Our fifth selection from Dream of the Red Chamber brings us more than halfway through the first chapter of this stunning masterpiece. If you're new to the story, catch up from the very beginning
. As with our previous annotated passages, our goal is to let you read and understand the original and unedited Qing-era story. Just roll your mouse over the text for manually-edited popups that explain the exact meaning of each word along with commentary on the finer points of the novel itself.
In this passage we leave the mystical world and return to Suzhou where we find Zhen Shiyin waking from a strange dream on a hot summer's afternoon. With the Lantern Festival approaching, Zhen carries his baby daughter to the gates of his compound to see the festivities in the streets. He there encounters two crazy monks who deliver a tragic prophecy in the form of a four-line poem. A warning about the vanity of the human world, their message is laden with images of destruction and death. Read it carefully, for the passage also contains clues about the fates of both father and daughter.
Although Zhen Shiyin is jarred by the encounter, his mood turns for the better on meeting Jia Yucun, an itinerant scholar on his way to Beijing where he plans to sit for the Imperial Exam. Zhen invites Jia into his study for an afternoon of leisure, before the arrival of a more prominent guest demands his attention and he departs. And thus is our story set in motion, as the narrative shifts away from the fantastic and dreamlike prologue and turns towards social issues of power, politics and wealth in Qing-era China.
There are a few things of significance in this section. Our first prophetic poem is noteworthy on its own (read with our extra notes
enabled for more detailed commentary). Also pay attention to the class issues hinted at in Jia Yucun's family background. In case you haven't noticed yet, the first chapter of Dream of the Red Chamber is in many ways a microcosm of the novel as a whole. We see the transience of the mortal world reflected in the stories of ruined families which ascend to wealth and power, and wealthy ones whose fortunes quite literally go up in smoke. In all of these small details author Cao Xueqin is setting the stage for the tragic story of our protagonist in the chapters still to come.