Wang Xi-feng’s Guide to Success in Modern China

The name Wang Xifeng is a byword for guile, treachery and cunning. A brilliant creation among the many brilliant creations of Cao Xueqin, author of the eighteenth-century novel The Story of the Stone (The Dream of the Red Chamber), Wang is familiar not only to students of Chinese literature, but to anyone who has dealt with people whose personalities are distorted by authoritarianism, patriarchy and the myriad forms of repression resulting from hypocrisy.

The author of the following essay, Annie Ren, wrote this study of Wang Xifeng for China Heritage. She is undertaking doctoral research on the novel and working with John Minford on a Reader’s Companion to The Story of the Stone.

— The Editor, China Heritage

Wang Xi-feng’s Six Arts and

Success in Modern China

Annie Ren

More than that of any other character in The Story of the Stone 石頭記 (also known as The Dream of the Red Chamber 紅樓夢), the public perception of Wang Xi-feng 王熙鳳 — the treacherously beautiful and manipulative daughter in-law of the Jia family — has undergone the greatest evolution since the novel’s publication in 1792. Known to readers by her nickname ‘Peppercorn Feng’ 鳳辣子, one given to her in the novel because of her quick wit and caustic tone, Wang has had a journey not unlike that of the chilli pepper itself: the chilli did not enjoy particular popularity until it slowly made its way to the interior of the country over two-hundred years following its introduction to China in the sixteenth century.

Wang Xifeng by the Qing artist Gai Qi 改琦 (d.1824). 《紅樓夢圖詠》.

Similarly, the famous and voluble commentators on Stone have generally passed over Wang Xi-feng’s character in silence. Even Wang’s hand maid, Patience 平兒, attracted more initial attention than her mistress. When people did refer to Wang, it was often with ill-disguised disdain. Such episodes in the novel as ‘Wang Xi-feng sets a trap for her admirer’ 王熙鳳毒設相思局 and ‘Xi-feng conceives an ingenious plan of deception’ 瞞消息鳳姐設奇謀 prompted one commentator to declare that Wang was nothing less than a ‘vicious and hard-hearted murderer’ 心狠手辣,草菅人命.[1] Her character has most commonly been compared to that of Cao Cao 曹操 of the Eastern Han dynasty, a minister whose name is synonymous with unscrupulous behaviour (although this is a result of the biased depiction of his character in the popular novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms 三國演義).

Just as the chilli pepper was embraced by people in Hunan, Guizhou and Szechwan for its high yield and piquant flavour, Wang Xi-feng’s persona has been seen in a more positive light from the early twentieth century, particularly by university students and progressive thinkers. In 1935, the noted literary specialist Zhao Jingshen 趙景深 asked his students at Fudan University to vote on the most appealing character in Stone. Wang Xi-feng came in third place with 40 votes, not far behind Xue Bao-chai 薛寶釵 (41 votes) and Lin Dai-yu 林黛玉 (50 votes).[2] Academics, especially those influenced by Western sociology, began to analyse Wang Xi-feng’s malicious behaviour in the context of her socio-economic background. After all, they argued, how could one expect a healthy and moral individual to emerge from traditional China’s conservative, patriarchal and authoritarian society?[3]

As one commentator puts it:

Wang Xi-feng is a fierce and capable housewife in an eighteenth-century aristocratic family; she is the ultimate female archetype bearing all the traits of a feudalistic society… . As for her character, readers of The Three Kingdoms all fear and condemn Cao Cao, but when he’s gone, they miss him. The same goes for Xi-feng: readers may fear and condemn her, but when she is no longer on the scene, she is sorely missed. 她[王熙鳳]是一個十八世紀中國貴族大家庭中的精強狠辣的少婦,具有封建社會所賦予一切特質的某一種完整的女性典型…在個性表現上,讀者怕曹操,罵曹操,曹操死了想曹操;同樣,怕鳳姐,罵鳳姐,不見鳳姐想鳳姐。[4]

