The second volume of Cao Xueqin’s wonderful 18th-century novel The Story of the Stone is subtitled “The Crab-Flower Club.” This title comes from the fact that several of the most memorable episodes in the book revolve around the formation of a poetry club. The young cousins, all female except Bao-yu (who, you will remember from last time, is the incarnation of the sentient Stone of the title), are all living together in the wonderful garden that was built in volume 1 for the Imperial Concubine’s visit. One of the cousins, Tan-chun, comes up with an idea: why not have a monthly meeting to write poetry together? And so the Crab-Flower Club begins: food and drink and laughter and competition to see who can write the most elegant poetry on a set subject or with a set rhyme scheme. Bao-yu’s favorite cousins Dai-yu and Bao-chai are naturally the best at this game, but others are also successful (and sometimes the efforts are just silly.)
Between the meetings, of course, daily life goes on. Bao-yu’s aunt Xing tries to get one of the senior maids to be her husband’s concubine, with humiliating consequences. Xi-feng, the manager of two households and possessor of a ready sense of humor, matches wits with Grandmother Jia and keeps the entertainment coming. Grannie Liu arrives from the country and is treated to a feast she could never have imagined, from golden chopsticks to lotus-flower soup. The seasons change, and snow falls: it’s time to move to rooms with under-floor heating and to bundle up in elegant fur capes. New Year’s Day arrives, and the family’s ancestor worship is described in loving detail. On every page, personalities and customs and relationships and cultural productions weave in and out in a rich tapestry, a kind of “upstairs, downstairs,” with one detail melding seamlessly into the next.
I can’t tell you how much I’m enjoying this book. I loved the first volume, but I felt a bit overwhelmed by the huge cast of characters and the unfamiliar names. In this volume, I feel I’ve gotten to know the characters much better, and I’ve gotten accustomed to the life of the great house to the point where I can almost see what’s happening. There’s one scene where a maid who has a cold is mending a burn in a precious “peacock’s gold” cape for Bao-yu. It’s described in perfect detail, how she takes the darning mushroom, scrapes the burned bit, carefully draws the golden threads together, stops to cough with her head spinning… Scene after scene has this bright, vivid quality, this sense of life going on all around you.
I have also really appreciated the strong female characters in the book. Cao Xueqin is quite explicit about the women being at the center of the book, clear and pure, strong and educated and intelligent, while the male characters are weak and muddy. It is all the more interesting, then, to see the New Year’s worship being dominated by the men of the family. It’s a real insight into Chinese culture.
Although this volume didn’t have the fantastic elements that the first volume had, I liked it even better. I am eager to start volume three and see what it has in store.