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Red Chamber’s No. 9 It girl–The illiterate Matriarch-in-waiting 王熙凤/凤辣子

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Arguably one of the most colourful character of them all, the Matriarch-in-waiting is an extremely conniving, calculative, manipulative yet charming character. Her charm is like that of a snake–smooth but deadly. It is for that reason, she was deemed as the chosen matriarch-in-waiting, because she’s diplomatic yet assertive, compromising without being taken advantage of, and she knew when to strike where it hurts. Probably not quite the ideal daughter-in-law in traditional Chinese family in those days though.

Her name itself is full of power and energy, with surname of Wang (ruler/king), xi (related to brightness and sunshine) and feng (phoenix). She would be the first person you’d spot in a crowd because of her flamboyant and showy nature, ostentatious dressing and the natural domineering aura/presence she exudes.

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She’s said to have a pair of almond shaped eyes and thin, high arch brows. “The ever-smiling summer face of hidden thunders showed no trace; the ever-bubbling laughter started almost before the lips were parted” (Hawkes & Minford, 1973, p.45) . Basically, she hides her conniving nature pretty well with her gentle smiles.

An interesting fact about her is, amongst all the It girls, she’s the only one who’s illiterate even though she’s from one of the 4 big families (it’s a myth that in ancient China, it’s a virtue to be illiterate. Well-respected families value education amongst their daughters as well). While everyone like Liwan and likes were busy occupying themselves with poetry club affairs, she was only invited as a patron to fund their activities. She was said to be really strong-willed and naughty as a child, running around like a boy, so the family couldn’t do anything to make her study.

Despite that, she oversaw all the financial affairs of the family, and while she couldn’t read, she had an extremely sharp mind and would listen to the report of accounts while sipping her tea. She could make sense of all the numbers just by listening, and would spot a mistake right away, telling the servant to go back and reconcile the books once more. It’s quite scary to be working for her eh?

And, she’s a loan shark. Hahahah She was definitely quite well-versed in Finance and the concept of cashflow. She would dock the pay of servants, or delay their payment so she could use those money to loan out for high interest returns!

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She would spot any mistake in the accounts just by listening. With a brain like that, who needs accountants! lol

So we know that she was married to a bum, which possibly might be another reason why she was so strong, because she needed to protect her interest. Once, she was slightly tipsy and chanced upon her husband fooling around with a servant maid. She eavesdropped on their conversation on how to get rid of her, and was extremely angry.

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She was actually very emotionally-invested in her husband and her marriage, such that she did not allow any third party into the picture, not under her watch.

Her husband was known to be a philanderer, partly because he could afford to do so, and partly because he was good looking. There was another instance, where her husband secretly married another woman and kept her in hiding in a separate location. When Wang Xifeng found out about it, she hatched a ploy to convince the mistress to live with them in their own household, and eventually drove the mistress to her death under her own watch. She was driven by jealousy and hatred whenever it comes to the other women in her husband’s life.

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She dressed in a very simple wear, to make herself look magnanimous and harmless to the mistress of her husband so she could convince the mistress to stay with them in the family.

One might suspect that someone as testosterone-charged as her, might not be that faithful to her husband after all, especially when he was having multiple affairs all the time.

It might surprise you to know that Wang Xifeng was actually quite faithful to her husband. Never once did she show any sign of straying, or even entertain that thought.

The most amusing encounter of Xifeng was the way she dealt with a distant relative of her husband who lusted after her–quite brilliantly played.

Once he stopped her in the middle of nowhere, and tried to sexually harrass her. Xifeng tried to get herself out of the situation by pretending to be interested in him as well, and asked him to meet her at a secluded area another night. He turned up all excited that night, and waited the whole winter night only to be stood up. He confronted her a few days later, at which point Xifeng (realising he totally missed her point, and didn’t learn from the previous incident) said she was there that night, except that he was late for the appointment. So she told him to meet her again at the same place at night.

Shame on him if she fooled him twice, and indeed so. He saw someone dressed like Xifeng in the rendezvous spot, and rushed up and started groping ‘her’. It turned out to be another man in the family, and at which point, a third man of the family ran out and poured poo all over him! They also made him sign a Credit Note of 200 taels of silver (which is a large sum that he could not possibly repay).

After he got home, he fell gravely ill because of all his emotional trauma and fear, he also couldn’t tell his own family since he was too ashamed of what happened. His only chance of survival came when a soothsayer appeared with an ancient mirror, and told him to look into the back of the mirror daily if he wanted to survive this ordeal and NEVER to flip the mirror around.

Fate had it that he was not meant to survive this, for when he looked into the back of the mirror, he saw skeletons and when he flipped it around, he saw the woman of his dream Xifeng in the mirror, undressing herself. So he spent the remaining of his days looking into the woman of his dream, and died of exhaustion/over exertion.

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To survive, he had to look at the back of the mirror, the side that showed him a skeleton, for days. Instead, he chose to end his life prematurely by looking at the front of the mirror where he would see the woman of his dream undressing herself.

The ending of such a cunning and shrew woman, was naturally not good. Because of her unforgiving nature, she made lots of enemies. So when the family fell from grace, no one extended their helping hand to her, and her daughters Qiaojie was sold to the brothel. She was also divorced by her husband, and her maid became the official wife.

Another memorable scene that reminded one of the importance of being kind was her uncovering a jade pendant that she lost many years ago, hidden under snow. Because of this incident, she actually chased away a maid in the family, as she suspected her of theft.

The depth of stories, and character development surrounding Wang Xifeng are extremely intricate and complex, and it really brings you on an emotional roller coaster ride from hating her ruthlessness, to loving her wittiness, from having slight thrill at her misfortune to empathising with her final predicament. You can recognise this character from a mile away, in whichever edition of Dream of the Red Chamber you watch.

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2 Replies to “Red Chamber’s No. 9 It girl–The illiterate Matriarch-in-waiting 王熙凤/凤辣子”

  1. Best of all, we knew she really existed. All of them are probably based on a real life person/people, but Xifeng is especially so. There’s this commentary written into the book by someone (likely Red Inkstone) about how he was there when that scene was going on, helping the real life Xifeng write the names of opera scenes to be put up (or something of that nature).

    She really is very well fleshed-out as a character. Neither pure evil/good nor did the author gloss over her wrongdoings.

    Like

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