Everyday Occupations: The World of Women

In many ways, the world of the Dream of the Red Chamber is a world of women. One might think that the major occupation of a woman in the Qing dynasty would be childrearing. But in fact we see very little of that in the novel. The female characters the novel is most interested in are adolescents, both the young ladies of the Jia family and their servants. And while the marriage question (whom Baoyu will marry) looms large in the novel, married life itself does not play much of a role in the imaginations of the young ladies who populate the novel. Indeed, for most of the female characters in the novel, marriage is not a happy ending.

The young women of the Jia family live lives of privilege and leisure.  While the wealth and size of the Jia family are extraordinary, the ordinary activities of the young ladies mirror what we know of historical young women of the high Qing elite.

Poetry and needlework occupy the young women of the Jia family. They might embroider clothes for use within their own households. They might embroider small sachets or belts, for their own use, for their dowries, or to be given as gifts. And they might embroider shoes, which were erotically charged in a society where most women of the elite had bound feet. (It is not clear whether or not the women in Dream of the Red Chamber have bound feet or not–their feet are never mentioned. The Jia family is Manchu–though that is also never explicitly stated–and Manchu women did not bind their feet.)  Baochai and Oriole (a servant) work together tracing patterns to be embroidered on shoes, perhaps from a pattern book (chapter 8).  We see reference to embroidery patterns elsewhere in the novel.  (By the eighteenth century, embroidery pattern books were widely available; they enabled young women to have fashionable collars and sleeve bands. For more information on embroidery patterns, see Silberstein.)  There is some evidence that serious sewing is left to the maids. For example, when Daiyu in chapter 28 works with maids in cutting fabric, her behavior is regarded as somewhat extraordinary.

We know much less about women who were not members of the elite. But the novel does provide information on domestic servants who are in the employ of the Jia family.  They probably did the bulk of the sewing and embroidering that was done in house. In chapter 8, Aunt Xue (Baochai’s mother) gives instructions to maids about embroidery.  Baoyu’s clothes were all made in his rooms, by his maids, supervised by the able and loyal Aroma. Grandmother Jia too is said to refuse to wear any clothing made by outsiders (chapter 45).  The occupation of maids with sewing is mentioned casually in the novel–for example, in chapter 57 Nightingale chastizes Baoyu for his familiarity with her,  telling him that now that they are growing up, easy physical familiarity which she refers to as “pawing about,”  could create a bad impression. When she leaves the room, we are told she took her sewing with her. The fact that she was sewing is of course not the central point of the scene, but it is a piece of information about servants and their occupation.  Evidence that sewing was a core function of the maids in the novel abounds. In chapter 58, when the acting troupe is disbanded and many of the young actresses choose to stay with the Jia family, they prove not to be very useful as servants, one of the reasons being that none of them could sew.  We are told that one or two of them applied themselves to learn sewing and spinning, one of the few references in the novel to spinning.  In chapter 64, in the midst of a scandalous scene involving Jia Lian’s illicit and illegal marriage to You Erjie, we see Erjie and her maids, sitting on a kang (a heated couch) and sewing.

There is a pervasive sense in Dream of the Red Chamber that goods purchased on the outside are simply not of the same quality as goods made within the household. We see this clearly in the episode with the embroidered pornographic purse: Xifeng derides it as being a cheap commercial object, clearly inferior to the kind of thing that would have been produced in-house. But it is clear that even the myriad servants cannot keep up with the demands of the Jia household for clothing; there is evidence that goods are purchased from outside. There are several references to paying embroiderers and tailors (chapter 27, for example). When Aroma asks Xiangyun for help in finishing a pair of shoes, Xiangyun at first refuses, saying “Quite apart from all the clever maids this household employs you have your own full-time tailors and embroiderers.” When Aroma responds, “None of the sewing in this room is allowed to go outside. Surely you knew that,” Xiangyun knows that the shoes are for Baoyu and agrees to make them (chapter 32). It is of interest to note that Aroma, a maid, successfully enlists a member of the household to do embroidery.  But Baochai later reprimands Aroma. Xiangyun was a new bride. Baochai says, “I know for a fact that they are too mean to pay for professional seamstresses and that nearly all of the sewing has to be done by the women of the household” (chapter 32).

The pervasive sense that objects purchased in the market are inferior extends beyond textiles.  In chapter 60,  Jia Huan gives Sunset some face powder which he believes to be rose orris, which is in fact jasmine face powder. But he asserts that it is better than anything that could be bought outside.

