Chen, Zuo-qian, master in his 50s; the patriarch of a large real estate and lives in a big opulent compound in which his four wives are well fed and clad; has lanterns lit and hung in the living quarters of the wife he is visiting, and rewards his favorite of any given night with such privileges as foot massages and the ordering of cuisine.
Song-lian: 19; drops out of college after her father, a tea merchant, dies at the age of 54 and leaves her and mother penniless; marries Chen to be his fourth mistress; loses her innocence as she inevitably becomes entangled in the in-fightings among the wives; fakes pregnancy to win mastor’s favor; becomes insane after the death of the third mistress, for which she is partially responsible when she, in her drunkenness, reveals to the rival mistresses what she has confided in her
Mei-shan, third mistress; a former opera actor with considerable singing talent, which she now uses to amuse herself and to vie with other mistresses for the master’s attention; has a son; carries on an illicit affair with Chen family physician; hangs after the adulterous affair is exposed when she is caught with the doctor in bed
Zuo-yun, second mistress less spontaneous and hasty in temporament than Mei-shan; appears to be very docile but in fact quite tactful and methodical when it comes to the politics of concubinage; known to have “a buddha’s face and a scorpin’s heart;” slips abortion medicine in Mei-shan’s food when she is pregnant, and takes foreign imported Western medicine to expedite her own child birth so as to give birth before Mei-shan does; exposes Mei-shan’s illicit affair to get rid of her
First mistress, well respected in the family compound by all the mistresses for being the legitimate wife and for giving the Chen family the first son; but also most neglected by the master due to her lack of sexual appeal; her bed chamber is the least visited and full of dust; still a figure of considerable authority and importance given the dynamic of the struggle among the mistresses
Yan’er, a maid; assigned to wait on Song-lian; dreams of becoming a concubine after master makes a couple of passes at her; resents Song-lian for being what she wants to be herself; exposes Song-lian’s fake pregnancy after she sees menstral blood on her under pants; dies after she is punished for keeping red lanterns in her room, a victim of Song-lian’s rage
Feipu, the oldest son of master’s first wife
in his 20s; often absent from home; an accomplished flute player; catches Song-lian’s fancy of an ideal lover; sometimes takes the liberty to call Song-lian by her given name rather than “fourth mistress” who is the same age as he