The Mirror and Chinese Aesthetics – A Study of the Hongloumeng 紅樓夢

A Study of the Hongloumeng 紅樓夢

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Monika Motsch

1. Traditional Forms of the Mirror Image

One of the five alternate titles of the Hongloumeng is Fengyue baojian  風月寶鑒, “The Erotic Mirror”. This image, which has a long tradition in Chinese literature, provides not only a key to the interpretation of the novel but also to an important concept of Chinese aesthetics.

Chinese bronze mirrors are mentioned for the first time in 672 B.C. in Zuozhuan. Presumably they came into existence much earlier than that. In literature the mirror can take on the most diverse meanings. It serves as a means for the investigation of the self and of others, for the representation of love and death. It can symbolize self-knowledge and self-deception, the world that appears to us or the world beyond.

The mirror is a myth of creation: As the World Creatress Nüwa saw herself reflected in a lake one day and felt lonely, she grasped a handful of mud and formed human beings after her own image.

Magic mirrors have been a popular motif in folk literature since the Jin and Tang Dynasties. They can cure deseases, exorcise ghosts and even, like X-rays, make innards visible.

Confucians, on the other hand, applied the motif with a moral turn for the differentiation between good and evil. Already in the Shujing 書經 there appeared the moral injunction that a ruler should approach his subjects as he would a mirror. When the tyranny of a king was “mirrored” in the poverty and suffering of his people, then he would lose his heavenly mandate and his dynasty would fall. The fall of a dynasty in turn served as a warning mirror for posterity.

Confucian officials considered themselves to be critical mirrors whose duty it was to point out the defects of the government. In doing so, they often resorted to a mirror-simile that originated in Han Fei Zi  韓非子(Guanxing 觀行), a simile that became something of a proverb and is frequently used even nowadays by critics of the government:


It is not the fault of the mirror when it shows defects.

Also in a personal sphere the mirror was an instrument for self-examination and self-criticism. The most well-known and much imitated example is Du Fu’s 杜甫 line:


I often look into the mirror to spur me on to heroic efforts

In contrast, Daoists and Buddhists applied the image in a mythic sense. In Zhuang Zi the mirror symbolizes the spirit of the holy which reflects the whole universe as a calm water surface without bringing itself into turbulence – i.e., a mythic stillness and vacuum. But in Chinese literature, the most important stimulus for the mirror-myth came from Indian Buddhist literature.

In Buddhist temples it is customary to hang up a multitude of mutually reflecting mirrors for meditation sessions, which reflect the image of a Buddha statue ad infinitum. By these means the adepts would see the mysterious unfathomable wisdom of Buddha before their eyes, Simultaneously, they should be able to grasp the subjective limitations of their own power of perception and, through this knowledge, achieve enlightenment. The Buddhists also compared the human soul to a mirror, which is bright and clear when in a state of enlightenment, but dark and murky when burdened by the sins of the world.

The image of the “moon in the water” (水中月), so dear to Chinese poets, also originates from Buddhism. It possesses the ambivalent, positive-negative meaning of truth and illusion. In one case, the moon in the water suggests the mysterious, beautiful truth of Buddhist teachings; in the other, the illusion of earthly blessings, as the reflected moon always remains elusive and ineluctable, when one tries to grab at it in water.

In the Hongloumeng different variants of the mirror image are combined and artistically reformed. I will deal with three different aspects: First, as a starting point of a total interpretation of the novel; secondly, as a technique of narrative perspective; and, thirdly, as a symbol of art. As the mirror motif also appears in the West, it is also possible to draw upon examples from Western literature and research.

2. The Episode of the Magic Mirror

The episode of the magic mirror in chapter 12, to which the book owes its alternative title “The Erotic Mirror”, can serve as a key to an interpretation of the whole work: Jia Rui 賈瑞, burning in hopeless, unrequited love, receives a magic mirror from a monk to cure his love sickness, with the specific command that he only look at the reverse side of the mirror – which reflects a skull. On the front side appears his seductive beloved, inviting him to come into the mirror and engage in continuous lovemaking. Disregarding the curative reverse side, the young man focuses his mind on the front side and dies – unenlightened – of sexual exhaustion.

