04 September 2010

Weekend Reading List

This is how I came to read Volume Three (of five) of Cao Xueqin's The Dream of the Red Chamber: The Warning Voice all over again: I bought a bottle of perfume, Serge Lutens's Bas de Soie. I wrote my friend MX at his blog that the perfume made me think of this Chinese classic, as well as him. Wasn't there some incident that involved orris root powder in the book?
Bas de Soie has a major orris note combined with rose and green galbanum, with a fresh hyacinth glitter, very cool, quite creamy.
And then MX replied And we are most flattered to be associated with Dream of the Red Chamber. Yes orris root, or 鸢尾花, is rather Dream. But one is rather dubious abt the perfume's name: Bas de Soie. Does one really want to smell like a pair of silk stockings/丝袜...?
And then I wrote I can only discuss Dream with you! I don't know anyone else who would know what I'm talking about if I said orris root makes me think of Dream! Wasn't there an episode about a package of orris root powder? Something like that. I reckon it has 'cooling' properties, or something. The name of the perfume is indeed queer, and has little to do with the way the thing smells. If you have a perfume shop where you are I urge you to go take a sniff - it's deliciously cold, a blue-coloured smell that is very Chinese blue-pink if you will allow me the conceit.
And then MX said Re: orris root powder. Yes. 《红楼梦》'第六十回:茉莉粉替去蔷薇硝,玫瑰露引来茯苓霜', or chapter 60: "As a substitute for rose-orris, Jia Huan is given jasmine face-powder...". Quite a fun and rowdy chapter.
But you know, I too usually don't talk to people abt Dream. But I guess, since I hang out more with the Chinese-speaking/literate crowd, they will at least have a rough idea which 'garden' I'm pointing towards and roughly what's inside should I mention details from the book. Whereas the English-speaking crowd in SG, well, even with the literate ones with a bent for literature, it would be rather rare if they knew where the 'garden' is exactly located, let alone the floras faunas within the 'garden'.
But 'Bas de Soie': Lovely lovely packaging. I haven't had a chance to smell it yet, but the clean lines and pristineness of the packaging rather reminds me of Ming dynasty aesthetics, the last flowering of Chinese visual style before it went into a most regrettable decline when the bloated, tediously overblown and claustrophobically ornate Qing style took over.
And then I said Serge Lutens's packaging is ever so nice and yes so Ming. Although of course he was thinking Art Deco. His hundreds of perfumes are packaged identical! And now that I have smelled orris root I can see why Jia Huan was such a booby for mistaking the jasmine powder. Orris and jasmine smell nothing like!
And then MX replied Last night I re-read that chapter, and it reminded me that the rose-orris root extract, or '蔷薇硝', is prized for its medicinal power, specifically to cure '春藓', a type of skin condition that becomes especially active in spring. We can still recall it being used by some of our great-aunts during our childhood days.And the politics of communal living! The in-fighting between the maids, their mothers, etc. This is one aspect of traditional Chinese culture whose demise we are exceedingly gratified to have observed.
And then I wrote Ha! I went and read chapter 60 as well... and decided to continue reading from there; This time, the TV soap aspect really hit me, the 'and then, and then' quality of the narrative. It drives the plot on and on. And the way it unfolds feels like reportage rather than invention with all sorts of random details, incidents that lead nowhere; It's fascinating.
And then MX replied Re: 'and the way it unfolds feels like reportage rather than invention'. That's a very astute observation. There's a large element of autobiography in Dream, as Cao Xueqin's family was once really as prosperous and influential as the fictional Jia family in the book. The Cao family got its big break when Xueqin's great-grandmother, Lady Sun/孫氏, was chosen to be the wet nurse/nanny to the future Emperor Kangxi, and her son, Cao Yin/曹寅 [Xueqin's grandfather] was handpicked to be the young Kangxi's study buddy ['伴读']. That's how the Cao's came to be in charge of the powerful and lucrative Commissionery of Imperial Textiles in Jiangning ['江寧織造'].
Out of the six trips that Emperor Kangxi made throughout his life to the south to inspect the Yangtze River region, he stayed for five times at the Cao mansion. Grandfather Cao Yin personally oversaw four of these trips. In order to finance these lavish, no-expense-spared royal visits, Cao Yin stacked up huge debts; apparently he also embezzled public funds. While his childhood buddy Emperor Kangxi remained in power, things were patched over and the Cao's continued to live beyond their means.
But when Kangxi kicked the bucket and his vicious, despotic son Yongzheng took over, that was the beginning of The End for the Caos. Properties were searched and impounded, lands were confiscated, and Cao Yin ended up in jail. And things got worse and worse from there. That's why the book have had a real-life feel to them. Even though Xueqin was too young to have experienced first-hand the opulent life-style depicted in Dream, he nonetheless heard about them from his family.
And then I said As usual, my mouth hangs open in awe at your erudition. "Commissionery of Imperial Textiles in Jiangning": I wonder if this is why the descriptions of fabrics (and dress) are so precise and specific? Interesting nugget. Am aware of the autobiographical aspects of the book, but I meant something a little different. I meant the little things - someone swatting at a bee under a peach tree, or looking at the fish from a bridge, or ordering steamed egg custard or sewing a specific piece of embroidery, stuff that really does not move the story forward. These details feel real because they seem random observations.And then said MX Here's another 'nugget' re: textile: One of the accusations leveled against the Cao family by Emperor Yongzheng was that the colours of the textiles provided for royal usage were not waterproof and ran when washed!
I think I understand what you have in mind about 'the little things'. That's exactly one of the aspects that the late Eileen Chang - super fan and self-taught scholar of Dream - singled out for praise: the seemingly random but precise details that you mentioned. When added up, they provide a very realistic texture of everyday life that's unique to this great path-breaking Chinese novel.
Also: if you read Ms Chang's short stories written in the 40s - her best work IMHO - you'll see that she's influenced, through and through, by Dream in this fetishistic dwelling on minute details, esp. those related to clothes and fabrics. She really is a direct literary descendant of Cao Xueqin.
And then my reply I never would have thought that the imperial household would wash their things - one assumed that they wore and chucked! Which leads me to wonder how they washed the things which are heavily embroidered, beaded, jewel encrusted. I suppose they wash the inner wear. Must explore. I'm in good company then - know any good translations of Ms Chang's works? I've always been wary of her writings because I try to avoid super feminine stuff.
And then MX wrote I also thought abt the washing issue. And one hypothesis I came up with is that: Yongzheng or one of his many consorts probably got caught in rain, or sleet; and that would account for the colours running even if they didn't wash all those claustrophobically elaborate gowns... Yes, Ms Chang's writing is unquestionably feminine, but like all first-rate writing it's also universal and timeless. Most of it still feels fresh 60/70 years later.As for her works in English translation, I found the following and am plonking the whole bit down because we are not familiar with these English renditions [we usually read it in Chinese], so this is a useful record for us to have:

