Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 639

The Lute is Gao Ming’s only surviving opera. It is also the only southern ch’uan-ch’i (“telling of the remarkable”) of the Yüan period (1271-1368) to be declared worthy of the highest praise. This judgment was rendered by none other than Hongwu (Chu Yüan-chang), who became the founder and emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Other qualified persons have supported this view, although some have disagreed, expressing dissatisfaction with the work’s diction and lack of modal harmony. These judgments may be questioned, but there is no mistaking the flaws in the plot: the parents’ ignorance of their son’s success and marriage and his failure to recognize the forgery of his father’s calligraphy when the swindler presents the faked letter to him.

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The title of Gao’s opera includes a word for a stringed instrument called the pi-pa. This term has been translated into English as “guitar” or “lute.” Although the Western guitar is a member of the lute family, neither of these terms is exactly correct, as the Chinese pi-pa is not really like either instrument. It has a shallow, pear-shaped body, a short fretted neck, and only four strings, whereas a guitar has a deep body shaped something like an hourglass, a long neck, and six strings. The pi-pa is meant to be emblematic of the hardships and the sufferings of Ts’ai’s first wife, Chao Wu-niang, during her journey to the capital to rejoin her husband. She is obliged to sing to the accompaniment of her pi-pa to obtain food and lodging. For her to walk such a long distance unchaperoned requires remarkable courage.

The Western theater typically classifies dramas as tragedies, comedies, and tragicomedies, but the Chinese theater has no such categories. A didactic theater, the Chinese opera deals largely with kinds of persons: saintly immortals, filial sons, chaste wives, obedient grandsons, young scholars, young beauties, wise judges, martial knights, and so on. In Western terms The Lute is a tragicomedy, as the main line of the action is tragic but the story nevertheless ends happily, like a comedy. From the Chinese point of view, the story is a moral fable and an exemplum of filial piety, neighborliness, ancestor worship, scholarly ambition, government service, class conflict, political power, polygyny without jealousy, married love, separation, suffering, death, heroic courage, reunion, and harmony, all according to Confucian ethics.

In the Chinese view, filial piety stems from the concept of li, or ceremony. It includes not merely acts but also, above all, motives and intentions, as measured by the rules of propriety, from which genuine etiquette and politeness come. According to ancient texts, filial piety is the root of all virtue and that from which all teaching comes. The path of filial piety leads to ancestor worship, which comes into play with the deaths of family members and includes such elements as the painting of funeral portraits, burial ceremonies, and the display of ancestral tablets. On certain occasions the living pay homage to the dead by displaying their tablets and funeral portraits, by offering prayers to their spirits, and by making offerings of food and paper money.

One of the most important goals of the ancient Chinese was to lead a life that would glorify and honor one’s parents while avoiding any action that might shame them. For the son of living parents, one way of assuring the former would be to become an advanced scholar by competing successfully in the government civil service examinations. This would typically lead to an important official post. Parents who had a son who had become an advanced scholar would advertise the fact by setting up a double flagpole in front of their door. All of the complexity of the theme of filial piety is clearly and suspensefully developed in Gao’s great work.

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