Mao Zedong, a famous Stone obsessive who frequently referred to the novel, was also a big admirer of Xi-feng. Not only did he declare that Wang Xi-feng would have made an excellent Minister of Internal Affairs in his government, he also extolled her ability to ‘wield her double knives to kill and maim without leaving a trace of blood’ 兩把殺人不見血的飛刀:

Just look at how she tricks Jia Rui [Wang’s cousin by marriage who lusts after her] right into his own grave! He never knew what hit him! 你看,她把個賈瑞弄得死而無怨,至死不悟。[5]

It is also worth noting that Mao — a native of Hunan — was also known for his love of chilli. For him, the revolution and the chilli went hand in hand: ‘Without chilli’, he remarked, ‘there would be no revolution’ 不吃辣椒不革命. [6]

Even after Mao’s demise, the interest in Wang Xi-feng’s wiles has increased. Wang may have only been a housewife and the household manager in a late-imperial aristocratic family, but she could have easily adapted to the treacherous politics of the Mao era or, in the era of China’s market socialism, become a successful businesswoman. In recent years, books on that very subject have proliferated: The Delights of Story of the Stone Managerialism: Wang Xi-feng is the Best CEO 趣味紅樓管理學: 王熙鳳是最好的CEO, Learn Management from Wang Xi-feng: how to become a female leader 跟王熙鳳學管理: 女性經理人打造術, to name but two titles.[7]

In 2010, a survey carried out by Tsinghua University found that 40.5% of those questioned preferred spicy food spicy over 28.4% who favoured sweet cuisine and 17.3% who enjoyed savoury dishes.[8] It seems that the tastes of the Chinese consumer, like those of the modern reader, have evolved to cope with an increasingly stimulating society and a cuisine that goes with it. Who has got the time to indulge in such elegant pastimes as ‘gathering last year’s melted snow to make tea’? The environment is too polluted anyway, and the water from melted snow would sully the tea. First in the name of revolution, then of development, the world of The Prospect Garden 大觀園, which is so lovingly depicted in chapters seventeen and eighteen of The Story of Stone, along with its symbolic and spiritual dimensions, has long ago disappeared.[9] Gone too are the cultured and sensitive denizens of the garden; they wouldn’t survive for even a day outside the garden. Only the likes of Wang Xi-feng live on and thrive.

In light of this, I have selected six of Wang’s most distinct traits. If followed with care, these Six Arts, summed up in a six-word mantra 六字真言, will vouchsafe the practitioner a well-adjusted and successful life in China today.


Old Lady Jia extends a welcome to a motherless child. From Sun Wen 孫溫, Illustrations for the Complete Dream of the Red Chamber 《繪全本紅樓夢》.

The Art of Calculation 

China’s dark classic — Sunzi’s The Art of War 孫子兵法 — emphasises the importance of timing in ensuring a flawless victory:

A swooping falcon
breaks the back of its prey;
Such is the precision of its Timing.
The Warrior Adept’s Energy is devastating;
His Timing is taut.
His Energy resembles
A drawn crossbow;
His Timing resembles
The release of a trigger.



Although Wang Xi-feng, being semi-literate, would not have studied The Art of War, she was a practitioner of its spirit par excellence. Readers of Stone will readily recall Wang’s first appearance in the novel: everyone has gathered to greet the delicate Lin Daiyu who has just arrived from Yangzhou. A loud voice ringing with laughter booms into the crowded room from the inner courtyards:

‘Oh dear! I’m late,’ said the voice. ‘I’ve missed the arrival of our guest.’
‘Everyone else around here seems to go about with bated breath,’ thought Dai-yu. ‘Who can this new arrival be who is so brash and unmannerly?’

Even as Daiyu wondered …

A beautiful young woman entered from the room behind the one they were sitting in, surrounded by a bevy of serving women and maids. She was dressed quite differently from the others present, gleaming like some fairy princess with sparkling jewels and gay embroideries. 只見一群媳婦丫鬟擁著一個麗人從後房門進來。這個人打扮與姑娘們不同,彩繡輝煌,恍若神妃仙子。[11]

From the suspense caused by her loud laughter to her apparel, Xi-feng’s appearance is meticulously planned; it’s guaranteed to leave her intended audience in awe. To quote The Art of War again:

Victory is inevitable for —
He vanquishes
An already defeated enemy.