The episode is often dismissed as primitive leftovers of a lost urfassung. Many commentators have sought to counteract what they regard as residual magic by means of an allegorical interpretation: The magic mirror projects destinies that are still to come in the novel – something misunderstood by lecherous readers.

Actually the two-sided mirror is an expressive, widely understood symbol of life. In Western art and literature similar images can be found. In the Middle Ages the world is described as a woman graced with jewels and ravishingly beautiful from the front, but naked and crawling with worms from the back. In the Renaissance people often had themselves painted with a mirror on the side, in which they were prophetically shown as dead. In France, during the seventeenth century, double-sided portraits were popular, the front of which showed the face and the reverse a skull. And in the comedy Cardenio und Celinde, by the baroque poet Andreas Gryphius (1616-1664), the hero embraces a beautiful woman, who turns into a skeleton in his arms, whereupon he becomes aware of his sinful passion. In the Hongloumeng there is a similar scene, in which Jia Baoyu’s 賈寶玉 counterpart Zhen Baoyu embraces a beautiful girl who turns out to be a skeleton.

For all their differences the representations possess a common antithetical basic structure: The front side and the reverse side of a mirror in each case embody the antithesis of Love and Death: beauty perceivable but fleeting, and the transience of all things under the moon.

In the Hongloumeng the episode of the magic mirror assumes the role of a prologue which symbolically foreshadows developments in the plot: Thus Baoyu enters the Mirror of Sensuousness, so that, later, through the death of Lin Daiyu and ruin of his family, he should learn to know the reverse side of the mirror and become a monk.

The theme has a certain relationship to a traditional concept of Chinese love stories, viz., “through sex to enlightenment” (自色悟空). The idea can be found in various Buddhist classics such as in the Weimojie suoshuojing “Fodao pin 8” (維摩詰所說經 · 佛道品)


Or she appears as nymph/ And lures the lechers/ Desire’s her bait at first/ to lead to higher wisdom.

The earliest literary source is the preface to a late Tang-Dynasty short story about the imperial concubine Zhao Feiyan 趙飛燕: It is told here that the emperor, after many sexual adventures, achieves enlightenment through the death of his concubine and becomes a monk. A passage at the beginning of the Hongloumeng (ch.1) has the same sense:


As a consequence of all this, Vanitas, starting off in the Void (which is Truth) came to the contemplation of Form (which is Illusion); and from Form engendered Passion; and by communicating Passion, entered again into Form; and from Form awoke to the Void (which is Truth). He therefore changed his name from Vanitas to Brother Amor, or the Passionate Monk, (because he had approached Truth by way of Passion), and changed the title of the book from The Story of the Stone to The Tale of Brother Amor.

Nevertheless, Hongloumeng is, to my mind, not a novel of Buddhist enlightenment, though it is by some scholars regarded as such. In Buddhism love is basically regarded as illusionary and decadent. It serves only as a way-station to enlightenment, as the Buddhist classic Zongjinglu, juan 21 宗鏡錄第二十一卷puts it:


Desire’s her bait at first/ To lead to higher wisdom./ That is a a case of non-desirous desire;/ it is to use desire to kill desire.

Yet in the Hongloumeng the love between Jia Baoyu and Lin Daiyu 林黛玉 does not seem evil or depraved, renouncing the world does not seem virtuous or enlightening. The two sides of the mirror have exchanged their rightful places with each other. The representation of human feelings has more weight than religious awakening. The human form takes precedence over the Buddhist image.

The religious passages in the Hongloumeng are not based on a profound study of Buddhist or Daoist texts, but rather on literary sources such as Tang Dynasty chuanqi 傳奇 or Yuan and Ming dramas. Even in the Heaven of the Hongloumeng everything has a human colouring. Far from adopting the teaching of Emptiness (kong 空) or Apathy (wang qing 忘情) of Buddhism and Daoism, the author even endows his celestial flowers and stones with feelings and tears. As the Fairy of Awakening (Jinghuan xiangu 警幻仙姑) initiates Baoyu into “the facts of life” it comes as a surprise that the act should not only lead to Buddhist enlightenment, but to Confucian and Mencian moral as well – a bold and risky idea which would probably make Buddha, Confucius and Mencius turn in their respective graves.

