A new translation revitalizes a Qing “morality play” about love and corruption for a modern audience

“All the world’s a stage,” Shakespeare observed in As You Like It. Sixty years later, and half a world away, Chinese playwright Li Yu’s epic drama A Couple of  Soles (《比目鱼》) would bring new meaning to the phrase, presenting a world of petty corruption and pure love where seemingly everyone is pretending to be someone else.

Originally written and performed in 1661, A Couple of Soles is the first of Li’s 10 plays to be translated into English. This early Qing-era drama offers a compelling tale of romantic surprise, as well as a window into the mind of a talented eccentric and giant of the dramatic tradition in China.

A Couple of Soles begins as the story of a troupe of actors, performing their different roles in the drama of life while submitting to personal crises on stage. At its center is the love between a frustrated young scholar, “child prodigy” Tan Chuyu, and a juvenile actress, Fairy Liu. Introduced as a struggling writer, Tan is swiftly inducted as the play’s noble romantic, so stirred by the 14-year-old Liu’s beauty that he resolves to give up scholarly ambitions for a lowly position in Liu’s troupe in order to be close to her.

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Soles of Wit is a story from our issue, “Grape Expectations.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.


author Sam Davies

Sam Davies is the deputy managing editor at The World of Chinese. He writes mainly about society, sport, and culture, with his pieces touching on diverse topics from the future of China’s ski industry to efforts to prevent juvenile crime.

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