Xiong Lian 熊璉 poem as endorsement to painting “Twelve Beauties”

Xiong Lian 熊璉 was born in about 1758; she married a man who was disabled and lived in poverty for most of her life. She wrote a number of poems on paintings, several of which are translated in Chang and Saussy–see, for example “Inscription on the Painting ‘Lighting a Lamp to Read the Peony Pavilion ‘”(515) and “Poem on a Painting” (518).

The sun warms the tips of the flowering branches,
Fragrance wafts through the curtains.
It is the height of spring in the Red Chamber.
Passing glasses full of wine,

Laughing and chatting, knowing no sorrow.
Might I ask the of all these beauties,
When the east wind blows, who is most yielding?
All guess that they are immortals come to earth,
Descending on a cranes, to the Yingchou.
Those who are enjoying themselves are already drunk,
Draped on the balustrades,

Like wispy clouds.
Let dancing sleeves lightly turn,
As singing throats slowly croon.
Who said there were women among the books?
In the end they cannot compete with the sensuous refinement those at of Golden Valley.
Most must be beauties paid for by bright pearls,
Flowers and moon are enough for tarrying.

Here is the Chinese text of the poem:


And here is a translation into German, found at this website

Die Sonne wärmt die Spitzen der Blütenzweige
香飘帘幙, Die Vorhänge sind mit Weihrauchduft erfüllt
十分春在红楼。 Es ist ein vollkommener Frühlingstag in der roten Kammer
传杯满酌, Volle Weingläser werden herumgereicht
笑语不知愁。 Lachen, Plaudern, Sorglosigkeit
试问偎红倚翠, Darf ich die Bordellbesucher fragen
东风里谁最温柔。 Welche im Ostwind am sanftesten ist
都猜作神仙谪降, Alle vermuten, es seien auf die Erde gefallene Göttinnen
笙鹤下瀛洲。 Sie seien auf Kranichen reitend nach Yingzhou herab gestiegen
赏心人已醉。 Wer sich an ihnen ergötzte, ist schon betrunken
阑干倚徧。 Und lehnt die ganze Zeit am Geländer
一片云头。 Den Kopf voller Wolken
任轻翻舞袂, Lass ihre Ärmel sanft flattern im Tanz
慢唤歌喉。 Und ihre Singkehlen langsam rufen
谁道书中有女, Wer sagt, die Frauen in Büchern
终输于金谷风流。 Würden am Ende gegen die Romantik im Goldenen Tal verlieren
多应是明珠买艳, Die meisten müssten Schönheiten sein, die nur mit Perlen gekauft werden können
花月尽勾留。 Blüten und Mond lassen sie bis zuletzt verweilen

English translation slightly modified from  Widmer, Beauty and Book, 143-44.

Notes on poem

This is a slightly perplexing poem. Its date of publication, according to Widmer, is 1797, a mere six years after the publication of the novel.

Honglou 紅樓, the first two words of the most common name for the novel and normally translated “Red Chamber,” simply means the women’s quarters.

Jingu 金谷, or Golden Valley, refers to the Golden Valley Garden of Shi Chong, who lived from 249-300.  He was fabulously wealthy. The Jin dynastic history describes him as “a versatile man who had the spirit of a genius; he was bold and never exercised restraint.” It continues to tell us “His mansion was vast and elegant and contained over one hundred women’s apartments.” Thus the women of the Red Chamber are being contrasted with the women of the Golden Valley, and are found to be wanting.

Not only is the poem is rather more erotic than we might expect from a poem about the young women in Honglou meng, but there is a commercial cast to it. The eroticism alone should not put make us suspicious–as Paul Rouzer explains, even Daiyu’s own poems are surprisingly erotic.  Fragrance wafting through curtains has an erotic tinge to it: the Chinese term used for curtains does not specify bed curtains but neither does it preclude it. The east wind often suggests erotic possibilities; we have chosen to translate 溫柔 as yielding rather than as gentle, which underscores the erotic possibilities of the line.

But there is a sense that we are dealing here with commercial transactions. The phrase weihong yicui 偎紅倚翠 which we have translated as “consort with beauties” more normally means to consort with prostitutes. It is a phrase which would not normally be used to describe amorous desires directed toward young women of the upper classes such as those who populate the novel.  Another troubling line is the next to last line, 多應是明珠買艷, which Widmer translates “Most must be beauties paid for by bright pearls.”  A bright pearl (mingzhu 明珠) is of course itself an object of value, but it also refers to a man of talent. These are women who can be paid for, again something that would probably not be said about the women of the garden in Honglou meng.

What do we make of this?  It seems to me that there are two possibilities. The first is that this poem is a critique of the women in the garden, suggesting that they and their charms are in fact not so distant from the commercial world of courtesans. (We know that in the late nineteenth century courtesans in fact appropriated the novel, and took on names of characters: Lin Daiyu was a popular courtesan name, but so was Jia Baoyu.)

But there is a second possibility, which seems more likely to me, which is that this poem is not about Honglou meng at all. There are two aspects which connect it to the novel: the title, and the phrase “Red Chamber”紅樓 in the body of the poem. As we saw above, Red Chamber 紅樓 can simply mean the women’s quarters.  But what about the phrase “twelve beauties” (十二釵)?

The term 12 beauties (十二釵) normally refers to the twelve beauties in Dream of the Red Chamber.  Numerous painters have painted sequences of twelve beauties (not always the same twelve), and it is a logical assumption that it is to one of those paintings, or albums, that Xiong Lian has attached this poem. But it may well be that the painting referred to in the title is not of the 12 beauties from the novel, but rather another set of 12 beauties. The sets of paintings of 12 beauties of Jinling that we know about appear somewhat later than this poem. There are a number of other paintings of “twelve beauties,” which are sometimes called shi’er chai 十二釵. (Sometimes another word for beauty, such as meiren 美人 is used.)  The Yongzheng emperor, for example, commissioned a set of paintings of 12 beautiful women, which were very well known: images are available here. I am not suggesting that it is these paintings that Xiong Lian is writing about; I am simply suggesting that there is a generic category of paintings of 12 beauties that extends beyond the iconic 12 beauties in the novel.

An added note on the phase “bright pearl.”  In chapter 2, we read the following phrase about Daiyu: 夫妻愛之如掌上明珠, which can be literally translated as “Both parents cherished her as if she were a bright pearl in the palm of their hand.”  Hawkes’ translation obscures the metahor by translating the phrase as “Both parents doted on her.”

For further reading on the twelve beauties,  see Wu Hung, “Beyond Stereotypes.”  For the metaphor of a daughter as a pearl in her father’s hand (and other information on father-daugter relations in the Qing dynast)y, see Lu Weijing, “A Pearl in the Palm.”  For more translations of Xiong’s poems. see Chang and Saussy.


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