We discuss chapters 1, 3, 5, and 16-18 of Story of the Stone (aka Dream of the Red Chamber) by Cao Xueqin, perhaps THE canonical Chinese novel. All sorts of bizarre and amazing things happen! A stone becomes a boy, a flower becomes a girl, and characters we think will be important totally disappear. We have a very special guest with us this week: Jeannette Ng, author of Under the Pendulum Sun, a book Rachel recommends you read. Jackie re-tells a joke! The truth comes to light, in terms of who cares about Rachel’s opinion. Theo makes a few good zingers. Topics include: frivolity immersion therapy, Chekhov’s spice, definitive endings, historical fanfiction, the debut of Mupp Chat, and Jackie’s new French accent.
Content warning: dysphoria, death, sexual assault, and slavery.
We discuss chapters 1, 3, 5, and 16-18 of Story of the Stone (aka Dream of the Red Chamber) by Cao Xueqin, perhaps THE canonical Chinese novel. All sorts of bizarre and amazing things happen! A stone becomes a boy, a flower becomes a girl, and characters we think will be important totally disappear. We have a very special guest with us this week: Jeannette Ng, author of Under the Pendulum Sun, a book Rachel recommends you read. Jackie re-tells a joke! The truth comes to light, in terms of who cares about Rachel’s opinion. Theo makes a few good zingers. Topics include: frivolity immersion therapy, Chekhov’s spice, definitive endings, historical fanfiction, the debut of Mupp Chat, and Jackie’s new French accent.
Content warning: dysphoria, death, sexual assault, and slavery.
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* Intro music plays -
RACHEL: Just read it.
JACKIE: You have to be upset, Theo!
THEO, quoting book in whining voice: “None of the girls has got one! Only I have got one. It always upsets me, and now this new cousin comes here as beautiful as an angel, and she hasn't got one either!” (Suddenly very matter-of-fact) “So I KNOW it can’t be any good.”
JACKIE: From sobbing to smug.
RACHEL, mimicking Theo: “I KNOW it can’t be any good.”
* Intro music resolves -
RACHEL: Hi, everyone. I wanted to jump in real quick before the episode got underway and kind of explain what exactly we're talking about, because we realized that if you haven't read the same chapters we had, it might be a little bit confusing for you. Yes, we are talking in this episode about Book One of the very long Chinese novel “Story of the Stone,” or “Dream of the Red Chamber.” It's, uh… in the edition that we read, it's divided into like, five books, I think, and in Book One we read chapters one, three, five, and sixteen through eighteen. Our guest Jeannette Ng recommended that we read, um, chapter one just to get a good intro, and to kind of show us how interesting the frame narrative is. Because all of the characters in chapter one who you think are going to be very important end up not being important at all. (Jackie laughs) We learn that there's a - a magical stone who's going to be transformed into a human and live out his life and learn his lessons. And then at the end of his life he writes down what happened to him, and that's the book we're reading. But we are also introduced to this whole family, because they overhear some monks who are taking the stone to get incarnated, and you think the family is going to be a big deal. You learn about their, like, rise and fall, and the disappearance of their daughter, and like, them moving to the countryside and losing their house and losing all their money and the dad running away to be a monk in the countryside. And you think they're going to be really important, but they - like, two of them come back and none of them are major characters. (laughs)
JACKIE: That’s funny.... I understand the importance of reading the first chapter to get a sense of why it's so strange and weird, because that's one of the best things about it, but it is pretty funny to think, “I need you to read this first chapter so that you understand that none of these people come back and they're not important.” (Theo laughs)
RACHEL: Yes. (All laugh) Exactly. So, ah, then we read chapter three...
JACKIE: The scholar who's the neighbor of the family that you're introduced to in this... the first and second chapter, which -
RACHEL: That scholar ends up taking a little girl who is one of the main characters to the wealthy family where she will be raised and grow up. And she meets the other main character. So the little girl's name is Dai Yu, and she's a reincarnated flower. And the little boy she meets is Bao Yu, who is… or, I guess not reincarnated. He’s the incarnated stone and they eventually have a sort of like star-crossed lovers dynamic that's very famous.
JACKIE: And they're also cousins, and the cousin that Theo mentions in his introduction is her. He's the stone, and he's talking about the flower girl.
RACHEL: And then, when we read Chapter Five, the other member of their love triangle arrives. We don't end up talking about her in the episode because she doesn't actually do anything much in any of the chapters. (laughs) But the reason Jeannette wanted us to reach chapter five is because there's a very, very famous, weird dream sequence, where the character Bao Yu falls asleep. But he ends up, like, going to Fairyland, basically. Like this kind of magical, bureaucratic heaven, and being introduced to this sort of... fairy goddess of love. And he sees all these different offices and experiences, like, a fairy… uh, concert, and he is married to a younger fairy who kind of looks like his two cousins that he's invol- he will be involved in a love triangle with.
JACKIE: And it's all planned out. The point of it is the fairy has planned out all of these experiences for him, and it's because his ancestors have requested that she do this so that he can become more serious in his real life.
RACHEL: To try to make him less silly. They want to kind of go ahead and get it out of him.
JACKIE: Like, make him a man.
RACHEL: Right. But - not make him a man in the sense that... gross people use it. (laughs) They just mean, like, he's got too much frivolity in his heart. Perhaps, like, it's kind of like making a kid smoke a whole pack of cigarettes. “Maybe if we just give him all of this wonderful stuff, he'll get sick of it for some reason.”
THEO: Immersion therapy.
RACHEL: Yeah, okay. So then Jeannette also asked us to read chapters sixteen through eighteen, because that kind of contains a self contained arc, which is that Bao Yu’s oldest sister has left the family... I feel like I kind of explain this a little bit better in the other chapters, but she has left the family to become one of the emperor's concubines and she's allowed to visit home. So sixteen through eighteen is the family preparing for her visit and getting the grounds ready for her, because they have to build, like, a whole new wing with a bunch of new gardens. And there's, like, a little poetry competition before she arrives, and then a poetry competition after she arrives, and then she gives everyone in the family wondrous gifts, which I wish we had actually talked about, because that was very Odyssey-esque. All of the gifts are, like, listed out very specifically.
JACKIE: Well, Theo would have hated that, so.
THEO (laughs): Yeah.
RACHEL: It’s like, “These three get this gift. These three get this gift. The grandma? She gets the best gift of all! The head aunts get almost as many gifts as the grandma, but not quite, and the servants, they get all these gifts.” And then she leaves and hopes that she can visit them again. So that's the basic plot structure of what we're going to be talking about. I hope that it makes sense to you a little bit now. There are a lot of characters. The main names that you should remember going forward are Bao Yu is the boy who used to be a stone, and Dai Yu is the girl who used to be a flower. Those are the main ones to keep in mind while we're talking.
THEO: I think that is very helpful.
THEO: To say the characters.
RACHEL: Okay, great!
JACKIE: Good job.
RACHEL: So now, Theo retroactively understands the episode he recorded and edited. (laughs)
THEO, laughing: Yeah.
RACHEL: So, I'm a - I'm a fan of Jeannette Ng’s book that they published a couple years ago. It's very good. It's about... if Fairy Land was discovered during, you know, Victorian times, of course the Victorians would try to send missionaries to convert them to Christianity. So the book is about, like, two of those missionaries. It's very good - uh, not for everybody, like there are some themes that would be kind of difficult for some people to read. So, you know, go ahead and check up on it ahead of time, but it's, it’s very good. Anyway, so we thought it would be nice. We reached out to Jeannette and said, ‘Hey, we’d love for you to come on the podcast. Is there a book that you'd like to talk about?’ And she said, “Well, I am actually currently really really obsessed with this book, which is THE canonical work in, like, the Chinese canon. Would you guys want to talk about that?” And we said, “Yeah that would be great, give us a little bit of variety!” Which, as we know from - what, Shakespeare? - is the spice of life. So here we go.
JACKIE: We fired him, so we don't really care what he thinks.
THEO: I also said that.
RACHEL: Oh yeah, Theo thinks it is. I wonder if that WAS Shakespeare?
JACKIE: ‘Variety is the spice of life’. Hmm.
RACHEL, groaning: Ohhh, it wasn't Shakespeare. It was William Cowper.
THEO: It was Chekhov’s Spice.
RACHEL, laughing: Chekhov’s Variety.
JACKIE: Hemingway’s ...Life.
RACHEL: Yeah. Look, we haven't read Shakespeare on the pod yet, so you can't expect me to know anything about him.
THEO: We did, we read the Sonnet 98.
RACHEL: No, we haven't read ALL of his stuff. (Theo laughs)
JACKIE: We can't say we’ve read Shakespeare until we've read every single thing he's written.
RACHEL: I just assume most sayings are Shakespeare or Frank… Benjamin Franklin, and I'm usually right. But this time I was wrong.
Jackie: No, you assume they're either Shakespeare or Frank. Theo’s dad Frank. (Theo and Rachel laugh)
THEO: He's a wise man.
RACHEL: Jackie and I ended up really liking the book, we thought it was so interesting and at some point we are going to definitely finish volume one. And hopefully, then we'll be able to get Jeannette back on the pod and talk about that in maybe a more linear fashion for you all.
RACHEL: Hooray! On to the episode! (laughs)
THEO: Welcome to the episode.
* Short pause, then new recording begins -
RACHEL: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Fire the Canon podcast, the podcast where usually we read the books in the Western Canon and decide if they belong or not. We're not doing that this time, we'll get into that a little further later. I remain your host, Rachel.
JACKIE: As ever, I'm your host, Jackie.
THEO: I'm the producer, Theo.
RACHEL: And this week, we have a special guest with us again! We have the author of the multi-award-winning book Under the Pendulum Sun. You don't want me to be effusive? I can take it back and just call it a book. (All laugh) We have someone who wrote a book called Under the Pendulum Sun.
JACKIE, sarcastically: It’s okay. It's okay, I guess. Yeah, it's fine.
JEANNETTE: I mean, it is fine. (All laugh)
RACHEL: It’s a good book! I’ve read it… I’ve read it twice now, yeah! So anyway, that person is the author Jeannette Ng, and we're so happy to have them with us today!
JACKIE: Welcome Jeannette, thank you!
RACHEL: Yaaaay! And we will be covering an epic classic... part of it. Part of an epic classic. In English it's usually... it's either known by The Story of the Stone, or Dream of the Red Chamber.
JACKIE: Maybe Jeannette, if you're comfortable, we can have you explain it a little better. (Jeannette and Theo laugh)
RACHEL: Yes. I do want to say, this week Jackie and I will be playing the role that Theo usually plays, and Jeannette is sort of the... our guide to this book.
JEANNETTE: Well, hello, uh, I’m Jeannette Ng, and I'm here to tell you that you should read The Story of the Stone!
JACKIE: Starting off strong. (Jeannette and Rachel laugh)
JEANNETTE: Well, it's… (sighs heavily) Oh, God. It - it is THE Chinese classic. It's obnoxiously long. It’s… it’s just so long. And none of this is good information. This is not helping you want to read this. Um...
RACHEL: You don’t have to read it all at once. (Jeannette laughing)
RACHEL: It's broken up into multiple books.
JACKIE: Yeah. And the chapters are actually very digestible, and you had us read - because kindly, you - you gave us a selection of chapters rather than telling us to read the whole thing.
RACHE: Which would have been thousands of pages. (Theo and Jackie laugh)
RACHEL: Literally thousands.
JACKIE: So should we say like, what edition we read and all that, so the readers could do it if they want?
JEANNETTE: Yes, that's... a that's a good start.
RACHEL: Well, do you want to explain why you recommended the Penguin edition to us?
JEANNETTE: So yeah, Story of the Stone is... it's a story about... a stone. That's a good start. It's one of those books that follows, technically, the life of a young boy as he becomes a young man, and he falls in love many times and all sorts of terrible things happen to him. It's very comparable to something like… oh, like, like, a David Copperfield, I suppose. Like if you're kind of thinking about Victorian literature. I'm sure I'm going to get, like, hate mail for that comparison now. (laughs)
JACKIE: We've done much worse. (laughs)
RACHEL: If we get hate mail I will be shocked. And I'll actually be happy, because that means -
JACKIE: I’ll be pleased.
RACHEL: - enough people are listening.
THEO: Any mail is good mail.
RACHEL, laughing: Yeah.
