Cao Xueqin 曹雪芹 wrote the great Chinese classic The Dream of the Red Chamber in plain language when novels were considered trashy in China and Captain Cook was a boy. The Chinese now regard it like English culture regards Shakespeare. I love its wit, its humour and its commentary upon itself. In 2006 I thought it would be fun to begin an Australian translation, after a note from my mum (see end of page).
Today (Oct2015) someone praised my translation skills. This 2006 little folly might put paid to that. Errors abound and the “australianising” doesn’t quite come off – though I think it’s not a bad goal per se.
One thing I will say, is that the original style was gritty and earthy and I haven’t seen a translation which captures that. I will also say that I am greatly indebted to all the translations I’ve seen.Funnily enough some of the best have come out of the Australian National University (Minford father and son, and the husband and wife team of Gladys Yang and Yang Hsien Yi). I learned from Bencraft Joly and Edward Bowra translations too.
I’m posting here today for a bit of fun and because every other website it’s been posted on has now closed down.
Chinese version I used:
http://cls.admin.yzu.edu.tw/hlm/read/TEXT/TEXT.ASP (accessed Nov 2006)
Crafty Hughes dreams of immortals and Colin Taylor falls for a beautiful virgin
First, where does this book you’ve got in your hands begin? Basically it might seem unbelievable but there’s lots worth reading here. If you hang on a minute and pay attention to what’s coming, all will be revealed.
In the beginning at Bottomless Cliff in the Blue Mountains when Mrs White was making concrete blocks to repair the sky she made 36,501 of them, 100 metres high by 200 metres square. But Queen White only used 36,500 blocks for the job and chucked the extra one off Blue Ridge Peak. Who could have guessed that having been through the mold this block came to life. But when it realised that it alone amongst the gang of blocks was chucked away as useless, it started to moan and groan. Day and night it felt ashamed and sorry for itself.
One day in the middle of the sighing and sobbing it suddenly saw a Buddhist priest and Daoist Monk off in the distance. They looked a bit strange. Pretty unusual actually. They talked and laughed to the bottom of the Peak and sat down near the block. They were theorising about mountain cloud and fog and mysterious spirits and stuff. Then they talked about how to get rich and famous from nothing.
The block heard it and couldn’t help getting excited. It wanted to join the human world to enjoy this fame and fortune. But it hated its own stupidity. It couldn’t help itself spewing some human speech and said to them
“Excuse me, I know I’m a bit thick and may not have any manners but I overheard you gentlemen talking about fame and fortune in the human world. It blew me away. Although I’m a bit rough I can get by. On the other hand, you spiritual looking gentlemen are really something else. You’ve got the skills to repair the sky and help the world, and the moral goodness to help people. If you could possibly have the kindness to take little old me into the human world where I could get rich and live a relaxed and comfortable life for a few years on the coast I’d be forever grateful. I’d never forget you.”
When the two spiritual gentlemen heard this they simply burst out laughing. “Christ! The world’s got some good points but you couldn’t depend on it forever. Besides, as they say, Beauty Isn’t Everything and Good Things Don’t Last. Laughter turns to tears in the blink of an eye. People Don’t Change. In the End the Dream is Turned on its Head and All Is Nothingness Again. So it’s better if you don’t bother in the first place.”
The block was really riled to hear this. It had never heard anything like it and begged miserably again and again. The two immortals knew they shouldn’t be swayed but sighed and said
“We’ve given this a lot of thought. Countless things are born from nothing. This is how it will be. If we take you to enjoy the good life and things don’t turn out, there’s to be absolutely no regrets.”
The block said “Of course, of course.”
The Buddhist priest added “If we bring you to life and you’re still this stupid, don’t be surprised. And if that’s the case you’ll just have to take it very carefully. So okay. If I help you out today using the Great Buddhist Learning it will be under these conditions: it will be until the end of your days and you’ll have the same personality as now. Fair enough?”