Suggestions for further reading: Susan Mann, Talented Women, Ellen Widmer, Beauty and the Book, Grace Fong, Herself an Author. There are two large anthologies of writings by Chinese women, one edited by Kang-i Sun Chang and Haun Saussy, and the other by Wilt Idema and Beata Grant.  They are terrific resources for learning more about accomplished women in the Qing.  If you read classical Chinese, you might want to check out the website curated by Grace Fong, which has an extensive collection of writings by women of the Ming and Qing dynasties.

Skybright mends peacock cloak This woodblock print is taken from Honglou meng tuyong, published in 1879, based on paintings done earlier in the nineteenth century by Gai Qi. In it we see the maid Skybright (Qingwen 晴雯)mending a peacock cloak that Baoyu had damaged. The servants, alarmed at how Granny Jia would react to the news that her precious cloak had been damaged, try to find a tailor (an “invisible mender”) who would mend the cloak.  But they cannot find anyone on the “outside” who had the skills to mend the cloak. Skybright is the most skilled seamstress in the Jia household and so she is asked to mend the cloak, despite the fact that she is seriously ill.

Skybright agrees and sits up all night mending the cloak. In this image, she is portrayed sitting in bed. Off to one side, we see someone holding a candle so that Skybright might see late into the night to do the painstaking work. (We know from the novel that the person holding the candle is Baoyu.)

Skybright is later dismissed from the household because Granny Jia suspects her of a sexual dalliance with Baoyu.  She dies of illness shortly after her dismissal, and Baoyu deeply mourns her death.

The iconic image of Skybright portrays her as mending the cloak.  A nineteenth-century Chinese viewer would have known of her tragic ending, which would have intensified the pathos of the ill young maid in bed, mending a cape carelessly damaged by a spoiled young man.

Wives and Concubines

Marriage among the Qing upper classes was not monogamous.  While a man might have only one legal wife, he might have as many concubines as he could afford. The children of a concubine were fully legitimate; in fact they were regarded legally and ritually as the children of the main wife.  But law and ritual do not encompass the entirety of human existence, and in fact, as Wang Xifeng explains to her maid, it did matter enormously whether one’s mother were a wife or a concubine.

Some of the Jia men had formal concubines; others had recognized sexual relationships with servants that were not recognized as concubinage.  Jia Cong is the son of one of Jia She’s concubines–we are not told which one, which suggests how little she matters (ch. 24).



In chapter 55, Xifeng and her maid Patience are discussing Tanchun, who was the daughter of Aunt Zhao, a concubine, and Jia Zheng. Tanchun is capable and talented.

Xifeng says:

“Oh, what a pity she wasn’t born in the right bed.”

“Now you’re talking stupid, madam,” said Patience. “Although she’s not Her Ladyship’s child by birth, surely no one is going to think the worse of her for that?  Won’t she be treated exactly the same as the rest?”

Xifeng sighed: “I’m afraid it’s not as simple as you think. I know being a wife’s or concubine’s child is not supposed to make any difference, and in a boy’s case perhaps it doesn’t; but I am afraid with girls, when the time comes to start finding husbands for them, it often does.  Nowadays you get a very shallow sort of person who will ask about that before anything else and, often, if they hear that a girl is a concubine’s child, they will have nothing further to do with her.”

Chinese text:

鳳姐兒笑道:「好,好!好個三姑娘!我說不錯。--只可惜他命薄,沒託生在太太肚裡。」平兒笑道:「奶奶也說糊塗話了。他就不是太太養的,難道誰敢小看他,不和別的一樣看待麼?」鳳姐歎道:「你那裡知道?雖然正出庶出是一樣,但只女孩兒,卻 比不得兒子。將來作親時,--如今有一種輕狂人,先要打聽姑娘是正出是庶出,多有為庶出不要的。殊不知庶出,只要人好,比正出的強百倍呢。將來不知那個沒 造化的,為挑正庶誤了事呢;也不知那個有造化的,不挑正庶的得了去。」說著,又向平兒笑道:「你知道我這幾年生了多少省儉的法子,一家子大約也沒個背地裡 不恨我的。我如今也是騎上老虎了,雖然看破些,無奈一時也難寬放。二則家裡出去的多,進來的少,凡有大小事兒,仍是照著老祖宗手裡的規矩,卻一年進的產 業,又不及先時。多儉省了,外人又笑話,老太太、太太也受委屈,家下也抱怨剋薄。若不趁早兒料理省儉之計,再幾年就都賠盡了!」