JEANNETTE: All mail is good mail! So, so, yeah. Story of the Stone. And I told you to read the Penguin edition because it's probably the most accessible... it's got some notes, and it's just, it's the one that’s all in English and is, is relatively readable. There's a couple of other ones out there, but it is - it is probably the more recent one. The Yang one's okay, but arguably more literal, and then you've got, like, a whole bunch of like, Victorian people. But it's just one of those books that's SO big that no one really wants to undertake translating it again. (Jackie and Theo laugh) But Story of the Stone is just one of those really weird books.
JEANNETTE: I think it - kind of, people remember it as this, this love story, and then people also think of it as this kind of ency- almost encyclopedic chronicling of Chinese culture, because it kind of goes into immense detail about things like medicine, and theology, and architecture, and -
JEANNETTE: Aesthetics, and outfits, so much about outfits -
RACHEL: For sure.
JACKIE: Family relations.
JEANNETTE: Family relations, and, and poetry. And it's this encyclopedic documentation of this young man's life. And, and it is DRENCHED in nostalgia for a lot of Chinese readers. And you know, given the immense amount of change that has happened in China, I think the idea that it kind of meticulously documents and laments this kind of bygone age - that has a lot of resonance. A lot of bad things happen to the characters and it observes the feudal society in a way that is, whilst never entirely, explicitly condemnatory - with a few notable exceptions - it also doesn't wholly celebrate it either. And I think that, that ambiguity, that constant tension in the story- is, is what is very intoxicating about it. All the more so because its ending is in flux. tThe first eighty chapters circulated as a manuscript for many years, and then it was later published with an extra forty chapters which are new.
JEANNETTE: A lot of textual analysis and like, computer crunching, has - and as well as just, like, people who have eyes, have noticed that the last forty chapters are… written in a way that is very different to the first eighty, and not everything foreshadowed in the first eighty comes to pass. So there is something fundamentally unsatisfying about reading Story of the Stone, which is what makes it kind of sit in your brain for forever. And when you - um, Rachel - approached me about talking about the classics, I ended up saying, “Oh yeah, we should totally read this,” because I was just completely obsessed with Story of the Stone at the time. (Jackie and Rachel laugh)
RACHEL: I hope you're still obsessed, because... we're doing an episode about it.
JACKIE: Cause that wasn't that long ago, right? (All laugh)
THEO: Now you’re tormented by it.
JACKIE, laughing: Yeah.
JEANNETTE: And, like, I always hesitate to kind of recommend it in that sense, because it, it is a book that once you kind of get into it, it kind of sort of gets under your skin. And it doesn't satisfy you, unlike, say, a million other classic books, there isn't a definitive ending.
JEANNETTE: Well, it ends, it definitely ends! (Jackie and Rachel laugh) There is, there is a last chapter, um, and there are -
JACKIE: I don’t know, there could be more coming, right?! Like…
* Dead silence from Jeannette, Rachel, and Theo -
* A pause -
JACKIE: Oh, people are frozen.
* Static/channel-changing sound effect -
JACKIE: Yeah, you guys were all frozen. I made a - I made a joke, and then you all froze, so it seemed as though everyone just completely went silent and just stared. (Rachel and Theo laugh) So... THAT didn't make me feel happy.
JEANNETTE: Would you like to make the joke again?
RACHEL: Yeah, do it again.
JACKIE, laughing: I don’t know, I don't know!
THEO: I’m sure the timing will feel perfect.
JEANNETTE: Editing will make it happen. (Jackie laughs)
JACKIE: To catch us up, the last thing I heard you say was, “It definitely does end,” and then I said, “What if - what if there's more to come, like what if somebody writes another forty chapters?”
THEO: Oh yeah. (All laugh)
JACKIE: And then it was like dead silence, and I was like, “Oh my God, I shouldn't have said that.”
THEO: That was the exact wrong thing to say.
JEANNETTE: Technically speaking, there - there are unofficial continuations. Fanfic. There was so much fanfic written of this back in the Qing dynasty, which is to, usually, to correct the ending to make it different from how it is.
JEANNETTE: And there are modern attempts, as well as people who are like, “Oh yes, I totally FOUND this manuscript in my attic!”
RACHEL, laughing: Oh.
JEANNETTE: “It's the REAL ending!” (Theo, Rachel, and Jackie laugh) So that exists as well.
JACKIE: And that makes it kind of, like, a group cultural project, almost. Like, that's interesting.
JEANNETTE: Um, well, because of the lack of copyright when novels became more of a thing in... during the Qing Dynasty, which is kind of like the, the eighteenth, nineteenth century, they became quite fashionable and, and there was a lot of interest in writing continuations to all the classics that we know of today. So like, Journey to the West has like half a dozen sequels. No one reads them! Because in general, they're considered to be inferior and just not... they’re considered generally to be quite pulpy.
JEANNETTE: But, but there are a lot of sequels to all the kind of, quote-unquote “famous” Chinese novels. And, and one of them that is in the canon now is technically a continuation, is technically fanfic. So Outlaws of the Marsh has a fanfic which I believe… not Peony Pavilion, it's the other one...
JACKIE: Is Outlaws of the Marsh another... Is it another book in this saga, like another volume?
JEANNETTE: No, Outlaws of the Marsh is, is another of those... kind of is another one of those novels which are kind of written in that era of, like, the great flourishing of kind of Chinese vernacular literature.
JEANNETTE: It's the one with the million heroes.
RACHEL: Ohh, okay.
JEANNETTE: They’re outlaws, they live in the marsh, and they’re fighting the good fight against the empire.
JACKIE, laughing: Okay.
JEANNETTE: There’s like a hundred-something heroes. There’s, there's so many heroes that they kind of get used for things, in, like things get themed around them. And they all have, like, distinctive opera masks and they show up in, like, various operas. It's this whole, like, Marvel Extended Universe experience. (Theo laughs) But there is like one definitive novel of it now, but then there's like, a lot of spinoff work. So, as I say, like the lack of copyright and... means that, whilst, like, say Journey to the West, has a definitive novel -
JEANNETTE: - but the novel is a collection, is like, a, a rewrite of a lot of pre-existing folklore and from that there are lots of spin off operas and and stories and continuations, and even today, to this day they keep - they cannot stop making Journey to the West movies.
RACHEL: Now, is the theory that Cao Xueqin... died, or quit writing, or wrote the end, but it got lost?
JEANNETTE: Um, the theory is he died. (Rachel gasps)
JEANNETTE: Yeah, he just... he just died. He, he was living in relative poverty at the time, so. So his life story is basically, he had - he, he grew up in, in quite a lot of splendor. He was from this kind of bond servant, family to the empi- emperor, and his back story is basically like that of Bao Yu’s in the book . That he grew up in luxury and then a number of terrible things happen to his family that more or less mirror the novel, and yeah. He… he did not have a great time and ended up living in poverty, uh, painting stones for a living!
JEANNETTE: Just for that extra little bit of resonance. Yes, Plum in the Golden Vase -
RACHEL, laughing quietly: Very interesting.
JEANNETTE: - or sometimes The Golden Lotus, I remember as, as Gun Ping Boy (Jin Ping Mei) which is the name as pronounced in Cantonese. It's sort of fanfic... like, it’s, it's porn fanfic, at that, of Outlaws of the Marsh.
RACHEL: And that is considered, like, a classic as well?
JEANNETTE: It's one of the six great classical Chinese novels. It's -
JEANNETTE: It's a spin off of Outlaws of the Marsh, slash Water Margin. Basically, one of the characters from it, instead of dying terribly as he does in the book, has a series of long, convoluted sexual adventures. (Rachel, Jackie, and Theo laugh)
JEANNETTE: Like, it is PRECISELY the sort of fanfic you are thinking of. (All laughing) I'm not saying it doesn't have appeal to people, both then and now. I think, there's the sort of idea that has - it's sort of like also a novel of manners.
JACKIE: Speaking of the convoluted sexual adventures.. (Rachel laughs) Like, have you read much, like, Haruki Murakami, for example?
JEANNETTE: Yes, I, I do know who you mean. It's the Japanese author, who has that weird relationship with writing, where he writes in Japanese and translates into English, or vice versa.
JACKIE: Yeah, well, also I feel like every book that I've read of his involves the WEIRDEST sex scenes, and... (Jeannette and Theo laugh) But they’re, when I was reading this, in chapter six, there's the first one where I was like, ‘I wasn't expecting to see something like this in a book from, like, the seventeen-hundreds.’
RACHEL: Jackie, you read chapter six?
JACKIE: Yeeeaahh... was I not supposed to?
JACKIE: I know I didn't HAVE to -
RACHEL: No no no, no no no -
JACKIE: You said I could! (laughing)
RACHEL: But you should - what you should have done is TOLD me, so then I would have also read it. (laughs)
JACKIE: All of the chapters end with a huge cliffhanger and then it's like, “And if you want to know what happens next, go to the next chapter!”
JACKIE: And I’m like, yeah, I DO want to know what happens next! So I had to go on.
RACHEL: Literally Theo, the final sentence is like, “If you want to see the continuation of this, you have to read… chapter whatever.”
JACKIE: Yeah, or “If you want to know what dreadful thing happens, next, you have to read the next page!” So I didn't read all of the chapters in between, but for some reason from five to six I was like, I have to keep going. (Rachel laughs) This is when Bao Yu is in the chamber and he's having his dream, and... can I just like, say what happens, like?
JEANNETTE: Yeah, of course, yeah.
RACHEL: Who are you asking?
THEO: Go ahead.
JACKIE: Uhhh… Jeannette. I don't care about your opinion! (Rachel and Jackie laugh) So I guess this is what I kind of thought was going to be the -
RACHEL: Okay, wait, Jackie, wait.
RACHEL: Before you do that - the frame narrative of the book is that there's a stone, and at some point it turns into a human, a human boy, and he goes through his whole life and then becomes a stone again with his life story written on him.
RACHEL: And so someone reads the story, and then that's what the book is.
JACKIE: They basically give the stone a chance to go through life as a human soul.
RACHEL: So Bao Yu is the human name of the stone.
RACHEL: And also before the stone becomes a human, there's some kind of flower that it turns into a girl, and they are sort of in love.
JACKIE: And her name is Dai Yu, and so they're, both - yeah.
RACHEL: A monk says, like, “This flower is going to cry and cry and cry to pay the stone back for turning it into a human.” So there's like a fated lovers situation from before the stone became a boy.
JEANNETTE: Should we start at the start, which - where I just go... ask you, like, hey! So, what do you make of these chapters I made you read?
JEANNETTE: Are they weird?
RACHEL: Let's do that and then Jackie will go to chapter six, okay? (laughs)
JEANNETTE, laughing: Yes, I think that’s good.
JACKIE: It was just to set up to say, this is similar to Murakami.
JACKIE: But nobody, I think, is as familiar with those, but... because they are very weird. So I know you wanted to ask us what we thought would happen after chapter one. (laughs)
JEANNETTE: Or just what do you make of it? Is it weird?
JEANNETTE: How much frame story is too much frame story?
RACHEL: I was like, ‘Oh, Story of the Stone. I wonder where that comes from?’ And then when it was like, “Hello, I am a stone and I get turned into a human! Here's my story,” I thought, ‘Oohh!’
JACKIE: The stone pops in immediately.
JACKIE: And I thought it was so funny! Like I wasn't expecting... I don't know what I was expecting. I think every time I hear about a book that's like, kind of before the, like, twentieth century, I just assume it's going to be very serious and not that funny, which is not ever necessarily the case.”
JACKIE: But it's so funny, it's this little stone and he's like, “Every other stone that got created got used to build the sky, and I'm the only one that got left out, and it's so sad.” And so that's why -
RACHEL: “I'm depressed -”
JACKIE: Yeah, he’s depressed!
RACHEL: “So I just fly all over the place and I make myself bigger or smaller at will.”
RACHEL: But I'm depressed.
JEANNETTE: Yeah, no, it's a lot of frame story. This is one of those books that has like five or six begin- like, you, you feel like you're reading the opening chapter and then you're like, ‘Oh, here's another opening chapter,’ and it just keeps going. (Theo laughs)
RACHEL: Most of the characters in chapter one - they didn't appear -
JEANNETTE, delightedly: Are irrelevant!
RACHEL: Yeah! So, uh, the main characters are... there's a scholar in his house and he overhears two monks talking to the stone, saying, like, “We're going to turn you into a human for a while.” (Theo laughs) And he runs outside and he's like, “Oh my gosh, tell me more!” And they refuse and they, like, go on their way. And then they come back, and then the - the perspective shifts to that scholar and his family for the rest of the chapter! So I, in my predictions, I was like, ‘I'm assuming it's going to be about these people,’ so I wrote predictions about them - (Jeannette laughs) - and only one of them appears later and barely at all!
