A Couple of Soles

In politics, the GOP is still fitfully attempting to steal the election. But that’s not good for the blood pressure, so instead let’s look at some 17th century Chinese drama: A Couple of Soles (比目鱼 Bǐmùyú), by 李渔 Lǐ Yú.

I read the 2020 translation by Jing Shen and Robert Hegel, which is apparently the first translation of any of Lǐ Yú’s plays into English. The edition is quite nice, with contextualizing essays and an intimidating set of notes.

The play is part of the 传奇 chuánqí, an early type of Chinese opera. It consists of mixed songs and prose, though we don’t have the actual music. Apparently the prose portions were often ad libbed, but Lǐ Yú wrote them out explicitly. Plays were long, intended to be staged over two days; this one is the size of a short novel.

Soles is particularly interesting because it’s all meta: it’s a play about a theater troupe, and includes scenes of the actors acting out other plays. Moreover, they’re using those scenes to act out their own true feelings, which is pretty damn meta.

The hero is Tán Chǔyù, a scholar too poor to travel to the provincial capital to take the civil service exams. He is earning money as best he can by writing, when he sees a play an falls in love with the leading lady, Liú Miǎogū. The only way he can think of to get to know her better is to join the troupe himself.

Interspersed with his story is that of the righteous official Murong Jie. A righteous official always wants to retire in the countryside, but before he does so he defeats a local bandit chief. Then he and his wife toss out their emblems of status (his black gauze cap, her phoenix crown) and go to live as fishermen.

Liú Miaogu also has a predicament: her mother Liu Jiangxian wants her to be flirtatious with the male clientele, and more than flirtatious with the rich ones, which is a major way the troupe makes its money. Liu Miaogu is aghast; she wants to be virtuous, and indeed only play virtuous roles.

The play (and the commentary) explain that roles are divided into character types:

  • shēng – young male lead, such as Tan Chuyu
  • dàn – young female lead, such as Liu Miaogu
  • jìng – painted face, such as the villain, Qian Wanguan, and the bandit chief
  • chǒu – clown, such as the traitor
  • wài – older male, such as the deity Lord Yan
  • – supporting male, mostly servants
  • 老旦 laodàn – older female
  • 小生 xiǎoshēng – additional male, such as Murong Jie
  • 小旦 xiǎodàn – additional female, such as Murong’s wife, or Liu Miaogu’s mother

Tan Chuyu finds that the troupe strictly keeps its male and female members apart, so he can spend little time with Liu Miaogu— though he does manage to send her a poem declaring his love. He manages to upgrade his role from jìng to shēng, on the strength of his ability to quickly memorize plays. This at least allows him to spend more time rehearsing with Liu Miaogu.

Her mother, however, decides to marry her off, for the significant sum of a thousand taels of silver, to the local rich man, Qian Wanguan. She is to join him immediately.

However, she asks leave to perform one scene of a play for Qian. She chooses a scene from The Thorn Hairpin, in which a wronged woman expounds her troubles, then kills herself. At the climax, she leaps into a convenient nearby river and drowns. Tan Chuyu, watching this, does the same.

But the play is only half over. The local water deity, Lord Yan, accepting sacrifices at various temples, learns about the couple’s death. He decides to turn the two into a couple of soles, and escorts them to the net of Murong Jie, who now calls himself Fisherman Mo.

Meanwhile there’s an inquiry into their death, which is an opportunity for a thorough satire of officialdom. The local official is only interested in the homicide inquiry as a means of profit. He manages to accumulate all the money involved (Qian’s original thousand, plus additional bribes) only to lose it to the next higher official.

In the mountains, Murong Jie fishes out the lovers, hears their story, and marries them off in a parody of a rustic wedding. He then gives them a sum of money so Tan Chuyu can take the provincial examinations. Tan succeeds and is appointed to be an official in the same region. Murong also gives him a book filled with pertinent advice.

