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 by 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]


  • Bieg, Lutz. "Literary translations of the classical lyric and drama in the first half of the 20th century: The "case" of Vincenz Hundhausen (1878-1955)." In: Alleton, Vivianne and Michael Lackner (editors). De l'un au multiple: traductions du chinois vers les langues européennes Translations from Chinese into European Languages. Éditions de la maison des sciences de l'homme (Les Editions de la MSH, Fondation Maison des sciences de l'homme [fr]), 1999, Paris. ISBN 273510768X, 9782735107681.
  • Birch, Cyril. "Introduction: The Peach Blossom Fan as Southern Drama." In: K'ung, Shang-jen. Translators: Chen, Shih-hsiang and Harold Acton. Collaborator: Birch, Cyril. The Peach Blossom Fan (T'ao-hua-shan). University of California Press, 1976. ISBN 0-520-02928-3.
  • Mulligan, Jean (1980). The lute : Kao Ming's P'i-p'a chi. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0231047606.
  • Das traditionelle chinesische Theater Vom Mongolendrama bis zur Pekinger Oper (Volume 6 of Geschichte der chinesischen Literatur, Wolfgang Kubin, ISBN 3598245408, 9783598245404). K.G. Saur. Walter de Gruyter, 2009. ISBN 3598245432, 9783598245435.
  • Liu, Wu-Chi. An Introduction to Chinese Literature. Greenwood Publishing Group, 1990. ISBN 0313267030, 9780313267031.
  • Tanaka, Issei. The Social and Historical Context of Ming-Ch'ing Local Drama (Chapter 5). In: Johnson, David, Andrew J. Nathan, and Evelyn S. Rawski (editors). Popular Culture in Late Imperial China. University of California Press, 1985. p. 143. ISBN 0520061721, 9780520061729.


  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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