Grandmother Jia (Jia mu 賈母, literally “Mother Jia”) is the moral and emotional center of the family. She is the matriarch in a family which is more or less without a patriarch. She dotes on her grandchildren, particularly on Baoyu 寶玉. In any number of scenes in the novel, she and her grandchildren enjoy themselves together, leaving out the middle generation (of both men and women) entirely.
She is quite partial to Daiyu 黛玉, as Daiyu黛玉 strongly reminds her of her dead daughter. But toward the end of the novel, as Daiyu 黛玉 is wasting away, Grandmother Jia 賈母 begins to be concerned that her illness is in fact not a “respectable” one. The strong moralistic strain to Grandmother Jia’s 賈母concerns about the nature of Daiyu’s 黛玉 illness does not appear until chapter 97. One might argue that a moralistic Grandmother Jia 賈母 was not a part of Cao Xueqin’s 曹雪芹 vision for the novel.
In the image below, we can see Baoyu reporting to his grandmother on the progress of his nephew, Jia Lan. At the time this episode occurs, Grandmother Jia is almost eighty-one years old. The figure listening in just outside the room Li Wan, Jia Lan’s mother. Several things are of note in this illustration. Baoyu is kneeling in front of his grandmother, as a sign of respect. He is wearing his characteristic headdress, with a red pompom-like attachment. In this illustration, we can see clearly that he is not wearing his hair in a queue, which would have been the required hairstyle for an adult man in the Qing dynasty. Note that behind her is an elaborate plant stand, with several plants on it. Beside the plant stand is a shelf, with a dreamstone and several objects which we can assume are antiques.
Note that the cloth door covering is tied open.
Grandmother Jia is the undisputed matriarch of the family. No one dares cross her. Her son, the lecherous Jia She, has had his eye on Grandmother Jia’s maid Faithful for some time, but as long as his mother was alive, he knew that Faithful was off limits. (Faithful is aware that it has been Grandmother Jia who has protected her; when she dies, Faithful commits suicide.)
Grandmother Jia had brought with her a considerable dowry when she married. That wealth was considered separate from the family wealth. In the grim final days of the novel, when the house is raided by police, her private chests are regarded as prime targets.