The Lute


Gao Ming (circa 1305–59) was a Han Chinese from Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province. After a frustrating official career, he left the service, retired to Yinxian (present-day Ningbo), and made a new life writing dramas. He was the author of Pi pa ji (The lute), based on a southern folk opera, Zhao zhen nu (A girl of virtue called Zhao). The two main characters in the drama, Cai Yong and Zhao Wuniang, are transformed into a loyal and filial couple in Gao Ming’s opera, which was well received and honored as the “founder of the southern opera.” The story starts with Cai Yong (also known as Bojie) leaving his family and his new bride, at his father’s insistence, to go to Beijing to take the national civil examination. After passing the exam, Cai is requested by Prime Minister Niu to stay in the capital and marry his daughter, Niu Suyu. Meanwhile, Cai’s wife at home takes up the duty of caring for his parents during a severe drought and famine, even begging food for them while she herself eats chaff to stay alive. After Cai’s parents die, Zhao cuts off and sells her beautiful hair in order to afford to bury them. Her filial piety moves heaven to help build graves for her in-laws. She then begins a 12-year-long odyssey, with the lute on her back, to the capital in search of Cai. She carries the drawings of her parents-in-law and plays the lute as a street musician along the road. Cai, meanwhile, is unhappy and homesick. When Niu Suyu finds out the reason for his depression, she asks to have Zhao brought to their home and arranges the reunion of Cai and Zhao. Prime Minister Niu offers a petition to the emperor, praising the entire Cai family. Deeply moved by Zhao’s filial piety and Cai’s unerring love for her, the emperor grants the reunion, and the two form a couple again. More than 40 editions of this work were printed in private workshops. This copy is a late Ming (16th century–mid-17th century) edition of four juan in four volumes, published in Wucheng, a county near Wuxing, Zhejiang Province, with 20 illustrations, printed in red and black by Min Qiji in his workshop. The illustrations are by the well-known painter and illustrator Wang Wenheng, also of Wuxing. The landscapes and figures are beautifully and meticulously executed. While obviously influenced by the Anhui school of engraving, they also demonstrate a free individual style.

Last updated: January 3, 2018