Madame Shih, called the Matriarch, the widow of Chia Tai-shan and the oldest living female ancestor of the family Chia. In her eighties, she rules with authority and grace her large families in two palace compounds. Although she shows favoritism to her grandson, she is fair in her judgments and unselfish in her actions. She sacrifices her personal wealth to aid her decadent descendants, but she herself never compromises her integrity.
Chia Cheng, her younger son. A man of strict Confucian principles, he manages to keep his integrity in spite of calumnious actions against him. Extremely autocratic and strong-willed, he is puritanic as well. Although he loves his talented son, Chia Cheng cannot condone his frivolous ways or his lack of purpose; hence he disciplines the delicate boy too severely.
Madame Wang, Chia Cheng’s wife.
Pao-yu, Chia Cheng’s son by Madame Wang and the favorite of the Matriarch. Born with a jade tablet of immortality in his mouth, the boy is thought by all to be favored by the gods and distinguished among mortals. He is extremely handsome, sensitive, and perceptive, though delicate in health. He is also lazy, self-indulgent, effeminate—in short all the things his father does not want him to be—and he lives surrounded by faithful maidservants whose loving care is most touching. His character develops as he associates with his beloved cousin, Black Jade, and her cousin, Precious Virtue. His loss of the jade amulet causes him great pain and trouble, especially when his parents and grandmother decide on the wrong wife for him. When Black Jade dies of a broken heart, he turns to scholarship and distinguishes himself and his family, renewing their fortune before he disappears in the company of a Buddhist monk and a lame Taoist priest. His filial piety in redeeming the reputation and fortune of the Chias atones for all the trouble he caused his family. Precious Virtue, his wife, bears him a son to carry on the family line.
Tai-yu, called Black Jade, another of the Matriarch’s grandchildren, a girl born into mortality from the form of a beautiful flower. Delicate in health and gravely sensitive, the beautiful and brilliant child comes to live in the Matriarch’s home after her mother dies. Immediately she and Pao-yu sense their intertwined destinies, and their mutual love and respect develop to uncanny depths. Given to jealousy and melancholy, she finally wastes away to the point that the Matriarch will not allow Pao-yu to have her in marriage. Black Jade dies when Pao-yu marries Precious Virtue, who is disguised as Black Jade.
Pao-chai, called Precious Virtue, the demure and reserved niece of Black Jade’s mother, brought into the Matriarch’s pavilion as a companion to her favored grandchildren. Obedient to her benefactress’ wishes, devoted to the handsome Pao-yu, loyal to Black Jade, and generous to all the many Chia relatives, Pao-chai well fits her name. Her virtues are the more remarkable in the face of the many trials placed before her, especially in giving herself in marriage to one who loves another. She is the model Chinese wife and companion, a great contrast to her brother Hsueh Pan, a reckless libertine.
Hsi-feng, called Phoenix, the efficient but treacherous wife of Chia Lien. At first a careful manager of the estate, she eventually indulges her greedy nature, lends money at high interest, and finally brings disgrace upon the Chia family. Her jealous nature causes tragedy and unhappiness among the loving members of the household, but she dies repentant.
Chia Lien, the husband of Phoenix and the son of Chia Sheh by an unnamed concubine, an idle, lecherous man unfaithful to his wife. After the death of Phoenix he marries
Ping-er, called Patience, a devoted maid of the household.
Chia-chieh, the young daughter of Phoenix and Chia Lien.
Chia Sheh, the Matriarch’s older son and master of the Yungkuofu, one of the two great palace compounds of the Chia family. He is a man of ordinary talents, holds no important official post, and takes little part in the affairs of his household.
Madame Hsing, the wife of Chia Sheh.
Ying-chun, called Welcome Spring, the daughter of Chia Sheh by an unnamed concubine. Although the Matriarch and Chia Cheng oppose the match, Chia Sheh marries her to Sun Shao-tsu. Her husband beats her, and she is miserable in her marriage....
(The entire section is 1964 words.)