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:
- 生 shēng – young male lead, such as Tan Chuyu
- 旦 dàn – young female lead, such as Liu Miaogu
- 淨 jìng – painted face, such as the villain, Qian Wanguan, and the bandit chief
- 丑 chǒu – clown, such as the traitor
- 外 wài – older male, such as the deity Lord Yan
- 末 mò – 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.