We see the inferior status of concubines manifest in the behavior and the treatment of Concubine Zhao (Zhao Yiniang 趙姨娘), the mother of Tanchun and Jia Huan. Jia Huan is in no way treated as an equal to his half-brother Baoyu, and he is, as a result, quite jealous. For example, in a scene in chapter 20 when he is accused of having cheated at a game of cards, he is compared unfavorably with Baoyu.  He lashes out:

“How can I hope to compete with Baoyu?’ said Jia Huan, beginning to blubber.  ‘You’re all afraid of him. You all take his part against me because I am a concubine’s son.’ Baochai was shocked: ‘Please don’t say things like that, cousin. You’ll make yourself ridiculous.'”

But Jia Huan’s inferior status remains a thread throughout the novel.

Concubinage was a legally recognized formal relationship. We see in chapter 1 when Lucky becomes the concubine of Jia Yucun, she is transported to his home in “a small covered chair.” A bride would be transported to her new home in a sedan chair.

Men might have less formal relations with female servants in the household. It was assumed that a man had sexual access to maids in the household. In some cases the relationship was formalized: the maid was named a “chamber wife” (or concubine) and her stipend was increased, though this did not always happen.

Baoyu has his first sexual experience with Aroma, and many in the family expected her to be promoted to be his “chamber-wife.” She is never promoted, because Grandmother Jia thinks that she has more authority over him as maid than she would as concubine. (Virtually everyone in the novel finds Aroma to be a positive influence on Baoyu.) Although the novel is discreet about the sexual relationship between Aroma and Baoyu after their first encounter, it is clear that their relationship is one of intimacy. When Aroma indicates that she is thinking about leaving the Jia household (her family could buy her out), Baoyu is thrown into despair.

Not all men achieve sexual access to servants who catch their eye: Jia She is smitten with Faithful (Yuanyang) and wishes her for a concubine. But she will have none of it, and invokes the authority of Grandmother Jia to prevent him from taking her. She prevails.

Although some sequels to the novel solved the question of who Baoyu should marry by having him marry both Daiyu and Baochai–one as a wife and the other as a concubine–that is not an option that ever occurred to anyone in the original novel. Neither Daiyu nor Baochai was of a social class or a temperament that would have made her a concubine. But in sequels to the novel, the polygamous solution is presented as unproblematic. (In order to devise a polygamous solution, Daiyu must first be brought back to life. But that is a story for another page.)

Female education

One of the remarkable aspects of the Dream of the Red Chamber is the high level of education of the women who populate the garden.  A reader might wonder whether this is a realistic depiction of a Qing household, or whether it is a figment of Cao Xueqin’s fantasy. But it is not: women of the elite were often well educated, as is evidenced by the poems written by women in response to the novel.

Much education took place in the home, and texts were normally read aloud.  A sister might well be exposed to her brother’s lessons, whether she wanted to hear them or not.  If a boy were to succeed in the civil service examinations, he had best start his education at a very early age, at an age where he still resided in the women’s quarters.  His mother would be his first teacher. Thus when elite families were planning marriage for their daughters, they were aware that some literacy would be an advantage on the marriage market.

It is very clear that male education was geared toward participation in the civil service examinations. Some Qing scholars fretted that that always put an instrumental edge on men’s learning; that the only people who could study untainted by ulterior motives were women, who were excluded from the civil service examination system.

One of the things we see in the novel is the range of kinds of education that might be offered a woman: Daiyu is an only child, we are told in chapter 1 that her father educates her as if she were a son, to compensate for the fact that he had no son. Although  Baochai is well-educated, she is clear on what her priorities should be. In chapter 37, in a discussion about the proper role of poetry writing, she says, “Spinning and sewing is the proper occupation for girls like us. Any time we have left over from that should be spent in reading a few pages of some improving book–not on this sort of thing.” Li Wan too is educated to be a proper woman, and learns some reading, as well as spinning and weaving.  (While the young women of the Jia family spend a great deal of time sewing or doing embroidery, we see no evidence of their spinning and weaving, nor of anyone in the household spinning or weaving. When Baoyu encounters a girl spinning in one of his excursions into the countryside, he is charmed by her. The passage makes it clear he has never seen a spinning wheel.) Wang Xifeng is perfectly capable of keeping books, but cannot write poetry.  We are told in chapter 3 that she had been “brought up from earliest childhood just like a boy and had acquired in the schoolroom the somewhat boyish sounding name of Wang Xifeng.” (The Chinese text says that she acquired the school name xueming 學名 of Xifeng; it would have been very unusual for a woman of her time to have actually attended school. A xueming could have been given by a tutor.)  Miss Xia, the wife of Xue Pan, was taught by a private tutor, but one wonders about the degree of her erudition–we are told she “could even read quite a number of words” (ch. 79).

