Since the pandemic began, I haven’t been able to travel back to China; but naturally my thoughts have returned there. There is one place in particular my mind often drifts to...
Once, in 2009, during the height of the sweltering summer heat, when the air was thick with oppressive moisture, my art teacher Chen Xiaolin invited me to his summer house in Shangzhuang, in the north-west outskirts of Beijing. Here my teacher had built his rustic idyll; his own little peach blossom spring, a house he called Jing zhu tang or Hall of the Silent Bamboo. A small house with a vegetable garden in the front and a bamboo grove in the back. Inside there was an airy painting studio with large windows facing the bamboo grove.
After we had sipped some chrysanthemum tea and painted some bamboo and orchids with ink, he wanted to show me somewhere which he said was related to China’s most famous novel, the Dream of the Red Mansions. He drove me to nearby Yongtai village, covered in brown and yellow dust. Occasionally we drove past a seller of watermelons sitting half asleep by their stalls, forever hoping someone will stop on the road to buy one.
As I was enjoying the car’s air conditioning, we eventually slowed before a wild and unkept patch of land, with tall grass and overgrown bushes. We got out of the cool air to face the stifling hot air that made our clothes cling to our bodies. No breeze. Just the deafening sound of screeching cicadas.
We faced a dilapidated building that seemed to have been undisturbed for centuries. The walls were painted vermillion red, the roof tiles peaking above were grey. This was the family temple of the Manchu bannerman and poet Nalan Xingde (1655-1685), although at the time I was mistaken in thinking it was his mansion.
As we entered through the main gate and entered a courtyard, to our left was a two-storey drum tower covered in moss. The sonorous sound of the drums and bronze bells were used to mark the beginning and end of the day for the temple community and kept time. Some surviving bronze bell inscriptions state the sound could even be heard by the dead in hell and inspire the chanting of Buddha’s name that brought salvation.
Continuing north through the complex one comes across a central building with an elaborately carved dragon arch above which is carved ‘Gate of Gazing at Mt Tai’ (瞻岱之門 Dandai zhi men).
As I looked up, I puzzled for a time what this could mean? It was not there by accident. Dandai, was also the name of Nalan Xingde’s grandson, so it could be read literally as ‘Dandai’s Gate’. There is another layer though. This inscription can also be found in another temple in Beijing; the Dongyuemiao, where visitors are actively encouraged to reflect on how their deeds would be judged after death by the God of Mt Tai. In other words, this gate is a marker that you are entering the porous opening between this world and the next, to face the God who will judge you. With the vision of demons, Gods, heaven and hell, I continued.
Past this hall one enters into another larger courtyard with overgrown weeds and hedges before a larger main building. The hum of cicadas now reached a crescendo and the mosquitoes became more aggressive. A shirtless old man, almost as ancient as the building, was sitting quietly on the stone verandah, enjoying the cool shade of the hall. He wasn’t expecting us and abruptly got up and left, although we motioned for him to stay, his privacy was disturbed and he was seemingly embarrassed by his partial nudity.
I wandered around the compound, feeling the old masonry. Although the temple had long fallen into decay and ruin, the stone masonry exhibited the exquisite craftsmanship of the Qing dynasty: meticulously carved reliefs of scrolling lotus, writhing chilong dragons and auspicious ruyi-heads. Here the glory of the house of Nalan could still be seen. While breathing in the heady dust of the 17th century in this ruin, one can sense the greatness of those noble bannerman families. Only here, away from the noise and crowds, can the world of the novel, the Dream of the Red Mansions still be truly evoked. Since that time, I tried to understand the relationship between the poet Nalan Xingde and that great novel.
Nalan Xingde was one of the greatest poets of the Qing dynasty and revived the genre of Ci lyric poetry that had reached it’s apex during the Song Dynasty. He was born in Beijing to a powerful Manchu family that belonged to the Plain Yellow Banner of the Eight Banners. The Banners were created in the 17th century as military units, designed to weld together the fragmented and diverse peoples of Manchuria, including Jurchens (later renamed as Manchus), Mongols and Han. Indeed, in the early days of the Qing dynasty, ethnic boundaries were more fluid. After the Manchu conquest of China in 1644, they did not disband but continued to form the basic organisational framework for all Manchu society. The bannermen, in a sense, became the new administrative and military elite. Cao Xueqin’s family, the main author of the Dream of the Red Mansions, belonged to the Plain White Banner.
Nalan Xingde’s family, however, held a higher social status than Cao Xueqin’s family. While Cao’s family were technically bondservants, highly esteemed slaves of the emperor whose livelihoods rested entirely on his goodwill; the Nalan clan by contrast was directly related to the Imperial clan. Nalan’s father Mingju was a Grand Secretary and was second cousin to the Shunzhi Emperor, while his mother was a first cousin to the Emperor. Nalan Xingde was brought up with all the advantages of his birth and was taught riding and archery as well as poetry and prose. It was his talent for poetry though that would create his literary reputation before he passed away from illness at the age of 30.
Xingde’s poems are elegant and richly evocative in sound, rhythm and meaning and always contained a profoundly sad and stirring emotion. In his collection of poems known as ‘Drinking Water Lyrics’ (飲水詞) he wrote:
擁余香冷不勝， Embracing me with cold fragrance I cannot bear,
殘更數盡思騰騰。 in the remaining hours endlessly lost in thought.
今宵便有隨風夢， Tonight then I shall have a carefree dream,
知在紅樓第幾層？ which floor will you be in the Red Mansion?
Allegedly, Xingde was in love with a cousin who was selected for service in the Palace and he never saw her again. Some attribute his premature death to this sense of loss and longing.
What was the connection with this poet and the novel though? Some believed that Nalan Xingde was the prototype for the Dream of the Red Mansions protagonist Jia Baoyu. Indeed, both were emotional and poetic individuals from wealthy families that were in love with love and met with disappointment.
Although I do not believe that Xingde was the model for Jiao Baoyu, he does reflect the integration of Han and Manchu cultures. And the world of Nalan Xingde is very much the world of the Dream of the Red Mansions. Nalan Xingde had served the Kangxi Emperor together with Cao Xueqin’s grandfather Cao Yin, and indeed they studied together. Both Xingde and Cao Yin were confident and strided both Han and Manchu cultures. If one wants to better understand this novel, one must come to Nalan Xingde’s family temple in Yongtai. Since that trip to Nalan Xingde’s temple, I frequently dreamt of returning to this forgotten, untouched, and peaceful part of Beijing.