The World of Chinese
THE FRAGRANT COMPANIONS (COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY PRESS, JULY 12)
Early Qing dynasty China was a lenient place. Conservative Neo-confucianism was out, allowing scandalous iconoclasts like playwright Li Yu to write The Fragrant Companions in 1651. The play was rarely staged over the years, unsurprising when the main plot turns around two beautiful, talented female poets falling in love, marrying (although one already has a scholar-official husband), and eventually living together. Despite an abundance of stories from classical China around homosexual love or extra-marital affairs, tales of female love rarely made it into the public domain. Li took pleasure in tipping the traditional social order upside-down, turning the solemnity of a Confucian marriage into a messy ménage à trois, and the dignity of the imperial exam system into a farcical cavity-search for hidden crib sheets.