Have you ever looked back on your teenage hood and thought you might have treated that 1 particularly socially awkward person, ostracised by everyone in class, differently? A bit kinder, less cruel pranks and more empathetic? I know I do. Looking back, those big personality flaws which I so disdained as a teenager really didn’t justify the treatment they received back then.
The story of Miaoyu is the perfect example of someone who was socially awkward due to her upbringing, disdained by everyone, but repaid their cruelty with kindness. Really a guilt-tripping story for me.
At first glance, it would be easy to dismiss Miaoyu as someone with the worst EQ of the lot, isolated from the rest in her ivory tower. She displayed an attitude of aloofness and arrogance, judgemental and elitist. Even Li Wan, the character with the highest EQ detested her. But there has to be something more to her, that redeems her from all these apparent flaws, for her to be listed as one of the top girls in the story (higher rank than many others too!). This is especially considering that she was an outsider to the family and did not come from any of the BIG-4 families, so this is where it all gets interesting.
Miaoyu is the only character gifted with a Greek/English name by sinologist David Hawkes who translated this novel in the 70s to 80s period, and whose version of translation was used as a gift by the Chinese government to Queen E II during a diplomatic visit. He called her Adamantina–Adamant + female. If there’s one word to describe her, I would actually use “Exquisite”.
Growing up in a Buddhist monastery (She got to keep her hair, unlike Xichun earlier who shaved her head to become a nun), not by any choice of her own, Miaoyu lead a very pristine life. She was extremely selective and particular about her companions, and lacked social interactions with people outside of her social class or circle. Not much was said about her family, except that they were influential and wealthy. She was physically weak as a child so the family would resort to superstitious methods to ensure her health being such as this custom called “Getting a Replacement”. It’s a practice by the rich and influential (cos only they could afford it) to buy a child off the market with similar date and time of birth (bazi) as their own child, and raise them up in close proximity so in the event the evil spirits/sickness/death came to claim them, the replacement’s life would be taken instead. Clearly this didn’t work for Miaoyu, and that’s when the family decided to give her up to live in the monastery. But some believed that she was sent to the monastery to escape from persecution as her family fell from grace.
It’s easy to see how someone would turn out the way Miaoyu did when you grew up unaccompanied by anyone of you own age, and completely uninformed of how society and people-to-people relationships functioned out there. And because she was from a very influential and wealthy family, naturally she was surrounded by finesse, however plain they might appear to the uninitiated. In fact, unlike how people assumed that the rich in China must’ve been really flashy and had a really kitschy taste (loud and flamboyant), the really cultured and wealthy families had very exquisite and fine tastes to differentiate themselves from the nouveau riche(example ensues in a while). Today, the Chinese would call it Understated Luxury 低调的奢华 😛
Her no.1 love in life was tea, to the point that it seemed a little pretentious (a little was an understatement actually). Besides the use of tea leaves and tea wares, she was also particular about the type of water used. It ranged from the rainwater from the past year to melted snow collected on plum blossoms atop a mountain 3 years ago. When she first served tea to the male protagonist and gang, they asked if it was made with water dissolved from the newly fallen snow, to which Miaoyu chided “How crass! It’s made from snow that landed on plum blossoms in the monastery 3 years ago.” That was how particular she was about things, to the point of being OCPD (decided to distinguish it from OCD because didn’t want to be so dismissive about mental health issues and use the term OCD frivolously. The difference can be found in detail HERE).
On top of that, the person whom she called “crass” was Daiyu, someone who was hailed as having the finest literary talent in the household! So she definitely didn’t give a hoot about who she was speaking to.
In case you are also wondering about the hygiene of things, I don’t think there was much pollution back then, so the story certainly didn’t end with drinking tea prepared from such water source. It was said that tea made from such snow-melted water has an extra lightness to its taste *shrug*.
Miaoyu was a largely ostracised and widely criticised character because of her elitism. And Chinese readers especially didn’t like the way she seemed to look down on the poor and working class. When a distant visitor from the countryside went to visit the Dowager of the household, Miaoyu served them tea in very fine teawares. After finishing the tea, her attendant asked what she wanted to do with the teaware. She told the attendant to throw the teacup that was used by the distant visitor away as she felt it would’ve been too tainted and dirty for her future use.
Despite her apparent aloofness, she tried really hard to make friends with the other girls and the male protagonist, by inviting them to her place for tea, and showing them the fine teaware and collections she had. I think she really didn’t know how to make friends and deep down she longed to be accepted and loved.
She was a lonely child, and even though she was never taught about love, nor exposed to it as a child (as she grew up all alone), she did not know how to express her emotions and was completely unaware of her feelings for the male protagonist (although it was really apparent to everyone else in the family). She (open)-secretly liked him and would try all kinds of ways (like a typical teenager) to try to impress him, albeit in a really childish manner. For instance, when he came for tea, she would flaunt that use of water from 3 years ago, or let them use exceptionally fine tea ware (according to her, one would struggle to find anything of that level of finesse in the entire household of his, and yes she kind of humble-bragged, often). Of course, these were all lost on the male protagonist who thought they were using more inferior teaware than the ones she used to serve the dowager of the household earlier on. I suppose that was how the top 0.1% distinguish themselves from the top 1%–using really obscure items and flaunting really obscure knowledge.
I have a lot of sympathy for Miaoyu, because she’s like the social outcast in the family (though she probably didn’t mind, and she wasn’t aware of that concept), and people kind of made fun of her in various ways. Once, the male protagonist came out last in the poetry challenge, and Li Wan (the high EQ widow) said that she simply disliked Miaoyu, so as a PUNISHMENT, the male protagonist was to go to Miaoyu’s courtyard and request from her for a stalk of red plums. It was an open secret that Miaoyu held special feelings for the male protagonist (everyone knew except Miaoyu herself), so Li Wan’s open declaration of her disdain and her challenge to Baoyu kind of constituted a bully/ostracising behaviour. She probably wanted to see how Miaoyu would react, or how things would turn out–a bit of a mean-spirited voyeur really.
After the fall of the grand household, it was suggested that she wasn’t able to retain her chastity. There were theories by academics that she gave herself up as a sacrificial lamb to some influential family as concubine or others, in order to save or redeem the male protagonist. So in that way, if you put her side by side with Li Wan, Miaoyu was actually a lot more emotionally invested in the people around her. Li Wan just wanted to get ahead in her own life.
People are never quite what they seem. Someone as socially awkward and snobbish might be really lonely deep down, in which case your friendship would mean a lot to those than the popular kids.
PS:I got a little too excited and mixed up the sequence, so here’s the actual No. 6, but since a mistake has been made the sequence shall remain as so.
PPS: Someone wrote to me to say she suspects that Miaoyu might be high-functioning autistic, which might explain why she was particular about the way certain things are done. I don’t know much about Autism so I can’t really comment, but I thought that might be an interesting angle to look at it. Perhaps when I know more, I might be able to write yet another article from a different angle!