There’s trouble, however: the bandit chief defeated earlier is back, and ravaging the country. He hires a man to impersonate Murong Jie and betray the government forces to him.

Tan Chuyu takes his post, following the righteous rules of Murong’s manual. He defeats the bandits, but the traitor escapes. He sends search parties out to look for him, and they find Murong instead. Regretfully, Tan prepares to execute his benefactor. This is sorted out, however, with the aid of the now-captive bandit chief.

Whew, that’s quite a lot of plot.

In the first half of the play, Lǐ Yú has a bit of an agenda: he is trying to show that dramas, and actors, can be morally uplifting. He was a failed scholar himself, as well as a producer and sometimes a bookshop owner; the transition to the new nomad-ruled Qīng dynasty probably didn’t improve the position of scholars. He himself had a reputation for being “wild and unrestrained in speech and behavior.” The moral uplift idea probably didn’t take; though it makes a fine motivator for the plot, Tan and Liu Miaogu’s high-mindedness doesn’t lead to success for the troupe even in the context of the play. Acting was an extremely low profession, one step up (if even that far) from prostitution. (Not that that prevented the gentry from enjoying the plays.)

The second half of the play, focusing on the bandits and the officials, in my view works better. Lǐ Yú was never himself an official, so he can only build up Murong and Tan as idealizations; but the convolutions of the plot which throw them into conflict are very well handled.

Will you actually enjoy it if you read it? (Or see it? It has been revived in modern times.) You can certainly enjoy the clever plot, and the information about Chinese drama and officialdom. (If you’ve read my China Construction Kit you’ll get a lot more out of it… e.g., you’ll catch the reference to the strategist Zhūgě Liàng.)

On the other hand, I’m not sure if the frequent poetry comes off well. E.g., here’s a bit sung by Liu Miaogu’s mother:

The child I bore wastes her flower-like beauty;
Vowing to remain chaste, she is an unworthy daughter.
By losing lots of money and vexing me deeply,
She occupies my mind the whole day long.

I’m sure it’s an adequate translation, yet it loses all the formal aspects and allusive concision of Chinese poetry.

I’ve never read any Chinese plays before, so I found it quite interesting. Also see my post on Kālidāsa, for Sanskrit theater.

Ask Zompist: What just happened?

You’re probably very busy right now, but would you mind writing a kind of overview of the current election situation, perhaps for the benefit of foreign observers who don’t know that much about US politics, and other people who might be easily impressed by Republican talking points?

–Raphael

As someone pointed out on Twitter, when we look at this in a few years, it’s going to look very simple: at every point this year Joe Biden looked like he was going to win, against a historically incompetent and unpopular president. And he did. And he won by a decisive margin: currently 74 to 70 million votes, and probably by 306 to 232 electoral votes. And thus did the realm of Sauron fall.

Edit: As of the 25th, the margin is now 80 to 74 million votes.

Of course, the devil is in the details, which is why this year has felt like it’s a decade long.

(This post will be a bit rambling, as I am writing for that hypothetical foreign observer, and guessing at what they might find puzzling.)

First, there’s what the pundits call the fundamentals. If you looked from January 2020, you’d have to say: incumbents usually win (6 won, 3 lost from FDR to Obama), and presidents in good economies usually win. The election was Trump’s to lose.

Then there’s the Trump factor itself. Trump has been remarkably, consistently unpopular: since Jan. 2017, his favorability never rose above 46%. But since 2018, it hasn’t fallen below 40% either. Nate Silver’s site has comparisons to past presidents, where you can see that this sort of consistency is rare. Obama’s line is almost as flat, which suggests that both lines are consequences of our new polarization. People stick with their leader because they are terrified of the opposition.

US political parties used to be coalitions, where Republicans had some liberals and Democrats had some conservatives; that made the parties increasingly resemble each other, and made the most effective strategy a fight for the center. Since the mid-1990s the GOP has instead moved far right, and in response the Democrats have moved left, though not nearly as far. Generalizations base on the mixed-coalition era are thus no longer accurate.

