Song Mingqiong 宋鳴瓊: “On Dream of the Red Chamber” 题红楼梦

Song Mingqiong 宋鳴瓊 was born in 1750 and died in 1820.   Her courtest name is Wanxian 婉仙.

“On Dream of the Red Chamber”

Startled from a good dream to return to reality, a bad dream run its course.
There is in this all the great [world of] feeling.
The high wind has no regard for the foolish passions of boys and girls,
And blows them to the edge of illusory flowers and the moon in the water.

She is ill:  How can we begrudge her pearl-like tears?
Day after day, she knits her brows, expressing her feelings in sighs.
Her ancient fragrant soul is extinguished with the kalpa
No one looks  for a hoe to bury the flowers.

I want to tell, yet keep back, regrets and pity.
With him, who follows your person and chases your shadow, there are yet no karmic ties.
From the beginning of time a single tree cannot become one with entwined trunks.
Since when has sweet dew [from the bodhisattva’s willow branch] brought the bliss [denied to those with deep feeling]?

To the illusory realm, emptied of emptiness, is entrusted the illusory body.
Bewildered, wavering, he knows not how to cross the Ford of Delusion.
Cutting through it all, there is only the mandarin duck sword.
For those thousands of [entangled] threads of longing–a quest for one who understands.

Li Kan reads Song Mingqiong’s poetic sequence “On Dream of Red Chamber” in Chinese.









Notes on the poems:

First of all, this is a sequence of four inter-related poems, rather than one poem with a consistent narrative line.

Second poem: The phrase in the third line translated as “fragrant soul” is chun hun 春魂, which literally means spring soul. While fragrance is one of the attributes of spring, so is youth.  The phrase translated “her ancient fragrant soul” (qian sui chun hun 千嵗春魂) thus could be read to mean that her soul is both ancient and young.

The next line, “No one looks for a hoe to bury the flowers” refers to the scene in the novel (and in the opera) where Daiyu buries flowers.

Third poem: The word translated “tell” in the opening to the third poem line is tu 吐, which literally means to spit out, and the word translated as “hold back” is 茹, which literally means to eat or to swallow. Thus there is a visceral quality to the original that is hard to convey in the English.  The person who follows her person and chases her shadow is Baoyu.

In the next line, the entwined trunks refer to conjugal happiness.

In the final poem, the reference to the mandarin duck sword operates at several levels: the pages of the novel which tell the story are reproduced below.  Liu Xianglian 柳湘蓮 has given the sword as a pledge that he will marry You Sanjie 尤三姐; when he reneges on the pledge to marry her because he doubts her virtue, she uses the sword to kill herself. In his mind, this act confirms her virtue.  An excerpt from the novel containing the story is in the text box below.

The final two lines of the poem connect the story of Sanjie 三姐 to the main story of Baoyu 寶玉 and Daiyu 黛玉 and reinforce the message about the nature of illusion and the problem in an illusory world of finding one who truly knows one.


Translation of the poem is slightly modified from  Widmer,  Beauty and the Book, 140-41.

Text from Chapter 66: You Sanjie and the Duck and Drake Swords (David Hawkes translation)

In chapter 66 of the novel, Jia Lian and Jia Zhen are anxious to find a husband for You Sanjie, the sister of You Erjie, whom Jia Lian has secretly married. Sanjie is extraordinarily beautiful and extraordinarily strong-willed.  She announces that there is only one man she will marry–Liu Xianglian. Jia Lian and Jia Zheng arrange the match, and Xianglian gives them a pair of Duck and Drake swords, a family heirloom, as his pledge that he will marry Sanjie. 

When the greetings and routine questionings were over, he told the sisters about his encounter with Liu Xianglian and getting the Duck and Drake swords out of his luggage, he handed them to Sanjie to take care of. Sanjie first examined the scabbard,  It was embossed with a design of interlacing dragons and sea monsters and encrusted all over with jewels. Then she took out the swords, identical except that one had the character “Duck” and the other “Drake” engraved on its blade. And what blades! Cold, cruel, glittering with the cold brightness of autumn waters. Sanjie was enraptured by them.  She put them both back into their scabbard and carried them off to her own room where she hung them up over her bed.  Thereafter she would look up at them from time to time and smile, happy in the knowledge that her future was assured.

But it was not to be.  Liu Xianglian heard things that made him want to renege on his commitment to marry Sanjie.  He says:

“The only clean things about that Ningguo House are the stone lions that stand outside the gate.  The very cats and dogs are corrupted.”

When he decides he cannot go through with the marriage and hence must ask for the pledge back, Jia Lian attempts to dissuade him.

