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Friday, 23rd July 2010

Dreaming River South

I went to a concert the other day, which featured music by Finnish and Chinese composers to commemorate in Hong Kong the 60th anniversary of Finland-China relations.

Of the Finnish composers, Jean Sibelius, of 'Finlandia' fame, is probably the best known. His music that evening, The Lover Suite, though not frequently performed here, is nothing short of a gem.

Remember the Red Chamber, composed by Tung Chao-ming based on original themes created by Wang Liping years ago, is a nice surprise. Its beautiful but subtle and melancholic melodies came out naturally from the cello of Trey Lee, exquisitely complemented by The Avanti! Chamber Orchestra (Finland) under the baton of Dmitri Slobodeniouk. I asked myself why I had not heard them before. Little wonder that the work would hit the top classical music list quite soon.

The book Dream of the Red Chamber by 18th century writer Cao Xueqin (1715?-1763?) is well known. The Cao family had long been servants to the Qing court and, through trust by the royalty, became a revered one in Nanjing by the time of Cao's great grandfather. Cao's grandfather, Cao Yin, was a playmate to Emperor Kangxi (1654-1722) when they were young. During his reign Kanxi visited the Nanjing region six times, four of which were hosted by the Cao family.

Cao's grandfather, Cao Yin was acquainted with Nalan Xingde (1655-1685), often known as the best ci(1) poet in the Qing period. Cao Yin once wrote: "Every household vies to sing the Drinking Water Ci, but who really knows Nalan's broodings?"(2) Nalan's Drinking Water Ci collection was already widely circulated at the time.

Figure 1     Nalan Xingde (courtesy :
Figure 1      Nalan Xingde (courtesy :

Nalan's father, Nalan Mingzhu, was Grand Secretary to the emperor and was very powerful in the court. Reflective and deeply passionate, Nalan himself enjoyed a literary reputation well before passing the palace examination at 22. Proficient in military skills and similar in age and closely associated with Emperor Kangxi, he was subsequently promoted to the rank of first-class bodyguard. 'Nalan' was Manchurian translated into Chinese, and was the same as 'Nara', a surname probably best associated with the family of Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908).

Nalan was deeply in love with his wife, who died in childbirth barely three years into their marriage. Many of Nalan's ci poems were reminiscent of the love, longing and grief for her.

Nalan had many literary friends, most of them having served the old Ming dynasty or of revered families. He was sympathetic to them, sometimes in the form of political protection or financial assistance.

Pick any of Nalan's many ci poems and it will not disappoint. Let's read his Dreaming River South(3):

     "Crows gone in the evening,
      Standing alone but not sure longing for whom.
      Sudden snow turns up catkins on the chamber,
      A light breeze blows on plum blossoms in the vase.
      The heart-shaped incense has since turned into ash."

According to ci poetry interpreters, there is a story to the 'snow' and 'catkins' in the poem. Snow means snowflakes, while catkins refer to those of willows. In the East Jin period (265-420), the prime minister Xie An (320-385) while watching snow in the courtyard asked what best described snowflakes. His son said it would be like throwing salt into air, and everybody laughed. At this moment, his niece, Xie Daoyun, suggested that snowflakes were akin to willow catkins thrown up by the wind. This comparison left people mesmerized for a thousand years. She later married into the prominent Wang family. Hence the poem:

"Swallows from the halls of Wang and Xie in their heyday,
Now fly into the homes of ordinary people." (Liu Yuxi 772-842, Tang period)

On average a couple of degrees (Celsius) lower than the present, older-day Nanjing were built with ice cellars during 3rd to 5th century to preserve food. With climate change, the number of snow days nowadays has decreased significantly to about 7 days in a year.

Now back to Cao Xueqin. The Cao family's fortunes had reversed when Cao was very young. Nalan already passed away (aged 30). However, the legends of the Nalan family may have left their imprint on him. "There will be dreams by the wind tonight, And who knows what floor in the Red Chamber they will be." "Listening to the nocturnal rain at the frontier, Takes me back to the Red Chamber lamps in the middle of night." All these references to dreams and the Red Chamber were Nalan's words.

Little surprise, then, when Emperor Qianglong (1711-1799) read the Dream of the Red Chamber, he sighed and asked "Were these not (Nalan) Mingzhu's family stories?"

B.Y. Lee


(1) ci - a kind of lyric Chinese poetry, characterized by lines of irregular lengths. Typically the number of characters in each line and the arrangement of tones were determined by one of around 800 set patterns, each associated with a particular title, called cipai.
(2) Please forgive my poor translation of ci poems in this blog.
(3) Dreaming River South - a cipai. 'River South' means the geographic area to the south of the lower reaches of the Yangtze River. Nanjing ranks among the most important cities in the area.


(a) Wikipedia
(b) "Commenting the ci poems of Nalan", Zhang Caoren, Shanghai Old Books Publishing Co., 1995 (in Chinese)
(c) "Interpreting the ci poems of Nalan", Su Ying, Shaanxi University of Education Publishing Co., 2008 (in Chinese)

Last revision date: <17 Jan 2013>