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An Ant on a Hot Pan

Zhang Xiao, from Shanxi series
  • By Cao Xueqin
  • Issue 11
  • FableJuly 2015

紅樓夢 (Hong Lou Meng), often translated as Dream of the Red Chamber, is one of the most beloved novels in Chinese literature, if widely unread in the West. One of the “Four Great Works” that form the backbone of the classical canon, it was written by Cao Xueqin just before his death, in 1763, and is the account of the flowering and decline of the Rong clan, a noble family in the time of the Qing dynasty. The novel focuses on the love between the delicate hero Baoyu and his sickly cousin Lin Daiyu, but also encompasses a sprawling cast and a plot full of tangential storylines and classical poetry. The following extract, from chapter 12, features the brilliant, cruel Wang Xifeng, known familiarly as Sister Feng, whose beauty and strong will are as famed as her love of playing vicious jokes on others—in this instance, her cousin Jia Rui.


Jia Rui waited anxiously until nightfall, then groped his way through the dark towards the Rong mansion. He pushed through the side gate as Sister Feng had instructed and crept into the gallery. It was pitch black and no one was around; the doorway used by Mother Rong was already firmly locked—only the east gate remained opened. Jia Rui waited for a long time, listening carefully, yet no one came. Suddenly he heard a sharp clack: now, even the east gate was locked. Despite his impatience, Jia Rui didn’t dare make the slightest noise; after a while he crept silently from his hiding place towards the gate, giving it a good shake—it was locked, tight as a steel drum. Now he was desperate to get out but there was no escape. From north to south, he was surrounded on all sides by the high walls of the adjacent buildings; even if he jumped there would be no way of clambering up them.

The passageway was desolate and draughty; the weather of the twelfth month was upon them: long nights, the chill of the north wind that cuts through the flesh and splits the bones. You could freeze to death in just one night.

It was nearly daylight when he spotted an old woman walking through the east gate and calling for someone to open the opposite gate. Jia Rui waited for her to turn her back before slipping as swiftly and stealthily as smoke from his hiding place and escaping through the open gate. Fortunately, it was still early and no one was yet awake, and Jia Rui was able to run along the path all the way home.

Jia Rui’s parents had died when he was very young, and it had been left to his paternal grandfather, Dai Ru, to bring him up. Dai Ru had always raised Jia Rui according to the strictest moral standards and never allowed him any freedom, so terrified was he that Jia Rui might neglect his studies in favor of drinking or gambling. Now, seeing that Jia Rui had not come home all night, Dai Ru was certain that he was out misbehaving—betting and frequenting prostitutes. He could never have imagined such a complicated affair had taken place! He had, therefore, been in a rage all night.

Jia Rui was sweating at the thought of facing his grandfather; a lie was inevitable: he said simply that he’d gone to his uncle’s house, and that it got dark and he’d stayed over. Dai Ru said: “From the very beginning, I told you that you are to ask my permission before leaving the house—why did you selfishly stay out the entire night? In view of this you should be punished, especially since you’re lying.” He was so angry that he gave Jia Rui thirty or forty heavy strokes of the cane, forbade him from taking breakfast and ordered him to kneel in the courtyard while reading aloud literary works—the equivalent of ten days’ homework. Jia Rui had just spent all night freezing, and now faced further misery: lying nearly prone in the cold, starving, reciting poetry—such bitter harshness.

Even now, though, Jia Rui’s feelings for Sister Feng remained undimmed; he couldn’t imagine that she could have tricked him. So after two uneventful days, he went in search of her again. Sister Feng pretended to grumble that he had let her down, which so vexed Jia Rui that he was forced to swear vehemently that he had been faithful to her instructions. Sister Feng saw that Jia Rui was walking blindly into her trap, and couldn’t resist thinking of another trick to cure him of his ardor, so she arranged another meeting. “Tonight, don’t wait for me in that place again, go instead to the empty room in the passage behind my quarters and wait till I arrive. Don’t do anything rash.”


“Who’d want to play a trick on you? If you don’t trust me, don’t come.”

“I’ll come, I’ll come! I will definitely be there tonight.”

“Good. Now I think you should leave.”

Jia Rui was certain he would see her that night, and so took his leave swiftly. Sister Feng was thus free to plan her strategy and muster all necessary troops.

Jia Rui could hardly wait for nightfall, but some relatives unexpectedly called in for a visit and stayed until after dinner; the oil lamps were already lit by the time they left. Jia Rui had to wait until his grandfather retired to bed before sneaking away to the Rong mansion, heading straight for the little room in the narrow passageway, where he waited, as agitated as an ant on a hot pan, beside himself with anticipation. He waited and waited, yet could see or hear no one. He thought to himself: “Please don’t let her fail to come. Surely I won’t have to spend another freezing night in the cold?” As he wallowed in these terrible possibilities, he saw a shadowy figure approach. Certain it was at last Sister Feng, Jia Rui cast aside any remaining sense of caution and pounced like a starving tiger, even though the person had barely entered the room. He then embraced her as tightly as a cat seizing a mouse. “Darling Sister, I’ve waited so long for this,” he said as he lifted her onto the bed, kissing her and pulling at her trousers. He muttered nonsensical endearments between kisses, his words slurred and confused.

The recipient of his affection remained utterly silent throughout all of this. Jia Rui ripped off his own trousers and prepared to thrust his erect penis into the other person; but suddenly, a brilliant flash of light—and there was Jia Qiang, holding a candle that lit the room.

“Who’s here?” Jia Qiang demanded.

The person on the bed giggled and said, “Uncle Jia Rui is trying to sodomize me.”

Jia Rui looked at the person: it was Jia Rong. The sight of him made Jia Rui wish the ground would crumble and swallow him up, but there was no hiding place. He was seized with despair and turned to run, but Jia Qiang caught him and held him down.

Photo by Zhang Xiao from the project Shanxi