JACKIE: It's dreamlike, right? Like you get all these different starts, and then that person kind of disappears and it goes into something else, and.... it's dreams within dreams within dreams.
JACKIE: You have different endings - yeah - that feel different. I feel like the whole thing is just very, um, surreal.
RACHEL: I like that the guy who finds the stone is like, “What's the point of this story, why should I write it down?”
JACKIE, laughing: Yeah.
RACHEL: And then the stone says, like, “No, you don't understand. This story is great! Let me explain why it's so good, and what the values of the story are.” (Theo laughs) And then at the end of the chapter, the guy’s like, “Yeah. This is a great story, I'm going to write it down.” (Jeannette laughs)
THEO: Was that to convince the readers that it was going to be a good book?
RACHEL, laughing: I think maybe!
THEO, deepening his voice and pretending to be a stranger: “A stone said it was good, so…” (laughs)
RACHEL: Yeah, the stone in this story said that the story is good, so it must be.
THEO: Yeah, the stone also said good things about this podcast, so keep listening. (Jackie, Rachel, and Jeannette laugh).
JEANNETTE: So, but I think it also kind of gives you a key on how to read the book -
JEANNETTE: - because it's such a ginormous, endless sequence of side characters.
JEANNETTE: It's just so… messy. In the best - I'm not good at selling this book to you! Because - it, it’s -
RACHEL: It is fun.
JACKIE: It’s very fun. It is.
JEANNETTE: But I think that oddity to it, like it, people who are trying to write literary analysis of this book, love this because it's like, “Oh, yes, here's the authorial intent!”
JACKIE: Oh, yeah, so I found it. So it's... the guy who finds the stone kind of reads his inscription and says, “Okay, I mean I… this story of yours might be interesting, but I...:” He lists out, “It, A, it contains no discoverable dynastic period, and B, contains no examples of moral grandeur among its characters.” And he says, “It's basically just a bunch of girls who are just pretty, or have some trifling talent, and I don't see why anybody would want to read this book!” And the stone goes on this, like, three or four or five... No, sorry, it's like two whole pages, just monologue, say - like trashing all other romances. Saying, like, “You know, yeah, you have boudoir romances, you have these other kinds of - “
RACHEL, laughing: “They all suck, but mine? Mine is good.”
JACKIE: Yeah. “Surely my number of females whom I spent half a lifetime studying are preferable to that kind of stuff!” And so at the end, the guy’s like, “You know what? Yeah, that's a good story, I'm going to write it down.” And then the rest of the book ensues.
RACHEL: The stone is a ‘not like other girls’ stone. (Jeannette laughs). Like, my girls are much better than anyone else's girls.
THEO: It was making me think of like, the ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ song. Like you have these romances, you have these...
RACHEL: Uh-huh. But do you recall?
THEO: But have you heard of the greatest of all? Yeah! (Jackie laughs)
JEANNETTE: I think one of the things about his portraits of female characters, which, admittedly, in, in the selection I sent you that's - it doesn't really come to the fore - is that there are a lot of them.
JEANNETTE: To the point where you're like, ‘These have to be referencing real people!’ Because if you were designing this as a narrative, if you're making adaption of this, you would cut half of these characters.
RACHEL: Theo, he couldn't keep track of the five Bennet sisters. (Theo and Jackie laugh) There are literally, like, the twelve beauties of the province, and then there are also, like, the main character’s grandma, all of his aunts, like, servant girls...
JACKIE: Well there’s twelve main beauties and then there's twelve sub-beauties and then there's about thirty other girls that don't even deserve to get put in there.
RACHEL, laughing: They’re all these beauties.
JEANNETTE: They’re all hot, that's important. (Everyone laughs)
JACKIE: Yeah. And they all have tragic stuff lying in wait for them.
JEANNETTE: Like, you feel like, okay, well, you know you need the feisty one, and the sad one, like what - do you really need more? Like you know, you're designing this from the start, you would sit down and you’d divide your character traits up and go ‘Okay, so no duplications’.
JEANNETTE: But they feel like real people, insofar as they do duplicate. They contradict themselves and they feel real in that kind of… contradictory, intangible.... This is terrible literature because the narrative design is terrible, but that's what gives it that weird illusion of reality.
JEANNETTE: And again, that's like - is this an insult? Or is this a compliment? I’m not sure!
RACHEL: Yeah, it's like how there's a trope that in books there can only be one guy named John, or something.
RACHEL: But in real life you'll meet, you know, ten Johns.
RACHEL: So in this there's, like, here's, eight variations of the sad one. (Jeannette laughs)
JACKIE: Yeah, and I feel like we talked about Chekhov’s gun in a previous episode, which I called Hemingway’s gun, and I almost did it again… (Theo laughs)
RACHEL, laughing: Yeah.
JACKIE: But if this author... would a hundred percent introduce a gun, or twelve guns, and never use it.
JACKIE: Because it is very real and the characters, you know, you're not going to find people who perfectly have mutually exclusive traits all of the time.
JEANNETTE: And I think that's the other thing, like where it said - almost explicitly says it doesn't want you to read a moral or social message into it.
JEANNETTE: Um, and, you know, spoilers, by the end of the book there is almost explicit moralizing from, from the author. And that again, it's why the ending doesn't match the beginning. It's why I feel profoundly unsatisfied by it and, like I, I read the opening, I read the end: ‘Why doesn't this fit?’ And most of the time, you know, you read a book like that and you go, ‘I don't care anymore,’ and you throw it away. (Rachel and Jackie laugh) But this one just got under my skin. Like I… and it's sort of like here, join me in this madness of being weirdly obsessed with this! (Rachel and Jackie laugh) And yeah, like the lack of a dynastic period, that is incredibly unusual and books written like in this era, or you know, a lot of kind of Chinese literature. They very much like situating their stories in specific eras. Despite the fact that you know there are obviously telltale signs in this book of where it may or may not be set.
JACKIE: I wonder, would you like… would you prefer it to be more satisfying? (Jeannette laughs) Or is the unsatisfactoriness of it something that you enjoy? It sounds like you both enjoy it and don't enjoy it. (Rachel and Theo laugh)
JEANNETTE, laughing: It's a love-hate relationship. (Jackie laughs) I don't want to pretend it's like you will have all the answers by the end.
THEO: Do you feel like people need to read the last forty chapters? Or do you feel like it's the first eighty are the core?
JACKIE: The canonical...
JEANNETTE: Obviously, for a long time, people didn't necessarily question the last forty chapters. Like all of the continuations written during the Qing dynasty continued off the end of the last forty chapters. So the instability of the ending in some ways is, is a more modern construct than I, I like to admit very often.
JEANNETTE: It really only started coming about when people started, like, looking for and finding kind of old manuscripts. Before it was printed, people would literally copy out the book and circulate it. And one of the really interesting things about novels during this era was that... because novels were considered very vulgar. This probably doesn't surprise you, like there's a long tradition of people considering novels vulgar in, you know, say, English as much as anything else. They were not considered high art. Poetry was high art, but, but not novels. And in some ways people started circulating manuscripts of novels where there were these annotations to help you view them as artistically valid. (laughs) Much like a kind of Penguin annotated, footnoted edition is there to reassure you that you are reading art.
RACHEL AND JACKIE, laughing: Right.
JEANNETTE: That this is worth your time, worth investing your time in. And, and in some ways that's how kind of novels during the Qing Dynasty started becoming more valid, like as, as art, being viewed as art. And yeah, so it's a slight frustration to me that I, I, I can't like - no one's kind of bothered to translate an annotated edition, because there are two kind of very famous annotated versions of Story of the Stone. This - none of this is interesting.
JACKIE: I think it is!
JEANNETTE, laughing: This is, this is, this is way too deep a cut.
JACKIE: No, this is what we bring you here for because we don't know anything. (laughs)
JEANNETTE: Because it's annotated, because there are two kind of famous annotators of Story of the Stone. One of them is known as Red Inkstone and the other one is called Odd Tablet, and they seem to be friends of Cao who knew him when he was younger. In the margins they would reminisce, or allude to other versions of the text. And people have kind of, really, kind of analyzed and tried to deconstruct the text or understand earlier versions or excavate for earlier versions based on these. And, and it's the kind of obsessive bullshit that I love. (Rachel and Jackie laugh) It is a very unwieldy book. But, yes, sorry! Chapter… you, you were reading some chapters and that was more interesting.
RACHEL: Jackie, did you want to say what your predictions were before we…?
JACKIE: Yeah, I'm trying to remember. I should have written them down.
JACKIE: But I think my prediction, similar to you, ended up immediately becoming irrelevant. (Theo laughs) Because at the end, at the end of Chapter One, what we have is the sch- the young scholar is invited over to the home of his neighbor, Xi Yin, who has a wife and a very young daughter. She's about, I think, three years old, two or three years old?
JACKIE: And the daughter is brought out by a servant to go... just hang out somewhere and watch... I think some type of festival at night. And then she goes missing. The daughter goes missing, and they basically just go crazy trying to find her and can't do it.
RACHEL: And they lose all their wealth and they have to move to the countryside.
JACKIE: So I kind of thought: Okay, this girl's gone missing. The scholar her dad had paid for, to like, go off and take his examinations in the capital... I was like, I feel like he's going to come back and then obviously this girl's going to be found, and then there's going to be a love story. So maybe the scholar and the girl are going to get together. Even though she's much younger.
RACHEL: I thought the girl would end up with the stone.
JACKIE: Well -
RACHEL: Because I knew the stone had to be involved somehow.
JACKIE: You would think! (Rachel and Jeannette laugh) I don't know! I was like, well, why is the scholar there, then? Everybody's got to get together with this one girl.
RACHEL, laughing: Everybody.
JACKIE: I don't know, I had a feeling she was going to come back and something would happen, but -
RACHEL: I thought the scholar was going to be a much bigger deal.
RACHEL: Because the narrative makes a point of being like, ‘Oh, he was so handsome, and he was so smart, and... but he was poor, and he thought there - it was, it wasn't fair that he needed money.”
JACKIE: ‘And then he rose up through the ranks, and he…” Yeah.
RACHEL: So I thought that the book would be more about either him succeeding, or him succeeding and then failing and succeeding again, and then that maybe he would help out his former patron, and that the girl would have some adventures and then find her parents, and the dad… at one point, her dad runs away with a, like a Daoist monk or something?
RACHEL: He just like dips out on wife -
JACKIE: Leaves his poor wife alone -
RACHEL: - and doesn't tell her, like, doesn't even say, “I'm going to go wander around with this monk.” He just leaves.
RACHEL: And I thought, ‘Oh, he'll, surely he'll come back at some point.’ (laughs)
JACKIE: And Jeannette, you may have, like, your own feeling about what this book is about, but... I know the back of the book basically says, like…
JACKIE: So, not a spoiler, Rachel, because Rachel's always calling spoilers on me! (Jeannette and Theo laugh) But yeah, you can see basically this family, and it's - the way it changes over time and they place it within the - it says, “the Buddhist understanding that everything's an illusion.” Karma is important, and there's nothing that goes on that is real. And that's pretty apparent, like, early on again when Bao Yu goes to sleep and has this dream, they explicitly state, “The reason we brought you here into this dream is because we need you to see that everything that happens is an illusion.”
JACKIE: “Even in dreams, even in like this fairy world that you're in, and then especially so in the actual waking world.” So I don't know, I just thought that kind of moral lesson that is brought up very early was very interesting.
JACKIE: Especially with the, like, the structure of the books. I don't know if you have thoughts about that or…
JEANNETTE: Well chapter five is like, one of the most commonly cited famous chapters -
JEANNETTE: - because of this whole kind of elaborate sequence where Bao Yu goes into this great dream. And yeah, like he meets, he sees a lot of foreshadowing. Too much, arguably. (Jackie laughs) Buckets of spoilers there. And yeah, like he, has this… A moral, a possible moral of the story, kind of spelled out to him that everything is an illusion. But he also has advice given to him. You know, that, that you know, he should not be as…
JACKIE: He needs to buckle down and study.
JEANNETTE: Yes, exactly! That he should be less obsessed with, um, with girls.
RACHEL, laughing: Yeah.
JACKIE: But the way they teach him this lesson is to say, “We're going to educate you in the matters of the flesh!” And basically say, hurry up and…
RACHEL, laughing: “Get it over with!”
