Commencing in the mid-Qing period, the composition of literary works in authors’ local dialects emerged as a growing trend in the Jiangnan region. Studies to date have noted several examples of Wu dialect fiction and tanci, while Kunqu plays, the dominant form of southern (chuanqi) opera, continued to be written in a mixture of classical Chinese and guanhua. The mid-Qing play Sancaifu 三才福 (All Goes Well for Three Talented Friends), kept in the Skachkov Collection, Russian State Library (RSL), is a rare example of a play in part rendered in Wu dialect (Suzhou variety). Spoken parts of the play employ Suzhou dialect of the time and include numerous local expressions and slang terms that would have made little sense to audiences or readers from elsewhere. The RSL’s handwritten copy likely dates from the early nineteenth century, purchased by Skachkov in Beijing sometime before 1857, thereafter remaining cataloged but unremarked in Russia. Knowledge of the play disappeared in China except for a single mention in a Manchu prince’s reading notes. A two-volume play consisting of thirty-two scenes and over 46,000 Chinese characters, Sancaifu’s plot consists of several parallel storylines, most of which concern marriage fates. The key protagonists are predominantly men of letters; however, the play also features a large number of female urban commoner roles, such as girls from struggling families, concubines, maids, nuns, elderly beggars, midwives, and go-betweens. In contrast to other plays of the time, these subaltern characters are not mere targets of humor, but more often than not play a key role in the storyline. Consistent with the prominence of urban commoner women, the play also draws attention to social values that contradict the conservative Neo-Confucianism that dominated plays from this era. Following an analysis of the play’s unusual textual and material features, this paper seeks to assess what lies behind its deliberate deployment of dialect across distinctions of social stratification, gender, and moral standing. It is this last element that establishes the unique importance of this otherwise-obscure text for Chinese theater history.


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pp. 7-30
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