When the block heard this it couldn’t thank him enough. So the Buddhist priest chanted a spell from a bamboo book and with the Great Dreaming Method changed the huge block instantly into a beautiful piece of sparkling jade. What’s more, it was shrunk to a size you could wear or hold. The Buddhist priest held it in the palm of his hand and smiled
“Now you’re a jewel, but you lack polish. You need some words carved on you so that as soon as anyone sees you they’ll know how outstanding and wonderful you are. From here on you’ll be carried carefully to a mighty and flourishing kingdom, to a literary official family, to a place of sturdy gum trees and native flowers, a relaxed and comfortable place on the coast. Fame and fortune where you can take your leisure.”
When the stone heard this it was overjoyed and asked “I don’t know what special powers you’ve granted me and I don’t know where you will carry my humble self to. Please spell it out. I hate to be in a muddle.”
But the Buddhist priest smiled and said “Don’t ask. As time goes on everything will be crystal clear.” He then put the stone up his sleeve and strolled away with the Daoist monk to who knows where and to stay with who knows who.
We don’t have any idea how many eons went by until a Daoist monk named Ken, who was seeking immortality via the Way, came to the foot of Green Ridge Peak near Bottomless Cliff in the Blue Mountains.
He suddenly saw a huge stone with lots of stories carved all over it. Ken read them all – stories of how it had been useless for repairing the sky, then in a Dreaming it had come into the human world, how Michael the Grand Lord and Super Mitch had carried it on the earth, stories of sad and happy histories, of the ups and downs of life.
At the end was a Buddhist verse:
Useless for repairing blue skies
Stumbling round the earth for years
Things happening before and after I got a body
Who will write it down for me?
More was written after the verse, like the town where the stone had fallen to earth, where the sprog was sprung, and some personal stuff. Also, there were stories of boudoir carry-on, some riddles and poems and doggerel that could still be read – the sort of stuff that passes the time.
Unfortunately the year of the Emperor, the place and the name of the kingdom were gone. So Ken the Daoist monk said to the stone
“Mate, this little story of yours here. You reckon it’s interesting enough to have been written down and you want it passed on. But I reckon: one, there’s no reliable date to go by, and two, there’s nothing about good government by honourable pollies or hardworking public servants to keep society on the straight and narrow. Instead we get all these weird women, passionate or crazy and lacking in talent or education. There’s no respectable women here. If I copied down these stories, no one would want to read them.”
The stone replied laughing “Don’t be so dumb. So what if there’s no date. Who’s going to know if you have a stab at a date like the Han Dynasty or Tang Dynasty. Even better, musty histories all follow a set pattern, but mine is nothing like them. Mine is fresh and accurate. Borrowing a few incidents makes sense but there’s no need to stick in all the dynasties and wars. What’s more, very few yuppies want to read morality tales. The huge majority are happy reading escapist stuff. Old histories slander rulers, dig dirt on men’s wives and daughters and pore over adulteries and violence in excruciating detail. Then there’s the Art of Love genre with its obscene filth, and the murder and mystery genre depraving the younger generation again with countless details. Look at books supposedly about the beautiful and talented. Thousands of them. All identical. Not one has any let up from disgusting obscenity. All full of Sweet Penelope, Big John, Larrikin Larry and Poofy Paul – any excuse for the authors to rehash a few lines of their own lovesick doggerel. Manipulated plots bring out a couple who bump into some cardboard cutout, trouble-causing lowlife. Then the comic relief is mixed in. Every time the servant girl opens her mouth you know it will be foul and stupid.”
The stone was just getting warmed up. “A quick glance at these books shows massive contradictions in the plot, dialogues with less and less sense and the women are nothing like the ones in my book who I came to know during a lifetime. I wouldn’t say for sure that my characters are always better drawn than those in earlier books, but the story is all there and you can forget your worries and escape your boredom. And a few choice bits of verse might make you splutter your wine on your dinner. Check out the joys and sorrows of splitting up and getting back together, bankruptcies on the heels of fortunes – they’re all carefully tracked. I wouldn’t dare add or delete one iota. It’s all drawn exactly from life so that no lies are told. People these days. The poor are worn out just making a living, while the rich worry they’re not compassionate enough. But both of them as soon as they have a moment to spare greedily devour the soft porn and junk about keeping up with the Jones’s. Who has time to read that morally elevated stuff? So my little story here doesn’t aim to impress with its elegance and certainly isn’t meant to be re-read for pleasure. It’s simply designed to lie down with after a boozy lunch or to escape the worries of the world for a while. A little light reading will make you live longer and add a bit of pep to life, won’t it? And compared to those books with vague ridiculous plots I avoid the tongue wagging fights and headlong rush to tear-jerking. Really, I want to give people something new, not that crap with sudden comings and goings full of talented Susan, Big John, Poofy Paul, the matchmaker and cute babies. What do you reckon mate?”
