Gao Ming Analysis
Gao Ming’s The Lute belongs to the southern style of Yuan drama, or to nanxi (also termed xiwen). As such, it differs in its formal properties, particularly in its musical as well as its dramatic structures, from the stricter, less “pop” form of the northern style, or zaju. The dramatic and musical forms of the nanxi were not fixed but were relatively free, allowing for more intricacy, more elaboration—one might say, permitting the “baroque.” Like all Chinese plays, The Lute is “musical drama,” or “Chinese opera,” although not in any Western sense. As such, its musical structure is its most important element.
The musical structure of nanxi, unlike zaju, permitted multiple singing roles, and sometimes the singing was done in unison. The role categories were more expansive in nanxi than in zaju, and the singing could be assigned to any character and to any number of characters. The music of southern drama stuck to the traditional Chinese scale, a pentatonic scale, in contrast to the northern drama, whose music employed the Mongol scale (modified by Kublai Khan), a heptatonic scale. Furthermore, southern music was fitted to the gu (drum) and the paiban (wooden clappers), whereas northern music was fitted to the pipa (“balloon guitar,” or lute) and the dizi (horizontal flute). Emperor Hong Wu, dissatisfied with performances of Gao’s The Lute because the music was not fitted to such stringed instruments as the pipa and the zheng (zither), ordered his Music Academy to have the southern songs set to northern tunes. The nanxi took more tunes from Tang and Song ci than did the zaju, because the latter favored folk tunes from Central Asia. Although there were “modes” in southern as well as in northern music, “mode” as such was not a measure of the aria melodies in nanxi drama. Instead of being organized on the basis of mode, the songs in nanxi were arranged on the principle of a sequence of different tunes or a sequence based on transposition or ornamental variation without regard to any modal relationship.
The dramatic structure of nanxi was large, having as many as forty or fifty scenes (chu). Gao’s The Lute consists of forty-two scenes. The acts or scenes could vary in length from short to long. The first scene of a nanxi presents the important division of the prologue. The prologue of The Lute was, as noted above, innovative in its time, setting forth a moral principle as well as an aesthetic principle on which the play is based and an outline of the action to come, together with a listing of the agents of this action. Four main role categories appear in the nanxi: sheng, dan, jing, and chou. The sheng is the leading male character, the dan the leading female. The mo is the secondary male role, and the wai may be either a secondary male or a secondary female role. In The Lute, Cai Bojie, the poor scholar who became the Top Graduate in the imperial jinshi examinations and married the prime minister’s beautiful daughter, is played by the sheng actor. His first wife, Zhao Wuniang, is played by the dan actor. Father Cai and Mother Cai are played by the wai and jing actors respectively. Mistress Niu, the prime minister’s daughter who became young Cai’s second wife, is played by the tie-dan actor. Her father, Prime Minister Niu, is played by the wai actor. The mo, the jing, and the chou actors play a variety of subordinate roles. It is the mo actor who presents the important prologue in scene 1, in this case playing the part of a “master of ceremonies.” Later he plays (among other roles) the steward in the mansion of Prime Minister Niu; young Cai’s neighbor Zhang Dagong, who helps Mistress Zhao look after her in-laws during the famine; a traveler; a prefectural supervisor; and a eunuch. Although the prologue precedes the main action of the play, it is an integral part of the whole. In the nanxi, there was neither “wedge” nor epilogue. The theme of The Lute is brought out in the prologue—the duty of “filial piety” (xiao ) and how that duty is to be interpreted....
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