The Art of Ingratiating Oneself 

As the granddaughter-in-law of a multigenerational household, Wang Xi-feng works to ingratiate herself constantly with elder members of the family so as to strengthen her position within the household. Her clever tongue and quick wit is admired by all, even her enemies. The following passage from the novel illustrates how Xi-feng transforms Grandmother Jia’s physical imperfection — an indentation on her skull resulting from a childhood accident — into an auspicious attribute:

The guardian spirits must have put it [the dent] there to store your good fortune in. The Gold of Old Longevity has got a dent in his head, too; only his has got so much good fortune packed into it that it bulges out a bit… . 可知老祖宗從小兒的福壽就不小,神差鬼使碰出那個窩兒來,好盛福壽的。壽星老兒頭上原是一個窩兒,因為萬福萬壽盛滿了,所以倒凸高些來了。
Before Xi-feng could finish her sentence, the comical reference to the God of Longevity’s huge cranium set everyone laughing, including Grandmother Jia herself.

The God of Longevity, by Qi Baishi (齊白石, Qi Huang 齊璜, 1864-1957).

‘Naughty monkey!’ Grandmother Jia said half-jokingly: ‘Make fun of me, would you? I’d like to tear that wicked mouth of yours!’ 這猴兒慣得了不得了,只管拿我取笑起來,恨得我撕你那油嘴!
To which Xi-feng replied:
It’s because I wanted to make you laugh, Grannie. Laughter makes the humours circulate. We’re going to be eating crabs shortly, and I was afraid that the cold of the crab-meat might settle on your heart. If I can make you laugh and stir your humours up, you’ll be able to eat as much crab as you like without taking any harm from it. 鳳姐笑道:回來吃螃蟹,恐積了冷在心裡,討老祖宗笑一笑開開心,一高興多吃兩個就無妨了。[13]

The outcome of Xi-feng’s flattery is best described by a servant:

‘she [Xi-feng] always takes very good care to keep both Their Ladyships happy, so consequently whatever she says goes, nobody else dares stand up to her.’ 只一味哄著老太太、太太兩個人喜歡。她說一是一,說二是二,沒人敢攔她。[14]

The Art of Being Astute 

Having earned the trust of her superiors, Xi-feng was given oversight of household affairs in the Rong-Guo branch of the Jia family, a position she manipulated for her own advantage. This is best illustrated in Chapter Fifteen of the novel: At Water-moon Priory Xi-feng finds how much profit may be procured by the abuse of power 王鳳姐弄權鐵檻寺.

A certain Zhang family of Chang’an wants to break off the engagement between their daughter Jin-ge 金哥 and the son of a garrison captain, so they can offer her hand to the brother-in-law of the governor of Chang’an, a union that will bring greater material advantage to the family. The garrison captain rightly refuses their request and sues the Zhangs over their breach of contract. Euergesia 靜虛, a nun at Water-moon Priory, who once enjoyed the patronage of the Zhang family, promises Xi-feng three thousand taels of silver if she will agree to use the Jia family’s connections with the military commander of Chang’an to resolve the affair.

Xi-feng takes the money and gives instructions to a trusted servant to sort out the matter. The engagement is duly broken off. Yet, Jin-ge

the daughter of the Zhang family possessed a far nobler spirit than might have been expected in the daughter of such mercenary parents. On learning her affianced had been sent packing, she quietly went off and hanged herself in her scarf. The captain’s son, too, turned out to be a young person of unexpectedly romantic notions, for on hearing that Jin-ge had hanged herself, he promptly threw himself into a river and was drowned. 誰知那張財主雖如此愛勢貪財,卻養了一個知義多情的女兒,聞得父母退了親事,她便一條麻繩悄悄的自縊了。那守備之子聞得金哥自縊,他也是個極多情的,遂也投河而死。 [15]

In the end, all three families are devastated while Xi-feng is the sole beneficiary. The rest of the Jia family has no inkling of any of this.