Whether or not Granny Jia is literate is a matter of some confusion: we know she has trouble seeing and there are some places in the novel where it seems as if she is not literate. Thus literacy has many forms and multiple uses.

Elite Qing society was steeped in the written word. Letters were a critical part of family communication. Not only did merchants travel, but officials took up office far from their homes. The so-called “law of avoidance” meant that officials were prohibited from serving in their native places. They sometimes took their families with them, but they often left them at home. (The average tenure for a Qing official in any one post was something like three years.) Thus letter writing was key to domestic life. The Jia family employed letter writers; the novel also tells us that letter-writers were available for hire on the street. (That letter writers were available for hire in the street is one example of an illuminating tidbit of social history that is available in the novel.)


In chapter 4 of the novel, we are told that Li Wan’s family had a tradition of educating daughters alongside sons. Here is the passage slightly modified from David Hawkes’ translation:

Up to her father Li Shouzhong’s time, all members of the clan, including the women, had been given a first-class education, but when Li Shouzhong became head of the family, he founded his educational policy for girls on the good old maxim “a stupid woman is a virtuous one” and, when he had a daughter of his own, refused to let her engage in serious study.  She was permitted to work her way through the Four Books for Girls and Lives of Exemplary Women, so that she might be able to recognize a few characters and be familiar with some of the models of female virtue of former ages; but overriding importance was to be attached to spinning and sewing, and even her name ‘Wan,’ which means a kind of silk, was intended to symbolize her dedication to the needle.

This is the Chinese text, from the Chinese text project:


And this is a link to the text on the Chinese text project, which is connected to a dictionary, which can help language learners read the passage.

Notes on the text:

The earliest text with the title Lives of Exemplary Women was compiled by Liu Xiang, a man who died in 8 BCE. It has been translated by Anne Kinney (Exemplary Women of Early China: The Lienü zhuan of Liu Xiang, Columbia University Press, 2014).  Many later texts used variations of that title, and incorporated some of Liu Xiangs’s biographies as well as including biographies of more recent women. 