JACKIE: Basically, sexually mature, and it gets graphic. But, like, he doesn't have any idea, really, what sex is or like, any idea about wanting it. And they put him in this world and say, “You need to become a man right now, so you can just wise up.” And then they make him go through all these weird sex things! (Rachel laughs) Which is, I thought was so funny, but like just interesting, and...
RACHEL, laughing: Counterproductive.
THEO: Sounds like hazing.
JACKIE: Yeah, a little bit.
JACKIE: So that was not something I was expecting to see in this book, so I was just found it surprising.
JEANNETTE: Yeah, no, it's a very sexual book. Um, well, it's not that explicit. But people definitely have sex in this book.
RACHEL: Yeah, there - there are scenes in which sex happens, but it's not like… They don't describe it in detail.
JACKIE: No, which again, I'm not, which I still wasn't expecting. (laughs)
JEANNETTE, laughing: Yeah, well I did make you read the one where the guy wanks himself to death, so.
RACHEL: Oh, no, you didn’t, I don’t think! (Jackie laughs)
JEANNETTE: No, I didn’t?!
RACHEL: I don’t think so!
JEANNETTE: Oh, sorry! Spoilers!
RACHEL: Spoilers, everyone!
JEANNETTE: A man wanks himself to death! (Rachel laughs) Yes!
RACHEL: What chapter was that? I know that you had mentioned maybe, but I didn't come across it in one of the chapters we read. (Theo and Rachel laugh)
JEANNETTE: It’s, um… chapter twelve.
RACHEL AND JACKIE: Awwwww.
RACHEL: We missed it!
JEANNETTE: Yeah, I'm sorry -
RACHEL, laughing: Who did that?! Who was it?
JEANNETTE: It’s, uh, eleven to twelve, it's a character who hasn’t appeared yet for you.
JEANNETTE: Yeah, Wang Xi Fang. It was on my list of like, ‘Urgh, should I make them read the - that one, because it is, it is pretty (inaudible)
JACKIE: Well, it'll, it’ll be a good argument for reading more later on. (laughs)
JEANNETTE: Yeah, it's, it’s eleven to twelve, for the record.
RACHEL: Wow, two whole chapters about it!
JEANNETTE: Um, so, I think it's also one of those books where it helps - like, I read it with like, a, a list of ‘who’s who’ and making notes about that. And I strongly recommend it because people who are related have similar names in this, and -
JEANNETTE: It just helps.
RACHEL: I did make little notes as I was reading, so that I could... It would help me a little bit.
JEANNETTE: The other interesting thing I find about this book is kind of how queer it was when I read it. Because it's often talked about as, as a love story between, you know, a, a boy and a girl. And it is insofar as Bao Yu is a boy and Dai Yu is a girl, and that is the central thread that connects it.
JEANNETTE: He's a stone, and because the dew on his - on, on the stone kind of falls on the flower, there is this debt of tears that the flower owes the stone that she will repay, and it's all very tragic, and again, that's, that's actually quite a common, like, backstory, where you were... animals, or some other inhuman thing is not an uncommon kind of backstory to give characters. And the whole stone/flower love story gets referenced in a lot of other places, including in kind of modern, fantastical media.
RACHEL: That's just a classic pairing.
JEANNETTE: It's now just a classic pairing.
RACHEL, laughing: Stone/flower.
JEANNETTE, laughing: Yes!
JACKIE: They are genderless objects, so you know… (laughs)
JEANNETTE: They are genderless objects, and they acquire gender -
JEANNETTE: - when they incarnate. But what is really interesting is… so there are a couple of scenes that kind of really leap out. And it’s partly because he has a best friend who does tragically die quite early on.
RACHEL: I think we read that chapter.
JACKIE: I think at the end of eighteen, is when there’s...
RACHEL: His friend dies at the end of sixteen, and then in seventeen he's sad about it, and his dad's like, “No no no. Write some poems instead.”
JEANNETTE, laughing: Yes, yes.
RACHEL, laughing: But we didn't read the chapters where the friend is introduced and so on.
JEANNETTE: Yes, he's introduced earlier.
JEANNETTE: Yes, ah, Qing Zhong is, they are very, very close, for example. And that relationship has a physical dimension that the book kind of is quite coy about, but is very present. Where at, at the end of chapter fifteen Qing Zhong kind of fancies a nun. And Bao Yu’s like, you know, egging him on, but also at the same time saying like, “Ah, you owe me one for letting you, you know, get away with it. You can repay me when we’re, like, sharing a, sharing a sleeping bag,” basically.
JEANNETTE: And it's kind of this recurring thing in this book, where kind of Bao Yu is just a boy, kind of who’s overflowing with affection and love for people around him. And he has a, a longstanding friendship with um, um, basically a drag act. Like a female impersonator who is like the favorite actor of this, of this prince. He comes, um, he comes up later and they exchange - they essentially exchange sashes, which, which is kind of a form of underwear.
JEANNETTE: Which again becomes a very intimate act. And the other thing that kind of really leapt out at me is that when he first meets Dai Yu, he has a temper tantrum about the fact that he asked Dai Yu if she has a piece of jade, because he has a piece of jade, because he was born with a piece of jade in his mouth. And she tells him that she doesn't. And then he has his big temper tantrum about how, the fact that no one has a piece of jade. But when he says ‘no one’, he means none of the girls that he's friends with. None of the maids who he admires, and looks after him. Not his mother, his - or, you know, the grandmother, the matriarch of the family, none of them have this, have a piece of jade.
JACKIE: Which means that it can't be all that good, because they're so good!
JEANNETTE: Yeah, they’re so good -
JACKIE: Right, right, right.
JEANNETTE: Why, why - why won't you have one too? It's obviously a curse, it's terrible! And you know, he starts hating on it, and his grandmother then - says, you know, gets really anxious, offended, like you know, treasures it and tells him that it's a treasure. And it's one of those extremely Freudian scenes once I saw it as kind of very Freudian.
RACHEL: Yeah, I, I noticed that part. (laughing)
JEANNETTE: Do you mean… it feels like… (Rachel laughs)
JACKIE: Do you think the jade is a penis, or is it masculinity? (laughs) Is it, very...
JEANNETTE: It - it feels like you're talking about a penis. (Jackie laughs) But maaaybe I'm wrong? And it's one of those scenes. And, and it's by the same token, like, for example, Bao Yu’s attraction to femininity.
JEANNETTE: He really likes makeup. And he, he he likes playing with makeup and girly things. And there - and everyone's like “Yes! This means he's such a womanizer! He likes to wear makeup!”
JACKIE: That’s what I thought was so strange about the sex scene. It's like everybody saying, like, “He just loves girls. He wants to hang out with girls. He doesn't want to study, he wants to hang out with girls.” But he doesn’t do -
RACHEL: He thinks men are gross, and women are wonderful.
JACKIE: Right, but he doesn't have any design... like, sexual thoughts or anything at this point, until they make him. So it's almost like, like... a weird ‘scared straight by a fairy’ kind of thing. Like… (laughs) I don't know, that's might be reading too much into it. (Theo laughs)
JEANNETTE: But it's almost this feeling where his desire to BE feminine, or at least be adjacent to femininity, is interpreted repeatedly by different characters as a desire to have sex with women rather than necessarily become one. And obviously, you know, the “Ah, am I really... do I want to be you or do I want to bang you?” is a dynamic that is very familiar to the modern mind.
RACHEL AND JACKIE: Yeah.
JEANNETTE, laughing: Like it would not be the first time people wonder about this.
JACKIE: Have you ever read a writer called Andrea Long Chu?
JEANNETTE: Um… noo??
JACKIE: Yeah, so, but so… she's a trans woman, started like, writing a lot about that, and she wrote this wonderful essay that was published called ‘On Liking Girls’, and that was my first introduction to her. And it was that same idea, this idea of “Do I admire women because I want you, or because I want to be you?”
JACKIE: And trying to, you know, parse those two things out. So I felt like that just sounded -
RACHEL: Why not both?
JACKIE: Yeah! Why not both, and also, like you said, that's kind of something that's been echoing within a lot of people since the beginning of time. Like this isn't a brand new idea, and it's kind of interesting that this older story maybe gets at that idea.
JEANNETTE: I mean it's even present in the sort of like uncomfortable... like I was thinking, like, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has a song, ‘Girl Crush,’ when she was like, “Oh yes, I've just got, I, I really want to like, crawl into your skin and become you because you're so cool. But like in a cute girly way… (Rachel, Jackie, and Theo laugh) But also in this kind of weird sexual tension-y way.
JACKIE: Not a Buffalo Bill way. It's a cute way! (laughs)
JEANNETTE: Yeah, and certainly like, if you contrast Bao Yu’s relationships with girls that he thinks are so cool, it comes across, is very different to the way other men in the sto - in the story predate on women. Like it goes very poorly for a lot of them. But yeah, um, chapter...
JEANNETTE: Yeah, we can talk about chapter three.
RACHEL: Oh, the, the one thing I wanted to say about chapter three, Theo, is that the main female love interest, Dai… Dai Yu. She is taken to her wealthy grandmother's house…
RACHEL: By the guy who I thought would be the main character of the entire book, but he then kind of disappears? But when she arrives, there's sort of a Butlars situation going on where she says like, “Wow, even the like the lowest servants here are very, very wealthy and live lives of ease and luxury.”
THEO, laughing: Yeah.
JACKIE: Yeah. So her mother dies, and so they have to take her to her grandmother's house and there she meets all of her cousins and aunts and uncles…
RACHEL: And the main character, the actual main character.
JACKIE: Bao Yu. Right.
RACHEL: She meets a really, really cool female cousin, Wang Xi Feng, which, Jeannette, you'll have to correct me as far as pronunciation goes, but that woman's awesome and she didn't really come back in the chapters that we read.
JACKIE: No, and they mentioned that she was kind of raised as a boy, almost. like.
JACKIE: Not AS a boy, but alongside boys, and I was like, gosh!
RACHEL: She had a boy's name, and she was very boisterous and making a lot of like, crude jokes at her husband's expense.
JACKIE, laughing: Yeah, yeah.
JEANNETTE: Yes, um, no, Xi Feng is fantastic. You should definitely read eleven and twelve.
JEANNETTE: I, I deeply regret not telling you to read them now.
RACHEL: Maybe in a few months we'll read those and we'll check back in and do another episode. (All laugh)
JEANNETTE: But yeah, Wang Xi Feng is fantastic. She's a standout character, and I think especially when you kind of overfocus on the Bao Yu/Dai Yu love story as this kind of if- um, centerpiece, you, you kind of lose sight of characters like Xi Feng, who is just this kind of force of nature. And yeah, like, and she again, she's kind of, like, almost the other half of that kind of… that sort of genderqueer aura to the book where she's, she's very masculine and she's very ambitious. She just rides roughshod over her husbandi.
JEANNETTE: Who is… also a dick. But, you know, he's a man whose surname is Jia. (smacks lips dismissively) So that is a very consistent trend in this book.
JACKIE: That's the powerful family, right?
RACHEL: All of the… all the guys in that family, one of the -
JEANNETTE: Men are trash. Like, that is, that is the statement of this book, I'm sorry!
RACHEL: Except the main character, he's great.
JACKIE: ‘Cause he's, uhh…. yeah. I mean, wh-
RACHEL: He's a stone!
JEANNETTE: There was certain ambiguity to his greatness. Like whether or not he learns his lesson, he doesn't, you know, he does not study very hard.
RACHEL: His dad doesn't think he's great. (laughs)
JEANNETTE: His Dad is not a big fan of him. And - and you know. he arguably cannot save the family by himself! Sorry, I'm kind of subtweeting this retelling of it. So there's a - Pauline Chen wrote a kind of a retelling of Story of the Stone and it’s, it's basically just the love story with some Xi Feng chapters. And she is not a fan of Bao Yu.
JEANNETTE, laughing: Um, at all. It was, it was a very interesting read because she saw him as very masculine -
JEANNETTE: And very kind of like a bully. Like physically. And it was very, it was a very surreal reading experience because it was just the entire time going like, ‘Really? Really??”
JACKIE: And then when you're introduced to him, you get introduced to him as like, this little tornado that's just going around and he is destructive and physically aggressive. And you see that the very first time that he throws the jade on the floor.
RACHEL: He’s spoiled.
