Red Chamber’s No. 11 It girl–The Underwhelming Dark Horse 李纨

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After the glamorous introduction of the Carrie Bradshaw of the Red Chamber, it’s somewhat underwhelming to introduce the next in line–Li Wan, who is quite frankly, very much a low-profile Dark Horse. She’s Charlotte York, the Red Chamber version

She was the complete opposite of the Nymph, and the two of them form an interesting contrast (or juxtaposition, if I may use this somewhat pretentious word) when put together in the list. She’s brought up in a family which firmly believed in a woman’s duty to the family as a wife and a mother. As such, she dedicated her entire life fulfilling that role.

[Extremely] Loosely adapting Michelle Obama’s words… When the Nymph goes low (fall from grace), she goes high (rose to be conferred title from the Court). =P

She’s an extremely calm and mild-mannered person. Doesn’t get herself into politics or arguments unnecessarily.

Li Wan was a young widow in her late twenties, and unlike the Nymph who was having affair while her husband was still very much alive, Li Wan stayed pretty much a no-nonsense mourning widow throughout the book. She was extremely low profile, didn’t meddle with family politics and didn’t try to outshine anyone in any circumstances–lying low was her survival strategy (that, or she really didn’t care cos she’s got other life priorities…)

In case you think that her low profile was a result of her incapability to perform/lead, the author actually described various situations where she revealed her wittiness/claws just enough to make the Matriarch-in-waiting character apologise, or displayed her outstanding leadership ability to gather everyone for regular Extra-Curricular Activities–poetry club.

So staying low key was more of a display of a wisdom beyond her age. She could get away with a lot of things such as… not self-funding the poetry club! Instead, the girls went to find the Matriarch-in-waiting to get funding, and took turns to foot the bill. Some people say that maybe it’s an etiquette/literati/Chinese thing–Li Wan didn’t pay for everything because it would make her look showy. Honestly, I don’t really buy that argument.

Technically speaking, she had the highest earnings in the household, because the actual Matriarch (the granny of the family) took pity on her as a young widow, and told the Matriarch-in-waiting to give her the same monthly allowance as the second highest ranking lady in the household ($$). On top of that, she also was given some land to rent out and collected monthly rental from those ($$$)!


From a strict hierarchy point-of-view, she should have been the rightful Matriarch-in-waiting because her deceased husband was the eldest son of the family. She also enjoyed a very loving relationship with her husband before he passed away at the young age of 20, so that’s possibly another reason why she never really moved on (besides her strict upbringing which confined her to a particular modus operadi).

She was someone with extremely high EQ (you’ll see another with high EQ later on. We could make interesting comparisons then), and everyone adored her (there’s no record of her having ANY formal argument with ANYONE in the entire novel). The ONLY time she showed some claws was to put the Matriarch-in-waiting in her place, but that’s through seemingly harmless bantering (gah! invisible claws!! meowww~~).

I think we could learn a thing or two from such characters–like how when I play some board games which put people against each other, the person whom everyone thought was losing would eventually go on to winning it because they laid low and let everyone else fight amongst themselves!

She expressed her love for life through the pursuit of other joys in life, such as organising the poetry club activities. Ambition didn’t need to be in the form of power in the household (like being the matriarch-in-waiting), and she found meaning in other things.

To her, her world revolved around her young son, and she took great care to groom her child well. Eventually, her efforts paid off and her child did really well in the imperial exam and as a result, she was conferred a title from the court.

She truly exemplifies the saying.. Slow and steady wins the race!

When conferred a title, special headcrown and dresses would be worn in bright red and blue. Quite a glorious photo-portrait isn’t it. 😉

It would’ve been fine if it all ended there except for that the author seemed to view her life as a sort of a futile one. Seemed to suggest that she had wasted her life away despite all her achievements. Perhaps, if we hadn’t lose the second half of the original manuscript of the book, we would be able to see more depth in this character.

I’m never really a Mary-Sue person. If someone appears too perfect to be true, she probably isn’t.

It kind of reminds me of someone I know, who put up all the appearances of being empathetic and kind (because raised in traditional and strict family), but in fact was extremely “strategic” (euphemistically speaking) and good at justifying her actions and intentions to make them appear noble.

But that’s just cynic me speaking!


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