Xi Feng’s Way with Words

Xi Feng, or Phoenix, is among the most compelling characters in the Hong Lou Meng. Whenever she steps into a room she dominates the scene, and even when she absent, her influence is felt throughout the two households. One reason for her dominance in the family hierarchy is her quick wit and golden tongue, which she uses with expert precision: she can tear a strip off an underling, negotiate her way to financial advantage, or have a room in stitches. Having not grown up with a classical education, Xi Feng lacks the literary allusions and clever jokes of other young ladies of the household, as Dai Yu snobbily remarks. Yet this does not hold her back in the slightest.

Her verbal dexterity is in plain view when her husband returns from a trip and Xi Feng, who has been tasked with overseeing funeral arrangements for Rong’s wife, complains about the difficulties she has encountered. The scene is full of dramatic irony: we as readers have already been treated to several chapters making it clear that Xi Feng has had absolutely no problems taking the mantle of authority, and has reduced the ladies serving under her to a state of terror. Starting with a bit of self-mockery with her schtick about being given a club and thinking it’s a needle, Xi Feng ends with a rapid litany of colourful and basically synonymous expressions, putting paid to any idea that she’s either ‘poor at expressing herself’ or ‘simple minded’.

‘I am not much of a manger really,’ said Xi Feng. ‘I haven’t got the knowledge, and I’m too poor at expressing myself and too simple-minded – they give me a wooden bat and there I go thinking it’s a needle. Besides I’m too soft-hearted for the job. Anybody who says a few kind words can get the better of me. And my lack of experience makes me so nervous. Aunt Wang only had to be the slightest bit displeased and I would get so upset I couldn’t sleep at night. I begged her not to make me do all these things, but she insisted. She said I only refused out of laziness and unwillingness to learn. I don’t think she realised even now the state I have been in – too scared to move or even to open my mouth for fear of saying something wrong. And you know what a difficult lot those old stewardesses are. The tiniest mistake and they are all laughing at you and making fun; the tiniest hint of favouritism and they are grumbling and complaining. You know their way of “cursing the oak-tree when they mean the ash“. Those old women know just how to sit on the mountain top and watch the tigers fight; how to murder with a borrowed knife, or help the wind to fan the fire. They will look safely from the bank while you are drowning in the river. And the fallen oil-bottle can drain away: they are not going to pick it up…”

Texted very slightly modified from David Hawkes’ translation for Penguin Classics


zhǐ sāng mà huái

“Point to the mulberry to curse the locust tree” – make an oblique criticism.

座山看虎鬬 / 座山觀虎鬬

zuò shān kàn hǔ dòu / zuò shān guān hǔ dòu

“Sit on the mountain and watch tigers fight” – let two parties tussle over something so you can gain the reward afterwards.


jiè daō shā rén

“Kill with a borrowed knife” – one of the famed 36 military strategies, the meaning is clear enough: use somebody else to do your dirty work.


yǐn fēng chuī huǒ

“Help the wind to fan the fire” – very similar to the phrase above.


zhàn gān àn ér – keep oneself out of the fray.


tuī dǎo yóu píng bù fú – this is a two-part expression (歇後語) where the meaning is spelled out in the (often unexpressed) second part. In this case, it means being extremely lazy and unwilling to lend a hand even in a crisis.




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