JACKIE: Yeah. But I feel like that doesn't really continue very much. Like he's often described as gentle after that. So maybe that was kind of a fake out that they do? (laughs) When he's first introduced. I don't know.
RACHEL: Oh! Chapter five, the dream sequence. Did you want to talk about that a little bit?
RACHEL: Because I think you said that was like, a really famous scene.
JEANNETTE: I think when I set this reading, I had this idea where you were kind of reading a lot of the… ‘This is what the book is about’ in hopes of kind of guiding you into it, and I'm slightly regretting that decision, because it actually doesn't give you as much to talk about as if I made you read about the man who wanked himself to death. (Rachel and Theo laugh)
JACKIE: You could just tell us your favorite excerpts. (Theo laughs)
JEANNETTE: Yeah, it, it, it's referenced because - it's always very referenced for this very elaborately constructed dream world which he steps into. Which kind of explains, again, this kind of idea of love being an illusion and one that he's going to be very embroiled in and perhaps arguably the idea that you know he will, as a stone, that he will learn something from this. Or maybe he doesn't! And what does lust mean? Like, the lust of the mind, but like, the lust of the flesh. And you know, what is... Is the stone committing a sin, and what does that mean?
JACKIE: The fairy Disenchantment says, “You're the most lustful person I've ever met.” And he says, “I don't understand how,” and she says, “There's lots of different kinds of lust.”
RACHEL: He meets a fairy, and I think the fairy says, like, “Your ancestors asked me to fix you. They said: can you shock this silliness out of this boy for us? And I agreed, so the way I'm going to do that is by taking you to this beautiful realm -”
JACKIE: ‘Here’s my little sister, you're going to marry -” (laughs)
RACHEL: Yeah, “You’re gonna have sex with this young fairy girl, and you're going to listen to all this amazing music, and you're going to see all these wonderful things. And that's going to make you be less silly.” (Theo laughs)
JACKIE: Don't they foreshadow it as saying, like, he doesn't realize how close to like, mortal danger he is? So is that the danger that she leads him to? Is she tricking him? I feel like I may not have understood.
JEANNETTE: At the same time, he also sees a bunch of, like, scary things like…
JEANNETTE: They have like, the wolves and tigers prowling, and you know, and then there's a whole like, here's the Ford of Error - and you know, you have that juxtaposition of the sexy times and also dea... death.
RACHEL: He reads a book about the twelve beauties and there are little poems, and each poem is like, “This is the bad thing that happens to her. This is the bad thing that happens to her!”
JACKIE: “This is how she dies.” Yeah.
RACHEL: “This one is okay, this one has a bad thing…” I feel like there was maybe two… maybe, but probably just one girl where she didn't have just a tragic end.
JACKIE: There were also just these really funny, like, little departments that he would walk by, and… I’m trying to find some, but it would be like -
RACHEL: The names?
JEANNETTE: “The Department of Cruel Rejection!”
RACHEL, laughing: Yes.
JACKIE: Yes! “The Department of Early Morning Weeping, the Department of Late Night Sobbing.” (laughs) Things like this.
THEO: The department?
RACHEL: She's like, a fairy of love of some kind. So like that's her deal, her purview.
JEANNETTE: The idea that, like, all human relationships are predestined, so there's like a department somewhere that, like, writes it all out, that writes down fate.
RACHEL: So now you know who to be mad at, right Theo? (Theo laughs)
JACKIE: Right. Like everything's an illusion, because actually there's this other realm that - this higher realm that's kind of controlling everything, almost for their amusement, it seems like? Or maybe that's just because that's how it's fated, but..
THEO: But it's also kind of like bureaucratic?
JEANNETTE: But it's intensely bureaucratic!
JACKIE: Yeah, like… yes, yeah!
JEANNETTE: Veeerrryy bureaucratic.
JEANNETTE: So it's kind of, like, the very commonly made observation that, because Chinese society is very bureaucratic - because it had - there's a civil service, the exams and, like, this whole, the great machinery of government. Because of this, when they imagine heaven or write about heaven, it's also just intensely bureaucratic. (Theo and Rachel laughing) There is, like, the Ghost Police who'll show up to arrest you if you accidentally burn a warrant.
THEO, laughing: Gosh.
JEANNETTE: There are loads and loads of stories about the intensely bureaucratic nature of, of gods, and like, divinities and…”
JEANNETTE: And, and like to a certain extent it's because they're satirizing their own bureaucracy, but there's also a sort of ‘as above, so below’ feeling of like, ‘Oh. You can't imagine a heaven that…”
JEANNETTE: “- isn't just full of cabinets, and excel spreadsheets…”
RACHEL: Yeah, little bureaucrats running around.
JACKIE: There's a Russian novel that did kind of the same thing called ‘Danilov the Violist,’ and it's basically about the demons and how they also are, again, maybe the same idea, like the Soviet Union - this is a Soviet novel, so like everything's kind of very organized and also may be a little bit evil in that case. And they get to kind of go into all the same sort of whimsical names for all the departments. So I like seeing that.
RACHEL: Jackie's full of the references this week.
JACKIE: Sorry, it's reminding me of so many things! I think it's because it must have inspired a lot of things, but...
THEO: I mean it’s just funny, like I would have thought that was like a… I mean, the thing that came to my mind was the, the movie Beetlejuice, right? (Rachel and Jackie laugh) That, like, it just seems like a more recent kind of idea, in my mind, to have a bureaucracy in these things that seem like they should be divine or fantastical or something.
JACKIE: Yeah. Maybe that's what I feel, like, when I'm referencing. It feels like there's a lot of stuff that I would think is, like Theo said, more of a recent idea, so I'm surprised to see it popping up. It's very fresh.
JEANNETTE: There's a, there's a Latin book written by a Welshman, ‘The Courtiers’ Trifles’, during the… (raises pitch as if trying to remember) thiiiiiirteenth century? The mediaeval one where, where he likens court life to the circles of hell. So like this idea that, like, you know, the fantastical, supernatural worlds mirroring kind of temporal society…
JEANNETTE: Especially power structures, is like, you can, you can argue it's universal. Like chapter five is one of those chapters where, again, it doesn't, it arguably doesn't come up again.
RACHEL, laughing: Yeah.
JEANNETTE: He doesn't think back to, like, “Oh, yes, I read the prophecy. I could solve this plot.”
JACKIE: Because he didn't get any of it. I mean he didn't understand. (Theo laughs)
RACHEL: Yeah, it - didn't he just, like, wakes up all of a sudden?
THEO: Really, that - that’s the conclusion, is just, “Oh, you showed me a lot of stuff?”
JACKIE: Well, he wakes up and then and then… and then immediately has sex with his maid.
JEANNETTE: Yes, Aroma.
RACHEL: Oh that's what you wanted to talk about, correct, Jackie? Chapter six. (laughs)
JACKIE, laughing: I don't think that I wanted to talk about it, I’m just saying...
RACHEL: She read the part where he has sex for the first time and Jackie's like, ‘Oh, my gosh. I have to see where this goes.” (Jeannette laughs)
JEANNETTE: Well, he -
RACHEL: ‘Let me read the next chapter!’
JACKIE: No, I don't remember what led into it. I think it was just reminding me of of other books, and I was...l I just got so excited.
RACHEL: Tell us about the next chapter, because I haven't read it.
JACKIE: He wakes up from his dream and his, like, nursemaid... He, you know, he has all these maids and they help him get into bed. They help them get dressed, and things that you wouldn't think people normally need help with. (Rachel laughs) But his maid, Aroma is her name, and he named her that. Her real name is Pearl, but he decided he wanted to name her Aroma instead. (Theo laughs) And she's like one year older than him, and he wakes up and she's dressing him, and…
RACHEL: Go ahead!
JACKIE: Uh, notices that he's had a ‘nocturnal emission’ and then is like, “What is this?!”
RACHEL: Oh, no, Jackie!
JACKIE: And then he's like, “I don't know!” And then they just... start banging. Like, I feel like it is kind of graphic. Like it's kind of a... I mean, there’s definitely a power differential thing because it's like, she understands she was given to him by his grandmother just to be his. So she kind of just gives into it, but I mean, he wakes up from the dream and I feel like at least he's immediately, like, learned that lesson. Which is that, I guess, a man takes what he wants? I don't know if that's the lesson or if it was something else.
JEANNETTE: Yeah. Um, yeah. (Rachel and Jackie laugh) Aroma is -
JACKIE, laughing: There could - there was no way to explain that that wasn't incredibly awkward.
JEANNETTE: No, uh, they. Yeah. They bang.
THEO: Yeah, why don’t you take another go at it, Jackie?
JACKIE: No thanks, I’m good!
THEO, laughing: Let’s keep going through it.
JACKIE: Take that out of the podcast! I just wanted to tell you where this came from. (Rachel and Theo laugh)
RACHEL: Theo, he has a wet dream, then he bangs.
RACHEL: That's what Jackie really wanted you to know about.
JACKIE, laughing: I think that's not the point.
JEANNETTE: Yeah, like, it's the power differential between a lot of these, the relationships. And this, like Aroma’s is probably the most awkward for, like, a modern reader, because this is a society with slavery. And whilst it’s not chattle slavery, like you know, American chattel slavery, it is a form of ownership and buying and selling of humans. And it is normal because it is normal in the society that this was written in, blah blah blah. But, but it is also, they are also very bounded in specific ways that chattle slavery is not.
JACKIE: Kind of like in The Odyssey, right?
JEANNETTE: Yeah, and I don't want to say, like, you know, this... it's not a ‘this makes it okay,’ but it's trying - trying to get one to the lens of understanding the background to it. And it's also a society where you know, your parents, in a way, owned you and have the right to sell you.
JEANNETTE: The, the personhood is... you don't own yourself in a way that is, is quite uncomfortable to a modern reader.
JEANNETTE: And again it's, it’s one of those things that kind of make it very strangely compelling to me, where you kind of encounter these moments which feel startlingly modern and fresh and relevant, and it's like, “I know that feeling.” And then the next, next few pages it's like, “Oh. This is written by a society with completely different morality to me and a completely different idea of what is and isn’t romantic or acceptable.”
RACHEL: We've read a couple of... a couple of the older books where we're just - where at least I have said, “I know that I could not live in this society.” Like, it's just so bizarre to me, like Beowulf and The Odyssey, just the morality of those worlds. It’s so alien that it literally does, to me, feel like I'm - almost like I'm reading a sci-fi story and those are actual aliens.
JACKIE: Whereas, like, with this, it's like, I could maybe be Xi Feng, but other than that, I don't know if I would enjoy being many of the other women. (Jeannette and Theo laugh)
RACHEL: I'm going to make a guess, you wouldn't enjoy being her by the end of the book.
JACKIE: Yeah. Yeah.
RACHEL: That's my guess based on all the other women.
JACKIE: Yeah, that seems to be the case. Yeah. But, you know, YOLO!
THEO, chuckling: YOLO.
RACHEL: YOLO’s not true if you're the stone.
JEANNETTE: That is true. Well, anyone! Like, this is a setting with reincarnation.
JACKIE, laughing: Yeah, I guess that's true.
JEANNETTE: So one of the kind of interesting things about the... just a side note about names, is that, well, a conscious decision that kind of upper class people would be named - their names would be transcribed, so you'd be like... be written as kind of ‘Xi Feng’, ‘Bao Yu’ and so forth. Whereas names of servants would be kind of translated. So Tealeaf, Aroma, Skybright…
JEANNETTE: Pearl. Names of actresses would be French; names of…
JEANNETTE: Nuns and clergy, like ecclesiastical people, would be Latin. It's one of those things that is not a terrible decision and it makes it slightly easier to follow who is who.
RACHEL: Yes. Especially since we were jumping around a little bit, so I would see a character I hadn't met before, but I could immediately say, like, “Oh, this is a nun.”
JEANNETTE: Yeah, and again, that's another reason why I think this translation is a little bit more approachable, because some of the other translations just render everyone's names in Pinyin, which make it a little bit harder to follow. Aroma’s name, though, is a, it’s an odd little pun. It's a very… so her name is, literally translated, means assaulter.
JEANNETTE: Like, ‘assaults’.
JACKIE: A salt?
JEANNETTE: Sort of like attacking, yeah.
JEANNETTE: Like, attacker. Because her surname is Flowers. So her full name would be Flowers Assaults You with Their Smell.
RACHEL: Like, attack of the flowers.
JEANNETTE: Attack of the flowers… with their smell.
JEANNETTE: Therefore, Aroma.
RACHEL, laughing: Yeah!
