Two young gentry women meet by chance at a nunnery in Yangzhou, where they fall in love at first sight. After they exchange poetry and recognize each other’s literary talents, their emotional bond deepens. They conduct a mock wedding ceremony at the nunnery and hatch a plan to spend the rest of their lives together. Their schemes are stymied by a series of obstacles, but in the end the two women find an unlikely resolution—a ménage-à-trois marriage.
The Fragrant Companions is the most significant work of literature that portrays female same-sex love in the entire premodern Chinese tradition. Written in 1651 by Li Yu, one of the most inventive and irreverent literary figures of seventeenth-century China, this play is at once an unconventional romantic comedy, a barbed satire, and a sympathetic portrayal of love between women. It offers a sensitive portrait of the two women’s passion for each other, depicts their intellectual pursuits and resourcefulness, and celebrates their partial triumph over social convention. At the same time, Li caustically mocks the imperial examination system and deflates the idealized image of the male scholar.
The Fragrant Companions is both an indispensable source for students and scholars of gender and sexuality in premodern China and a compelling work of literature for all readers interested in China’s rich theatrical traditions.