Shen Shanbao 沈善宝 : “Written Playfully on Reading Honglou meng”

Shen Shanbao 沈善宝  (fl. early 18th century) was an important poet and anthologist from Qiantang (Hangzhou). Her mother, Wu Shiren, published a collection of poetry, Xiaoyinlou shiwenji (Collected Poems and Essays from Flute Prelude Gallery). Shen herself published a very important collection of poetry by women titled Mingyuan shihua 名媛詩話  (Remarks on the Poetry of Illustrious Ladies, 1824).

She wrote on the particular difficulties facing women authors:


The fact of the matter is, literati put all their energy into studying the classics and histories from childhood and on the side they study poetry and rhymeprose. They have fathers and older brothers to teach them, and teachers and friends with whom to discuss. As for women, they neither have teachers to learn from as do male literati, nor can they devote themselves single-mindedly to the practice of poetry and prose. Thus, unless a woman is exceptionally intelligent, she can never master poetry. If she is born into a noble family or prominent lineage, and has a father or elder brother and their teachers and friends who appreciate poetry, it might be easier for her work to be transmitted widely. But if she is born into a poor home, or married to a village bumpkin, I don’t know how many of these women would be sunk into oblivion and never heard of. I feel deeply for them. Therefore I have not spared any efforts to search out and arrange together [texts] to make this collection. It is just that I am awkward with language and my experience is limited. My intention is to preserve their broken lines and scattered pieces; I do not deliberate on whether their words are skillful or not. (Translated in Fong, “Writing Self and Writing Lives”)


Shen  wrote a poem entitled “Written Playfully on Reading the Honglou meng,” which has been translated somewhat differently by two excellent scholars, Grace Fong and Ellen Widmer. I’ll give both translations, then the Chinese text.  Then I’ll discuss the two translations. But before we begin with the translations, let’s listen to Li Kan read the poem in Chinese.

This is the Chinese text of the poem:


Here is Grace Fong’s translation:

For no reason she refined the stone—I laugh at Queen Wo.
This led the idiot into the land of dreams.
All fight to admire the one napping by the peonies in the spring breeze,
Who sympathizes with the one sick in the Xiaoxiang Pavilion in the autumn rain?
Alone embracing this inextricable bind, a love for eternity
Hard to dispel this desolate feeling, lines of tears flow.
If you don’t believe that all beauties are ill-fated,
See all the ready-made patterns and stale compositions customarily left behind.

And now let’s read Ellen Widmer’s translation of the same poem:

For no reason she refines the stones
And draws the obsessed ones into the realm of dreams.
All vie to envy the [inebriated] slumber under the dahlia petals in the spring breeze,
Who will pity the sick one in Xiaoxiang chamber in the autumn rain?
In an inextricable bond, she alone epitomizes a love for all time.
A loneliness hard to dispel with lines of tears.
I do not believe that all beauties suffer sad fates,
Such well-worn writings [as Honglou meng] resort to ready-made formulas.

Notes on the poem

The poem opens with a reference to “refining the stone,” which refers to the opening frame of the novel, where the goddess Nuwa (referred to here in the Fong translation as Queen Wo) is repairing the sky.  There is one piece of jade left over, and that jade is transmuted into Baoyu 寶玉. The text of the novel which discusses Nuwa 媧皇 and the repair of the sky is available in the text box at the bottom of this page.

The next line refers to the “idiot” (in Fong’s translation) or “obsessed ones” (in Widmer’s).  The Chinese word is chi 癡: both idiot and obsessed are justifiable translations for the word, but they have a slightly different effect.  The Chinese is ambiguous as to whether the word is singular or plural: Fong translates it as singular and Widmer as plural.  Thus in Fong’s reading, the idiot is Baoyu寶玉; in Widmer’s, the obsessed ones are Baoyu寶玉 and Daiyu黛玉.

The third line refers to Shi Xiangyun 史湘雲; who drank too much at a party and left the gathering to nap in the spring breeze.  When her cousins notice that she is gone, they go to find her. Numerous illustrations of Shi Xiangyun史湘雲;  feature this scene, and it is the subject of one of Zhou Qi’s 周綺 poems. The episode in the novel is here. The fact that one of our translators chooses to render shaoyao 芍药 as dahlias and one as peonies shows the difficulty of precise identification of plants.

The sick one in the Xiaoxiang 潇湘 chamber in line four refers to Daiyu.  (David Hawkes translates the name of Daiyu’s residence as Naiad’s House.)  She is ill and alone, in contrast to the lively sociability that surrounds the inebriated Xiangyun.  The poem then moves its focus to Daiyu, her undying love for Baoyu, and the endless stream of tears she weeps. (One of the elements of the cosmic framing of the story that we need to keep in mind as we watch Daiyu weep is that she is the reincarnation of the Crimson Pearl Flower, who owed the stone a debt of tears because it had nourished her with a constant supply of flower.)

The sharpest difference between our translators is in the last two lines.  The Chinese that Fong translates “If you do not believe” and Widmer translates “I do not believe” is two words: buxin 不信. Bu is simply a negative; xin means to believe. There is no subject in the Chinese (classical Chinese does not demand a grammatical subject), so the reader needs to supply a subject.  Both solutions provided by our translators are reasonable solutions, but they provide radically different interpretations of the last two lines.

