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Red Chamber’s No. 1 It girl–The Ethereal Snowflake林黛玉

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Between duty and love, which would you choose? It might seem like a no-brainer for many of us today, but for a traditional Chinese man schooled in classics and brought up with all the expectations, it’s not an easy one for Baoyu, the male protagonist (also the author, this book is a fictionalised autobiography). For this reason, he put the two together in first place, almost as if the two shared a complementary existence–equal but opposite.

Daiyu (David Hawkes translated the name to Black Jade, I’m a bit iffy about this translation) is a character that evokes extreme reactions from readers–either you really like her because you could relate to her extremely emotional disposition and appreciated her talent and strong will, or you are really annoyed by her constant sobbing, petty angers, and self-centered snowflake behaviours. I might even go one step further to say, Snowflakes would appreciate Snowflakes, and haters gonna hate!

Daiyu-6finalShe was related to the Big 4 family on her mom’s side (her mom’s the youngest daughter of the dowager of the house), and her dad came out third in the imperial examination so was a learned man turned court official. Her mom passed away when she was only 6/7 years old, and her dad brought her up until about 10 before she was sent to live with her maternal grandma (the Dowager of the house) because her granny thought she would like to dote on her and bring her up on behalf of her mom.

If you compare her to Shi Xiangyun, the bubbly tomboy who also grew up in another household without her own parents, you would find that Daiyu had a much better life (having an attendant and didn’t need to do any household chores). Despite that, she was constantly unhappy about her situation or how she was being treated. She most likely had a victim mentality and was probably extremely pampered by her dad as we all know how dads dote on daughters (and she grew up as the only child to a single dad).

Daiyu-7finalShe was described as having exceptional beauty (unlike her fellow No. 1 Baochai who wasn’t the most beautiful looking of the lot, but whose virtuous and pleasant character bumped her up to be the Queen Bee) and likened to many of the well-known beauties throughout Chinese history. She was said to have a constantly frowning brow, a pair of eyes that was full of stories, a delicate and frail body, soft spoken and teary-eyed….you get the drift.

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She would constantly be ruminating on things that happened between her and the male protagonist, or how others treated her, or how others thought of her vs The Other Girl/love rival.

Ultimately, she was really just a teenager going through puberty, falling in love with the most popular guy, and getting all emotional about it while half-dating him. That’s how I felt about the entire episode surrounding her, from the many times she had heart-to-heart talk with the male protagonist, to the many times she got angry with him or others due to her insecurity… I think we’ve all been through that disastrous first relationship as a teen, which we looked back and though was beautiful but unnecessarily painful. There were many arguments because of the insecurities, the jealousies, the fear of losing the male protagonist.

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Romance of the Western Chamber had its origin in Tang dynasty in The story of Ying Ying(circa 8th century), and was popularised in Yuan dynasty (Mongolian rule about 14th century) when it was adapted into opera plays and its ending changed from the original tragic one to a happy one (yes, everyone likes a happy ending regardless of culture and time period). The popularisation and adaption is somewhat like how Disney popularised the Grimm brothers’ fairytales.

She was a romantic, and quite advance in her perception of freedom to love. In the past, women did not have a choice who they marry, especially women from the wealthier families because the family needed to balance their socio-political needs when deciding their marriage options. Daughters (even in the imperial court) were often used as political tools through marriages. Daiyu was hooked to the book Romance of the West Chamber, a story that revolved about young couple fighting for their love against the repressive society and system of duties and hierarchies (and eventually triumphing). Her addition to the book and its values is like how many were addicted to teenage drama shows growing up–because they smoke to our inner souls and expounded the new and foreign emotions and experiences at that point in life.

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While Snowflake seemed to be aloof and arrogant (seems like a common trait amongst the talented and rich kids in this story), she cared a lot about what others think of her, how she was being treated, and how others think of others. She’s basically extremely sensitive and an over-thinker.

Her insecurity was in part due to the existence of a strong rival–Baochai (Queen Bee) who came from a much more influential family and was extremely popular amongst everyone. It seemed as though everyone else were rooting for the love rival to get together with the male protagonist. As such, Baoyu often got into argument with the male protagonist over her insecurity and jealous emotions.

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The Romance of the Western Chamber was a forbidden book in the past, especially in good families because it depicted young couple pursuing secret love affair disregarding their social expectations and duties, and engaging in pre-marital sex.

Another way of looking at the constant sobbing of Daiyu, was from a more cosmic point of view (which was how the author approached it too). It was mythologised /romanticised in the book through the story of the carer and the celestial plant. Daiyu was the reincarnation of the celestial plant, cared for by the past life of Baoyu. She owed her life to him for the constant water he gave to her as the celestial plant grew and bloomed and eventually turned into a lady. When he reincarnated, she followed suit and her current life as Daiyu was to repay water with tears.

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The tears she cried weren’t really supposed to be selfish tears. They were tears of gratitude, as an attempt to repay the male protagonist for his love.

There’s always a gardener and a celestial plant in every relationship. The gardener would shower the plant with attention and love, while the plant would enjoy the attention and bloom. It’s a special bond that outsiders would not be able to rationalise, and it gives both a purpose and meaning in that relationship.

Who’s your gardener, and do you have a celestial plant?

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