Our final passage from Dream of the Red Chamber
picks up with Zhen Shiyin struggling to make ends meet as a farmer. With his daughter kidnapped, and his fortune and estate having literally gone up in smoke, Zhen ekes out a pitiful existence under the contempt and exploitation of his father-in-law. His former life of wealth and literary pleasure has vanished, replaced with abject poverty and toil.
The former official's spirits and health sink as his financial state worsens, and his relationship with his father-in-law frays. Then one day he meets a lame monk who sings a seemingly meaningless song. Hidden in the rhyming nonsense is a message about the vanity of human existence. All men seek to be as good as the Gods, but fall short because there is so much of this world they find it hard to do without. Yet death claims all alike. Zhen echoes the words of the monk with a poetic reply that chronicles his own tragedy and emphasizes the vicissitudes of fortune and life. He then abandons his former life to live as a vagrant Buddhist.
One of the truly amazing things about Dream of the Red Chamber is the way it switches so seamlessly between personal tragedy and epic narrative. We have such a transition here as Zhen Shiyin leaves the stage and our attention shifts to his wife and her two remaining serving girls. Powerless and impoverished, the three women pass their days with piecemeal work until the new county magistrate passes through their village years later and summons them for questioning. What new misfortune will befall them, and why, the author asks, promising answers at the start of the second chapter.
On a final note, as we have before, we strongly encourage readers of our short stories to enable the extra notes section
in their popups. It is especially important in this story as Cao Xueqin frequently refers to people by reference to the objects associated with them, such as caps and scepters for officials. This is why we provide translations of many of the more difficult sentences in select popups, along with explanations of particularly tricky words. If you're reading our annotated version and have not yet enabled these extra notes, you're missing out on a huge amount of the value in this annotated edition, and robbing yourself of much of the pleasure in the story too. So do yourself a favor and turn them on!