A scholar and an official who served, somewhat reluctantly, in the Mongol government of China for about a decade, Gao Ming (Wade Giles, Kao Ming) retired to devote himself to writing. Although he is known principally as a playwright, Gao was also a specialist in the Chunqiu (Spring and Autumn Annals, 1872), the first Chinese chronological history, and a poet who wrote in both the ci and the shi forms, the former being particularly prized. Some of his poems and miscellaneous writings have been preserved in various anthologies. Although only one of his ci is extant, some fifty of his poems in the shi form survive.
One of the first southern plays in the new genre later termed chuanqi Gao Ming’s The Lute became immensely popular with its first performance around 1367. Zhu Yuanzhang, who commanded the rebel armies that drove the Mongols from China and founded the Ming Dynasty in 1368 to become Emperor Hong Wu, is said to have witnessed this performance with enthusiastic admiration. Shortly after he ascended the throne, Zhu Yuanzhang summoned Gao to court to serve on the commission being assembled to compile the official history of the Yuan Dynasty. The literatus, however, excused himself on account of age and ill health—although legend has it that he feigned madness. In any case, he escaped from this task, much to the disappointment, it is said, of the new monarch.
Later, when someone presented a copy of The Lute to the emperor, it is reported that he smiled and commented: “The Five Classics and Four Books are cloth, silk, meal, and millet—something every household has. Gao’s The Lute is like some splendid, delicious delicacy, and no truly noble household should be without it.” Indeed, the emperor so admired Gao’s play that he required his theatrical troupe to perform it (or, more likely, selected parts of it), almost daily. Eventually growing discontented by the lack of stringed instrumental accompaniment in the performances, he ordered the officials of the Music Academy to set the southern songs to northern tunes so that the performances could be accompanied by the pipa, or lute, and the zheng, or zither.
A play may be immensely popular yet possess little artistic merit. If The Lute maintained its popularity with the general public, its artistic qualities were formidable enough to retain the interest and the appreciation of sophisticated, learned, and literary people. Indeed, it was regarded as a model of its kind by playwrights working in the same genre. Although Gao had made use of the conventional theme of filial piety, The Lute presents this theme in a new way by showing the strong role that circumstance and chance play in human affairs. Further, the...
Birch, Cyril. “Some Concerns and Methods of the Ming Ch’uan-ch’i Drama.” In Studies in Chinese Literary Genres, edited by Cyril Birch. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974. A background essay on the Southern drama of the Ming Dynasty.
Birch, Cyril. “Tragedy and Melodrama in Early Ch’uan-ch’i Plays: Lute Song and Thorn Hairpin Compared.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental Studies 36 (1973): 228-247. An examination of the chuanqi plays.
Dolby, William. A History of Chinese Drama. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1976.
Johnson, Dale R. A Glossary of Words and Phrases in the Oral Performing and Dramatic Literatures of the Jin, Yuan, and Ming. Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan, 2000. A glossary that explains some of the terms used in a discussion of Chinese drama during the Yuan period.
Mair, Victor H., ed. The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.
Mulligan, Jean, trans. Introduction to The Lute: Kao Ming’s P’i-p’a chi. New York: Columbia University Press, 1980. In the introduction to her translation of the Chinese classic, Mulligan provides valuable information on the presentation of the work and of the times in which it was created.
Nienhauser, William H., Jr., ed. and comp. The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.
Shou-Yi, Chen. Chinese Literature; A Historical Introduction. New York: Ronald Press, 1961.
Velingerová, Milena Doleelová. “Traditional Chinese Theories of Drama and the Novel.” Arizona Quarterly 59, no. 2 (1991).
Wang, Chien P’ing. P’i p’a chi: The Story of the Lute. Pei-ching: Hsin Shih Chieh Chu Pan She, 1999. A parallel text edition of the famous classic featuring a new English translation and the text of the original.