Ken had heard him out and pondered long and hard. Then he re-read the whole “Stone Records”.
Although on his first reading there had been some colourful language and awkward plot devices, there was no intent to subvert the public good. In fact as Confucius says, it was all about benevolent rulers and honest advisers, kind fathers and obedient sons all behaving nicely. Good as gold actually. It was nothing like the endless wife and the kids stuff. Although the main aim was love, nothing went beyond the facts and nothing was fake or outlandish. A hint of smut added a bit of glamor with a few private goings on and could be accepted.
Since there was nothing to upset the times he copied it down from start to finish and took it back to publish the remarkable tome.
Because from nothingness Ken the Buddhist monk had now seen the light and via the light had seen love and via love saw the light again and finally came to know nothingness, he changed his name to the Love Priest and changed “Stone Records” to “Diary of a Love Priest”. Then Jason called it “Dream of the Red Chamber”. This was followed by Michael King of Eastwood calling it “Moonlove’s Jewelled Mirror”. After that Joe Tench of the Grieving Garret spent ten years to revise it five times, compiled an index, divided it into chapters and called it “Twelve Shielas of Gold Hill”. He also added a poem:
Pages of crap
Vale of tears.
They all say I’m crazy
But who can taste reality.
So to make things clear, have a read of the story on the stone. Here is what it said:
Once upon a time in the corner of a small valley in the southeast region of Goose was a town called Heaven. In all the wide world it was the richest trendiest place bar none. Off Ten Kilometre Road outside Heaven was Kindness Crescent and off this was an old temple, which everyone called Squash Temple because it was so cramped. Next door lived a local councillor called Howard Hughes who pen name was Mr Crafty. His main wife came from the Gallop family and was a gentle soul well versed in protocol and ceremony. Although the family wasn’t filthy rich, the locals agreed they were up and coming.
Crafty Hughes was an unassuming chap with no desire for fame. So he spent his days gardening, drinking beer and indulging in a little poetry. Actually he lived like a little god visiting earth. There was only one thing wrong: this year, his half century, he still had no bouncing son on his knee, only a three year old daughter whose pet name was Poppy.
One scorcher, Crafty was taking it easy on the lounge, his book slipped, his head sank on a cushion and he drifted off for a few zeds.
In the land of nod he recognized nothing. Suddenly he saw a Daoist monk and a Buddhist priest walking along chatting. He heard the priest ask
“So where do you want to take the little wriggler?”
“Relax. There’s a love affair just emerging whose star-crossed lovers haven’t been spawned yet. So I’m grabbing the chance to throw the wriggler in so it can get some experience.”
The priest then asked “Won’t the karma of the former lovers repeat in this creation cycle? And where will they be dropped in?”
“Mate, they say this story is a scream. Actually for thousands of ages there’s been nothing like it. It all came from the time in Western Heaven on the banks of Spook River beside the Thrice Born Stone where a clump of Purple Pearl grass grew. Every day the Sparkling Guardian Spirit who served at Crimson Jade Palace watered the clump with sweet dew and it grew happily for many years. Eventually it absorbed the life-force of creation and with constant nourishment from the dew it slowly shed its grassy form and became human, though only a woman. Every day she wandered beyond Carefree Heaven, eating Secret Love fruit and drinking from Rinse Your Sorrow Lake. But because she hadn’t yet repaid the goodness which had made her, she felt gutted. In the end it chewed her up. Luckily the Sparkling Guardian Spirit had lately flared up into a fit of action and had decided while there was peace and prosperity to visit the world of illusions below to check on things. Sparkling had already put her name on the register kept by the Dream Warning Spirit who had been asking why the watering incident hadn’t been repaid. So this was a chance to put things straight.
