Three Chinese gods representing the ideal of active goodness towards one and all are walking from city to city looking – so far without success – for one good person. When they arrive at Setzuan they have some human complaints – they are tired and their feet hurt. Further, they have been refused night lodging by the gentry, but Shen Te, a prostitute, agrees to take them in.
Next morning, while taking leave, they praise Shen Te as the good person they are looking for. She denies she is good, pointing out that she sells herself for money, but the gods reject her arguments. In payment for her hospitality and to help her meet the expenses of a virtuous way of life, they give her money and depart. With the money, Shen Te purchases a tobacco shop.
At once she is besieged with needy neighbours and parasites, and her boundless charity brings her to near ruin. When Wu Wang, the water-seller, asks the gods to relax their rules, substituting more attainable ideals for the impossible one they insist on, the gods refuse to intervene saying it is not their business to become involved in affairs of humans
Later, she falls in love with an employed but ruthlessly selfish airman, Wang Sun and here again her goodness leads to disaster. Later still, obsessed with the welfare of her unborn child by Sun, she can afford no goodness to anyone else.
She finds no way out but to disguise herself as a hard-headed imaginary male cousin Shui Ta. She wants to do good to herself as well as to others. Her feminine weaknesses, charity and love, must be limited by masculine toughness. She is driven to play a dual role – the masculine complimenting the feminine. As Shui Ta she helps both the poor and her lover by setting up a factory which provides work and wages. But in doing so, she foregoes all her charity and her mental plight becomes worse. At length she is arrested for the supposed murder of Shen Te.
The gods enter the court to try the case, whereupon she removes her disguise and reveals herself to the god-judges as Shen Te. At this the gods are delighted, for the good woman is still on earth. But when Shen Te points out that her good actions have had bad consequences, they merely tell her to go on being good. When she further protests that she cannot survive without the hard-headed Shui Ta, they decree that she may use Shui Ta sparingly, say, once a month. Ascending into heaven on a pink cloud, the gods leave the troubled Shen Te alone.
The metaphysical concept of a perfect God (or gods) creating an imperfect world, leaving men to do their best in such a world, explains the ways of the three gods. On the other hand, Shen Te expects the gods not only to commend her goodness but, to help her impose goodness on the world. Faced with the complete indifference of the gods to human problems, Shen Te is left with the unresolved problem of how a good person is to survive in a bad world.
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