Popularity is not voting: Trump got (at current reporting) 47.7% of the vote. We don’t have exit poll analyses yet, but it’s been clear for a long time that Republican voters, even if they have reservations about Trump, will still vote for him. So his unpopularity was a negative, but GOP loyalty in general was a plus. (In 2016 we could hope that there were a bunch of “Never Trumpers” who wouldn’t vote for him. That didn’t happen, and his standing in the party was obviously better this year.)

If there’s any one factor that doomed him, it was his handling of Covid. I don’t mean that it was bad luck that dragged him down. Disasters don’t make leaders unpopular; usually it’s the reverse. George Bush got a huge boost out of 9-11; several leaders, such as NZ’s Jacinda Ardern and South Korea’s Democratic Party, won landslide elections under Covid, when people could see them handling it well. Even Trump got a boost– until April, when his incompetence began to show. He was handed a golden opportunity, and he fucked it up. Letting a quarter of a million people die, creating an economic crisis, and refusing to agree to (continued) emergency measures is not the way to attract the moderates.

Then there’s Biden himself. The Democrats had two ways they could go:

  • Pick someone inspiring, who’d fire up the base and/or the country.
  • Pick someone who just doesn’t mess up the opportunity.

Replaying the 2016 primary is Democrats’ favorite hobby and vice, so let’s just say that Biden is in category 2. Biden has some real virtues, but not many of these had to be put into play: his best move seemed to be to sit there not being Trump and not messing up, and let Trump dig his own grave. Which he did. When he did get attention, during the convention and the debates, he was competent, and compassionate enough to underline the comparison– without really making a strong personal impact. And that was probably fine, especially compared to Hillary, who was widely disliked.

I don’t know if it really matters, but Trump’s campaign didn’t seem to know what to do with Biden. Or with anything really. Trump didn’t talk much about his record (such as it is), nor make any attempt to woo the center. He leaned hard on repressing protesters, which probably backfired as most people sympathized with protests against police racism. He tried to play up Biden as too doddery, which a) makes no sense since the same could be said for him, and b) was exposed as an obvious lie when Biden talked. Trump was reduced to trying to run against Bernie Sanders instead… again, probably not effective with the moderates.

I should emphasize that Trump’s 2016 campaign, for all its chaos, was managed ten times better. He could play outsider, and rile up his own side when he wanted to; and he took enough moderate positions that people of all persuasions could see what they wanted to in him. If he had stuck with his populism, American politics might have looked far different… but he not only governed as a strict conservative, but as a total asshole. His base loved him in both roles, but he was unable to revive his populist side this year.

Biden didn’t do as well as the polls suggested. That’s a big problem for the pollsters, but it also shouldn’t be exaggerated. We don’t know the absolute final results, but they’ll probably make Biden look better than he does right now. It wasn’t the huge blue wave that we would have liked to see. At this point I’d say: take anyone’s explanation of that with a truckload of salt, especially if the pundit opines that Biden would obviously have done better if he had followed the pundit’s favorite policies.

So, the GOP turned to Plan B, which was voter suppression. They knew their policies were unpopular, so the plan was to obstruct the vote as much as possible. This put them in the position of purposely insisting on in-person voting, with its risks of spreading a deadly disease… but they were already in death cult mode; what did they care so long as they won? There were other shenanigans, like removing voting stations in big cities to make it harder to vote.

Next on the agenda was kneecapping the post office, starting in the summer. We don’t know the extent of the damage, except that the mail immediately got slower, and many post offices removed their sorting machines. The big question is perhaps, did they think no one would notice, in an organization that employs half a million people? People did notice, there were Congressional hearings, and the commissioner promised to stop interfering. It’s not clear how much this was a factor… but now that we have the results, it seems clear it just didn’t work. (Though in my household, we made sure to turn in our ballots at the village hall.)