Elieen Chang's Works in English Translation
* Love in a Fallen City (published in October 2006 by New York Review Books) Translated by Karen Kingsbury and Eileen Chang.
*The Golden Cangue (金锁记) is found in Modern Chinese Stories and Novellas, 1919-1949 (ed. Joseph S M Lau et al.)
* Lust, Caution (色,戒) Translated by Julia Lovell. New York: Anchor Books, 2007.
* Naked Earth (tr. of 赤地之戀) Hong Kong: Union Press, 1956.
* The Rice Sprout Song: a Novel of Modern China (tr. of 秧歌 by the author)
* The Rouge of the North (tr. of 怨女)
* Traces of Love and Other Stories
* The Sing-song Girls of Shanghai (Eileen Chang's tr. of Han Bangqing's novel)
* Written on Water (tr. of 流言 by Andrew Jones)
* Sealed Off (封锁)
* Jasmine Tea (茉莉片香)
And then that's quite a long reading list, you have to agree, and so ends the week which started with a bottle of perfume that smelled of orris root.


  1. wow - what a fruitfully extended exchange! i learned so much just by reading it.

    thank you so much. now off to the library...

  2. Dear Anon: My friend MX really is such an erudite, well read man, is he not? My jaw hangs open in awe.

  3. Very interesting read! i know nothing of the red chambers! More.
    PS: Love that flower de-luce painting.


  4. Dear Rossie: Super that you find this interesting. Some people actually complained that it was boring? "Dream of the Red Chambers" is a really iconic Chinese novel that plots the downfall of a rich mandarin family, a story line on which to hang many interesting vignettes of artistic life, poetry, medicine, gardening, art, literature, beauty, fashion, food, manners, ceremony etc and over the years I've learnt so much about being chinese from this rich tapestry!
    Painting: This is the orris/root of the perfume, and the powder.