This past week in Chinese and Japanese drama class, we read portions of an ancient dramaturgical text entitled Xianqing Ouji, or Pleasant Diversions, by Li Yu. Li Yu was an author and theatre theorist who lived in China in the 17th century, and Pleasant Diversions centers on his thoughts and theories on drama. He also seemingly had a way with words; maybe the translation helps bring out the humor, but nobody else in class spoke up against the translation and almost all of them speak Chinese. So, I thought I’d share some of the wisdom I learned from Li Yu,
Section 1: On Dramatic Structure
Though one’s ability may be limited, if skill is honed and put to good use, one can still achieve distinction. Otherwise one might boast of huge talent and claim vast learning, but if one’s essays are full of allusions to the dead and gone and one’s books are only useful for covering sauce jars, all is in vain (33).
Not everyone can write a play.
Section 2: On Forgoing Satire
The sword of the warrior and the pen of the literary man are both instruments for killing people. Everybody knows that swords can kill. It is not widely known that pens can kill, but still some do know (37).
For a long time I feared I would have no sons to carry on my line, now I have five sons and two daughters, wives who are pregnant, wives who have given birth but will be pregnant again. Although none of my progeny show promise, yet they give me comfort in my declining years, and relieve me of the worry of having no kin to turn to (40).
My kids suck.
Section 4: On Getting Out of the Rut
There is an old saying, ‘the most expensive fur coat is made from the fuzz from more than one fox’s armpit’, which is most apt to commend the new plays of our contemporaries (43).
You had me at “fox’s armpit.”
Section 9: On Plot and Personality
If his speech is not dull and predictable, one or two sentences out of ten will break the mould; if his writing is not prosaic, one or two passages in a composition will be creative. This will be someone capable of writing plays. Otherwise he should look for some other occupation, not expend useful energies on a profitless pursuit (54).
If you can’t write a play, get a job.
Section 13: On Wordliness versus Conciseness
I would in fact prefer to save my energy by giving latitude to the actors; the problem is, there are intelligent actors and stupid ones: can I be sure that their amplifications all accord with the author’s intentions, and they will not introduce irrelevant and superfluous stuff (59).
Don’t allow actors to fuck your shit up.
Section 16: On ke hun (light relief)
If your diction is good, your plot good, but your light relief bad, then not merely will your vulgar playgoers be turned away, even your gentlemen of high culture will nod off. The dramatist must be adept at driving away the demon of sleep. Once the demon of sleep has come, though what ensues may be celestial music or the divine ‘Dance of the Rainbow Skirt’, they will still fall on stopped ears and closed eyes. It will be like bowing to statues, discussing the sutras with a clay Buddha (65).
Don’t be boring, but if you are, make sure you have a topless scene; chances are the audience won’t notice.