“The Purple Clump Spirit said
“I have no sweet dew to repay him with. But as soon as he goes to earth to become human, so will I. And I’ll repay him with my tears for a whole lifetime.”
So the Dream Warning Spirit roped in a bunch of star crossed lovers to go with them and sort out the repayment.”
The monk said “Sure is an unlikely tale. I’ve never heard of being repaid in tears before. Sounds like more of a disaster than the usual love story.”
The priest said “The goings on of lovers has been told before and even made into poems, but ordinary eating and drinking in the red chamber boudoirs has never been recorded. What’s more, although love stories usually go in for forbidden fruits, secret meetings and elopements, they don’t tell real feelings. I reckon if we enter the world with this infantile bunch of skirt chasers there’ll be stories to tell like never before!”
Then the monk replied “Why don’t you and I take the opportunity to go down to the world and release a few souls from the cycle of birth and death? And it would sure be meritorious, eh?”
The priest said “Exactly what I was thinking. But come with me first to the palace of the Dream Warning Spirit and we’ll sort out the formalities for this stupid stone. Then when this bunch of evil lovers have descended to the world, you and I will join them. Although most have already descended to the dust they haven’t all left.”
The monk said “In that case, I’m with you. Let’s go.”
Even though Crafty Hughes had heard and understood all of this, he had no idea what the “stupid stone” was. He couldn’t help going up to them to make the proper salutations and smiling:
“Greetings reverend gentlemen.” The priest and the daoist quickly returned the greeting then Crafty said:
“Rarely do men overhear immortals discussing karma. But I am only a muddled ignoramus and cannot totally understand. If my dumb skull could be broken open and I could hear the details again, my worthless ears would be cleaned and I could receive the wisdom and be slightly more enlightened. And maybe I could avoid the bitterness of rebirth.”
The two immortals smiled and said “These mysterious workings are not allowed to be leaked. In due course if you don’t forget us you’ll be able to jump out of the fiery pit.”
Crafty heard them but didn’t take the hint. So he smiled again and asked:
“The mysterious workings can’t be leaked, but I don’t understand about the “stupid stone” or whether I could take a look.”
The Buddhist monk said “You have asked and it is preordained that you can have a look.”
As he spoke he took it out and handed it to Crafty who saw it was a beautiful piece of dazzling jade with the words “Clever Jade” clearly engraved on it. The other side had several lines of small writing. Just as he was trying to have a closer look the monk said:
“We’ve arrived at the Land of Illusion.” Then he grabbed it from Crafty’s hand and went through a huge stone archway with the priest. At the top of the arch was written: THE VOID OF ILLUSION A vertical couplet was written on either side:
When fiction becomes real reality is fiction,
When nothingness exists it is still nothingness.
Just as Crafty took a step to follow them, a sudden thunderclap boomed like mountains collapsing and the earth caving in. He stared, but saw only the fiery sun and drooping banana leaves in the backyard.
He had forgotten most of the dream when the wet nurse carried his daughter Lotus to his outstretched arms. He thought Lotus was more impishly cute than ever with her rosy cheeks and milky skin. After hugging and playing with her for a while, he took her out to the street to see what excitement was going on. As he turned to come inside he saw a monk and a priest out of the corner of his eye.
The barefooted scabby headed monk and the limping tangle-haired priest laughed madly and jumped about like a pair of crazies. They saw Crafty cradling Lotus in his arms. The priest sobbed loudly at Crafty:
“Generous sir, why bother cradling that ill-fated thing who will bring trouble to her mum and dad?”
Crafty saw he was crazy and took no notice. Then the monk said:
“Hand her to me, hand her to me!”
This pissed Crafty off. As he carried his daughter inside the monk laughed loudly and pointed at him chanting four lines of poetry:
Strangers laugh at your imbecile pampering of her,
Useless caltrop flower on sizzling snow.
Beware a night after the lantern festival
A time when smoke consumes and fire annihilates.
