The Tale of the Lute


Pi pa ji (The tale of the lute) was written during the late Yuan dynasty by Gao Ming (circa 1305‒59). It is a southern drama, based on an earlier story from the Song and Yuan, entitled Zhao zhen nü Cai Erlang (Chaste maiden Zhao and Cai Erlang), which recounts the ups and downs of the life of Eastern Han scholar Cai Yong (also known as Cai Bojie) and Zhao Wuniang. The biggest difference in this play from the original story is its happy ending. The original story ended with Zhao Wuniang being kicked by Cai’s horse and Cai Bojie being struck dead by a thunderbolt in retribution for his betrayal. Gao Ming’s drama, in contrast, ends with “the union of the husband and wife, who brought honor to their family.” Zhao Wuniang is depicted as a kind and pure, selfless and responsible woman, and as an example of loyalty and filial piety. The script of the play is an elegant interpretation of the plot, a masterpiece that was well received in its day and was considered by later generations the “originator of southern drama.” Gao Ming, courtesy name Zecheng, self-styled name Caigen Daoren, was a native of Rui’an, Zhejiang, who was a poet and playwright. The play was printed at Wanhuxuan, a publishing house in Jinling, in the 25th year (1597) of the Wanli era (1573‒1620) of Ming, by Wang Guanghua, who was originally from Huizhou (present-day Shexian, Anhui). The compilation of the work was based on a Yuan edition as well as on various other editions. It contains 74 illustrations. The Wanli era of the Ming dynasty was an important period in the development of Chinese drama. Southern dramas with commentaries also flourished at that time. Among the existing Ming editions of Pi pa ji with a complete text, 16 are with commentaries, of which this copy is one example.

Last updated: April 14, 2017