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...
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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. From that time on, although she continues to appear kind and generous, she secretly becomes greedy for money and power. She begins to accept bribes, tamper with the household accounts, and lend money at exorbitant rates of interest.
One day a great honor is conferred on the Chias. Cardinal Spring, Pao-yu’s sister and one of the emperor’s concubines, advances to the rank of Imperial consort of the second degree. Later, when it is announced that she will pay a visit of filial respect to her parents, the parks of the two compounds are transformed at great expense into magnificent pleasure grounds, called the Takuanyuan, in honor of the consort’s visit. Later, at Cardinal Spring’s request, the pavilions in the Takuanyuan are converted into living quarters for the young women of the family. Pao-yu also goes there to live, passing his days in idle occupations and writing verses. His pavilion is close to that of Black Jade, who returns to the Yungkuofu after her father’s death.
Pao-yu has a half brother, Chia Huan. His mother, jealous of the true-born son, pays a sorceress to bewitch the boy and Phoenix, whom she also hates. Both are seized with fits of violence and wild delirium. Pao-yu’s coffin had already been made when a Buddhist monk and a lame Taoist priest suddenly appear and restore the power of the spirit stone. Pao-yu and Phoenix recover.
A short time later a maid is accused of trying to seduce Pao-yu. After she is dismissed, she drowns herself. About the same time, Chia Cheng is informed that his son turned the love of a young actor away from a powerful patron. Calling his son a degenerate, Chia Cheng almost causes Pao-yu’s death by the severity of the beating that the angry father administers.
As Phoenix becomes more shrewish at home, Chia Lien dreams of taking another wife. Having been almost caught in one infidelity, he is compelled to exercise great caution in taking a concubine. Phoenix learns about the secret marriage, however, and by instigating claims advanced by the girl’s former suitor she drives the wretched concubine to suicide.
Black Jade, always delicate, becomes more sickly. Sometimes she and Pao-yu quarrel, only to be brought together again by old ties of affection and understanding. The gossip of the servants is that the Matriarch will marry Pao-yu to either Black Jade or Precious Virtue. While possible marriage plans are being discussed, a maid finds in the Takuanyuan a purse embroidered with an indecent picture. This discovery leads to a search of all the pavilions, and it is revealed that one of the maids is involved in a secret love affair. Suspicion also falls on Bright Design, one of Pao-yu’s maids, and she is dismissed. Proud and easily hurt, she dies not long afterward. Pao-yu becomes even moodier and more depressed after Bright Design’s death. Outraged by the search, Precious Virtue leaves the park and goes to live with her mother.
A begonia tree near Pao-yu’s pavilion blooms out of season. This event is interpreted as a bad omen, for Pao-yu loses his spirit stone and sinks into a state of complete lethargy. In an effort to revive his spirits, the Matriarch and his parents decide to marry him at once to Precious Virtue rather than to Black Jade, who continues to grow frailer each day. Pao-yu is allowed to believe, however, that Black Jade is to be his wife. Black Jade, deeply grieved, dies shortly after the ceremony. Knowing nothing of the deception that was practiced, she felt that she failed Pao-yu and that he was unfaithful to her. The flower, thus, returned to the Great Void.
Suddenly a series of misfortunes overwhelms the Chias as their deeds of graft and corruption come to light. When bailiffs take possession of the two compounds, the usury Phoenix practiced is disclosed. Chia Gen and Chia Sheh are arrested and sentenced to banishment. The Matriarch, who takes upon herself the burden of her family’s guilt and surrenders her personal treasures for expenses and fines, becomes ill and dies. During her funeral services, robbers loot the compound and later return to carry off Exquisite Jade, a pious nun. Phoenix also dies, neglected by those she dominated in her days of power. Through the efforts of powerful friends, however, the complete ruin of the family is averted, and Chia Cheng is restored to his official post.
In the end, however, the despised son becomes the true redeemer of his family’s honor and fortunes. After a Buddhist monk returns his lost stone, Pao-yu devotes himself earnestly to his studies and passes the Imperial Examinations with such brilliance that he stands in seventh place on the list of successful candidates. The emperor is so impressed that he wishes to have the young scholar serve at court, but Pao-yu is nowhere to be found. The tale is that he became a bodhisattva and disappeared in the company of a Buddhist monk and a Taoist priest.