In the Hongloumeng the mirror motif is secularized. The images “moon in water” and “flower in mirror” are no longer signs of Buddhist wisdom or of the illusion of the world. Rather they describe the sad but beautiful love between Jia Baoyu and Lin Daiyu. Thus the song in chapter 5 goes:





In vain were all her sighs and tears,/ In vain were all his anxious fears:/ All, unsubstantial, doomed to pass,/ As moonlight mirrored in the water/ Or flowers reflected in a glass.

The transformation of divine love into human love is a frequent phenomenon that probably appears in all literature: Thus the mirror in Western literature can not only describe the divine purity of the Virgin Mary, but also the allure of earthly lovers. In the Hongloumeng  the mirror changes from a religious symbol to a human one of Rise and Fall, of Love and Death, of Truth and Illusion. In this sense we can take the magic mirror as an image that embraces the whole plot of the novel.

Mirror Techniques

In the “East Asian Museum” in Cologne there is a pictorial illustration to an episode from the Yuan play Xixiangji 西廂記, The West Chamber: The love-sick Zhang Junrui 張君瑞 leaps over a wall at night in order to reach his beloved. In the illustration the young man is represented not once but thrice: as a real person, as a shadow, and as an image in water – frontally, from behind, and from the side. In the Hongloumeng, similar mirror techniques are employed. Only the perspectives are multiplied, and they describe not physical positions, but character traits.

Interpretators have always asserted that the Hongloumeng represents a high point in the art of characterization. Nevertheless, the role of the mirror remains to a large extent unnoticed. For one thing, the image serves to characterize the hero and heroine Jia Baoyu and Lin Daiyu; for another it provides methods of representation of perspectives, which aids in an astonishing and prismatic delineation of the characters not found in earlier works of Chinese fiction.

Jia Baoyu

Jia Baoyu is the central character around which all other persons revolve. The mirror is his constant companion. Baoyu tells riddles the solution of which is “mirror” (ch.22). He writes poems (ch.23) and says toasts (ch.28) in which the conscious image occupies centre stage. More than once it is emphasized that a large mirror-door leads into his bedroom (ch.26, 36, 54). What does this leitmotif tell us?

First, it signals a process of self-knowledge and knowledge of the world, not in the sense that it is instilled by morals or religion, but as a human quest. Yet in the end there is no real, liberating enlightenment or a higher moral resolution. In the course of the novel Baoyu comes first to realize his love for Daiyu, then, through her death and the collapse of his family, to become conscious of the transiency of the world. In the mirror-dream about his alter ego, Zhen Baoyu, this quest is symbolically represented (ch.56).

Secondly, the mirror is a sign of Baoyu’s contradictory character. The ambivalence of the mirror psychologically is applied inward. As the mirror symbolizes both the positive truth of Buddhist teachings and the negative illusion of the world, Baoyu incorporates a mixture of good and evil. At the very beginning of the novel there appears a genealogy of Confucian heroes, followed by a list of classical villains. But Baoyu is a hybrid, similar to the “crazy” Ji Kang 嵇康, the drunkard Liu Ling 劉伶 or a whole line of eccentric poets and genius painters (ch.2). His character consists of antitheses: He is lecherous, but not a lecher, optimistic yet depressed, sensitive but incapable, intelligent yet foolish, an artist though not as talented as his cousins Lin Daiyu and Xue Baochai  薛寶釵. Even today there are the most various interpretations of his character, e.g., as rebel or as weakling. Actually, Baoyu is convincing because of his antitheses, since these are based on psychology and therefore seem natural.

