng to his barge. Back in the kitchen at Bottle-Gourd Street, Daiyu distracts herself with her daily tasks. She makes up the fire, washes the rice, and chops the vegetables. The wooden handle of the cleaver, smoothed by years of use, fits effortlessly in her hand, and her eyes are soothed by the familiarity of the room: the blue and white dishes, the faded picture of the Kitchen God on the wall, the sound of neighbors’ voices through the open window. She sees that the bucket is almost empty and goes to the well to draw water. It had rained earlier in the afternoon, one of those late summer showers, and the stone bridges and canals are dark and slick. The air is so heavy that it feels as if the least disturbance would bring on the rain again. The byways are nearly empty at this time of day, but on the other side of the canal a woman stoops beside the water with a basket of winter clothes. The hollow sound of the woman pounding the laundry with a wooden block reminds Daiyu that, despite the heat, summer is drawing to a close.
As she slips back into the kitchen, she hears voices in the front room.
“Daiyu, is that you?” her father calls.
She is surprised to see two tall, elegantly dressed women standing near the front door. She remembers her mother’s words about how even the maids at Rongguo didn’t wear ordinary silks.
“I want to introduce you to Nanny Li and Nanny Ma,” Uncle Zheng says, rising from his chair. “They’ll be taking care of you on our trip north.”
“North?” Daiyu shakes her head. She backs away from the women instinctively. “I’m not going north.”
“Min wrote that you were coming. Everyone at Rongguo is making preparations for your arrival.” Uncle Zheng smiles at her, stooping his head and rubbing his hands together. “You’ll like it there. You’ll have many cousins to play with. There’s another girl staying with us, too, Xue Baochai. She’s the daughter of my wife’s sister. She’s eighteen, just one year older than you.”
“I don’t ‘play,’ ” Daiyu says, irritated that he is speaking to her like a child.
Ignoring her interruption, he continues, “And Wang Xifeng, your cousin Lian’s wife, will take good care of you. She’s only twenty-three, but runs the household like a little general.”
She looks towards her father for support, but to her amazement, he is nodding as if in agreement with her uncle.
“I’m not going!”
With a muttered apology to Uncle Zheng, her father leads her out through the kitchen to the back stoop so they can speak privately.
“I can’t leave you here alone,” she says.
“Before she died, your mother made me promise that you would go north to stay with her family.”
She feels a surge of outrage, as if her parents have been colluding against her. “But what about you? You can’t stay here on your own.” The picture of her father eating alone every evening pierces through her own grief.
“Of course I can. I’ll have ‘Granny’ Liu down the street cook and clean for me. I’ll be fine.”
“You must go. It’s what your mother wanted.”
She can hear the finality in his voice. She looks at him in the light filtering through the paper panes of the kitchen window. His face looks tired, and a little irritated. He is too exhausted to argue with her.
“It’s just a visit,” he says.
“How long do I have to go for?”
“Just a few months. You can come back in time for New Year’s.”
She calculates quickly. It is now the Eighth Month. To be back for the New Year she will have to leave the Capital by the end of the Eleventh Month.
Thus it was decided that she would go north to her mother’s family.