Aunt Xue (Xue Yima 薛姨媽) is the younger half-sister of Lady Wang 王夫人. Xue 薛 was the surname of her husband, whose wealth came from the fact that he came from a family of important merchants. She is the mother of Baochai 寶釵 and of Xue Pan 薛蟠, a rogue who is the bane of her existence. The image to the left is a detail from a Yangliuqing 杨柳青 New Year’s print which shows the whole Jia 賈 family. That print is available on the Grandmother Jia page. Aunt Xue 薛姨媽 is the larger figure on the right of the print.
The Xue 薛 family is fabulously wealthy. But in both the opera and the novel, they are aware that they are nouveau riches, that they do not have the standing of the Jia family. In the opera, Aunt Xue 薛姨媽 sings to Baochai, contrasting the nature of the Xue 薛 wealth and that of the Jias 賈: “All our ancient art was purchased, but the works here have long been in this house” (Act II, scene iii). In the novel, the family is somewhat embarrassed when it becomes known that one of the sources of their wealth is pawnshops.
In the opera, Aunt Xue 薛姨媽 seems to concur that Baoyu 寶玉 and Baochai 寶釵 should marry, that their marriage would be the fulfillment of the destinies of gold (Baochai’s 寶釵 locket) and jade. (Lady Wang王夫人, who is her sister and Baoyu’s 寶玉 mother, is the main proponent of the marriage in the opera.) In the novel, while she does not actually protest the marriage, she clearly articulates regret that her daughter’s marriage will be to a man who believes he is marrying someone else. The novel tells us in chapter 97 “Aunt Xue 薛姨媽 was willing enough to go along with the idea, but was concerned that Baochai 寶釵 might feel rather hard done by.” Indeed, when she explains the plan to Baochai 寶釵, Baochai 寶釵 weeps. More details from the novel are available on the Baochai Weeps quotation page
Note on Names
Some married women in the novel are referred to by their husbands’ names; some are referred to by the names of their families of birth. In the eighteenth century, it was not unusual to refer to a woman by the surname of her family of birth. But it was also not unusual to refer to a woman as “so-and-so’s-wife.”
We see both practices in the novel. Grandmother Jia 賈母 was born into a family named Shi 史, but she is always referred to as Grandmother Jia 賈母. Lady Wang 王夫人, by contrast, is married to Jia Zheng 賈政 but is always called Lady Wang 王夫人, perhaps because there can be only one matriarch named Jia 賈. Aunt Xue 薛姨媽, who was born a Wang 王, is the widow of a man named Xue 薛, and is always referred to by her married name. Lady Wang 王夫人 and Aunt Xue 薛姨媽 are of the same generation; indeed, they are from the same family. But they are referred to differently. There are several reasons for this: First, the Jia 賈 family is of higher status than the Xue 薛 family; Lady Wang 王夫人 has a title because of her husband’s position. Aunt Xue 薛姨媽 has no such position. Second, it is important to make it clear that Aunt Xue 薛姨媽 is an outsider. Referring to her by her husband’s name makes that clear.