Tea is one of the main symbolic elements throughout Cao Xueqin's 'The Story of the Stone.' It helps in aspects such as providing hints in plot development, understanding different characters, and switching topics within the novel. Generally, symbolism entails the use of symbols such as marks, abstract ideas, and locations to represent something beyond the literal meaning. It gives a literary work more color and lushness besides enhancing the purpose of the particular task. For symbolic elements, they have both denotative and connotative meanings. The former relates to the precise and literal meaning of a symbolic aspect. In contrast, the latter refers to the different interpretations of a figurative element based on its context within a story. In Xueqin's work, tea is a symbol with both connotative and denotative meanings.
The denotative meaning of tea is an aromatic beverage that is typically prepared by adding boiling or hot water over-processed leaves of an evergreen shrub, Camellia Sinensis. In contemporary Chinese life, tea, mainly green tea, featured in many aspects of people's lives. Serving tea is an integral part of social life among Chinese, and even the meekest home has a water heater and tea set to make tea (Wang, 3). It is regarded as a necessity and is a symbol of welcome for neighbors and visitors. Generally, tea is essential in a typical interaction, and its use in Xueqin's work follows the typical Chinese customs.
Tea has several connotative meanings within the literary work. It serves various purposes, including switching topics, foretelling crucial hints, and conveying stories that would otherwise be untellable using words. Besides, tea plays multiple roles within the story, which helps a reader to understand different characters in the novel through the small details of their lives (Xueqin, 278). It also offers insights into their deep yet suppressed and hidden feelings. Besides, it is the channel through which people come together, have conversations, and connect various ideas that play a crucial role in plot development. The novel presents several instances where tea has been used for other purposes other than its literal meaning.
Tea is used to show Adamantina's character as unsympathetic and snobbish despite her being a nun. Ideally, nurses are expected to be benevolent and treat all people equally. However, this nun is different as she states that she would instead smash a cup into pieces rather than give it to the poor older woman, Liu (Xueqin, 315). While other people welcome the older woman warmly and kindly, Adamantina despises her and considers her as a source of impurity since she hails from a lower socioeconomic class. The tea making and drinking scenes show the nun as overly pure, which makes her snobbish toward others as she is preoccupied with upholding her purity. She perceives many aspects around her like dirt and eventually falls into it by becoming a whore (Xueqin, 130). This incident adds to the thematic reach of the story by showing what lies beneath individuals and how it is eventually revealed. Adamantina only became a nun to escape marriage and did not renounce her earthly aspects. The tea symbol is traditional as it presents traditional elements. For instance, 'the stored rain-water' cannot produce a tea of 'buoyant lightness' shows the beliefs about tea in Chinese society.
Tea is used as a metaphor for marriage in the novel. Topics around it lead to marriage or act as concealed indications of love and marriage. In chapter 25, as cousins gather around Bao-yu, they discuss tea from a Southern Asian country, they introduce the topic of marriage. It is during this conversation while taking tea that the subject of love and matrimony, particularly on the intimacy between Dai-yu and Bao-yu. Besides, the reader learns about marriage customs among the Chinese, such as a maiden's mistress not being allowed to talk about her marriage (Xueqin, 500). Tea, in this context, adds to the concept of real and unreal in the story. Despite the evident intimacy, Bao-yu becomes gradually unpredictable, and Dai-yu eventually dies of a broken heart and desperation when her loved one marries someone else. Tea, in this context, is used as a traditional symbol, which is evident from the statement: 'drink the family's tea, the family's bride to be' (Xueqin, 499). It shows how tea was traditionally used to discuss topics relating to marriage and love.
Tea symbolizes acceptable manners and rituals in Chinese society. In the literary work, tea is seen in the cultural activities of affluent families, such as the Jia clan. Besides, several rituals relating to tea in daily and personal lives are shown. For instance, meals ending with tea in Jia's family, including rinsing tea, served straightway after a meal and drinking tea afterward (Xueqin, 267). The story shows how Dai-yu were taught the essence of such habits, and how she struggled to conform when she moved in with Jias' family after her father's death. Tea, in this context, shows how luxury among the affluent is not based solely on material accumulation but on the application of various cultural aspects in daily lives (Wang, 4). Tea helps to advance the theme of culture, showing the different rituals surrounding taking tea and how they differ across different groups, particularly between the affluent and people of low socioeconomic status. Tea is a conventional symbol which is evident from the statement, 'One should allow a certain interval to elapse before taking tea to avoid indigestion.' (Xueqin, 279). It shows the beliefs that the Chinese people, particularly the rich, hold about tea and how it should be taken.
Tea is a symbolic element for class, showing the affluence of people of high socioeconomic status. The most remarkable scene is that of Green Bower Hermitage, where the refinement of the tea is likened to emperor tea banquets (Xueqin, 312). For rich people, there is a special equipage of tea involving unique decorations. The story presents a detailed description of how the affluent prepare tea and acceptable presenting manners. In contrast, a poor older woman who has come to ask for help turns up and dismisses the tea citing it as excessively weak, hence frustrating Jia's family extravagant life. This context adds to helping readers understand class differences and how each perceives the other. The symbolic element of tea is traditional and is seen from the description of the cups. For instance, 'It was a little cinque-lobed lacquer tea-tray decorated with a gold-infilled engraving of a cloud dragon coiled round the character for 'longevity' (Xueqin, 312). Cups were designed and decorated based on the class of the person drinking from them.
Overall, tea in 'The Story of The Stone' has both literal and symbolic meanings. Tea relates to a drink taken after meals and is common in Chinese society. Conversely, it is used to reveal people's characters, show class differences, convey the topic of love and marriage, and who the rituals and acceptable manners. Several connotative meanings can be deduced based on the context within which the word is used. These interpretations add color to the story and give in-depth understandings. As such, the literary work presents an ideal example of the use of symbolic elements in literature and their innate significance.
Wang, Ling. Tea and Chinese culture. Long River Press, 2005.
Xueqin, Cao. The story of the stone. ReadHowYouWant.com, 2008.
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