Crafty understood but didn’t quite know what to think. He was just about to ask who they thought they were when he heard the Buddhist priest say
“There’s no need for you and I to hang out together. Let’s split here and do our own thing. In three creations I’ll wait for you on Northern Hill. After we’ve met up again we can go to the Void of Illusion to sign off the register.”
The monk said “Cool, no problems.”
After their chat they went off and no trace of them was seen again.
Crafty thought to himself: those two certainly knew the score. I should have taken the chance to question them. Too late now, and no use crying over spilt milk.”
Standing there dumbstruck he suddenly saw the poor Confucian scholar Colin Taylor, nicknamed Stormy with a pen name of Time Flies.
Stormy was heading off somewhere or other and had been staying temporarily at Squash Temple next door. He had originally had clan in Huzhou who were academics and public servants. But Stormy was the end of the line. His parents and ancestors had run out of oomph and had only managed to produce a single heir who was now alone in the world. Jobless in his home town, Stormy had headed to Beijing for fame and fortune and to kick start the family line again. A year ago, financially embarrassed again, he took shelter in the temple and made a living working every day as a wordsmith and writing letters for people.
So he and Crafty had got to know each other. As soon as Stormy saw Crafty he rushed over to bow with a crawling smile said
“Mr Hughes. I saw you standing at your gate looking out. Is there anything of interest on our busy streets?”
“Bugger all” said Crafty “The daughter was a bit whingey so I brought her out to amuse her. It’s all same old same old. But mate, your timing’s perfect. Come into my shoebox for a chat and we’ll escape the heat.”
He called for a servant to take the child and steered Stormy to the library. A boy got them tea and bickies but they’d barely sat down when a servant flew in saying
“Grandpa Selby has come to visit.”
Crafty jumped up frantically, apologizing profusely “Looks like I’ve brought you in under false pretences. Make yourself at home, I’ll be right back.”
Stormy was quick to get up and said obligingly “No worries Mr Hughes. You do what you have to do. You’ve always been the perfect host and treated me better than I deserve. I can wait.”
Crafty had gone to the front room before Stormy finished speaking. Stormy flicked through a few classical books to pass the time. Suddenly he heard a girl’s cough outside the window. He hurried to the window for a look and saw it was a slave girl picking flowers. She was something else.
Though not an extreme beauty, her delicate eyebrows and bright eyes were a turn on. Stormy didn’t realise he was staring stupidly at her.
When this Hughes family slave had finished and was about to go, she suddenly looked up and saw a shabby bloke at the window. Though poor, his waist was narrow and his back wide, his face broad and mouth square. Then there were a pair of dagger eyebrows and sparkling eyes, a straight nose and dominating cheeks.
The slave girl quickly turned away to avoid him, thinking “This bloke’s awesome but what a feral. I’m pretty sure he’s that whatshisname Stormy Taylor my master is always talking about and wanting to help out with some cash but never finding the right moment. The Hughes family hasn’t got any friends or relatives who look that tatty. Yep it’s gotta be him. It’s weird that they say he’s not the sort of bloke who’ll be poor for long.”
Once she’d figured it out, she couldn’t help glancing back a couple of times. Stormy saw this and convinced himself the girl had fallen for him. He was madly excited. Ah what deep perception to discern his resplendence behind the grubby rags.
Just then the boy came in. Stormy asked and was told the guest was staying for a meal. Stormy couldn’t very well keep hanging around so he let himself out the side passage gate.
After his guest finally left, Crafty found out that Stormy had let himself out. But he didn’t send to invite him back.
So one day, when mid-Autumn Festival had almost ended and Crafty’s family had finished their banquet, Crafty had a separate table laid in the library and strolled towards the temple in the moonlight to personally invite Stormy over.
Ever since the Hughes family slave girl had looked back at him a couple of times Stormy had seen her as a person of deep perceptions. She had a place in his heart from that moment on. And today, smack bang on mid-Autumn, he couldn’t resist reciting a Spontaneous Poem of Five Character Phrases to his bosom buddy the moon:
Married bliss not yet foretold
And my worries getting old.
