Other Literary Forms
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 conflicts that the characters experience over the issues of the meaning of filial piety are left ambiguous. Another new approach on Gao’s part was his presenting of Cai Bojie, the traditional villain of earlier plays and stories, as a good and well-meaning man who is a victim of the machinations of others who are equally good and well-meaning. All are victims of chance and circumstance, as well as of the Chinese cultural code. No human villain appears in The Lute.
Only a few nanxi, or southern plays, have been preserved. The Lute, however, is the only nanxi that was preserved by being widely anthologized because of its popularity and literary merits. Three nanxi that predate The Lute have survived by having been buried in the imperial encyclopedia, Yongle dadian (1403-1408; grand repository of eternal joy), remnants of which were discovered in a London bookstall in 1920. A comparison of these earlier nanxi with The Lute reveals that in a lesser way they anticipate the later style that Gao brought near perfection. If he did not invent the style later termed chuanqi, he certainly brought it to full flower. Gao’s contributions involved innovations, elaborations, organization, and style.
The prologue of The Lute was an innovation. It gives an outline of the plot, states its theme, and lays down the philosophical...
(The entire section is 1,266 words.)