(1305-ca. 1370) playwright
Though only one play by Gao Ming remains in existence, his work, The Lute, ranks among the greatest of China’s literary creations. Gao Ming’s early life was spent under Mongol rule. His father died when Gao was very young, and the playwright was raised by his mother. At an early age, he showed the deep respect for family tradition that would become a hallmark of his dramatic work.
Because the jinshi (chin-shih) examination, a civil service test, was not given during the Mongol regime, Gao Ming was not able to pursue a career in the government immediately after finishing his schooling. The jinshi was not reinstated until 1342, when Gao was almost 40 years old. He passed the exam in 1344 and received his first government post later that year as a judicial officer in Chuzhou (Ch’u-chou), where he became respected for his literary talents and his integrity. A transfer to a naval post in 1348 began a swift decline in his political ambitions.
Gao Ming retired from government service in the 1350s and moved to the town of Lishe (Li-she), where he began to develop his writing skills in earnest. He wrote The Lute during this period, as well as many poems (shi, or shih) and songs (ci, or tz’u). Though he achieved some fame during his lifetime for his poetry, only one ci and 50 shi remain in existence. As a result, The Lute is the source of Gao Ming’s present fame.
The Lute tells the story of an ambitious young student, Cai Bojie (Ts’ai Po-chieh), who has spent his youth studying for the jinshi examination. However, when it is time to take the exam, Cai is reluctant to leave his poverty-stricken, ailing parents and his young wife, Wuniang (Wu-niang). After his parents and wife insist that he go to the capital to take the test, Cai reluctantly leaves and passes the test with the highest marks in the country. He marries the daughter of a government minister and lives in his father-in-law’s mansion. Meanwhile, a famine ravages his hometown, and his parents soon die from malnutrition. Wuniang journeys to the capital in search of Cai, singing and playing the lute on her travels. When she reaches the imperial city, she is reunited with Cai, and the two, along with Cai’s second wife, return to his hometown and observe the traditional three-year mourning period for Cai’s parents. The play ends with Cai and his wives receiving a commendation from the emperor for their displays of virtue during their period of mourning.
The play has been recognized for its strong moralistic themes, and it is regarded as one of the Ming dynasty’s greatest plays. Technically, The Lute also stands out for its complex songs and Gao Ming’s use of colloquial and poetic dialogue. The play has become part of the standard repertoire of the Chinese theater and was adapted into a Broadway musical, Lute Song, in 1946.
An English Version of a Work by Gao Ming
The Lute: Kao Ming’s P’i-p’a chi. Translated by Jean Mulligan. New York: Columbia University Press, 1980.