All this was worrisome, but as a coup attempt, a little lame. First problem: elections here are run by the states, not by the President. That meant that blue states couldn’t be corrupted. Second problem: the obvious interference only made Democrats more determined to vote. Turnout is higher than ever this year, and that really paid off in places like Georgia. Third problem: playing tricks is evidently something rank-and-file GOP officials will do; but outright lawbreaking by election officials and judges, not so much. Almost all of them tried to run the election properly.

Foreign readers might wonder, why did it take several days to declare the winner, and why did Pennsylvania flip? Basically: one more bit of Republican games-playing. The state legislature forbid mail-in votes from being counted before the election, as they are in many states. This was obviously done in the hopes that Trump would “obviously win” on Tuesday night, and that counting mail-in votes would somehow look suspicious.

The problem with that “plan”: there was really no point where Trump had “obviously won”. I just scrolled through CNN’s entire election blog, and Biden was ahead in electoral votes at every point, starting from 8:15 p.m. election night. By the next day, he was already a mere 17 votes shy of winning, and he was pretty clearly going to win enough of the outstanding states. So all the Pennsylvania GOP succeeded in doing was in prolonging the process for everyone.

Plan C was to hope for litigation. In particular, the GOP geared up for a repeat of 2000. Trump openly entertained fantasies of the Supreme Court handing him the election, and of course McConnell obliged by fast-tracking Amy Barrett’s nomination. The problem for the GOP is that no Florida 2000 situation recurred. As a reminder, Bush led Gore in the count in that state, by 537 votes, and Florida’s electoral votes alone would decide the election. The Court really only had to freeze the count in place rather than throwing out votes. That’s a pretty narrow scenario, and it didn’t repeat.

Trump is supposedly going to file a bunch of lawsuits. But the ones he already filed went nowhere, and there’s not really a major state that he could likely flip. There are some close states, but recounts and finagling over individual ballots have historically affected a few hundred votes, not the tens of thousands that would be needed to flip (say) Pennsylvania. Trump’s hope that somehow all mail-in ballots could be thrown out is almost certainly going to be laughed out of court even by Republican judges.

The thing is, stealing an election gets harder the longer you wait. The GOP’s best best was to steal it ahead of time by suppressing the vote. That didn’t work. Hoping for Florida 2000 again was not even a plan. Now that there’s an actual vote which Biden solidly won, stealing the election would require throwing out votes already cast, on the scale of tens of thousands of votes. That’s pretty unprecedented in this country. On Dec. 14, the Electoral College meets, and you really can’t reverse the EC vote without getting into hard coup territory– the kind that comes with guns and civil war.

Can Trump do something to somehow steal the election now? Well, you can never count a Sith Lord out entirely. But at this point it seems clear that all he has left is temper tantrums. He was squealing “STOP THE COUNT”… and the count didn’t stop. When even Fox News declares Biden the winner, it’s almost certainly over. We need to pass a few more milestones, of course, but the Trump team’s strategies haven’t worked so far, and if their last trick is “open coup attempt”, the smart money is that it’ll fail.

Trump has refused to concede… but this has no legal meaning. He doesn’t get to decide whether to accept the results, and he’d do well to avoid the indignity of being tossed out by the Secret Service. Again, his intransigence is going to look even more ridiculous after the Electoral College vote. There are already reports that advisors or powerful GOP figures are telling him– as nicely as they can, undoubtedly– to stand down.

Finally, for those foreign observers and not a few domestic ones: the Senate is not yet decided, and that affects whether Biden can pass his legislative agenda. It’s 48-48 right now, but the GOP is ahead in two of the remaining states. Note that a 50-50 Senate would be Democrat-controlled, since the Vice President is the tiebreaker. The last two seats are both in Georgia– and those are both close enough that a runoff election will need to be held in January. So we actually won’t know what happens in the Senate till then.