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I contest the translation de qie (妾) et feizi/guifei (妃子/贵妃) into «concubine» by Hongbo Wang

December 27, 2012

Why would I like to contest the translation of these two termes? Before I give you the reason, please read the following extracts from «The Story of the Stone» (or «The Dream of the Red Chamber») which is very close to the reality and which tells the story of Yuanfei (元妃):

 

展眼元宵在迩,自正月初八日,就有太监出来先看方向:何处更衣,何处燕坐,何处受礼,何处开宴,何处退息。又有巡察地方总理关防太监等,带了许多小太监出来,各处关防,挡围口;指示贾宅人员何处退,何处跪,何处进膳,何处启事,种种仪注不一。外面又有工部官员并五城兵备道打扫街道,撵逐闲人。贾赦等督率匠人扎花灯、烟火之类,至十四日,俱已停妥。这一夜,上下通不曾睡。

  至十五日五鼓,自贾母等有爵者,皆按品服大妆。园内各处,帐舞蟠龙,帘飞彩凤;金银焕彩,珠宝争辉;鼎焚百合之香,瓶插长春之蕊;静悄无人咳嗽。贾赦等在西街门外,贾母等在荣府大门外。街头巷口,俱系围幕挡严。正等得不耐烦,忽一太监骑大马而来,贾母忙接入,问其消息。太监道:早多着呢!未初刻用过晚膳,未正二刻还到宝灵宫拜佛,酉初刻进大明宫领宴看灯方请旨,只怕戌初才起身呢。凤姐听了道:既这么着,老太太、太太且请回房,等是时候再来也不迟。于是贾母等暂且自便,园中悉赖凤姐照理。又命执事人带领太监们去吃酒饭。

  一时传人一担一担的挑进蜡烛来,各处点灯。方点完时,忽听外边马跑之声。一时,又十来个太监都喘吁吁跑来拍手儿。这些太监会意,都知道是来了来了,各按方向站住。贾赦领合族子侄在西街门外,贾母领合族女眷在大门外迎接。半日静悄悄的。忽见一对红衣太监骑马缓缓的走来,至西街门下了马,将马赶出围幕之外,便垂手面西站住。半日又是一对,亦是如此。少时便来了十来对,方闻得隐隐细乐之声。一对对龙旌凤,雉羽夔头,又有销金提炉焚着御香。然后一把曲柄七凤黄金伞过来,便是冠袍带履。又有值事太监捧着香珠、绣帕、漱盂、拂尘等类。一队队过完,后面方是八个太监抬着一顶金顶金黄绣凤版舆,缓缓行来。贾母等连忙路旁跪下。早飞跑过几个太监来,扶起贾母、邢夫人、王夫人来。那版舆抬进大门,入仪门往东去,到一所院落门前,有执拂太监跪请下舆更衣。于是抬舆入门,太监等散去,只有昭容、彩嫔等引领元春下舆。只见院内各色花灯烂灼,皆系纱绫扎成,精致非常。上面有一匾灯,写着体仁沐德四字。元春入室,更衣毕,复出,上舆进园。只见园中香烟缭绕,花彩缤纷,处处灯光相映,时时细乐声喧;说不尽这太平气象,富贵风流。

 

 

<<Upon the receipt of this decree, with which the Chia family was honoured, they had still less leisure, both by day as well as by night; so much so that they could not even properly observe the new year festivities. But in a twinkle of the eye, the festival of the full moon of the first moon drew near; and beginning from the eighth day of the first moon, eunuchs issued from the palace and inspected beforehand the various localities, the apartments in which the imperial consort was to change her costume; the place where she would spend her leisure moments; the spot where she would receive the conventionalities; the premises where the banquets would be spread; the quarters where she would retire for rest.

There were also eunuchs who came to assume the patrol of the grounds and the direction of the defences; and they brought along with them a good many minor eunuchs, whose duty it was to look after the safety of the various localities, to screen the place with enclosing curtains, to instruct the inmates and officials of the Chia mansion whither to go out and whence to come in from, what side the viands should be brought in from, where to report matters, and in the observance of every kind of etiquette; and for outside the mansion, there were, on the other hand, officers from the Board of Works, and a superintendent of the Police, of the “Five Cities,” in charge of the sweeping of the streets and roads, and the clearing away of loungers. While Chia She and the others superintended the workmen in such things as the manufacture of flowered lanterns and fireworks.

The fourteenth day arrived and everything was in order; but on this night, one and all whether high or low, did not get a wink of sleep; and when the fifteenth came, every one, at the fifth watch, beginning from dowager lady Chia and those who enjoyed any official status, appeared in full gala dress, according to their respective ranks. In the garden, the curtains were, by this time, flapping like dragons, the portieres flying about like phoenixes with variegated plumage. Gold and silver glistened with splendour. Pearls and precious gems shed out their brilliant lustre. The tripod censers burnt the Pai-ho incense. In the vases were placed evergreens. Silence and stillness prevailed, and not a man ventured so much as to cough.