The Dream of the Red Chamber is full of information about servants, and in fact much scholarship on servants in the eighteenth century uses the novel as a source. It is a terrific source, but not an unproblematic one. There are two caveats that need to be kept in mind as we look at servants in the novel.  The first is that they play a very specific narrative function: Aroma is interpreted as being a “shadow” to Baochai; Nightingale. who is Daiyu’s maid, is a “shadow” to Daiyu and so on. The second is that insubordinate servants are one of the signals that the Jia family is in decline. The inability to control servants (and one might add, women in general) is a sure sign of decline and is central to the plot.
The cousins in the garden are well attended by servants. Baoyu, Daiyu, and the “three other girls” (by whom I infer the novelist means Tanchun, Yingchun and Xichun) each have, in addition to the wetnurse who cared for them when they were infants, “four other nurses to act as chaperones, two maids as body-servants to attend to their washing, dressing, and so forth, and four or five maids for dusting  and cleaning, running errands and general duties.” (chapter 3). That is eleven or twelve maids for each of five adolescents, for a total of 50 or 60 maids.  We can infer from this (and many other sources) that working in households of the elite was a way for young women of modest means to earn support themselves.
With those caveats in mind, let’s turn to look at several of the servants. Aroma (Xiren), Baoyu’s maid, is one of the few people in the novel who will talk sense to him.  Baoyu is totally innocent of the social distance that separates them, as is evidenced by his visit to her at her family home in chapter ???.  He never understands that his visit has put her in a difficult situation. He has an ongoing sexual relationship with her, but she is never made his chamber wife, because Grandmother Jia and his mother Lady Wang think that he will be more likely to heed her advice if she remains a servant than if he marries her as a concubine.
After Skybright is expelled and goes to live with her feckless cousin and his immoral wife, Baoyu goes to visit her. She is ill and they are not looking after her properly, and she dies.
Dame Xue’s solution to the marital difficulties of her son Xue Pan is to sell Caltrop.  She says (in chapter 80) “I don’t care how dissatisfied you are with her, you ought not to beat her.  I’ll get a dealer here right away and have her sold. That way you won’t be troubled by her any more.”  Later she says, “It doesn’t matter what we sell her for; just let’s get rid of this –this thorn in the flesh, and perhaps we will have peace again in this household.”  But Baochai remonstrates with her mother, saying “People like us don’t sell servants, Mamma, we only buy them…What would people think if they heard we were planning to sell a servant?”
In the Jia household there are servants who are born into the household, and servants who are purchased from the outside. Other servants come with their mistresses when they marry into the family.  Skybright, for example, had been purchased by Lai Da when she was ten years old. She was a beautiful and intelligent child, who attracted the attention of Grandmother Jia, who ultimately assigned Skybright to Baoyu (chapter 77). Skybright is one of the maids who is expelled because Lady Wang is worried that she might corrupt Baoyu.  We are told in chapter 21 that Citronella (who Baoyu wishes to rename as Number Four) was “a designing little minx and endeavored by every artifice at her command to het her hooks into [Baoyu] when she had a chance.
Aroma’s family had sold her into servitude because they were poor.  They had held some hope for buying her out of service until she made it clear that service with the Jia family was preferable to life outside.  Servants who came from the outside seem to have regarded themselves as superior to “houseborn” servants.
Servants often married. We see in a discussion about a servant known as Fivey that the assumption was that after five or six years of service she would be free to marry someone from “outside.” (ch.,60).
In chapter 64, we learn that married servants had their own quarters outside the Jia household.  When a young woman servant reached marriageable age, sometimes her parents chose a spouse for her, and she would leave the Jia family employ. But she might also stay within the Jia household family.  When the theater troupe was disbanded, Parfumee was given a “foster-mother” among the servants; the foster-mother had a daughter who was also a servant. (ch.64)  One of the interesting tensions in the novel is between mothers and daughters who are both servants, as evidenced, for example, in chapter 71.
There was a clear hierarchy of servants. The servants who were what Hawkes calls “ladies maids” were of the highest status. In chapter 77, after Chess has been expelled, Zhou Rui’s wife (another servant) tells her: “You’re not a lady’s maid now, you know. Now if you don’t do what I tell you, I can beat you just like any other servant.”
There was an expectation that masters had sexual access to maids.  Jia Lian had sexual relations with Patience, a fact that was known and accepted (more or less) by his wife Wang Xifeng. But the sexual availability of maids also caused Baoyu’s mother to be anxious.  In chapter 77, she scolds Citronella, saying “Do you imagine that I would allow my only son to be corrupted by creatures like you?” Citronella is then summarily expelled from the household. Lady Wang then expels all of the former actresses. While it is true that one of the motives is to cut costs, what prompted the expulsion is worry about the Baoyu’s intimacy with the actresses.   Although it was understood that masters might have sexual access to servants, it was not necessarily the case that these arrangements met with the approval of the masters’ wives.  We see in chapter 80 that Jingui (the wife of Xue Pan) is jealous of his attentions to her maid Moonbeam.  A paper figure with needles in it was found on Jingui’s pillow.

When Jia Lian sets up housekeeping for his second wife in chapter 64,  he acquires a house for her and purchases two maids.

Zhou Qi, the young concubine who wrote a series of poems on characters in Honglou meng, was particularly interested in servants. She wrote poems on Skybright, Patience, Caltrop, and Faithful.
The question of what happened to the relationship between a servant and her parents once she entered servitude is an interesting one.  When Parfumee’s foster mother is berating her, Musk (another servant) berates her, saying that once a girl enters service, her parents no longer have authority over her (ch.58; see text box below),
There are a number of cases in the novel where servants are less than obedient.  When the Jia family is occupied with obligations to attend the funeral of an imperial consort, “the servants of both mansions who remained behind grew slovenly in their duties or took advantage of the exceptional circumstances to ally themselves with those placed temporarily in charge as a means of scoring off fellow-servants” (ch.58)

當下薛姨媽被寶釵勸進去了,只命人來賣香菱。寶釵笑道:「偺們家只知買人,並不知賣人之說。媽媽可是氣糊塗了?倘或叫人聽見,豈不笑話?哥哥嫂子嫌他不好,留著我使喚,我正也沒人呢。」 chapter 80–Xie Mama wants to bring in someone to buy caltrop

我即刻叫人牙子來賣了他,你就心淨了。chapter 80

For more on servants in Honglou meng, see Christopher Lupke in Schonebaum and Lu and  Marsha Wagner, “Maids and Servants in Dream of the Red Chamber.”