Melancholy times cloud my brow
She turns again to look
I clutch my windy shadow.
Who is my moonlight friend?
Moon toad with bright intent
Shine on her resting bed.
Stormy stopped his recitation, then between scratching his head and between long sighs to heaven thought miserably again that all his life his aspirations had been thwarted. Then in a high pitched poetry voice began again to recite. This time a couplet:
The boxed jade awaits a handsome price
The hairpin awaits flight from the trousseau.
Crafty had just rolled up and listened. He smiled and said “Mate, that’s superb.”
Stormy smiled his crawling smile “I wouldn’t dare say so. I’m just reciting a few lines from some old poet. Nothing to brag about.” He went on “Mr Hughes, what brings you here?”
Crafty smiled “It’s mid-Autumn tonight, ‘the Festival of Reunion’ as they say. I thought perhaps a respectable young man like you might be lonely living temporarily in the monks’ house. So I’ve specially put a few coldies in the fridge and hope you’ll come over to my humble home for a drink. Don’t say no.”
Stormy heard him out and had no intention of refusing. So he smiled and said “I don’t deserve your goodness but I wouldn’t think of turning down your awesome generosity.” So saying he went with Crafty back again to the library next door.
Aperitifs were soon finished, the table had been set and I don’t need to tell you about the great wine and wonderful food.
The two sat down. At first the wine was poured with ceremony and sipped. Then little by little the conversation got going and before they knew it ‘the drinking horn and jade eared cup were flying.’
Flutes and lutes, song and oboes came from every single house in the neighbourhood. The bright round moon overhead sparkled glorious crystal shimmers, the two men’s happiness was replenished with euphoria and their cups were emptied in a single swig.
By now Stormy was a lot more than half pissed and his mad excitement was so out of control that he projected his feelings onto the moon and let fly with a Seven Word by Four Line poem:
In mid-Autumn you oh moon reunite us
clear light shoots like a jade barricade
You circle the skies to present again
To ten thousand upraised faces of men
Crafty heard it and shouted “Bloody incredible! I’ve said again and again that you mate would never languish on the bench for long. Every line you’ve recited tonight is an omen of your meteoric rise. In no time at all you’ll be able to hang up your boots and relax with the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Congratulations mate, well done!”
With his own hand Crafty poured a large shot for a toast. Stormy drained it at a gulp then sighed “This is not a Generation X boast after a couple of drinks but if it’s a question of the study needed these days I might possibly be good enough to tag along with the imperial examination candidates. Trouble is, right now I haven’t got the kit or the cash to travel all the way to Canberra. There’s no way that wordsmithing will pay for it.”
Crafty didn’t wait for him to finish before saying “Mate, why didn’t you say so earlier. I’m a moron. I’ve often thought about it, and every time I’ve bumped into you, you’ve never mentioned it. So I didn’t dare be so rude. But now that it’s out in the open I’ll say this. Although I’m pretty uncultured there’s two things I do know: what’s right and how to use money. Luckily the triennial imperial exams are due next year. You’ve got to get to Canberra quick, mate. A first in the Spring exam will mean all your study hasn’t been wasted. As for travelling expenses and whatnot, I’ll take care of it personally. Then at least the time you’ve mistakenly spent getting to know me won’t be wasted!”
He immediately ordered a servant boy to go inside and quickly pack 25 grams of silver and two sets of winter clothes. Crafty then said
“It’s a lucky yellow road day on the nineteenth, mate. You can rent a boat and head west straight away. I’ll be waiting till you’ve flown as high as a bird and come home a hero next winter. Whaddya reckon, should be a great day, eh?”
Stormy took the money and clothes without much thanks and simply partied on as if he didn’t care. It was past third drum when the two parted company.
After Crafty saw Stormy off, he went back to the house and slept right through until the golden orb had passed the third pole. Thinking about last night, he decided to write another two references for Stormy to take with him to Canberra. He could use them when calling to pay his respects to the family of a bureaucrat Crafty knew and maybe get an invite to crash with them. He sent a servant over to invite Stormy back. But the househelp returned and said
“The monk said Mr Taylor left for Canberra at fifth drum this morning and left a message to pass to you sir. The message is ‘Scholars don’t believe in yellow or red roads in the calendar. We only believe in logic. There was no time to say cya in person.” Crafty heard this and had no choice but to let it go.