The Art of Ruthlessness 

Like other manipulative power-holders, Xi-feng relies on terror to ensure her power within the Jia family. Her ruthlessness is well known to all the servants, even those in the neighbouring estate. Before Xi-feng came to Ningguo Mansion, the other branch of the Jia household, to oversee funeral arrangements for its daughter-in-law Qin Keqing 秦可卿, the Chief Steward there held a general staff meeting and warned his cronies:

Well lads, it seems that they’ve called in Mrs Lian [Xi-feng] from the other house to run things here for a bit… . She’s well known for a sour-faced, hard-hearted bitch is this one, and once she’s got her back up, she’ll give no quarter, no matter who you are. So be careful! 如今請了西府裡璉二奶奶管理內事,倘或他來支取東西,或是說話,小心伺候才好。每日大家早來晚散,寧可辛苦這一個月,過後再歇息,別把老臉面扔了。那是個有名的烈貨,臉酸心硬,一時惱了不認人的![16]

Xi-feng takes on the management of a neighbouring establishment. From Sun Wen, Illustrations for the Complete Dream of the Red Chamber.

Sometimes, when Xi-feng’s reputation fails to be insufficient a deterrent and she resorts to violence. This stratagem is known as ‘slaughtering a chicken to set an example to the monkeys’殺雞儆猴. On one occasion, an elderly female servant of Ningguo Mansion is late for the daily morning roll-call. Flustered and fearful, the servant begs Xi-feng’s for forgiveness, but she is unmoved:

Tomorrow another one will be late and the day after that it will be someone else … and before we know where we are we shall have no one turning up at all. I should have liked to let you off, but if I’m lenient with you the first time, it will be that much harder for me to deal with someone else the second time; so I am obliged to make an example of you. 鳳姐便說道:明兒他也來遲了,後兒我也來遲了,將來都沒有人了。本來要饒你,只是我頭一次寬了,下次就難管別人了,不如開發了好。[17]

Xi-feng thereby orders the old woman to be given twenty strokes of the bamboo cane and docked one month’s pay. By making an example of the old servant, Xi-feng establishes her authority over the neighbouring Ningguo mansion, and ensures the smooth running of household affairs. From that day onward —

staff of the Ning-guo mansion realized just how formidable Xi-feng could be and went about their duties in fear and trembling, not daring to idle or delay. 於是甯府中人才知鳳姐利害,自此俱各兢兢業業,不敢偷安,不在話下。[18]

The Art of Dissembling 

After Xi-feng’s husband Jia Lian secretly takes another wife — a beautiful young lady by the name of You Er-jie — and sets up a separate household outside Rongguo Mansion, the servants warn their new mistress to keep clear of Xi-feng, for as long as she wishes to live:

She’s ‘soft of tongue and hard of heart’, ‘two faces and three knives’, she’ll ‘give you a smile and trip you up the while’, she’s ‘a welcoming fire when you see her, but a stab in the back when it’s dark’ — all those things and more … a gentle lady like you would be no match for her. 嘴甜心苦,兩面三刀,上頭一臉笑,腳下使絆子;明是一盆火,暗是一把刀:都占全了…奶奶這樣斯文良善的人,哪裏是她的對手![19]

Indeed, after having found out about Jia Lian’s affair, Xi-feng soon formulates a plan to get rid of her rival — first by tricking Er-jie to move into the Rongguo Mansion. The simple fact of the matter is that if Er-jie had continued to live outside, Xi-feng will have no control over their affairs — but once Er-jie moves into the mansion, she will fall right under Xi-feng’s control.

Er-jie takes up residence in Prospect Garden. Sun Wen, Illustrations for the Complete Dream of the Red Chamber.

