Ages ago, in the realm of the Great Void, the Goddess Nugua, whose task it is to repair the Dome of Heaven, rejects a stone that she finds unsuited to her purpose. She touches it, however, so the stone becomes endowed with life. Thereafter it can move as it pleases. In time, it chances on a crimson flower in the region of the Ethereal, where each day it waters the tender blossoms with drops of dew. At last the plant is incarnated as a beautiful young woman. Remembering the stone that showered the frail plant with refreshing dew, she prays that in her human form she might repay it with the gift of her tears. Her prayers are to be granted, for the stone, too, was given life in the Red Dust of earthly existence. At his birth, the piece of jade is miraculously found in the mouth of Pao-yu, a younger son of the rich and powerful house of Chia, which by imperial favor was raised to princely eminence several generations before.
At the time of Pao-yu’s birth, the two branches of the Chia family live in great adjoining compounds of palaces, pavilions, and parks on the outskirts of Peking. The Matriarch, Madame Shih, an old woman of great honor and virtue, rules as the living ancestress over both establishments. Chia Ging, the prince of the Ningkuofu, retired to a Taoist temple some time before, and his son Chia Gen is master in his place. The master of the Yungkuofu is Chia Sheh, the older son of the Matriarch. Chia Cheng, her younger son and Pao-yu’s father, also lives with his family and attendants in the Yungkuofu. A man of upright conduct and strict Confucian morals, he is a contrast to the other members of his family, who grew lax and corrupt through enervating luxury and the abuse of power.
Pao-yu, the possessor of the miraculous jade stone and a boy of great beauty and quick wit, is his grandmother’s favorite. Following her example, the other women of the family—his mother, aunts, sisters, cousins, and waiting maids—dote on the boy and pamper him at every opportunity, with the result that he grows up girlish and weak, a lover of feminine society. His traits of effeminacy infuriate and disgust his austere father, who treats the boy with undue severity. As a result, Pao-yu keeps as much as possible to the women’s quarters.
His favorite playmates are his two cousins, Black Jade and Precious Virtue. Black Jade, a granddaughter of the Matriarch, came to live in the Yungkuofu after her mother’s death. She is a lovely, delicate girl of great poetic sensitivity, and she and Pao-yu are drawn to each other by bonds of sympathy and understanding that seem to stretch back into some unremembered past. Precious Virtue, warmhearted and practical, is the niece of Pao-yu’s mother. She is a woman as good as her brother Hsueh Pan is vicious. He is always involving the family in scandal because of his pursuit of maidens and young boys. Pao-yu’s favorite waiting maid is Pervading Fragrance. She sleeps in his chamber at night, and it is with her that he follows a dream vision and practices the play of cloud and rain.
When word comes that Black Jade’s father is ill and wishes to see her before his death, the Matriarch sends the girl home under the escort of her cousin Chia Lien. During their absence, Chin-shih, the daughter-in-law of Chia Gen, dies after a long illness. By judicious bribery, the dead woman’s husband, Chia Jung, is made a chevalier of the Imperial Dragon Guards in order that she might be given a more elaborate funeral. During the period of mourning, Chia Gen asks Phoenix, Chia Lien’s wife, to take charge of the Ningkuofu household. This honor gives Phoenix a position of responsibility and power in both palaces....
(The entire section is 1499 words.)