Lin Daiyu

In the characterization of Lin Daiyu the mirror also plays an important role. It is marked by mirror scenes, in which at first her beauty is shown (ch.34) and later her fatal illness is mourned. She is reflected in famous Chinese beauties and poetesses such as Xi Shi 西施, Wang Zhaojun 王昭君 (ch.64) and Cui Yingying 崔鶯鶯 (ch.26). As her loneliness grows and death approaches, her poetry also becomes more melancholy. In her last poem she sees herself as dead (ch.76), and she speaks to her mirror image as to a last friend (ch.89):



A wasted face/ reflected in the spring stream;/ And pity flows/ from face to mirror’d face/ and back again

Lin Daiyu is often criticized as “neurotic” and narcissistic, but this is a moral judgment, not a literary one. Her reflection in the mirror has points of contact with mirror scenes of beautiful women in Western art. One early example is the Goddess of Love Aphrodite being reflected in the shield of Ares, the God of War. In antiquity beautiful women were not regarded as evil. In the Middle Ages they are represented as Vanity, who looks vainly and complacently into the mirror. The literary tradition of “the Woman in front of a Mirror” finds its continuation in Petrarch’s Laura, who falls in love with her own mirror image and has no need of men. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, Eve first sees and is impressed by her own image in water, finding herself too beautiful for Adam, though she has second thoughts later (IV, 458ff).

Lin Daiyu’s mirror scenes show that, in contrast to her Western counterparts, only at the beginning does she feel a wondering admiration for her own grace and beauty. Later it is always despair and fear of death which occupy her when confronting a mirror. She stands squarely in the tradition of the boming jiaren 簿命佳人, the beauty who dies early. Since the Ming Dynasty this is a favorite theme of operas and dramas. Lin Daiyu is probably the best portrayal of this type, which became sentimentalized later, as is the case with Ba Jin’s novel Jia 家, The Family

Unlike other girls who die early, Lin Daiyu embodies more than a bittersweet, if literarily effective combination of Love and Death. She is, in addition, an intriguing enigma, which even today excites debates on controversial social, psychological, or even medical issues.

Representation of perspectives

In the Hongloumeng the figures are projected from many sides. Clothes and accomodation are often reflections of character. Thus the Spartan furnishings of Baochai’s room show her coldness. That Daiyu’s room is furnished as that of a young man and Baoyu’s as that of a young girl point to a secret, complementary antitheses (ch.40).

Unlike traditional Chinese novels, the narrator of the Hongloumeng does not function as an objective mirror whose praises and criticisms can be “relied upon”. Rather, contrary opinions are produced side by side so that the reader must arrive at his own judgment. This holds true not only for the major figures but the minor ones as well. For example, Baoyu’s maid Xiren 襲人 is first depicted by the author in a positive light, but has to reveal some negative traits, through the judgment of the Grand Mother 賈母 anyway (ch.78). The reader is held in suspense, since the characters assume constantly new colourings.

One original method of representation is the introduction of alter egos. In secondary literature this feature has often been noted and variously interpreted. In my own reading I will draw on Western comparative studies as well:

The motif of the alter ego has archaic roots. It harks back to the idea that a mirror image, a portrait, or a shadow can magically influence the person concerned. In the Hongloumeng there are remnants of this earlier idea. Thus Wang Ma 王媽, equipped with magic powers, sticks needles into two dolls which stand for Baoyu and Wang Xifeng 王熙鳳 and causes them to be sick (ch.25).

In the Hongloumeng the alter ego functions sometimes as prophecies in a figurative sense (fubi 伏筆): The death of Baoyu’s maid Qingwen 晴雯, for example, foreshadows the destiny of Daiyu. The forshadowings contribute to the suspense of the development of the plot, and are often so subtly planted that the reader recognizes them as such only in hindsight, if at all. At the same time, the alter egos carry their own weight, develop independently and are often quite different from their originals. The contrast, in turn, serves to highlight the character of the major figures.