JEANNETTE: So the translation kind of gave you the end result of this long walk of association. (Jackie and Theo laugh)
RACHEL: Is that to kind of show off, like, “Oh, Bao Yu’s so smart, he came up with this pun”?
JEANNETTE: I don't think it's smart, so much as it's a very odd joke of his - like it's to show his very odd sense of humor.
RACHEL, laughing: Okay.
JEANNETTE: It’s not clever so much as weird. (Jackie and Theo laugh)
JACKIE: It says he just takes it from a line of poetry and he's like, “Oh, flowers… odor... Aroma.”
JACKIE: Right? Like -
JEANNETTE: But it's flowers assaulting you with their aroma.
JEANNETTE: And it's a very odd name, because they go around calling her, like, Assaults People. (Rachel and Theo laugh) That's because they don't use her surname in daily life.
JEANNETTE: I can’t remember it if it's in a section I had you read, but like, his mom's like, “That's a really weird name, like - why is that her name?” And then they explain that it's because of this, this joke.
RACHEL: Okay, that makes more sense because there was a character who was like, “Oh, Aroma, so strange.” But to me I was thinking like, why is Aroma such a weird name? All of, like all the servants have names like that -
JACKIE: But Skybright is not, right.
RACHEL: But now that I see that the name was like, Assaulting People, I see why someone would…
THEO AND JACKIE, laughing: Yeah.
JEANNETTE: But it, it's also kind of emphasizes Aroma’s kind of odd status in the story, because of that kind of personalness of it. Everyone ends up with like, half a dozen names like they have - they end up giving themselves art names for the poetry club later on, and so like it is a - Chinese culture is a culture with a lot of names. Unless you are higher status of someone, you're not, like, meant to use their full name to their face. It's a society with a lot of courtesy names and nicknames. Because to you someone's real name is this kind of intolerable intimacy. People do have - like, are given names when they change jobs… when they...again, like it's sort of - it’s countered to this kind of feeling of like, “Oh, well, you know it's like, oh well, you know, how dare you give me a name, a new name? That's, that's, you're trying to overwrite my personality.” Except it's set in a culture where it is the norm to do so and in fact, everyone's name and, consequently, identity is fluid in that sense.
JEANNETTE: Like, he asks her if she has a, a zhi, for example in the book. And he offers to call... uh, Bao Yu calls her frowner.
RACHEL: Oh yeah.
JEANNETTE: Because she frowns.
RACHEL: He's giving nicknames left and right.
JEANNETTE: Yep. Nicknames, left and right.
JACKIE: Is that like a, like a comment on his, his status? Yeah, that he can just go around giving people new names?
JEANNETTE: It is power, but it's also - to me it's also intimacy and, like, connection.
JACKIE: Like he's seeing their true, like...
JEANNETTE: Like it’s, it’s, it's also a gift.
THEO: So he's not just going up to strangers and giving them a new nickname. It's like someone is very familiar with?
JEANNETTE: With Dai Yu it is, it is his overfamiliararity. (Laughs)
JEANNETTE: But he was also like, he was also hitting her up with the, “When have I ever seen you before?”
RACHEL: Yeah. And they are supposed to be, like, destined lovers, almost.
JACKIE: They've met before as the stone and the flower -
JACKIE: Like, you can't be overly familiar!
JEANNETTE: You’ll get very sick of them whinging at each other if you, if you, read ahead.
RACHEL: Oh no!
JEANNETTE: They do not, they don't have the easiest of relationships.
JACKIE: I had a dream that I just realized... that I think was a dream, and it wasn't actually part of the book. Tell me if this is in the book. (Jeannette laughs)
RACHEL: Oh, gosh.
JACKIE: But I think I had a dream about this last night -
THEO: This is a recurring segment, just so you know! Discern if it's a dream or not.
JACKIE, laughing: Is it??
RACHEL: Jackie likes to talk about her dreams.
JACKIE: I don't know. I think I had a dream that Bao Yu and Aroma get together... and stay together. And -
RACHEL: That’s a dream!
JACKIE: And Dai Yu is not in the picture. I, well, then I dreamed this! Because I just… years go by and they're still together, and they're just like, “I don't want to be with anybody else. I want to be with Aroma.” That never happens?
RACHEL, laughing: Why did you dream fanfic of this?! (Theo laughs)
JACKIE: I don't know, why do I, I don’t have a choice about it!
JEANNETTE: That is definitely - that, that, that is a fanfic!
JACKIE: I remember even the colors and like, the outfits and everything, and it was... very vivid, I didn't realize it wasn't real. Until just now. (Theo and Rachel laughing)
JEANNETTE: Aroma and Bao Yu do have quite a special relationship throughout the book.
JACKIE: Well, that's good, I'm glad it wasn’t… wasn't just a one and done.
JEANNETTE: Uh, spoilers, apologies, Rachel. Feel free to cut this.
RACHEL: Guests are allowed to spoil. It's just hosts are not. (Jeannette laughs)
JEANNETTE: Basically, they - his mother wants - thinks Aroma would make a good concubine or, like, second wife for him. And they, and, basically kind of tries to manage that to be the case, but then doesn't want it to be official because they think he wouldn't listen to a wife. And he would listen to a maid, who is sort of his friend as well, much more than he would listen to a wife. So they kind of up her salary and up her status amongst the servants, but don't tell him that that's what they're doing. So she kind of becomes his unofficial concubine, or little wife, is I think the technical term. Lesser wife? I can't remember how Hawkes translates it. Chamberwife, actually, I think that's what he calls it. But the fact that she doesn't officially marry him is kind of what saves her in the end.
RACHEL: Oh, no.
JEANNETTE: When things go awry, she's not tied to him. So, she doesn't have a terrible ending. But in fact (inaudible) she ends up… she does far better out of this book than many other people. But yeah! They are together for as long as the book lasts for.
JACKIE: Dream come true. (Jackie and Rachel laugh)
JEANNETTE: But yes! Sorry! Sixteen to eighteen, that... the last chunk that I made you read.
RACHEL: Yes, so, Theo, Jeannette told us that sixteen through eighteen was kind of, like, a self contained mini-arc.
RACHEL: So if we read that we'd be able to sort of see an actual storyline.
THEO: I see.
RACHEL: As opposed to kind of getting introductions to different things.
JACKIE: So, but you kind of have to introduce who Qin Zhong is, right?
RACHEL: The friend.
JACKIE: The friend.
RACHEL: The main character’s friend who we discussed earlier, who dies. And this little arc is about how Bao Yu, the main character, his oldest sister has become a concubine, like one of the emperor's concubines at this point, and she hasn't been able to come home and see the family. But there's a new law that says, now concubines are allowed to visit their families occasionally. So this whole arc is the family building an addition onto the property for her, and then going around and coming up with names and poems for all of the new things they've added. (chuckles) And then she visits, and that's the arc.
JACKIE: Yeah, but they describe everything in the house, like when, like, when Dai Yu arrives - and I guess other times too - like on this, on the left-hand side, there's an inscription that says this, and on the right there's an inscription that says that. I was like, ‘I wish we still decorated our houses that way.’
RACHEL: Yeah, there's a, there's a bit that I thought Jackie would love where they literally - they're talking about, like, “We don't want to name these things, because it's going to be hers, and that would be rude.” But someone says, “Sure, it's beautiful, but if you don't give it a name and write a nice little poem, it's impossible to fully appreciate its beauty!” (Jeannette laughs) Which I thought was very revealing of, kind of, the aesthetic values of their society.
JACKIE: And just, and also just like per - personification, basically, is, is kind of important. Yeah.
JEANNETTE: I really enjoy Bao Yu’s little rant about how, like, nothing in the garden is natural, that it's all -
JEANNETTE: It's beautiful, and it's aesthetically pleasing because it is UN-natural because they went in and rearranged everything to be beautiful.
RACHEL: Right, which I thought was kind of Austen-esque of him. In terms of, you know, sometimes you'll have Austen characters talking about, like, “Oh, you know, this is this person's grounds. They, they’re - they look natural, but you know they've clearly been cultivated.”
RACHEL: “But that's better than grounds that haven't been cultivated at all or grounds that have been cultivated too much where it's too obvious.” He tells his dad that he likes a pavilion more than a fake farmhouse, even though the dad says, like, “Well, this farmhouse is much more natural.”
RACHEL: And he's like, “Well, the pavilion’s better, because it's more obvious.” Like both of them are fake.
RACHEL: “But this one at least isn't trying to pretend that it's not.”
JACKIE: Right, like he wouldn't be a fan of, like, rustic weddings (Jeannette laughs) with like, the, the burlap sacks and the mason jar drinks, right? He wouldn’t like that.
RACHEL, laughing: Yeah, I guess.
JACKIE: That’s un - that's unnaturally natural. (Jackie, Jeannette, and Theo laugh)
JEANNETTE: Too much fake natural.
JACKIE: Don’t invite Bao Yu to that. (Theo laughs)
JACKIE: How old are these characters? (Jackie and Rachel laugh) I can never figure out, how old is Dai Yu?!
JEANNETTE: Very good question!
JACKIE: Are they like thirteen, fourteen? Seven? I don't know.
JEANNETTE: We don't know! There are people who have worked out meticulous timelines for this. Um… those people are… they're not wrong, but I think they’re wrong. (Jeannette and Rachel laugh)
RACHEL: They’re wrong in spirit. (Theo laughs)
JEANNETTE: It’s unclear what - how old they are. If you follow the timelines, for example, Bao Yu would be something like six when he first has sex, and that feels weird.
JACKIE: Also they're very well-spoken for six-year olds.
JEANNETTE: Yeah. But so, it feels like it, that can't be right, basically. And in my theory they're young. Bao Yu is... not an adult.
RACHEL: I thought he was like, thirteen or fourteen at that time. (laughs)
JEANNETTE: Somewhere around there.
JACKIE: They call him a little boy! Would you call a fourteen-year old a little boy in this time period? Maybe.
RACHEL: Maybe. I mean, I guess it depends on how big of a deal -
RACHEL: - like how big of a deal and how hard of a line coming of age is, right?
JEANNETTE: It is a very hard line.
JEANNETTE: Because he needs to move out of the women's quarters.
RACHEL: So, regardless of his age, if he's still living the lifestyle of a little boy, that's how he would be seen.
JACKIE: He normally would have been moved out, I thought.
JACKIE: But his grandmother let him stay.
JACKIE: So he is older. Okay.
RACHEL: But it seems more like, you're a little boy if you're acting like one. (Rachel and Jackie laugh) It doesn't have to do with your age.
JEANNETTE: In my head, um, Dai Yu arrives when she's around... siiiix? Or at least like, under ten.
JEANNETTE: At some point they become over ten, and that's about as concrete my brain will go. (Rachel and Jackie laugh) And by the end of the book, like, when they come of age, then they're over... sixteeeeen, probably? But I'm not, like... I don't feel comfortable, like, saying anything more concrete than that. They just don't... they're the age you feel like they are.
RACHEL: So you don't - there's no point where they're all gathered around a birthday cake with his age written out in candles and everyone's like, “Oh, wow, you're finally, seventeen, congratulations!” (laughs)
JACKIE, laughing: Yeah.
JEANNETTE: But even if they do, you'd have to work backwards and they don't have concrete enough numbers or dates to make that work.
JEANNETTE: There are sections where the author has very obviously added chunks and moved things around and timelines don't work. Like people who have spent time doing timelines go, “And then things go weird around here, because there are too many winters.” (Jackie laughs)
RACHEL: Oh, yeah.
JEANNETTE: So in my mind those are the ages I say they are.
JACKIE: Yeah, the - like, there's times where I picture Dai Yu as like, fourteen or fifteen, and there's times where I picture her as, like twelve, and there's... like, same with Bao Yu, like there's times I picture him as literally a small child and other times it seems like he's a teenager. Like, he really, it's just … they change, depending on what they're doing, it seems like.
JEANNETTE: Like, given, like, how I have this kind of dreamlike feeling to the book -
JEANNETTE: - I think that's not an unreasonable way to read them, especially since we have very different ideas of, like, what is appropriate behavior, what children should or shouldn't sound like. Like when Bao Yu is like, rattling off poems, it feels like he can't possibly be, like, I don't know, ten.
THEO, laughing: Yeah.
RACHEL: But he is, like, he's the lead in an epic fantasy, almost. (Jeannette laughs) So I guess it's kind of like, it's hard - it's hard to make him stick to what he really could do.
