The Crab-Flower Club is the second volume of Cao Xueqin’s 1791(ish) The Story of the Stone; also known as (perhaps better known as) The Dream of the Red Chamber. David Hawkes’ translation is from 1977.
The scion of a well-placed family of Chinese bureaucrats, young Bao-yu must one day pass the exams, gain a position, serve the emperor, and ensure his family’s continued prosperity. That day is not today. The young man has other concerns.
Bao-yu is fortunate to have found a soulmate in Dai-yu. But he is unfortunate to have the attention span of a butterfly. Time he could have spent in becoming closer to his delicate cousin (who, the narrative makes clear, is not long for this world) is spent chasing fleeting fancies (female or poetical).
He might not have been able to marry her; such a marriage might not have served the purposes of his clan1. But why squander what little time they are likely to have together?
Bao-yu does not prepare for the examinations he must pass to win a bureaucratic post; he wiles away his time with pretty cousins and servants. Poetry is a great excuse for gathering, drinking wine, composing poetry extempore, and flirting. Thus, the poetry club of the volume’s title.
He takes little part in the many tasks that keep the large household functioning. He doesn’t monitor purchasing and spending, oversee the servants, or pay attention to the family estates. He ignores the cut-throat politics of the capital. He is, to put it bluntly, charming, infuriating, and useless.
Too bad that the family is short on diligent heirs and that crop failures have been eating into revenues. Will the Jia Clan be able to maintain its position or will it, like so many other families before it, slide into disgrace and poverty?
Further developments will have to wait for my review of volume 3.
While much of the narrative is comic, other parts are tragic and abusive. People are badly beaten. Others kill themselves.
The book is divided into five volumes. These are not five related novels; they form one very long one. One suspects that the division into volumes is due to the limitations of 20th century book binding and the serious danger that a person trying to lift the whole work would end up with a hernia.
The introduction in volume one made it clear that the Jia Clan fortunes would parallel the author’s family fortunes (fortunate then dire). Bao-yu may have the right attitude after all: enjoy the present prosperity because things will only get worse2. Of course, while scholarly diligence would not address crop failure, a diligent Bao-yu might have provided his family with much-needed revenue while in service to the emperor.
No doubt some of the clan’s future setbacks will be due to imperial whim, but the book suggests that the Jia are already starting to undermine their own position. For instance, they don’t seem to budget carefully and habitually overpay. Lavish generosity may be aristocratic but it’s not sustainable.
Speaking of imperial whim … I was impressed by the skill with which the author slips impressively obsequious praise of hard-working, self-sacrificing, long-sighted, intelligent emperors (cough cough) into his long text. If things don’t go well, it’s all due to subordinates.
The work does not have anything like a linear plot. It’s more of a landscape scroll, in which focus shifts from one household member to another as it pleases the author.
I was pleased to note that, unlike many works one could mention, the author tends to focus more on the women characters than on the men; I’ve seen an assertion that this book barely passes a reverse-Bechdel test3. I’m not entirely certain that men doget so little stage time (not having done a computer analysis of the humongous text), but I can see why someone might believe this.
I did enjoy one dimension of the work that might have been less enthralling to Qing-dynasty readers: it gives a detailed picture of how a household of this time, place, and class functioned. There’s anthropological and historical voyeurism here. The picture it paints of life in the Qing dynasty right before the wheels fell off is fascinating.
Where next for our protagonist? That will have to wait for volume 3, which I plan to get to faster than I did volume 2.
1: Qing society prioritizes strategic marriage over momentary infatuation. A subplot explores the possibility that while people might agree that this is the sensible way to approach the matter, they may disagree about which opportunity is most strategic. Should, for example, a servant who likes her job and mistress leave both to marry a much older man who can offer her money and status at the cost of being married to an old duffer to whom she is in no way attracted?
2: Is Bao-yu is a lovable scamp or an incredibly self-centered spoiled brat who does not care about the cost of his refusal to do his bit for the family? His doting granny might call him a lovable scamp. Jia family members a generation or two down the line lean towards “spoiled brat.”
Although Bao-yu is not malicious, it’s clear that his thoughtlessness often causes avoidable misery for those around him.
3: As you know, the Bechdel test is as follows: does a work (story, novel, film, comic, etc.) feature at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man? The reverse-Bechdel is much the same except for men. Are there at least two men who talk about something other than a woman? Most published works (past and current, every language and culture) pass the reverse-Bechdel test.