Tale of the Pipa

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Tale of the Pipa (traditional Chinese: 琵琶記; simplified Chinese: 琵琶记; pinyin: Pípa jì; Wade–Giles: P'i-p'a chi "Tale of the Pipa" or "The Story of the Lute") is a southern style (Yangtze Valley) Chinese play written the playwright Gao Ming during the late Yuan Dynasty..[1][2] There are French, German, English translations of the play, and an English novelization-translation.

It was the most popular drama during the Ming Dynasty,[3] and it became a model for Ming drama as it was the favorite opera of the first Ming emperor Zhu Yuanzhang[4]


Gao Ming, circa 1305-1359

The play is set during the Han Dynasty.[3] Based on an older play, Zhao zhen nü (The Chaste Maiden Zhao), it tells the story of a loyal wife named Zhao Wuniang (T: 趙五孃, S: 赵五娘, P: Zhào Wǔniáng, W: Chao Wu-niang) who, left destitute when her husband Cai Yong is forced to marry another woman, undertakes a 12-year search for him. During her journey, she plays the pipa of the play's title in order to make a living. The original story sees Zhao killed by a horse and Cai struck by lightning, however in Gao Ming's version the two are eventually reconciled and live out their lives happily.[5][6][7] Gao reportedly composed The Lute over a three-year period of solitary confinement, locking himself in an attic room and wearing down the floorboards by tapping out the rhythms of his songs.[2][8]

The Lute won considerable critical acclaim amongst Gao's contemporaries, since it raised the popular and somewhat rustic form of Southern folk opera to a high literary standard, and it became a model for Ming dynasty theatre.[7] It was a favourite play of the first Ming Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, who commanded that it be performed every day at court.[9][10]


Antoine (A. P. L.) Bazin wrote a French translation in 1841.[11] This version, titled Le Pi-pa-ki ou l'Histoire de Luth, was published in Paris in 1841 by the Imprimerie Royale.[12] A group of Chinese students in Boston performed an English-language version of the play in 1925, translated by Y.H. Ku and Liang Shih-chiu, and acted by Liang and Bing Xin among others.[13] Vincenz Hundhausen wrote a German translation in 1930.[14] A complete English translation and study by Jean Mulligan appeared in 1980. [15]

Memoirs of the Guitar, published in Shanghai in 1928,[16] is an English-language novel self-described as "A Novel of Conjugal Love, Rewritten from a Chinese Classical Drama". The author was Yu Tinn-Hugh and the publisher was the China Current Weekly Publishing Company.[17]


A 1946 American musical comedy based on the Chinese play, titled Lute Song, was written by Will Irwin and Sidney Howard.[18] This adaptation was produced on Broadway. It starred Yul Brenner and Mary Martin.[2] Cyril Birch, collaborator in a translation of The Peach Blossom Fan, wrote that presumably the basis of the American play was the A. P. L. Balzin French translation of the Chinese play.[11]



  1. ^ Faye Chunfang Fei, ed. (2002). Chinese Theories of Theater and Performance from Confucius to the Present. University of Michigan Press. p. 41. ISBN 978-0472089239. 
  2. ^ a b c Stanley Hochman (1984). McGraw-Hill encyclopedia of world drama: an international reference work in 5 volumes. VNR AG. p. 235. ISBN 978-0-07-079169-5. Retrieved 30 May 2013. 
  3. ^ a b Tanaka, p. 153.
  4. ^ Jin Fu (2012). Chinese Theatre (3rd ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 447. ISBN 978-0521186667. 
  5. ^ Faye C. Fei (2002). Chinese theories of theater and performance from Confucius to the present. University of Michigan Press. p. 41. ISBN 978-0-472-08923-9. Retrieved 30 May 2013. 
  6. ^ "The Lute". World Digital Library. 
  7. ^ a b Merriam-Webster, inc (1995). Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia Of Literature. Merriam-Webster. p. 447. ISBN 978-0-87779-042-6. Retrieved 30 May 2013. 
  8. ^ Colin MacKerras (1983). Chinese Theater: From Its Origins to the Present Day. University of Hawaii Press. p. 64. ISBN 978-0-8248-1220-1. Retrieved 30 May 2013. 
  9. ^ Grant Guangren Shen (15 March 2005). Elite Theatre in Ming China, 1368-1644. Routledge. p. 5. ISBN 978-1-134-29026-0. Retrieved 30 May 2013. 
  10. ^ James R. Brandon; Martin Banham (28 January 1997). The Cambridge Guide to Asian Theatre. Cambridge University Press. p. 29. ISBN 978-0-521-58822-5. Retrieved 30 May 2013. 
  11. ^ a b Birch, p. xvii.
  12. ^ Das traditionelle chinesische Theater, p. 293.
  13. ^ Ye, Weili (2002), Seeking Modernity in China's Name: Chinese Students in the United States, 1900-1927, Stanford University Press, p. 205, ISBN 9780804780414 .
  14. ^ Bieg, p. 71.
  15. ^ Mulligan (1980).
  16. ^ Liu, Wu-Chi, p. 291.
  17. ^ "Memoirs of the Guitar: A Novel of Conjugal Love, Rewritten from a Chinese Classical Drama." Google Books. Retrieved on December 5, 2013.
  18. ^ Birch, p. xvi-xvii.

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