Prologue Wang, an impoverished water seller, tries to find lodging for three prominent gods, who have come to Earth to find good people. Wang’s request is refused by everyone. Wang himself lives under a bridge and has no home to offer. He finally asks the town’s prostitute, Shen Teh, who agrees to take them in. The next morning, Shen Teh tells the gods that she cannot make a living though she tries to be good. The gods decide to pay her for lodgings when they leave.
Scene One Shen Teh uses the gods’ payment of a thousand silver dollars to buy a small tobacconist business. She hopes to do good through her shop, but people start to take advantage of her. The former owner, Mrs. Shin, begs for rice and money. An elderly couple, who were the first people to take Shen Teh in when she moved to the city but who evicted her when she had no money, ask for shelter for themselves and six relatives. The elderly couple criticize Shen Teh for being too nice. They tell her she should put people off by saying a relative actually owns the store. She is forced to use this excuse several times, including when the landlady, Mrs. Mi Tzu, demands six months rent in advance. The elderly couple’s relatives convince the landlady that Shen Teh’s cousin, Shui Ta, is really in charge. The elderly couple believe that Shen Teh will soon be out of business, but they continue to take advantage of her hospitality. Shen Teh is worried that she will lose her shop.
Interlude The gods charge Wang with looking after Shen Teh and informing them of her progress.
Scene Two In the morning, the elderly couple’s family wonders where Shen Teh is. In her absence, her cousin, Shui Ta, enters with a carpenter. Shui Ta says that Shen Teh will not be coming back and demands that they leave. Shui Ta disposes of several business matters and has the elderly couple’s family arrested. When Shui Ta cannot convince the landlady to exempt Shen Teh from paying six months’ rent in advance, a policeman suggests that Shen Teh marry to raise capital for the shop. A personal ad is composed to attract someone appropriate.
Scene Three In a public park, Shen Teh comes upon a young pilot, Yang Sun, preparing to hang himself. It starts to rain, and Sun and Shen Teh seek shelter together. Sun reveals that he cannot find a job, while Shen Teh reveals she has worked as a prostitute. Sun begins to appreciate Shen Teh, but he tells her that he could never love her.
Interlude The gods visit Wang for a progress report. Wang tells them that Shen Teh is in love with Sun, and has remained good. Wang mentions that Shui Ta has been uncharitable, and the gods are not pleased with the cousin’s actions.
Scene Four Several people whom Shen Teh has helped wait for her outside her shop. Shen Teh had spent the night with Sun and forgotten that she needs to pay the rent on her shop. A carpet dealer and his wife lend her the 200 silver dollars that she needs. When she leaves the carpet dealer’s shop, Wang shows her his hand, which has been broken by the rich barber, Shu Fu. Though there are many witnesses to Shu Fu’s crime, none will corroborate Wang’s story. Shen Teh becomes angry at those waiting and tells them to leave. Sun’s mother, Mrs. Yang, approaches her, because Sun needs 500 silver dollars to get a pilot’s job. Shen Teh immediately...
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gives her the 200 silver dollars that the carpet dealer gave her, and pledges to get the rest.
Interlude Shen Teh reveals that she is really Shui Ta.
Scene Five Shui Ta is running the shop when Yang Sun shows up. The young pilot wants the remaining 300 silver dollars so he can get his job. Yang Sun even says that he will marry Shen Teh. Shui Ta suggests that he give back the 200 silver dollars and help Shen Teh run the tobacconist business, but Sun insists that they sell the shop for 300 silver dollars instead. Shui Ta agrees until Sun reveals that he intends to leave Shen Teh behind with nothing to live on when he goes to his job. Shui Ta asks for the 200 silver dollars back, but Sun refuses. Shui Ta realizes that Sun does not love Shen Teh. Mrs. Shin brings the barber, Shu Fu, to the shop. Shu Fu has been admiring Shen Teh and offers the use of some empty buildings to house her homeless guests. When Wang and a police officer enter the shop, Shui Ta denies that Shen Teh witnessed the crippling of Wang. After they leave, Shui Ta tells Shu Fu that Shen Teh is no longer involved with Sun, and will be gone for a few weeks. Then Shui Ta goes into the back room. Shu Fu makes it known that he wants to become involved with Shen Teh, and when Yang appears at the shop, the barber informs him that he (Shu Fu) and Shen Teh will be married. But when Shen Teh emerges from the back room, Yang Sun manages to talk himself back into her affections, and Shen Teh admits she loves him, not the barber.
