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the Complete Review
the complete review - drama

The Fragrant Companions

Li Yu

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To purchase The Fragrant Companions

Title: The Fragrant Companions
Author: Li Yu
Genre: Play
Written: 1651 (Eng. 2022)
Length: 324 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: The Fragrant Companions - US
The Fragrant Companions - UK
The Fragrant Companions - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)
directly from: Columbia University Press
  • A Play About Love Between Women
  • Chinese title: 憐香伴
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Stephen Roddy and Ying Wang

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a charming romance and an amusing critique of the Chinese civil service examination system, in a busy but enjoyable play

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The second of the ten plays written by the remarkable Li Yu to be translated into English, The Fragrant Companions is unusual in being, as the subtitle of this edition has it: A Play About Love Between Women. As the translators note in their Introduction, there are only a handful of premodern sources in Chinese literature that in any way treat female same-sex love -- in contrast to the: "Voluminous descriptions of (and commentary on) male same-sex relations" -- and the play is certainly of historical interest as such, but fortunately it also proves to be an entertainingly involved drama beyond merely the romance at its heart -- not least in its extensive treatment (and critique) of another favorite Chinese subject, the civil service examination system.
       The Fragrant Companions is, like the later A Couple of Soles, a play in the chuanqi (傳奇) genre, and the translators strike a good balance in staying true to the genre while also making it accessible to foreign readers. The characters in chuanqi plays: "are played by actors and actresses assigned to various role types" -- and in the original are only identified by these, i.e. Cui Jianyun and Cao Yuhua, the two women who fall in love, are generally only identified as: 'the young female lead' and 'the supporting young female role' respectively; thankfully, the translators here opt instead to use the characters' names. (Knowing the role types is of some interest, and they are helpfully noted in the Dramatis Personae at the beginning of the play; the role types are also mentioned in the stage instructions when characters make their first appearance in the play; e.g. "CAO GECHEN enters with THE CAO FAMILY SERVANT, the secondary older man role, and THE OLD MAIDSERVANT, the older woman role".)
       The translation also helpfully makes clear at which points the characters are simply speaking and where they are singing -- there's lots of singing --, which, in the original, would be differentiated only through the use of different size fonts. (Smaller font sizes are, however, also used here, to indicate: "what are known as chenzi or literally 'lining words'".)
       An Appendix explains and lists the modes and tunes used in the play, as much of the play is sung, to recognizable (for the cognoscenti) tunes; while most of this presumably goes entirely over the head of the reader reading the play in English, the (many, many) tunes are clearly identified throughout (e.g. "To the Tune of Jianghuanglong (The Yellow Dragon Descends)") and the truly interested reader can map and follow-up on these. (While ignoring all this no doubt means missing out on a significant aspect of the play, especially in performance, the play can readily be enjoyed without paying close attention to the music and which tunes are being sung, i.e. focusing solely on the text.)
       The presentation of the text does take some getting used to as, instead of clear breaks when speakers switch (as found in traditional Western playscripts), much of the dialogue is presented grouped together, the change in speakers only indicated parenthetically, e.g.:

(JIANYUN turns her back to YUHUA and says) Look at her, she does not wear makeup and has a natural charm; such an unmatched beauty ! To say nothing of men; as a woman, even I find myself attracted to her ! (CAO'S FAMILY SERVANT enters) The palanquin is here, Miss, it is time to leave. (YUHUA) We have just barely met; how can we part so soon ? Please stay and chat for a moment longer. (JINGGUAN talks to JIANYUN) I have long admired Mistress's poetic talent. Today we have chanced to meet; may I ask you for a poem ? (JIANYUN) Living alone with nothing to do, I write to pass the time. How can I be praised as a poet ?
       With the sung parts separated out, making for frequent breaks, the text does not get too dense, but it still takes some getting used to read dialogue presented like this.
       The opening scene summarizes the plot, so there are no big surprises in the play, but it does wend rather more complicatedly to its happy end. The opening scene does set the scene in some ways, however -- not least in identifying Fan Shi as a: "clueless but very lucky lad", and Cao Yourong as "dimwitted" (though both are also scholars).
       The play beings with young scholar Fan Shi -- a bit full of himself ("My learning knows no bounds; my talents are beyond measure") marrying Cui Jianyun. Meanwhile, the widower Cao Yourong arrives with his young daughter, Cao Yuhua, -- just fourteen, she is still "a mere girl", though already showing great talents -- as he is on his way to take the civil service examinations yet again (he's failed to advance nine times). Jianyun and Yuhua's paths cross -- they smell each other out, as it were -- and the two young women fall head over heels in love.
       It's clear they are destined to be together -- helped by four dei ex machina who conspire to ignite the passion between them. As one of them, the Love Messenger, however notes:
Although these two women are destined to be together, there is one malevolent star in their fates. Therefore, after they meet, they will have to experience some suffering before Yuhua can become the young Fan's wife.
       The plan Jianyun and Yuhua conceive to ensure they can be together is to get Fan Shi to take Yuhua as a (second) wife; the (biggest) hurdle they face here is that Cao Yourong could never agree to his precious daughter being a mere second(ary) wife -- and, indeed, when the match is first proposed he refuses to even consider it. Still, from the first they dream:
How can we make it so that we will live in the same place,
be married to the same man, and
lie on the same mat reciting poetry ?
       (Both are remarkably accomplished poets, and, more than once in the play, this also helps bring them together. The literary is a more or less accepted outlet for, for example, the feelings the two women have for each other, but Cao Yourong's concern -- "a woman should not show off her literary talents" -- proves, from his perspective, not entirely misplaced.)
       Jianyun and Yuhua not only: "become sworn sisters in this life, and vow to be blood sisters in the next one" -- hoping to become husband and wife in their next lives --, but even go through a mock marriage ceremony. As Li Yu then cleverly has Jianyun sing:
Holding hands and looking at each other,
this marriage has opened an extraordinary new chapter in the history of love.
A fake groom and a real bride,
such innovation can only be found in the theater.
       The theater -- like poetry -- proves a place where the otherwise unthinkable can be presented and considered, rendered (but also shown to be) essentially harmless.
       Even as an initially reluctant Fan Shi -- he already has a good thing in Jianyun and is worried about overextending himself -- can be convinced to go along with the women's plan, there are other complications. One comes in the form of would-be scholar Zhou Gongmeng, who admits to long having been able to: "lead a frivolous and dissolute lifestyle", bribing and cheating his way to examination success in s system that clearly has considerable weak spots (which he readily exploits). He, too, wants to make a play for the lovely Yuhua -- and also sees to it that Fan Shi is stripped of his scholar's attire.
       The women are separated: Yuhua's father continues to the capital, where he finally passes the examination and is rewarded with a high post, while a disgraced Fan Shi moves and changes his name, to Shi Jian, and dedicates himself to his studies so that he can reclaim his standing by doing well at the next examination (as he then does). (Zhou Gongmeng also tries to pass the next examination, and has to resort to trying to cheat, but he is ignominiously found out when he tries to hide his cheat-sheets in his rear. While Li Yu is more circumspect about describing any intimate physical relations between women, he makes clear that Zhou Gongmeng engaged in homosexual activity, the character boasting: "It's a good thing that I used to enjoy cavorting with men, and opened up this territory for development, so that it's now capacious enough to hide the cheat sheets".)
       Years pass before Jianyun and Yuhua are reünited -- with Yuhua becoming despairingly love-sick --, and even then it takes quite a bit of deception to bring everyone happily together. It helps that Cao Yourong fails to recognize Fan Shi, and that Fan Shi is able to undertake a mission that Cao Yourong is reluctant to; even then Yuhua's father displeased to find how he's been tricked. Only an imperial edict that states that both Jianyun and Yuhua: "should be conferred with the title of principal wife" leaves everyone happy.
       The play's thirty-six scenes move along at a good pace, with a decent bit of suspense along the way, despite the audience being well aware that everything will turn out well. Li Yu is particularly good in the use of his many characters and their different ambitions (and how these affect each other), constantly shifting the dynamics. If the romance is fairly straightforward, the examination-competitions, which practically all the male characters are involved in, one way or another, are very entertaining and particularly well-used. Tertiary storylines, including the involvement of the dei ex machina as well as the voyage and visit of the king of the Ryuku Islands feel a bit extraneous in what is already a very busy play, but not too distractingly so -- and they do serve their purposes for the main storylines.
       The Fragrant Companions is charming and quite fun. The characters can, at times, feel underdeveloped -- though presumably full appreciation and understanding of the musical and literary references in text and song (many of which are, at least to some extent, explained in the endnotes) do make for much fuller characters. The secondary characters looking out for themselves -- notably, Zhou Gongmeng and Cao Yourong's old classmate Wang Zhongxiang -- and how they mess with things is particularly enjoyable.
       Neatly dealing with both the passionate love between two intelligent and talented women and the Chinese examination-system, The Fragrant Companions is a rich and rewarding play that is approachable and yet also intriguingly different from much Western drama.

- M.A.Orthofer, 19 July 2022

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The Fragrant Companions: 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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© 2022 the complete review

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