Musk explains authority to Parfumee’s foster-mother (chapter 58–verify)

There’s no need to shout.  Let me just ask you this one question. When have you ever seen anyone punishing their daughter in the master’s or mistress’s presence–I don’t just mean here, I mean anywhere in the whole Garden? Even in the case of a real daughter, not just a foster-daughter, once she’s left home and gone into service it’s for her master or mistress to punish her or the senior maids. We can’t have parents chipping in all the time–otherwise how should we ever manage to train the girls?

But there is another view (chapter 58) The maid Swallow’s mother, also a maid,  says:

I never yet heard of a mother being disciplined for trying to discipline her own daughter.


Traffic in Women

Female servants were subject to a kind of traffic in women, especially since it was assumed that masters had sexual access to their servants.  (This may be a feature that distinguishes male servants from female servants.)

A more explicit traffic in women intrudes several times in the novel.  As we saw earlier, in chapter 2, Yinglian is kidnapped at a very young age, is trained for several years by her kidnappers to increase her value, and then is sold. She resurfaces in the novel as Caltrop.

When the Jia family want a troupe of actresses, they buy a troupe.  The young actresses are treated with suspicion.  As Mama Xie says “players is only trash anyway” (ch.60).  Aunt Zhao, herself subject to a fair amount of status anxiety because she is a concubine, berates Parfumee: “Little strumpet! You’re a bit of bought goods, that’s all you are!  We paid down money and bought you, so that you could play and sing for our entertainment. Play actors and prostitutes are the class of people you belong to; the lowest servant in this household is still a few steps above you” (ch.60).  Parfumee retorts, “I thought all of us here were bought goods.”  In chapter 61, Tanchun says that the actresses are “like pets.”


We are told that the great families that had troupes of actresses were beginning to disband them. You shi proposes that the Jia family follow suit. She proposes the following to Lady Wang: “There is no reason why we shouldn’t use them as maids. It’s really only the instructors that we need to get rid of.” But Lady Wang insists that won’t do. She says “We cannot treat them like servants. These are daughters of free men, sold into their profession because their parents could not afford to keep them. (ch.68)  At Lady Wang’s insistence, the actresses are told they will be released, and given a small sum of money. But they do not want to go, and most of them stay.

In chapter 64 Jia Lian tells Jia Rong that if the plan to secretly marry You Erjie succeeds, he will “buy you two of the prettiest little girls who are to be had and make you a present of them.” Servitude had many forms and the lines between a woman who cleans your house and one who warms your bed was not always crystal clear.



Self-fashioning: The Cosmetics Case

Although there were thousands of published women poets in the Qing dynasty, most women did not write. Scholars have begun looking at material objects as a way of reconstructing the world of women on Ming and Qing China. Two particularly interesting examples are LI Yuhang’s Becoming Guanyin and Rachel Silberstein’s A Fashionable Century. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts has a number of objects that have the potential to illuminate the lives of women in the eighteenth century.

Cosmetics case of Huanghuali wood This cosmetics case, held by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, spurred a conversation among Kathleen Ryor, Karil Kucera and Ann Waltner about the case itself, about its uses and its architectural structure, about the gendered nature of self-fashioning in Qing China, and, perhaps most importantly, the ways in which the novel shows Baoyu as transgressing gendered norms of self-fashioning.

Notes on video

The wood that the case is made of is huanghuali, which Kucera described as rosewood.  The mythical animal on the case is a qilin (sometimes translated as unicorn), and the fungus is believed to promote immortality is called lingzhi.