Secondly, the alter ego describes a process of self-knowledge. As Jean Paul says in Siebenkäs: “Alter egos are people who see themselves”. Unconscious feelings are thereby fished out from the deep, transferred to a counterpart and thus made conscious. The scene in which Baoyu sees his double Zhen Baoyu in a mirror dream describes such a confrontation with the self. In the dream Baoyu suddenly sees himself from the outside and asks himself who he is. In this way the more profound question of Zhuang Zi is raised again: whether the dreamed self is real and the real self is only a dream, or vice versa

The third significance is the quest for perfection or completion through a loved partner. In Plato’s Symposium Aristophanes describes human beings as divided, unhappy spheres, who would only achieve happiness and completion when they have their other halves.

The Chinese proverb po jing chong yuan 破鏡重圓, “the split mirror becomes rounded again”, referring to the happy reunion of a couple, has the same connotation. In the Hongloumeng, the idea of completion appears in a new variant in the form of a “double”: As Baoyu is initiated into the art of the bedroom, his guide is a girl fittingly called Jianmei 兼美, “Double Beauty”, who combines the grace and charm of Daiyu and Baochai.

The method of mirror perspectives in the Hongloumeng has certain affinities with the technique based on “points of view” characteristic of Western literature since Henry James. But there is also a basic difference. The Western method of perspectives is founded on a spiritual relativism, on the modern isolation of the individual, who feels himself to be a prisoner of his own subjective dream world. As Henry James puts it:

How childish, moreover, to believe in reality, since we each carry our own in our thought and in our organs. Our eyes, our ears, our sense of smell, of taste, differing from one person to another, create as many truths as there are men upon earth … (Henry James, The Future of the Novel “Guy de Maupassant”)

In the Hongloumeng, on the other hand, the mirror technique serves not to relativize, but to heighten and intensify. A Chinese commentator writes with justification:

(This is like) a dragon making rain in the clouds. We do not know which is the dragon, which the clouds, and which the rain.

The author uses the technique of mirror perspectives not as a camouflage, but as a surprise tactic to shape the episodes and figures with more intensity.

Theory of Art

The mirror as an art symbol is common in Chinese theories of art as it is in Western ones. Plato characterizes literature as a mirror of reality (Republic 596 d,e), by which he disparages it as a mere reflection of the real world, which is, for its part, only a murky mirror to the true world of ideas; hence, also his notorious dictum that all poets are liars (Republic 600). Aristotle, on the other hand, places literature above history, since, according to his theory of mimesis, the former is more universal (Poetics I,1 and IX,35).

In Confucian texts literature is a “mirror of truth”, but this is valid in only two areas: faithfulness to reality and moral. Literature should, first of all, transmit reality without falsification, which means fantastic comparisons and exaggerations should be avoided. Secondly, it should hold up worthy models or warning examples. Such an authoritarian attitude had little to contribute to art and literature. In some cases, it forced authors to write, for their own safety, prefaces and afterwords which practically deny the real content of their works.

In opposition to this main trend, Yan Yu 嚴羽 of the Song Dynasty formulated a theory of art inspired by Zen Buddhism. He chooses the mythic similes “moon in water” and “flower in mirror” to describe the mysterious and incomprehensible beauty of art, which, fleeing from banal reality, radiates truth of a higher order.

In the Hongloumeng the Confucian mirror theory, on the one hand, is taken ad absurdum to its end; on the other hand, literature is more precisely defined than with the esoteric simile “moon in the water”. The author of the Hongloumeng uses the truth/lies dialectic of the mirror for a new theory of art. The negative “lies” are transformed into the positive “artistic imagination”. Truth and lies become inseparable entities; the two sides of the magic mirror collapse into a single vision. That is the real meaning of the frequently quoted motto hanging by the entrance to the Land of Illusion (ch.1,ch.5):



Truth becomes fiction when the fictions’s true/ Real becomes not-real where the unreal’s real.

At the start of the novel these words sound like a Buddhist paradox (gong’an 公案), which should lead to a shock of recognition by means of a profound absurdity. After reading the novel, we can regard them as a definition of literature:

When the lie (artistic imagination) is true, truth mixes with illusion

When being (art) rises from nothingness (from imagination), being and non-being combines.

Such a conception of literature was always suspect to the authoritarian governments. If art is a mirror to reality, it should stand always in line with the doctrine of the state.