Now look here, young Liu, this won’t do, you know!  A pledge is a pledge. The whole idea of it is to guard against people having second thoughts like this.  An engagement to marry isn’t something you can just jump into and out of at will.  I’m afraid what you are proposing is quite impossible.”

Xianglian smiled patiently.

“No doubt you are in the right, and I am perfectly prepared for you to reproach me; but I am afraid I cannot go through with this marriage under any circumstances.

Jia Lian seemed about to argue, but Xianglian frustrated him by rising to his feet.

“Could we discuss this somewhere else please?  It isn’t very convenient talking about it here.”

You Sanjie is holding the Drake Sword, about to kill herself.
This is an image of You Sanjie about to kill herself from Honglou meng tuyong.

You Sanjie had been able to hear the whole of this conversation quite clearly from her room. She had waited so long for Xianglian and now that at last he had come, he was rejecting her. It must be because of something he had heard about her in the Jia mansion. He probably thought of her as a shameless wanton, the sort of woman who throws herself at men, unworthy to be his wife. If she allowed the two men to go off together, there was little likelihood that Jia Lian could do anything to stop him from breaking off the engagement; and even if he tried arguing with him, the probable outcome would only be further damage to her reputation. As soon, therefore, as she heard Jia Lian agreeing to go outside with him, she snatched the swords from the wall, and having first drawn out the Duck and hidden it behind her back, she hurried into the sitting-room to see them.

You Sanjie from Aying
This picture of You Sanjie shows her on an ascent heavenward, which makes quite clear her ethical superiority to those who surround her. It was first published in the 1791 edition of the novel.

“There is no need for you to go out and discuss anything,” she said. “Here is your pledge back.”

The tears were pouring down her cheeks like rain. She held out the scabbard with the single sword in her left hand. As   Xianglian took it, she whipped the other sword out with her right hand and slashed it across her throat. It was all over in a moment.

“Red scatter of broken blossoms, and the jade column fallen,
Never to rise again.”

The terrified servants made futile attempts to resuscitate her, but she was already dead. Old Mrs. You wept and screamed, breaking off from time to time to inveigh against Xianglian as a murderer. Jia Lian seized hold of Xianglian and called for someone to bring a rope, intending to tie him up and take him to the yamen; but Erjie checked her weeping and did her best to dissuade him.

“He didn’t force her to do it, it was her own decision. What good will taking him to the yamen do? We don’t want a public scandal on top of everything else. Much better let him go.”

Jia Lian, whose resolution seemed temporarily to have deserted him, let go of Xianglin automatically, but Xianglian made no attempt to escape.

“I didn’t know she was like this,” he said, weeping. “She had a noble heart. It wasn’t my luck to have her.”

He lifted up his own voice then and wept, as if he had been weeping for his bride. He stayed with the family until the coffin had been bought and Sanjie laid inside it; and when the lid was closed over her, he threw himself on it and clung to it for a long time weeping. Only then did he tale leave of them, walking along out of the gate, blinded by his tears and scarcely knowing where he was going.

As he walked along in a daze, his thoughts full of Sanjie’s rare combination of beauty and resoluteness which he had so wantonly rejected, one of Xue Pan’s little pages came looking for him to take him to his new house. Xianglian was too distracted to pay the boy much attention and allowed himself to be led there by the hand. It was a pleasant, well-appointed little house. While he and the page stood waiting in the sitting-room, he heard a little tinkling noise–the sound made by the girdle-gems of a hurrying woman–and Sanjie came into it from the outside. She had the Duck cradled in her right arm. Her left hand was holding some sort of album or ledger.

“I loved you for five years,” she said. (The tears were still running down her cheeks.) “I did not know that your heart was as cold as your face. It was a foolish love, and I have paid for it with my life. Now I am ordered to go to the Fairy Disenchantment’s tribunal in the Land of Illusion to keep the records of the other lovers who are under her jurisdiction. But I could not bear to leave without seeing you just once more before I go. After this I shall never see you again.”

She began to go, but Xianglian wanted to question her and tried to stop her going. She spoke again, but this time it sounded more like an incantation.

“From love I came; from love I now depart. I wasted my life for love, and now that I have woken up, I am ashamed of my folly. From now on we are nothing to each other, you and I–nothing.”

A little gust of wind with a faint fragrance on it seemed to blow past him as she uttered these last words, and the very next moment she had vanished.

The Chinese text (from the Chinese Text Project) can be found here and is pasted below.







Biographical material on Song (work in progress)

A short biography of Song is available in the Guochao guige shichao 國朝閨閣詩鈔 (edited by Cai Daiqi, 蔡殿齊  1844) which is available at the Ming Qing Women’s Writing Database.


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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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