It’s true as they say that time flies for the idle rich, and suddenly it was Lantern Festival time again. Crafty ordered a servant named Disaster to take Lotus to see the pantomimes and lanterns. At about midnight Disaster needed a piss and sat Lotus down on somebody’s front doorstep. Having finished his piss he came back to collect her but she’d vanished without a trace. Disaster searched frantically for half the night, but by sun up hadn’t seen her. Not daring to go back and face the master, he fled to his home town.
Crafty and his missus, seeing their daughter hadn’t come back overnight realised something was wrong and sent several people out to look for her. They came back one by one, each echoing the other: no go.
For half their lifetimes husband and wife had only this daughter. Her sudden loss was absolutely incomprehensible. They cried and sobbed day and night, not caring whether they lived or died. Within a month Crafty was the first to get sick. Then the former Miss Gallop, wife of a Grade Seven bureaucrat also became ill thinking of her daughter and healers were invited in daily to treat them.
Who could have imagined that on this day, the fifteenth of the lunar month, a monk in Squash Temple frying up offerings for the gods let his mind wander from the job so that the oil in a wok caught fire and spread to a paper window. Fate had numbered the days for the bamboo fences and wooden walls which people had in this suburb, so three followed two, then five dragged in six until the whole street was burning like the proverbial volcano, the Mountain of Flames.
Despite soldiers and citizens coming to the rescue the outcome was beyond doubt. There was nothing they could do. It burnt the whole night through till it gradually died out, burning who knows how many homes. The poor Hughes’ home right next door was quickly reduced to a pile of tiles and bricks and Mr and Mrs and the several servants barely escaped unhurt with their lives.
A devastated Crafty could only stamp his feet and moan. He had to talk it over with his missus for quite a while, and they eventually went to the haven of their country estate. Unfortunately droughts and floods in recent years meant no harvests and petty thieves had sprung up like bees. There were nothing but pilferings and holdups throughout the land. People filched like rats and snatched like dogs and the public grew restless. Troops were sent on punitive expeditions to make arrests but it was difficult to restore calm. Crafty was forced to sell the estate at a loss and take his wife and two slave girls to his father-in-law’s house.
His father-in-law went by the name of Stewart Gallop and originally hailed from the Gallop family in the greater Davis Creek area. Though they made a living on the land the family was quite well off. Seeing his son-in-law coming to him as destitute as a dog didn’t please him.
Luckily Crafty still had some silver unspent from the sacrificial sale of the estate. He took it out and handed it to Gallop to invest at whatever interest rate he thought best so they could get a house and set up on a bit of land to make a living.
Bloody Stewart Gallop diddled them out of half of it, and got them a one bedroom hovel on a scrap of infertile land. Crafty had always been a scholar and had never developed the physique for sowing and reaping and that sort of thing. He managed to scrape by for a couple of years but was gradually going under. Gallop was full of armchair advice whenever they met, but complained to all and sundry behind his back that they had no idea how to make a living and were simply lazy good for nothings with a champagne appetite and beer income etc etc.
When Crafty realised his rescuer was a worthless prick he was incredibly upset. What with the shock of the last few years, the bitterness and injustice, he had become a man with one foot in the grave. The combined assault of poverty and sickness gradually revealed the coming of death.
Amazingly, one day, limping and struggling to the street with his stick to escape his worries, he suddenly saw a lame Daoist monk coming up the other side of the road. He was jittering about like a totally uninhibited madman with rags for shoes and tattered clothes, mumbling several lines of poetry:
Men all know the gods are good,
but won’t forget their honour and glory.
Where are generals, statesmen, old and new?
Their graves but mounds of grass! Adieu!
Men all know the gods are good,
but won’t forget their gold and silver.
Day’s end regretting they’re dead stoney broke,
But with piles more than most good folk!
Men all know the gods are good,
but won’ forget their cute, pretty wives
who love you when your’re making bread
but switch their affections when your’re dead!
