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. Chinese plays were presented on practically a bare stage, with no scenery and a minimum of props. The audience’s attention was focused on the performance of the actors; on their costumes and makeup, which ranged from plain to richly exotic; on their singing voices accompanied by instruments (the orchestra being visible to the audience on the side of the stage); and on their symbolic gestures and movements (their whole performance “an elaborate and stylized presentation of emotions and actions”). The actors performed their parts, then, within specific role categories, with which the audience was familiar and which it could immediately recognize. These were, with slight variations, common to all styles of drama in old China.
The plot of The Lute is intricately woven, with two lines of developing action in which conflict and contrast are emphasized. These strands of action operate more or less simultaneously in time over a period of years (seven or eight) and at a considerable distance in space (several hundred miles) until they come together and merge harmoniously at the conclusion of the total action. The story concerns a young scholar, Cai Bojie, the only son of aged parents, with whom he and his recent bride, Zhao Wuniang, live in Chenliu, a district in Kaifeng Fu, Henan. The time is the first century c.e., during the Eastern Han Dynasty. A strongly filial son, the young man has declined to take the imperial examination for the jinshi, or doctor’s degree, whose acquisition would make him eligible for an official appointment in the government service, because he believes that it is his filial obligation to remain at home to care for his old parents. Spring having arrived again, however, it is announced in Cai’s district that the imperial examinations are soon to be given at Luoyang, the capital of the Eastern Han Empire. To the young man’s surprise—indeed to his chagrin—he finds his parents, particularly his father, urging him to leave home to visit the capital and compete in the civil service examinations. They insist that his true filial duty to them is not staying at home to care for them but to earn the jinshi degree and receive an official appointment, for these achievements will bring both honor to the family name and financial prosperity to the parents in their declining years. The young man accedes to their request, despite his doubts and his mother’s forebodings. He journeys to the capital to take the examinations, leaving his parents to be cared for by his young wife, Wuniang, and a neighbor, Mr. Zhang.
When young Cai takes the examinations, he is declared the “First Winner” or “Top Graduate,” a rank that naturally entitles him to a high government post. He is admired and respected by all, including particularly the emperor and Prime Minister Niu. Because the prime minister has a beautiful unmarried daughter, the emperor suggests that the brilliant young scholar would make an ideal husband for the beautiful young lady. To young Cai’s complete dismay, he is required to marry Mistress Niu despite the fact that he is already married to Mistress Zhao. Although Cai is distressed by this second marriage, he is not a bigamist, because plural marriage was given full approval by ancient Chinese society. Living at the prime minister’s splendid mansion with his new bride and her father, Cai is unhappy and grieves about his separation from his first wife, his parents, and his home.
Meanwhile, back in Chenliu, Cai’s parents and Wuniang are suffering from a famine that has struck the area. They are living in dire poverty. Mother Cai blames her husband for sending their son away, thus leaving them helpless in a time of calamity. Although bitter about her husband’s desertion of her, Wuniang does everything possible to help her parents-in-law. She sells her jewelry to get money to buy food; she begs for grain for her in-laws at the public granary; and she secretly eats only the husks of rice, saving the rice itself for her aged charges. Mother Cai suspects Wuniang of buying food for herself to eat in private, but Father Cai maintains his confidence in Wuniang’s integrity. When they spy on her, they learn that Mother Cai’s suspicions are groundless. Both old people are so appalled and humiliated by the evil thoughts they had harbored that they fall down in a faint. Although Father Cai soon recovers, Mother Cai dies. Later, Father Cai falls ill and before long also dies. Before his death, he blames...
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