The phrase “all beauties suffer sad fates” is a cliche which we see often. In Fong’s translation, we see a confirmation of the cliche.  Her Shen Shanbao 沈善宝 says that despite our wanting to disbelieve that all beauties have bad fates, there is much evidence that they do in “ready made patterns and stale compositions.”  Widmer’s interpretation is that the last two lines represent an insertion of Shen Shanbao’s authorial voice–she is saying that she does not believe that beauties suffer a bad fate, and that the texts that say so are well-worn writings which resort to cliches. Widmer’s Shen places Honglou meng in the category of well-worn writings which repeat cliches. In fact, that reading of the last two lines is essential to Widmer’s reading of the poem:  she discusses Shen Shanbao 沈善宝 as one of the rare women to write on the novel who does not fully identify with what Widmer calls the purposes of the novel; she is, in Widmer’s terms, a “resistant” reader.

Grace Fong translation Nannu 283-84;  Ellen Widmer translation in Beauty and the Book 142-43.

More translations of Shen’s poems are available in Chang and Saussy, 552-55. Translations of other poems into German are available at Frauenlyrik. For more information on Shen, see Fong, “Herself an Author” and “Writing Self, Writing Lives.”

The passage from the novel (Chapter 1) which describes the stone.

In the very first chapter of the novel. the Taoist monk Vanitas stumbles upon a stone and notices its inscription:

Vanitas read the inscription through from beginning to end and learned that this was once a lifeless stone block which had been found unworthy to repair the sky, but which had magically transformed its shape and had been taken down by the Buddhist Mahasattva Impervioso and the Taoist Illuminate Mysterioso into the world of mortals, where it had lived out the life of a man before finally attaining nirvana and returning to the other shore. The inscription named the country where it had been born, and went into considerable detail about its domestic life, youthful amours, and even the verses, mottoes and riddles it had written.  All it lacked was the authentication of a dynasty and date. On the back of the stone was inscribed the following quatrain:

Found unfit to repair the mortal sky
Long years a foolish mortal was I.
My life in other worlds on this stone is writ.
Pray who will copy out and publish it?

From his reading of the inscription, Vanitas realized that this was a stone of some consequence. Accordingly he addressed himself to it in the following manner:

“Brother Stone, according to what you yourself seem to imply in these verses, this story of yours contains matter of sufficient interest to merit publication and has been carved here with that end in view.  But as far as I can see (a) it has no discernable dynastic period, and (b) it contains no examples of moral grandeur among its characters—no statesmanship, no social message of any kind. All I can find in it, in fact, are a number of females, conspicuous, if at all, only for their passion or folly or for some trifling talent or insignificant virtue. Even if I were to copy all this out, I cannot see that it would make a very remarkable book.”

“Come, your reverence,” said the stone, (for Vanitas had been correct in assuming that it could speak) “must you be so obtuse?  All the romances ever written have an artificial period setting—Han or Tang for the most part.  In refusing to make use of that stale old convention and telling my Story of the Stone exactly as it occurred, it seems to me that, far from depriving it from anything, I have given it a freshness that these other books do not have.

“Your so-called  ‘historical romances,’ consisting, as they do, of scandalous anecdotes about statesman and emperors of bygone days and scabrous attacks on the reputations of long-dead gentlewomen, contain more wickedness and immorality than I care to mention. Still worse is the  ‘erotic novel,’  by whose filthy obscenities our young folk are all too easily corrupted. And the ‘boudoir romances,’  those dreary stereotypes with their volume after volume all pitched on the same note and their different characters indistinguishable except by name (all those ideally beautiful young ladies and ideally eligible young bachelors)—even they seem unable to avoid descending sooner or later into indecency.

“The trouble with this last kind of romance is that it only gets written in the first place because the author requires a framework in which to show off his love-poems. He goes about constructing this framework quite mechanically, beginning with the names of his pair of young lovers and invariably adding a third character, a servant or the like, to make mischief between them, like the clown in a comedy. What makes these romances even more detestable is the stilted, bombastic language—inanities dressed in pompous rhetoric, remote alike from nature and common sense and teeming with the grossest absurdities.

“Surely my ‘number of females,’ whom I spent half a lifetime studying with my own eyes and ears, are preferable to this kind of stuff? I do not claim that they are better people than the ones who appear in books written before my time; I am only saying that the contemplation of their action and motives may prove a more effective antidote to boredom and melancholy. And even the inelegant verses with which my story is interlarded could serve to entertain and amuse on those convivial occasions when rhymes and riddles are in demand. All that my story narrates, the meetings and partings, the joys and sorrows, the ups and downs of fortune, are recorded exactly as they happened. I have not dared to add the tiniest bit of touching-up, for fear of losing the true picture.

“My only wish is that men in the world below may sometimes pick up this tale when they are recovering from sleep or drunkenness, or when they wish to escape from business worries or a fit of the dumps, and in doing so find not only mental refreshment but even perhaps, if they will heed its lesson and abandon their vain and frivolous pursuits, some small arrest in the deterioration of their vital forces. What does your reverence say to that?”



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