Being a natural practitioner of The Art of War, Xi-feng bides her time until the right moment to execute her plan presents itself. In this case, it was not until several weeks later, when Jia Lian leaves the city for a business trip. On the fifteenth of that month, having announced her intention to go out and burn incense in a nearby convent-temple (the first and fifteenth of each lunar month are the days when offerings and sacrifices are made to the gods), Xi-feng orders her carriage to go straight to Er-jie’s house instead. Following a long and tearful performance, Xi-feng convinces Er-jie that she is, in fact, a friend. Er-jie agrees to move into the Rongguo Mansion, feeling ‘thoroughly reassured about her future in the bosom of so delightful a family’ 安心樂業的,自為得所.[20]

Now, with Er-jie close at hand, Xi-feng proceeds with part two of her plan: to eliminate Er-jie while maintaining her veneer as a virtuous woman. To achieve this, she must ‘kill with a borrowed knife’ 借刀殺人. This knife comes in the form of Autumn, a servant girl given to Jia Lian as a concubine. Whenever Xi-feng finds herself alone with Autumn, she pits the hapless girl against Er-jie. Once the flames of jealousy have been ignited, Xi-feng settles back to watch them destroy each other, like a traveller reclining from a mountainside, watching two tigers tearing each other into pieces in the valley below. In the end, Er-jie commits suicide by swallowing a nugget of gold. Xi-feng then puts in a star turn as a grieving sister:

‘Half hearted sister!’ she wailed. ‘How could you bear to leave me like this when you knew how much I cared for you!’ 狠心的妹妹!你怎麼丟下我去了!辜負了我的心![21]

Mao Zedong praised Xi-feng’s handling of the ‘Er-jie affair’ as: ‘rational, efficacious and perfectly executed’ 有理,有利,有節.[22]

The Art of the Empty

The Science of the Thick and the Black, by Li Zongwu.

Just like the Mandarin’s Life-Preserver 護官符 — a list with all the names of the richest and most influential people that every provincial official in The Story of the Stone carried around  — during the 1910s, a pamphlet titled Six Essential Truths to Being a Bureaucrat 做官六字真言 was in wide circulation. One of the Six Truths was to now how to be ‘Empty’ 空.

Li Zongwu 李宗吾, the author of the pamphlet and a man who called himself the Master of the Science of the Thick and the Black 厚黑學主, defined Emptiness in the following way:

whatever you do, be flexible so that you can lean towards the east, as well as the west. While it may appear that you are committed to certain causes or derivatives, always leave a secret passage as a retreat. 隨便辦什麼事情,都是活搖活動,東倒也可,西倒也可,有時辦得雷厲風行,其實暗中藏有退路。[23]

Long before Master Li, Xi-feng would manipulate ‘Emptiness’ to perfection. On the occasion when Xi-feng’s father-in-law, Master She, wants to take Grannie Jia’s personal maid Faithful 鴛鴦 as his concubine, Lady Xing who is married to Master She, approaches Xi-feng and ask her to have a word with Faithful about the new arrangement. Xi-feng’s reasoning is as follows:

Faithful’s no fool… . Whatever Mother says, it’s far from certain that she’ll accept. Suppose I do go first and Mother follows later. If Faithful says yes, all well and good; but if she doesn’t, Mother has such a suspicious nature that she’s sure to think it’s because I’ve blabbed and been encouraging the girl to play hard to get … which won’t be very amusing. It would be better if we went over together; then, whether Faithful accepts or not, no suspicion can possibly fall on me. 鳳姐兒暗想:鴛鴦素昔是個極有心胸氣性的丫頭,雖如此說,保不嚴他願意不願意。我先過去了,太太後過去,他要依了,便沒的話說;倘或不依,太太是多疑的人,只怕疑我走了風聲,叫他拿腔作勢的…不如同著一齊過去了,他依也罷不依也罷,就疑不到我身上了。[24]

Yao Xie 姚燮, a nineteen century Stone commentator remarks here: ‘witness her endless scheming and swindle’ 機詐百出. [25]

Having made up her mind, Xi-feng says with a smile:

on my way in through your gate, I met some of the boys from here with your carriage. They said it has something wrong with it and they were taking it outside to be mended. Why not make use of my carriage instead? We can go over together in it now, and you can dine at my place afterwards on the quails. 我才進大門時,見小子們抬車,說太太的車拔了縫,拿去收拾去了。不如這會子坐了我的車,一齊過去倒好。[26]

Yao Xie again: ‘Every step is calculated’ 步步留心.[27]

Finding Xi-feng’s proposal acceptable, Lady Xing joins Xi-feng in her carriage. On their way to Gramma Jia’s (where Faithful resides), Xi-feng suddenly pointed out that the old lady might notice her outdoor clothes and ask her where she had been:

