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Cao Xueqin on settling accounts

Cao Xueqin's 18th-century classic, ``The Dream of the Red Chamber,'' is celebrated as a novel both of very human manners and of supernatural beliefs. Here is one of many vignettes set in the household of an aristocratic family in the midst of change. It is excerpted by permission from an English translation published as ``The Story of the Stone'' (1982) by Penguin Books.

Then Li Wan and Tan-chun told the women which of them were to have the cultivation of which parts of the Garden and what the conditions of their tenure were to be:

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``You will be expected to give us, in due season, a fixed amount of your crops for our own use; but apart from that it will be up to you to make whatever profit from them you can. Accounts will be submitted and dues paid at the end of the year.''

``I've been having second thoughts about that,'' said Tan-chun. ``If you are submitting annual accounts and paying dues, presumably it will be to the Office. But that means another lot of people with control over you and another layer skimmed off your profits. Now in thinking up this new arrangement and appointing you ourselves, we are already in a sense going above their heads, which is sure to anger them. They probably won't dare to say anything about it now, but there will be nothing to stop them getting their own back later on when you go round to settle accounts with them at the end of the year. And there's another thing. If they are going to be in on this, they are sure to expect a share of the produce. Whatever you agree to give us in the course of each year, they will expect the equivalent of half the amount for themselves. That's an old, established rule. Everyone knows that. But since the new arrangement is our creation, I say let's keep it out of their hands altogether. If there's to be an annual settling of accounts, let it be done here, internally.''

``If you ask me,'' said Bao-chai, ``I don't think there should be any settling of accounts at all. You'd always be finding that this one had too much and that one too little. It would only be a lot of extra trouble. Why not get each of them to take over some regular item of your expenditure and pay for it out of their profits? That will keep it all inside the Garden. I've just been running over in my mind what your regular expenses are. They aren't very many. There's hair-oil, cosmetics, incense, paper: every mistress and her maids get a fixed amount of those every month. Then there are brushes, dust-pans, feather-dusters and food for the livestock (birds, rabbits, deer and so forth). That's really all. Now suppose instead of drawing money from Accounts for all those things we gave these women the responsibility of paying for them: how much do you reckon the saving would be?''

``They're small items in themselves,'' said Patience, ``but I should think if you added them all together the total annual saving would be well over four hundred taels.'' Excerpted from pages 74-76 from ``The Story of the Stone'': the Chinese novel by Cao Xueqin, translated by David Hawkes (Penguin Books, Ltd., 1980), copyright David Hawkes, 1980. Used by permission.

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