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the Complete Review
the complete review - drama

A Couple of Soles

Li Yu

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To purchase A Couple of Soles

Title: A Couple of Soles
Author: Li Yu
Genre: Play
Written: 1661 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 284 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: A Couple of Soles - US
A Couple of Soles - UK
A Couple of Soles - Canada
  • A Comic Play from Seventeenth-Century China
  • Chinese title: 比目鱼
  • Translated by Jing Shen and Robert E. Hegel
  • With an Introduction and Appendix by Jing Shen

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Our Assessment:

B : busy but well-paced; fine mix of drama, romance, and comedy

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Asian Theatre Journal . (39:1) Spring/2022 Whitney Emerson
China Rev. Int'l . (26:4) 2019 Lenore Szekely
J. Chin. Lit. Cult . (8:2) 2021 Ying Wang
The Seventeenth Cent. . (36:5) 2021 Hui-Hung Chen

  From the Reviews:
  • "In its originality, novelty, and complexity it can undoubtedly be counted as one of the most delightful must-reads of Li’s works. (...) This book, with its professional translation and excellent research, provides many valuable pictures of such cultural dynamics. For an entertaining Chinese vernacular tale that reflects the multi-layered diversity of Ming-Qing cultures, Li and his Soles are opportune choices to explore." - Hui-Hung Chen, The Seventeenth Century

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       A Couple of Soles is, as Jing Shen explains in her Introduction, "a comic opera in the Chinese romantic tradition of chuanqi 傳奇 drama" -- surprisingly, the first of Li Yu's ten existing plays to be translated into English.
       With thirty-two scenes, it is quite a busy play, with several prominent characters and plotlines -- with a summary of the (first part of the) play, promising: "this is not a play like any other", presented in an introductory scene. Tan Chuyu is the first main character to appear, introducing himself as a brilliant young man -- he: "Garnered fame as a child prodigy" -- who is down on his luck: orphaned and without any brothers, he is without connections to better his situation and: "poor to the bone". He manages to get by with his writing and editing work -- "selecting examination essays for bookshops to publish", for example -- but worries about being able to find a wife. It doesn't help that he has high standards and expectations regarding an appropriate mate: "if she were not one of the world's real stunners, how would she be suitable for me, a genius of our time ?"
       When he meets up with friends of his who have just seen a play they tout the main actress, Fallen Angel Liu -- but it's her fourteen-year-old daughter, Fairy Liu, that Tan Chuyu falls in love with at first sight. Fairy has her own issues with her theater-troupe family: they think she is old enough to follow in the family business now but she is not particularly eager:

Mother, a proper woman should only learn women's roles like needlework, and with that she can earn a living. Playacting is not a woman's basic duty, and I do not want to learn it.
       Eventually, however, she is persuaded, and becomes part of the newly-formed juvenile troupe, the Jade Sprouts Troupe. The formation of the new troupe offers Tan Chuyu what he sees as an opportunity to get close to Fairy -- though he too is reluctant about getting involved in this particular profession:
They have posted a notice on their gate to recruit a jing actor. If I am willing to join the troupe and learn plays together with her, our marriage would be 90 percent certain. However, how could a man like me enter such a trade ?
       But he tells himself: "Although learning plays is contrary to the Confucian code of ethics, words of true love have been excused by the ancients", and so he takes the gig. One thing he does insist on is maintaining, prominently, the marker of his true self:
This student's hat must stay on my head to retain a gleam of my scholar's dignity, because this must not be removed.
       Fairy is as taken with Tan Chuyu as he is with her, but their love is still a secret one -- although also a particularly open one, not that anyone seems to realize it. As Fairy notes about their play-acting:
Once we get onstage, he takes me for his real wife, and I regard him as my real husband; all of our words come straight from the heart and pierce to the bone. Other people see it as a play; what he and I do is real. We take the script as true and always enjoy it, never tiring -- how could we not reach the peak of perfection ?
       So the troupe is enormously successful -- but, off-stage, the two lovers remain still apart. It is one of several cases in the play where the feigned and acted is, in fact, more 'real' -- and true to the self -- than the real.
       Matters are complicated when Fairy's mom gets a good offer to sell her off to an admirer -- "With this much silver, I can buy at least ten girls and train them as an all-female troupe", she already plans ahead. Chaste and proper Fairy of course can't go along with this, already betrothed in everything but ceremony to another. She's enough of an actress, however, to stage the only way she sees out in theatrical manner -- conveniently helped by the setting of the performance area:
Although the rear part of the stage is on the bank, the front part is over the water. It would be best if I selected a scene on suicide to preserve chastity and perform it seriously; then, in the middle of it, I will suddenly jump into the river. Would this not be the most remarkable death to preserve female chastity in all of history ?! This idea makes sense.
       Taking a scene from another well-known play, The Thorn Hairpin, the acted does indeed become the real: Fairy throws herself into the water, and Tan Chuyu of course plunges after her. It's quite a surprise for the audience:
The affluent crook tried to buy her,
But the lovers pledged devotion onstage;
It was hard to tell reality from acting
Until they threw themselves in the waves.
       There is no way they should survive, of course -- but they do, helpfully transformed into soles -- flatfish -- (hence the title of the play) and then fished out by a former government official, Murong Jie, now retired and styling himself as Old Fisherman Mo. This is where the play's title comes from -- even as their time in fish-form is ever so brief.
       When they are returned to their human form, Murong Jie continues to be helpful. The couple is finally properly wed -- with bizarre ceremonies that include the guests getting the bride drunk by threatening to beat up the groom if she doesn't drink. Murong Jie also provides Tan Chuyu with the funds to finally go and take the official examinations -- which he of course does very well at, leading to his eventually getting a government appointment -- in fact, Murong Jie's old position.
       It is Murong Jie who also secretly slips a Handbook of Essential Knowledge into Tan Chuyu's possession, helping the new administrator defeat the bandits that continue to be a significant local annoyance. A ruse with which they had hoped to reëstablish themselves -- involving, yet again, acting, in the form of someone of identical appearance impersonating Murong Jie -- briefly leads to Tan Chuyu believing his benefactor is, in fact, a traitor, but of course all's well that ends well. Even Fallen Angel Liu is won over to the right side, when she learns that her daughter did not, in fact, die -- and that her now son-in-law is such an important figure. But Murong Jie also has one final lesson for Tan Chuyu, convincing him that the withdrawn life is the superior one; Tan Chuyu can't immediately get on board with that -- he has a duty to the state -- but vows:
At the expiration of this term of office, I will resign my post at once and move to the mountains to live in seclusion with you.
       A mix of prose and verse, spoken and sung, chuanqi plays presumably comes across quite differently when staged than merely in written (libretto) form, as here. The translators point out that the three different components of the text -- arias, verses, and prose dialogues -- can easily be discerned in the text -- whereby also, for example, in the arias: "extrametrical words are printed in a smaller font". This is all fairly straightforward (if initially, in part, a bit odd-looking) -- though presumably most casual readers aren't too concerned about whether, for example, lines are extrametrical or not. As to the musical aspect, while the Introduction gives some sense of what is involved here, it is largely lost on the page to those unfamiliar with these forms (such as me); nevertheless, the text per se is certainly a satisfactory play as such, and some of the poetry and musicality does come across even just in this printed (and translated) form.
       Slightly more confusing is the fact that, in the text, roles are indicated not by character-name but rather 'role categories', and while Tan Chuyu as sheng ('young male lead') and Fairy Liu as dan ('young female lead') are straightforward enough, there are, for example, several xiaosheng ('extra male lead'), including Murong Jie, as well as several fujing ('secondary painted face'), including Fairy's father, the Bandit chief, and the Judge in the Underworld. Characters do generally identify themselves, but it's still a different way of presenting dialogue and action in a playscript than readers will be used to from in traditional Western drama, and can lead to some confusion.
       Extensive endnotes (395 of them) also provide some insight into the many literary and historical references, as well as some of the translation-choices.
       Despite being quite busy, with its thirty-two shifting scenes, A Couple of Soles is well-paced and relatively easy to follow. The action moves along quite quickly, but scenes also often stand strongly on their own -- as it is also typical in Chinese drama to perform only a selection of scenes, rather than the entire (long ...) play. While most readers will miss much of the cultural context, and specifically the references (though both Jing Shen's useful Introduction and Appendix-essay as well the endnotes help fill in at least a basic understanding of many of these), the play is still readily enjoyable, both in terms of drama and language. The young couple and their devoted love, and the difficulty they have of bridging the divide to finally be, in real life, together, is particularly nice -- even if the brief fish-transformation feels like a rather forced solution (and, unsurprisingly, is really only a relatively small part of the play). The contrast between acting and reality is also well utilized throughout the play, with nice touches such as Tan Chuyu refusing to play without his (completely inappropriate) student's hat, insisting in this way of staying true to his self and calling even as he struts on the stage (which is, after all, just an act, allowing him to be with his beloved).
       In a very nicely presented edition, with useful supporting material and the text thoughtfully presented -- extrametrical words printed in smaller font might be more than most readers need, but it's nice (and presumably useful for the specialists concerned with these details) that they do it -- A Couple of Soles is an entertaining example of seventeenth century Chinese drama made quite accessible to English-reading audiences. Of both literary and historical interest, and offering quite enjoyable drama, comedy, and romance, it's well worth a look.

- M.A.Orthofer, 14 December 2019

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A Couple of Soles: Reviews: Other books by Li Yu under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Chinese author Li Yu (李漁) lived 1610 to 1680.

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© 2019-2022 the complete review

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