Chia She and the other men were standing outside the door giving on to the street on the west; and old lady Chia and the other ladies were outside the main entrance of the Jung mansion at the head of the street, while at the mouth of the lane were placed screens to rigorously obstruct the public gaze. They were unable to bear the fatigue of any further waiting when, at an unexpected moment, a eunuch arrived on horseback, and Chia Cheng went up to meet him, and ascertained what tidings he was the bearer of.

“It’s as yet far too early,” rejoined the eunuch, “for at one o’clock (her highness) will have her evening repast, and at two she has to betake herself to the Palace of Precious Perception to worship Buddha. At five, she will enter the Palace of Great Splendour to partake of a banquet, and to see the lanterns, after which, she will request His Majesty’s permission; so that, I’m afraid, it won’t be earlier than seven before they set out.”

Lady Feng’s ear caught what was said. “If such be the case,” she interposed, “may it please your venerable ladyship, and you, my lady, to return for a while to your apartments, and wait; and if you come when it’s time you’ll be here none too late.”

Dowager lady Chia and the other ladies immediately left for a time and suited their own convenience, and as everything in the garden devolved upon lady Feng to supervise, she ordered the butlers to take the eunuchs and give them something to eat and drink; and at the same time, she sent word that candles should be brought in and that the lanterns in the various places should be lit.

But unexpectedly was heard from outside the continuous patter of horses running, whereupon about ten eunuchs hurried in gasping and out of breath. They clapped their hands, and the several eunuchs (who had come before), understanding the signal, and knowing that the party had arrived, stood in their respective positions; while Chia She, at the head of all the men of the clan, remained at the western street door, and dowager lady Chia, at the head of the female relatives of the family, waited outside the principal entrance to do the honours.

For a long interval, everything was plunged in silence and quiet; when suddenly two eunuchs on horseback were espied advancing with leisurely step. Reaching the western street gate, they dismounted, and, driving their horses beyond the screens, they forthwith took their stand facing the west. After another long interval, a second couple arrived, and went likewise through the same proceedings. In a short time, drew near about ten couples, when, at length, were heard the gentle strains of music, and couple by couple advanced with banners, dragons, with fans made with phoenix feathers, and palace flabella of pheasant plumes; and those besides who carried gold-washed censers burning imperial incense. Next in order was brought past a state umbrella of golden yellow, with crooked handle and embroidered with seven phoenixes; after which quickly followed the crown, robe, girdle and shoes.

There were likewise eunuchs, who took a part in the procession, holding scented handkerchiefs and embroidered towels, cups for rinsing the mouth, dusters and other such objects; and company after company went past, when, at the rear, approached with stately step eight eunuchs carrying an imperial sedan chair, of golden yellow, with a gold knob and embroidered with phoenixes.

Old lady Chia and the other members of the family hastily fell on their knees, but a eunuch came over at once to raise her ladyship and the rest; and the imperial chair was thereupon carried through the main entrance, the ceremonial gate and into a court on the eastern side, at the door of which stood a eunuch, who prostrated himself and invited (her highness) to dismount and change her costume.»

 

The above extracts are from the chapter 18 of «The Story of the Stone» (or «The Dream of the Red Chamber»), which describe how the familly Chia welcome Yuan Fei (元妃), imperial spouse, who is the daughter of Chia Zheng and the granddaughter of Old lady Chia. As you can see, in the text, Yuan Fei is called «her highness», which prove the important place she has got. And you can also see that even her father, who is an important officer in the Court, and her grandmother, who is Dame of the first grade in the Court, have to knee down for welcoming her. Those rules together with other rules as you can read in the extracts, were strictly definited by the Court etiquette of the time, nobody could break them. And those etiquettes should never being used for a «concubine». So, it is very incorrect to translate feizi(妃子) into «concubine».

Furthermore, even a qie () was not a «concubine», although they’ve got a very low social situation in the old time, but they were connected to a man by the mariage.

I understand that in the occidental system, there is no word correspond with those two words, however, «concubine» is really not a good one. That’s why, I’d like to contest this translation. I think it’s better if we use «imperial spouse+ her first name or her family name» for feizi and second spouse, third spouse… for qie, according to her situation in her family. And then, explain some détails to readers for that they can understand the difference of the cultures.

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2 Comments
  1. Vildart permalink

    your translation is a really good one. Also if you watch (in French) “épouse et concubine” you’ll see that it has been translated by “première épouse” “seconde épouse” “troisième épouse”… In my memory there isn’t “concubine”. Then you’re very right to note the very importance that there’s a really importance of not using concubine in the chinese culture !! Thank you for your writting !

    • Hongbo WANG permalink

      Hi Vildart,

      Thank you for the compliment. Happy New Year!

      -Hongbo WANG

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