Interlude Shen Teh is in her wedding dress. She tells the audience that the carpet dealer is ill, and his wife desperately needs the money back. Shen Teh loves Yang Sun, who now has the money, but is torn over what to do.
Scene Six At the wedding, Yang Sun complains to his mother that Shen Teh has asked for the 200 silver dollars back. Mrs. Yang assures him that she has sent for Shui Ta. Shen Teh believes all is well until she realizes that Yang Sun and his mother are holding the wedding up for Shui Ta. Yang Sun does not have the 200 silver dollars she asked for, and he is angry that Shui Ta will not be bringing the 300 silver dollars. Shui Ta never comes and the couple do not marry.
Interlude The gods appear to Wang in a dream. Wang is worried that Shen Teh has lost love because she tried to be good, but the gods dismiss his concerns, believing that goodness will win out.
Scene Seven Shen Teh prepares to sell her business so she can pay back the carpet dealer. Shu Fu offers Shen Teh a blank check so she can stay in business, but Shen Teh refuses to use it. Shen Teh reveals that she is pregnant, and worries about her child’s future. Still, Shen Teh gives Wang her cart, one of the last things she owns, so that he can sell it and go to the doctor.
Some members of the elderly couple’s family ask if they can leave some ill-gotten tobacco in her back room. Shen Teh agrees. Later Shen Teh decides that if her child is to survive, she will have to become Shui Ta again. Shui Ta, her alter ego, takes charge of the situation, and puts an end to Shen Teh’s charity. He decides to open a tobacco factory, using the elderly couple’s tobacco for stock and the homeless guests as workers. Shui Ta uses the blank check to save the business.
Interlude Wang tells the gods that he has seen Shen Teh in distress in a dream, but the gods are not sympathetic.
Scene Eight Shui Ta’s tobacco factory is thriving. Mrs. Yang tells the audience how Shui Ta saved her son, giving Sun a job in the factory and deducting the 200 silver dollars still owed to Shen Teh from wages. Although Sun does not like the work at first, he excels and eventually becomes the overseer.
Scene Nine Still running Shen Teh’s shop, Shui Ta is very fat because of Shen Teh’s pregnancy. Shui Ta/Shen Teh has repaid the carpet dealer and his wife, although they have already lost their shop. Mrs. Shin now knows that Shui Ta is Shen Teh. Sun enters, commenting on how moody Shui Ta has been, tries to get Shui Ta to talk about business, but is put off. Wang enters, asking about Shen Teh’s whereabouts, because he is worried that she has met with an ill fate. When Wang inadvertently reveals to Sun that Shen Teh is pregnant, Sun becomes angry. Shui Ta has gone into the back room and cries like a girl. Sun overhears the weeping, believes that Shui Ta is holding Shen Teh prisoner in the backroom. The police come and arrest Shui Ta.
Interlude Wang tells the gods that Shen Teh is gone, and her cousin has been arrested. They decide to intervene.
Scene Ten Inside the courtroom, the three gods oversee Shui Ta’s hearing. Everyone in attendance believes Shui Ta will get off because he is well-connected. All present tell the gods about how good Shen Teh is. While several people claim Shui Ta is a good and honorable businessman, most say he has ruined them. The merits of Shui Ta and Shen Teh are debated by all whose lives have been touched by them. Shui Ta decides to confess, but only if the courtroom is emptied of everyone but the gods. When they are alone, Shen Teh takes off the masks and clothing that makes her Shui Ta. She explains to them how hard it was to survive as Shen Teh because everyone took advantage of her. The gods are not sympathetic, and wish her luck as they return to heaven. They tell her if she is good, all will turn out well. Shen Teh is left to go on alone.
Epilogue A player appears in front of the curtain and apologizes to the audience that the ending is not neat and tidy.