‘It would be better if you went in there alone, while I slip back to my own place to change,’ she said. ‘I’ll join you later, as soon as I’ve got into my everyday clothes.’ 太太過老太太那裏去,我若跟了去,老太太若問起我過去作什麼的,倒不好。不如太太先去,我脫了衣裳再來。[28]

Having lied her way out of this unpleasant task, Xi-feng distances from Grandmother Jia’s rage towards Master She and Lady Xing for trying to take away her favourite maid. As the Master of the Science of the Thick and Black instructs:

if the environment does not seem favourable,
Never allow yourself to be implicated.


Xi-feng could have written this guide for the cunning herself.


The Six Arts of Wang Xi-feng outlined in the above, and summed up in the Six-character Mantra: 算迎精狠偽空, can only serve as a brief guide to Wang’s many wiles; they are a roadmap for those who wish to survive and prosper in twenty-first century China. More ambitious readers are enjoined to study Wang Xi-feng up close by reading The Story of the Stone.

Author’s Note: I would like to thank the Editor of China Heritage for inviting me to write this essay and for his extensive editorial suggestions.

[1] 一粟編,《紅樓夢資料彙編上冊》,北京:中華書局,2004年, 第193頁.
[2] 吕启祥、林东海編 《紅樓夢研究稀見資料彙編》, 北京:人民文學出版社, 2001年,第751頁.
[3] 吕启祥、林东海編 《紅樓夢研究稀見資料彙編》, 北京:人民文學出版社,2001年,第950頁.
[4] 王侖昆著《紅樓夢人物論》,北京:北京出版社, 2003年,第152頁.
[5] 毛澤東愛讀《紅樓夢》稱王熙鳳殺人不見血,《新民晚報》 2009年3月25日.
[6] 毛澤東的飲食觀:不吃辣椒不革命,《中國經營報》2010年11月21日.
[7] 金聖榮著,《趣味紅樓管理學:王熙鳳是最好的CEO》,北京:電子工業出版社, 2010年.
劉豐編,《跟王熙鳳學管理:女性經理人打造術》,北京:經濟管理出版社, 2008年.
[8] 中國人為什麼越來越愛吃辣,新浪網 2014年10月22日.
[9] John Minford, The Chinese Garden: Death of A Symbol, reprinted in ‘Gardens, Libraries, Studios’ under Projects in China Heritage.
[10] Sun Tzu, The Art of War, John Minford trans, London: Penguin Books, 2014, p.32.
[11] Cao Xueqin, The Story of the Stone: Golden Days Volume 1, David Hawkes trans, London: Penguin Books, 1974, p.91.
[12] The Art of War, p.26.
[13] Cao Xueqin, The Story of the Stone: The Crab-Flower Club Volume II, David Hawkes trans, London: Penguin Books, 1977, p.242.
[14] Cao Xueqin, The Story of the Stone: Warning Voice Volume III, David Hawkes trans, London: Penguin Books, 1981, p.288.
[15] The Story of the Stone: Golden Days Volume 1, p.303.
[16] Ibid, p.270.
[17] Ibid, p.270.
[18] Ibid, p.274.
[19] The Story of the Stone: Warning Voice Volume III, p.289.
[20] Ibid, p.338.
[21] Ibid, p.370.
[22] 毛澤東愛讀《紅樓夢》稱王熙鳳殺人不見血.
[23] 李宗吾著,《厚黑學》,維基文庫. See also Geremie R. Barmé, In the Red, on contemporary Chinese culture, New York: Columbia University Press, 1999, pp.138-139.
[24] The Story of the Stone: The Crab-Flower Club Volume II, p.409.
[25] 馮其庸校訂,《重校八家評批紅樓夢》中冊,南昌:江西教育出版社, 2000年,第1024頁.
[26] The Story of the Stone: The Crab-Flower Club Volume II, p.409.
[27] 《重校八家評批紅樓夢》中冊, p.1024.
[28] The Story of the Stone: The Crab-Flower Club Volume II, p.410.