On the ways in which a woman’s dowry was her own private property (cash in a dowry was sometimes called sifang qian 私房錢 “private room money”) see Susan Mann, “Dowry Wealth and Wifely Virtue in Mid-Qing Gentry Households,” Late Imperial China, 2009:1 (supplement) 64-76. We see evidence of this in the novel. In chapter 72 as Jia Lian and Wang Xifeng are arguing, she says to him, “Why do you assume that any money I have is is Jia money?…I don’t want to boast, but just take a look at the dowries Aunt Wang and I brought with us when we came here and try matching them, item for item, with things of your own.” Grandmother Jia’s posessions are regarded as her own; it is not until her death that her relatives open her trunks and discover what is there.

In the video, we discuss Baoyu’s fascination with makeup, which runs throughout the novel. In chapter 2, we are told that at his first-year ceremony, a ceremony during which a number of objects were placed in front of a child as a way of determining what his or her future might hold, Baoyu “stretched out his little hand and started playing with some women’s things–combs, bracelets, pots of rouge and powder and the like–completely ignoring all the other objects.”

When Daiyu first sees Baoyu (in chapter 3), she is struck by the vividness of his cheeks and lips. The narrator tells us:  “The cheeks might have been brushed with powder and the lips touched with rouge, so bright was their natural color.”

The fascination with makeup continues,  In chapter 21, Baoyu’s cousin Shi Xiangyun slaps his wrist to prevent him from putting her rouge on his lips, and in chapter 19, Lin Daiyu removes a spot of rouge from his cheek and reprimands him, saying “So you’re up to those tricks again! You might at least refrain from advertising the fact.” In chapter 78, when he is mourning the death of Skybright, he says that seems only yesterday that he painted her eyebrows.

Characters in the novel notice the complexity of Baoyu’s sense of his gender. In chapter 78, Granny Jia is puzzling over what seems to her to be Baoyu’s odd attraction to female companionship and says “Perhaps he was a maid himself in some past life.  Perhaps he ought to have been a girl.”

His servant Tealeaf prays that in his next life Baoyu be reborn as a girl.  In chapter 50, Baoyu is mistaken for a girl, and in chapter 51, his rooms are mistaken for a girl’s room.

But Baoyu is not the only character who does not conform to strict Qing dynasty gender norms. In chapter 63, the nun Adamantina is described as being neither man nor woman. We are told that both Xiangyun and Fangguan are fond of cross-dressing.  And in chapter 58, we are told that the troup eof actresses which were in the Jia family employ enacted in real life the “husband and wife roles” that they played on stage.

Thus we see any number of instances in the novel where gender roles are trangressed. The transgression of gender roles is not incidental; it is key to the subversive nature of the novel.

Ping er at her dressing table
In this Yangliuqing New Year print, Patience is repairing her makeup under the careful supervision of Baoyu. Baoyu is identifiable by the red gem that is protruding from his headgear. Note how small the woman in the foreground is; her size does not indicate that she is a child, but rather that she is of low status.

When Baoyu encounters Patience (Ping’er, the maid of Wang Xifeng) distraught and weeping after she has been beaten by both Xifeng and her husband Jia Lian, he finds her a fresh dress (belonging to his maid Aroma) to wear, and sits her down at Aroma’s dressing table to put on fresh makeup. He insists that she put on makeup, even though she is disinclined. Zhou Qi wrote a poem about Patience in which the episode at the dressing table is featured prominently.

Although the accouterments of the dressing table here are much more modest than the splendid dressing case we have been discussing, this image does show ways in which applying makeup could be constructed as a social event. Baoyu (recognizable by the red plume coming from his hat) is looking on solicitously as Patience applies her makeup. The small woman in the front is a maid–she is portrayed as small because she is of low status. (Note that this visually reinforces the hierarchy of maids:  Patience is herself a maid, but her size indicates that she is of higher status than the woman who is waiting on her.)  The two women standing behind the screen are not identified.

A seventeenth century painting of a boudoir sceneAnd of course, another example of female self-fashioning can be seen in the painting “Woman at her Dressing Table,” with a colophon by Zhou Qi. The painting and colophon are discussed in some detail here

Mia video on cosmetics case

In this short video, produced by the Minneapolis Institute of Art as part of its celebration of 100 years, I talk about a fabulous Qing dynasty cosmetics case with the fabulous Katie Ryor and the amazing Karil Kucera.


Cosmetics case video longer version

In this video, also filmed at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Waltner, Kucera and Ryor talk about self-fashioning and the cosmetics case at greater length.


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Dream of the Red Chamber Copyright © by Ann Waltner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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