The conception of literature in the Hongloumeng is not developed in an abstract manner, but through discussions and debates always fitting the occasion of the plot and the characters concerned. Literary themes now familiar to us under the terms “interdependence between author and reader”, “reader reception”, “creative process” and “the influence of literary traditions” are dealt with in these discussions. I will give a few examples in which the mirror function of art – its lies and truth – is illuminated from various angles.

During a family feast with theatrical entertainments, the Grand Mother criticizes the drama genre dealing with love stories about “talented scholars and beautiful ladies “(caizi jiaren 才子佳人.ch.54): First, they are mendacious and slanderous as no ladies of an established family would behave so miserably; and, secondly, they are prone to corrupt the youth. The dramatists are envious of the wealth and power of great families, have read too many love stories and are just doing their best to please a vulgar public. 

Immediately afterwards her own conduct contradicts her criticism much to the relief of her relatives: She chooses scenes from Xixiangji 西廂記 (The West Chamber) and Mudanting 牡丹亭 (The Peony Pavilion) to be performed, two especially dubious love stories.

Often it is hinted explicitly or implicitly that the Confucian art criticism is just pure theory that collapses whenever confronted with an entertaining theatrical performance, a fig leaf that gets blown away. The fervent participitation of the audience is put forward as proof that art must be true, since it arouses real feelings and real tears in its audience and, moreover, drives away melancholy and boredom.

The next example illustrates the truth/lie theme from the author’s viewpoint. After his beautiful maid Qingwen 晴雯 was driven to her death, Baoyu composed an elegy about her as the Spirit of Hibiscus. Actually Baoyu knows very well that there are no immortal flower spirits, but to give expression to his owerpowering feelings, he chooses this illusion. He sees himself as successor to such poets as Cao Zhi 曹植 (192-232 A.D.), who in his famous prose-poem Luoshenfu 洛神賦 created the Goddess of the River Luo. Baoyu’s elegy is, in reference to the actual existence of the goddess, a lie, but in so far as it expresses his real feelings, true. In this sense the creation myth of Nüwa is turned upside down: The gods do not create human beings, but the poets create gods and goddesses for their own needs.

Another example demonstrates the difference between historical and artistic truth. As Baoyu gets tired at a feast and lies down on the bed of the beautiful Qin Keqing 秦可卿 for a siesta, his dream is described in the following terms:

On a table stood an antique mirror that had once graced the tiring-room of the lascivious empress Wu Zetian. Beside it stood the golden platter on which Flying Swallow once danced for her emperor’s delight. And on the platter was that very quince which the villainous An Lushan threw at beautiful Yang Guifei, bruising her plump white breast. (…) And she unfolded a quilted coverlet, whose silk had been laundered by the fabulous Xi Shi, and arranged the double head-reast that Hongniang once carried for her amorous mistress.

At first sight the objects appear to be strictly historical. But soon it is clear that the author is playing hide-and-seek with the reader. While the Empress Wu Zetian 武則天 was indeed a historical personage, her notorious chamber with all four walls consisting of mirrors is a literary invention. The same holds true for the other relics: For example, the blanket from the well-known play Xixiangji, which Hongniang 紅娘 spreads out for her mistress in the first night of love.

Though the relics are historical fakes, they are nevertheless artistically genuine, standing as they do for well-established erotic symbols: They not only serve to characterize the inhabitant of the room, but also to evoke a sensuous atmosphere for Baoyu’s sexual dream.

Moreover, the passage demonstrates that art surpasses reality, because the silk of Xishi and the quince of the rebel An Lushan, even if they had existed, would long have gone the way of  all flesh – but in art they live on forever. Thus literature delivers a more enduring reality than fleeting reality itself.

To sum up: The mirror is an image that unites China and the West. Surprisingly, the points of contact involve not only general human conditions like rise and fall of Love and Death. They possess also such specific symbolic connotations as the apparent illusion and real truth of art. Since Chinese and Western culture lie far apart and did not begin to influence each other until relatively late, such correspondences are instructive. “Through the looking glass” we can perceive literary laws – a cultural language which provides common ground for Chinese and Western literature.


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