JACKIE: Yeah, like little… little kids today can't rattle off poems, but probably lots of them could (laughs) you know, when it was… studied.
RACHEL: When it was valued.
JACKIE: Well, thank you for validating that I’m not an idiot for not knowing. (Theo laughs) I felt the same way when I didn't know how Grendel looked. And I was like, ‘Well, I must have messed this up.’ (Theo and Rachel laugh)
JEANNETTE: But yeah, so, so they have… yeah the um, the garden gets built. The garden's quite fun because it's a very iconic location. People actually built one and filmed the eighties version of Dream of Red Mansion there.
JEANNETTE: It’s still in Beijing, there is a - there is a garden. It's also a very odd garden, because there's a character who kind of recurringly tries to draw it, but fails. I'm very enamored of the idea that it is impossible to draw the garden in a sort of Escherian way. It's an, it’s an unreal place.
JACKIE: But they can walk around in it, and experience it, but just not reproduce it. (laughs)
JEANNETTE: But it's almost infinitely big.
RACHEL: Yeah, I was gonna ask if there's been a lot of fan art about the gardens that we read about here. I'm sure there has been some, but I wouldn't know how to look for it, you know, in English. (laughs)
JEANNETTE: There's a lot of fan art of the women, like I think it's quite a popular thing to draw. I think, with the, the Garden itself, um, the fact that they made a TV adaption and built the garden, that kind of locked the idea of what people - what it looks like in their heads, like the way - (sucks air in through teeth slightly)
JEANNETTE: Like the way Hogwarts, like, got locked into a certain look once the movies came along?
JEANNETTE: There have been two kind of big adaptions of Dream of Red Mansions, one in the eighties and one in the twenty-tens. The, uh, eighties version is, it’s kind of like the very big iconic one. It's notable because - because it was a kind of this big, lavish production for its time, and people still kind of think about it. It's also kind of infamous, because it's also what made Dai Yu kind of a very cursed role, because the woman who played it, she, she died quite young. The kind of idea that Dai Yu - the role of Dai Yu - is like, like a cursed role that it is unlucky to take kind of, took on this kind of strange aura from that, and that made the twenty-tens version kind of particularly interesting for a lot of people.
JACKIE: Did it end up playing out for that actress as well?
JEANNETTE: Not that I'm aware of? It's also not a very popular version, because it made some very odd choices. It's very, very faithful to the book, to the point that there's a version of it on YouTube where you - without English subtitles, but you can actually follow along reading the book watching it -
RACHEL and JACKIE: Oh, wow.
JEANNETTE: - because it reproduces the conversation so exactly.
RACHEL: Interesting! And people didn't like that?
JEANNETTE: People did not like that. It was - it was almost unwatchable. (Rachel and Theo laugh)
JACKIE: Maybe it's like, people always SAY that they want things to be close to the book, but if it really were to happen, it would be weird.
THEO, laughing: Yeah.
JEANNETTE: I, I - I stress, it is weird! That is its problem! It is a great study aid, but probably unwatchable for anyone else. (Theo laughs) Um, but yeah. What did you make of like the, the great family reunion?
RACHEL: To me, his dad seems like an asshole. Is that how people see him, or am I just - is my perspective totally different? (laughs)
JEANNETTE, quietly: I see him as an asshole, but…
RACHEL, laughing: Okay. The dad keeps telling the son, “Okay, come up with a name for this thing and write a poem.” And then the son does it, and all of the dad's scholar friends are like, “Wow wow wow, he's so great!” And every single time the dad says, “Oh, that sucks, we’ll never use that,” and then moves on. And he - this repeats, like eight times! Just - and I don't know why the dad’s like that!
JACKIE: And why does he keep trying to please him? I mean after so - you know, but that's what kids do, right? Like they never -
RACHEL: Well, at one point he tries - he literally tries to run away from his dad and his dad, like, grabs him and says like, “No, no, no, you think you can stop writing poems? You can't! You have to write more poems!” (Jackie and Jeannette laugh)
JEANNETTE: I am - I am not a fan of his dad.
RACHEL, laughing: Okay.
JEANNETTE: He, he, he gets worse.
RACHEL: Oh God.
JEANNETTE: He’s not a great guy.
JACKIE: I shouldn't plan on raising my children that way, by just forcing them to write poems constantly, and…
RACHEL, laughing: And then criticizing every poem.
JACKIE: God, that was my plan. I have to rethink my whole...
RACHEL: The narrator says that his dad enjoy - enjoys them, and is proud and thinks, like, “Oh, my son’s good at writing poems,” but he never says it out loud! He's just, every time is like, “That was a bad poem.” (Theo and Jackie laugh)
JEANNETTE, laughing: He’s not a great father.
JACKIE: But I feel like that's an archetypal type of parent, right? Like...
JACKIE: Parents who…
RACHEL: Are never pleased?
JACKIE: Are pleased, but don't want to say it because they don't want you to get complacent, right, like…
JEANNETTE: He also has a stick up his butt, so.
RACHEL, laughing: Yeah.
JACKIE: That too. That would be an easier way to say it. (laughs)
RACHEL: He was mad that his son wasn't a nerd, basically.
JACKIE: I'd be mad.
RACHEL: But then he was happy that the son could write good poems, but he was still so mad that he didn't like studying that he didn't want to compliment his poetry, I guess? I'm not really sure of the dynamic. (laughs)
JACKIE: He's, like, mad that he's naturally good at it and he wanted him to be - have to work to be good at it?
RACHEL: He seems like he's read a lot of poetry! Like, studied poetry.
JEANNETTE: Well, it's, I think it's a - it's almost a framework that's like, less familiar to us here, where art and poetry isn't studying. It's like, that's the fun stuff. That's like, aesthetic beauty and so forth, and the thing that you should be studying is, is how to pass the exam. So you should be studying ethics and morality and, like, ritual propriety and things that will help you pass the exam and become a civil servant and bring glory to the family, blah blah blah. You know, that kind of, that -that career path. And that involves reading the classics, but not, like, the book of poetry, which is teeeeechnically in the classics, but it - it's like, it's fun.
JEANNETTE: And I think that, like, to a certain extent, like a modern reader looking at it, would be like, “But poetry is studying!” Like, “He's still a nerd! Just the wrong kind of nerd!”(Rachel and Theo laughing) But these two things are seen as kind of diametrically opposed, because one is all about, like, the rigid correctitude of, kind of, hierarchy and understanding your place in the world, and kind of, like, moral correctness, and exams.
JEANNETTE: Whereas the other kind of, like, art and beauty and, and sort of pleasure... like I, his ability to write poetry is kind of an offshoot of like, his desire to kind of pleasure-seek, and -
JEANNETTE: - sort of a sensual nature, which - which is again, like, the opposite of. Whereas we look at it, it’s like, well, but surely, like, these two things are actually the same. And they don’t parse it that way.
JACKIE: Well, it's weird that he's a literal rock. (Jeannette laughs)
JACKIE: Like you would think he'd be into the... hard stuff. (laughs)
THEO, laughing: Oh.
RACHEL: Nice pun, Jackie.
JACKIE: I don't know, I mean you could, you could... you could think of it that way, maybe. But I don't know. He's, uh…
THEO: Like that, there's - there's not much artful about a rock? Is that what you’re saying?
JACKIE: I mean there's nothing... fluid, or... there's nothing subjective about a rock. It's a metaphor for solidness.
JEANNETTE: But it's also metaphor for uselessness.
JACKIE, conceding: Yeah.
JEANNETTE: In this case, because he is useless.
RACHEL: Poor little guy.
JEANNETTE: He was left over from being useful.
JACKIE: Cause he never got used. Yeah, even as a rock.
RACHEL: I want to know why did this Goddess make one too many rocks? Just so that there would be a main character in the story? (Jackie and Theo laugh)
JEANNETTE: It was cause, you know, it's normal, though. Like, you know, it's why a baker’s dozen is thirteen and not twelve. (Rachel laughs)
JACKIE: What if - what if she messed one up?
JEANNETTE: Exactly! You always make one extra in case you mess one up.
RACHEL: I just feel so bad for this little rock. I feel like I would just tell her, “Wait. If you need more, make more at the end.” (Jeannette laughs)
THEO: You don’t have to…
RACHEL: But - oh! One other interesting thing - Jackie, I don't know if you were thinking about this, but whenever he and the old scholars were writing poems, it seemed like almost every time they wrote a poem, they would have to say, like, “The reason this poem is good is because I'm referencing a different poem.” (Jeannette laughs)
JACKIE, laughing: Yeah.
RACHEL: So he would come up with a poem and someone would say, like, “Okay, but what are you referencing?” And then he would tell them, and they would be like, (clapping) “Wooowwww!”
RACHEL: “Good g - good job, great poem!”
JACKIE: Yeah. If you did that now, it'd be like, “Okay but what are you referencing?” And you’d kind of, like, ashamedly turn your head aside and say it, and they're like - (mimicked sigh of disgust)
RACHEL: Like, “Oh, derivative!” But you would it's like they had to be derivative, or people -
RACHEL: - thought it wasn't good.
JACKIE: That seems like also just a way of … connecting? There is a part, I think in the introduction, where he talks about a poem that was used to describe one of the girls. And then there's a footnote that's like, he's referencing this and this and this, and, like, you have to understand this backstory before you can even understand, really, this description of this girl.
JACKIE: So there's just, like, a lot of shared knowledge that you have to have.
JEANNETTE: I think that - that's the book in a nutshell, though, like, you know, you just - you end up so emotionally invested in it, because you've spent so much time (laughs) understanding all its damned references! (Theo laughs)
JACKIE: Do you think to someone, say, like me, who doesn't get most of the references, like, unless I look them up, like - is that how most readers are coming at it these days, do you think? Or.. can you still enjoy it fully without, like, going to all the footnotes, I guess is what I'm asking.
JEANNETTE: Well, I mean, this book doesn't really have that many footnotes -
JEANNETTE: So I think Hawkes very much believes that you can enjoy it without it.
JEANNETTE: It was translated with the goal of not having you to read footnotes.
JEANNETTE: I certainly get a lot out of, like, footnotes and - and it's kind of this weird thing, where some of the things in it have become so ubiquitous in Chinese culture that - like, modern Chinese culture - that it's very odd to see it here.
JEANNETTE: Or realizing like, “Oh right, no, this - this is where it comes from!” Which I think is - is not an uncommon experience.
JACKIE: That's what makes something canon, right? That's kind of what we've been talking about. Like, something that influences - yeah.
JEANNETTE: But I don't think it has that same - that same relationship like in English. And so I think it doesn't have that kind of canonical status. I think it's hard to get into. Like I think, like, there are like half a dozen, like, articles which are all like, “Why has no one read this book?!” about this book, so…
JEANNETTE: I feel like you - you've gotten way more out of it than I - (Rachel laughs) I was really worried it would just kind of come across as gibberish. But I'm glad you find so much of it, kind of like, amusing, and strange, and that in some ways, because, like, you haven't really encountered, say, you know, bureaucratic fantastical worlds before, that - that that itself is like, enough of a novelty to be entertaining.
RACHEL: Is his poetry good, by the way? (Jeannette laughs) Because the… my, my main experience with, like, Chinese classical poetry is Li Bai or Li Po. Which I know, he's like, you know. He's like the Big Daddy in terms of poetry. (Jackie laughs)
JEANNETTE: Well, he wanted to bang the moon, so.
JACKIE: You don't?
JACKIE: Who doesn't?
RACHEL: Who doesn’t? And I read, like, I read a biography of him and some different translations of his poetry and stuff, and I know that, you know, when you're studying Chinese classical poetry he's one of the main ones. And I think it's great even in translation, which I - it makes me really sad to read poetry in translation. Because I know that I can never appreciate it as much as I wish that I could without hearing, you know, a bunch of backstory and explanations on, like, different etymologies and stuff, which takes away from being able to actually enjoy it in the moment. So I guess what I'm wondering is, is this character good at writing poems?
JEANNETTE: Allegedly, yes!
RACHEL: Okay! Because some of them are in the book, though, right? Do people consider his - do people consider Bao Yu’s stuff to be good?
JEANNETTE: Yeah, like I think in general, like, the thing about Red Mansion, like, people like it in part because they say the poems are good.
RACHEL: Ahh, okay.