Men all know the gods are good,
but won’t forget their sons and grandsons.
Doting parents live forever, never dead
obedient sons and grandsons have never been bred.
Crafty heard him and went over, saying
“What are you mumbling? All I can hear is good dead, good dead.”
The monk laughed “If you’ve heard the two words good and dead then you’ve understood. Of the thousands of things you can know in the world, good is dead and dead is good. If it’s not dead, it’s good. If you want good, you need dead. The name of my ditty is the Good and Dead Song.
Now Crafty was a smart bloke and on hearing it, got it straight away. He smiled, “Deadly! Hang on a minute, how about I jam on your Good and Dead Song?” The monk smiled and answered “Go ahead, go ahead.” So Crafty said:
Dilapidated rooms, empty halls
Lobbyists once slept within these walls.
In the courtyard dying poplars, withered grass
Where years ago were song and dance.
Cobwebs cover carved roof beams
Green muslin pasted on windows in tattered streams.
The mad lame monk heard it and clapped his hands smiling “Exactly! Exactly!”
Crafty simply cried “Let’s go!” snatched the cloth bum bag draped over the monk’s shoulder, put it over his own back, and set off, not calling home and disappearing over the horizon with the mad monk.
The neighbourhood went berserk. The news was on everyone’s lips. Nee Gallop, when she heard, wept great wracking sobs as if she was about to die. She could only talk it over with her father then send people in all directions to make enquiries. But was there any sign? There was no alternative now and she was forced to fall back on her father to eke out a miserable existence. Luckily she still had a couple of slave girls at her side from the old days to wait on her. So the three of them, mistress and servants, took to sewing day and night to help her father defray the cost of their upkeep. Although bloody Gallop moaned about it non-stop there was nothing he could really do.
One day the senior slave girl of the Hughes family was at the door buying thread when she heard the sounds of the road being cleared for a senior official. The crowd said it was the new Great Grandfather, or Regional Magistrate coming to take up his post.
So she hid behind the door and watched the Magistrate’s personal crack troops pass by in pairs. Suddenly a large sedan chair carrying a government official came by. He wore a crow black hat and a deep red gown trimmed with military signs. The slave girl got quite a shock, and while she was looking at him thought to herself “That official looks very familiar. Now where have I seen him before?”
But she went back inside and thought no more about it. That evening, just on bedtime a sudden loud beating sounded on the door and the voices of many men shouting in commotion,
“The Regional Magistrate has sent us to take someone in for questioning!” When Gallop heard this he stared with dumbstruck fear. He had no idea what this disaster was. Listen to the next chapter to find out.
Mrs Taylor’s immortal soul departs from Young and Sonny Hale tells a story of the Garrett’s Mansion
Winning losing, it’s all the same,
The tea turns sour but nothing changes.
Want to know the future?
Ask someone who doesn’t care.
Back to the story.
When Gallop heard the bailiffs calling to take someone away, he hurried out with ingratiating smiles to ask politely how he could help. They simply shouted,
“Ask Mr Taylor to come out. And make it fast!”
Gallop smiled ingratiatingly again and said: “My humble name is Gallop, certainly not Taylor. I used to have a young son-inlaw called Taylor, but he left here a couple of years ago. I’m not sure that you may perhaps want him?”
The guards responded: “We don’t know whether it’s Tailor or Tiler, but we’re under orders from the Regional Magistrate and since he’s your son-in-law we’ll take you to his august presence and you can explain in person.”
So saying, they all jumped on him without letting him say another word and took him away. The Taylor household to a person was in a panic and had no idea what it was all about.
TO BE CONTINUED – as the author Cao Xueqin wrote at the end of each section
Thanks for the CD which I enjoyed.
Read “Mau’s [sic] Last Dancer”. A good read. Prompted me to re-read Pearl Buck’s “The Good Earth” and “Wild Swans”.
Did you know Jung Chang has written a biography of Mau [sic] with her husband Jon Halliday? It was to be published in 2004.
Have you a copy of “The Dream of the Red Chamber” a Chinese Classic. Hs it been translated?
16 Nov 2006