JACKIE: Which maybe doesn't come across in English, right, like -
JEANNETTE: Yeah, I think that's one of the things that really doesn't… quite translate. I'm very ambivalent about poems that rhyme in translation as well. And obviously Hawkes and Menford decide to go the rhyming route. But like later on, God, it’s like volume two or three, the characters all kind of - they start a poetry club, and -
JEANNETTE: They all write poems together, and each of them have, like, their own individual style and, like, poetic obsessions, and they try to write poems in each other's styles and so forth, and this is like...
JACKIE: Ooh, I like that.
JEANNETTE: - like a huge chunk of the book. And it goes on for a while, but it's very pure, like the girl who gets kidnapped, she finally joins the poetry club, and - and that was a very big deal for her.
JACKIE: Oh, she does come back!
JEANNETTE: She does come back, she does come back. She doesn't have a great time. Really didn't have a great time.
JEANNETTE: But she does come back and she does fulfill her ambition of joining poetry club, so. So that's nice for her -
RACHEL: That’s pretty cute.
JEANNETTE: - before other terrible things happen.
JEANNETTE: Her name is a pun on, like, ‘so piteous’, so...
JACKIE: Little foreshadowing.
JEANNETTE: Plenty of foreshadowing there! There’s, a lot of names are, are puns, but in some ways, like, it's almost cheating, like it's very easy to make puns in Chinese. The surname of the family ‘Jia’ means... it sounds, like, fake, or false -
JEANNETTE: Or fictional, even.
JEANNETTE: And if you kind of think about, like, chapter five, we talk about like, the kind of, the idea of falseness and reality, fiction and reality. So the fact, the idea of the family's name sounds like ‘fake’ slash ‘fiction’ is kind of, part of this whole, um, the elaborate lie of storytelling is kind of part of the fabric of it. You can start rolling your eyes anytime, like I get - like there are just sooo, soo many puns. (laughs) They’re all terrible!
THEO: Why - why did you say puns are - I think you said they’re like, easy, in Chinese? Or it -
THEO: What - why is that?
JEANNETTE: It's just because Chinese doesn't have that many syllables. Like you know how every language has, like, the number of potential noises within it? Chinese just has fewer noises than other languages.
RACHEL: So there are just a lot of potential meanings to the sounds.
JEANNETTE: There are just lots and lots of homophones. And obviously there are plenty in English as well, but like Chinese just has - and obviously I say Chinese, because Chinese has many, like... But most of the Sino languages have quite a lot of potential puns.
RACHEL: Okay, “The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den,” that's a Chinese poem that's the same syllable over and over and over again, but it means -
RACHEL: - something different. (laughs)
RACHEL: It's kind of like the thing in English where it's like, “Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo -”
THEO, joining in: Buffalo buffalo…
JEANNETTE: Yes, exactly.
RACHEL: - but even more and with, like, a more varied meaning. (laughs)
JEANNETTE: But, but it's because - it's just the way the language evolved. I think that, that's, that's it! That's the end of the passages that you've read. (Rachel and Jackie laugh) I would love to do this again in the near future -
JEANNETTE: - with more of this text. I hope I've convinced you to read a bit more of it -
JACKIE: I enjoyed it.
JEANNETTE: - and see some of the even weirder bits. (Rachel and Jackie laugh)
RACHEL: I would be happy to read some more if you… because I know you said you regret telling us to read these, or, like you wish you told us other things? (Jeannette laughs) If you want to tell us other things that you think we should read, Jackie and I can make a note of that and then, like, read them in our, in our time and take notes preparing to talk to you about it at some point in the future.
JEANNETTE: Or we could reconvene just at the end of chapter - like, the end of Volume One is also possible.
RACHEL: Oh yeah!
JACKIE: We've read almost half of volume one by this point, so I feel like it wouldn't be that hard to read the…
JACKIE: It's a pretty fast read, too, I mean -
RACHEL: I enjoyed reading it. I always really like reading stuff that's over, what? Like a hundred and fifty years old? Because that's when it just gets... It just seems so… different and weird to me. (Theo and Jackie laugh)
RACHEL: It's like, not - not familiar at all. Whereas I read a lot of... like, not, okay, I won't say a lot, but for an American, I have read, relatively speaking, a lot of modern Chinese books in translation. Those, you know, there are obviously some things that I can't personally relate to, but it's much, much more familiar than this. This is as strange to me as the Odyssey, which is much older, but yeah.
* Static “channel changing” sound effect -
THEO: Okay, so Jeannette's computer battery just died, so they stopped recording, uh, so...
RACHEL: Audience, Jeannette is saying thanks for having them on.
JACKIE: Yeah, so you're not going to hear any more from Jeannette for the rest of this episode, but luckily this episode’s almost over! So....
RACHEL: Also, we swear that when we pass on what she said, we're telling the truth. Wink, wink. (Theo laughs)
JACKIE: You're not supposed to verbally wink, Rachel.
THEO, in faux amazement: Wait, Jeannette, I'M your favorite member of Fire the Canon?! Really?! (Rachel laughs) Sorry, that was kind of a tired joke.
RACHEL: Yeah, Jeannette’s mic and laptop can't be plugged in at the same time. So that's whyyyyy…. we had to stop, lest we lose the recording, which would have been a nightmare. (laughs)
JACKIE: One of us would have had to have played the part of Jeannette, while trying to respond.
THEO: Oh my gosh.
RACHEL: Oh gosh. Using a British accent AND sounding smart? We've never done that before.
JACKIE: I can't do smart, I can do British. (Theo and Rachel laugh)
RACHEL: Can you?
JACKIE: I can - no. (laughs) I can’t do anything.
RACHEL: I would say you're smarter than you are British. (Theo laughs)
JACKIE: Thank you.
THEO: I just want to say: Jeannette is gone at this point, but I thought they were a great guest.
RACHEL: Very, very knowledgeable. (laughs)
JACKIE: I'm glad that they gave me permission to make fun of the book because I'm like there's so many funny things in and I don't want to make fun OF the book, but I want to bring up these funny things, so maybe the next episode now that we have some, like, context behind the story. We can talk more about the funny things that happened.
RACHEL: Yeah. I thought that was a pretty good introduction for us, to be honest. I thought it was, like... I thought those chapter choices were pretty good. The only thing I can imagine that would be better would be us literally just reading the whole Book One, which would just not have really been doable at the time.
JACKIE: I mean, and the kind of thing is like, there are so many characters that come in and go out. It's like, even if you had… if we had read all of the chapters in order and not left any out, we still would probably be confused. So…
JACKIE: I think we got a pretty good feel for the, for the feel of the book.
THEO: Sounds pretty cool.
RACHEL: I enjoyed it! Are we going to do a Mupchat or no? I'm going to do a quick Mupchat on my own, since you guys won't participate. Obviously the funniest scene would be when he goes to the fairy bureaucracy, and they would all be muppets except him.
JACKIE: Oh, I thought you were trying to get us to replace a character with a muppet and I was like, but they don't know who the characters are.
RACHEL: No no no. This is like a Muppets Christmas Carol situation where one person's a human -
JACKIE: Ahhh. Okay, no! Better idea from me!
RACHEL: - and everyone else is muppets.
JACKIE: Better idea from me right here -
RACHEL: Go into your dream, and… (laughs)
JACKIE: Dai Yu’s mother dies, and they bring her to her grandmother's house, and everyone in her grandmother's house is a muppet and she's not. And they're like, (silly falsetto voice) “Please, don't feel out of place! Feel right at home!”
RACHEL, in a silly falsetto Muppet wail: Waaaaaaaah!
JACKIE, with the same falsetto wail: Waaaaaaaaah! (laughs) And then Bao Yu comes up, and he's Animal. And he's just like -
RACHEL: Oh gosh.
JACKIE: (Animal the Muppet impression with hoarse nonsense screaming), “ANIMAL! ANIMAL! THROW DA JADE ON DA GROUND! WADAHADAHDAH!” And then he throws the jade and Dai Yu is just like, “What is going on?” (laughs)
THEO, sighing with disappointment: So - so not the wankin’ scene, huh? (Jackie laughs)
RACHEL: Whew! Okay everybody, thank you so much for listening to our… well, one… ugh, I don't know, how should I say this? Thank you for listening to one of our very special episodes, because they're all very special! (laughs) If you'd like to get in touch with us, you can reach us at email@example.com. We have a Facebook discussion group and announcement page, just Fire the Canon Podcast. We're on Instagram and Twitter at FiretheCanonPod. If you would like to give us money, you can give us a couple dollars on Kofi - K-O dash F-I.com slash Fire the Canon. Or if you want to make this a recurring situation, kind of like Aroma and Bao Yu, going forward...
JACKIE: Like my dream of them that isn't real, where they stay together forever - (Theo laughs)
RACHEL, laughing: Yeah, like Jackie’s dream where they're in love forever, then you can find us on Patreon, at Patreon.com... Patreon.com/firethecanon. No podcast, no pod.
JACKIE: And our website.
RACHEL: Okay. (laughs) And our website is firethecanonpod.com. Phew!
THEO: If you become a Patreon donor, don't forget you have - you get access to all of that bonus content. We have about four hours of bonus content up there right now, so. (Rachel laughs)
JACKIE: Theo has been so excited to say that we have four hours, and I'm not sure why, because it doesn’t sound that impressive… (laughs)
RACHEL: Four hours!
THEO: Well, when I calculated it I was hoping it would be more impressive, but, um…
RACHEL: Wait, say it by minutes. We have, what?
THEO: Uh, should I say the exact number of minutes?
JACKIE: Two hundred and forty minutes of content.
RACHEL: Two hundred. And forty. Minutes!
THEO: Each better than the last!
RACHEL: We have fourteen thousand, four hundred seconds of bonus content.
THEO, laughing: Yeah.
RACHEL: So, uh, if you want to listen to us talk about Moonstruck or Yu-Gi-Oh or Wishbone then that's where to do it.
JACKIE: Or if you want to hear our first podcast that wasn't good, and compare it to this podcast?
RACHEL: No. It was great. What are you talking about?
JACKIE: I just was listening to my sound quality and I was like, what was I doing?
RACHEL: Oh, the sound quality, sure, but the content was amazing.
THEO, in a faux-angry voice: That was the one that I was kind of in charge of, if you need any context, audience, for why she said it wasn't good.
JACKIE: I haven't been in charge of a podcast yet. Theo had one, Rachel has one. One day we're going to have Jackie be in charge of one.
JACKIE: Here's something interesting. We got a question in the Fire the Canon Podcast discussion group while we were talking. Shall we react to it live?
RACHEL: Wait, maybe we should have Jeannette answer and relay their answer. (laughs)
JACKIE: Well it's about Parable of the Sower, so…
THEO: Let’s hear the question!
JACKIE: Anne Catherine says, “Catching up on the pods -”
RACHEL: Anne Catherine? Who's that?
JACKIE: Uh, Anne was a classmate of mine in grad school.
RACHEL: Take that out, Theo.
THEO: A total stranger who just loves us! Awesome! (Jackie and Rachel laugh)
RACHEL, prompting: Anne Catherine, catching up on the pod…?
JACKIE: “Catching up on the pods. Just finished Parable of the Sower and my question is this: What was the point of Lauren having hyperempathy? It literally added nothing to the story, LOL.”
THEO: Woah. (Jackie laughs)
THEO: I’m certainly not L-O-L ing at that! (Rachel laughs)
JACKIE: What WAS the point? Because I thought it was interesting, but did it really add something to the plot?
THEO: I bet it does in book two.
JACKIE: I mean it CHANGED the plot.
RACHEL: I mean it affected Lauren’s philosophy.
THEO: Book two, book three, it's going to be significant.
RACHEL, laughing: Theo’s saying it would have become important in book three.
JACKIE: Theo knows for sure, yeah. We're going to have to respond better to that.
RACHEL: Yeah, we'll actually respond better later, but, um…
JACKIE: Anyway, um, shall we get rid of this?
THEO: We didn't even say bye Nell!
JACKIE, laughing: Should we stop the recording?
THEO: All right, guys, you always forget to say bye to Nell.
RACHEL: Oh, we - we have a history of not getting our guests to say bye Nell.
THEO: Yep. Now it's a tradition. All right.
RACHEL, laughing: They can never say bye to Nell.
THEO: Ta-ta, Nell.
RACHEL: Bye, Nell. Jackie?
JACKIE: Au revoir, Nellulair.
RACHEL: Byyeeee, Nell - Nellulair? (Theo and Jackie laugh) Is that what you call her?
JACKIE: No, that’s like a new asthma medicine.
RACHEL: Bonsoir, Nellulair.