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the Complete Review
the complete review - drama

The Lute

Kao Ming

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To purchase The Lute

Title: The Lute
Author: Kao Ming
Genre: Play
Written: 14th cent. (Eng. 1980)
Length: 303 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: The Lute - US
The Lute - UK
The Lute - Canada
Le Pi-pa-ki - France
Die Laute - Deutschland
  • Kao Ming's P'i-p'a chi
  • Chinese title: 琵琶記
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Jean Mulligan
  • In 1946 an adaptation of 琵琶記 was produced on Broadway as Lute Song, starring Yul Brenner and Mary Martin, with a book by Sidney Howard and Will Irwin

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a simple story but impressive presentation and enjoyable reading

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Chinese Literature . 4:1 (1/1982) Ching-Hsi Perng
HJAS . 41:2 (12/1981) R.E.Strassberg
J. of Asian Studies . 41:1 (11/1981) Jerome Cavanaugh
J.R.Asiat.Soc. . 113:2 (4/1981) Anne M. Birrell
Ming Studies . 1 (1981) Victoria B. Cass
World Lit. Today . Fall/1980 Howard Goldblatt

  From the Reviews:
  • "(T)he translation is not only complete; its general excellence testifies to the tender, loving care of the translator. (...) The Lute is by no means a perfect work. (...) But faults such as these pale beside the thematic profundity and artistic achievement of the play as a whole. (...) Throughout the translation, she has made a point of identifying passages of parallel prose imbedded in the dialogue. This meticulous attention to the formal features of the original is most welcome to the reader: it helps him understand the stylistic complexity of the Chinese text, alerts him to the theatrical possibilities of the drama, and even gives him a sense of the tempo of its performance." - Ching-Hsi Perng, Chinese Literature

  • "Dr. Mulligan's translation maintains a consistent level of accuracy while conveying the contrasting rhythms of arias, parallel prose, and dialogue. Much of the delight of the original Chinese is based on such choreographing of linguistic levels as well as the added depth which allusions give to the highly figurative diction." - Richard E. Strassberg, Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies

  • "(T)his work is handsomely printed with few typographical errors and succeeds admirably in its principal purpose of bringing a complete and reliable translation to the public of one of the most deservedly famous Chinese plays of the fourteenth century. It is highly recommended." - Jerome Cavanaugh, Journal of Asian Studies

  • "Its dramatic appeal is broadly based: moralistic melodrama happily blends with slapstick comedy, pathos rubs shoulders with bathos. It is as if bits of Corneille's Le Cid, Brecht's Baal, Puccini's Madame Butterfly, a Laurel and Hardy film, and Marcel Marceau's mime were to be welded in a dramatic collage." - Anne M. Birrell, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society

  • "Jean Mulligan's complete and thorough translation of the fourteenth-century play The Lute seems to have given the scholar-author Kao Ming at least a fighting chance to have his complex and highly artistic work appreciated by twentieth-century readers of English. The work under review is more than a translation: it is a basic introduction to a genre, a carefully annotated study of one play and a reference tool for others interested in the field. But most of all it is a translation -- and a good one at that." - Howard Goldblatt, World Literature Toda

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Lute is a massive -- forty-two-scene -- play, its action covering years (and some three hundred pages in this translation), but the story is very simple: newly-married Ts'ai Po-chieh is encouraged by his aged parents to take part in the rigorous imperial examinations in the distant capital, where success would lead to an important government position; even though he would rather stay at home and look after his parents, he feels obligated to do as they wish. He places first in the examination, which leads to an important job at the imperial court -- and to the prime minister setting his sights on him as his son-in-law. Ts'ai Po-chieh can't escape the situation, and he marries and continues in his posting in the capital -- but all the while is wracked by guilt about not doing his duties as a son; it doesn't help that he is unable to contact his parents or (first) wife, Chao Wu-niang, and hears no news from them. Meanwhile, Chao Wu-niang tries to take care of his parents back in Ch'en-liu, but things gets desperate when a famine overwhelms the area; first one, then the other parent dies -- and all the while there is no word from Ts'ai Po-chieh. Finally, Wu-niang undertakes the arduous journey to the capital and eventually is reünited with her husband; fortunately, his new(er) wife, is sympathetic, and the trio return to Ch'en-liu, where they can at least try to honor his dead parents, dutifulness which is then much-praised and admired.
       The Lute is: "One of the first plays written in the ch'uan-ch'i [傳奇; chuanqi] form (the very first according to some commentators)", as translator Jean Mulligan notes in her Introduction. This form became very popular in the Ming and early Qing dynasties, and includes several of the most famous (and still popular) works of Chinese drama, including this one. Chuanqi plays include both spoken and (a great deal of) sung text; Mulligan's translation identifies the various tunes as they appear (and an appendix provides the Chinese(-character) equivalent), with tunes often repeated to different words; obviously the effect of this (and the music in general) is mostly lost on the page, but the translation at least gives some sense of underlying musical elements. Fortunately, The Lute functions well even as a purely spoken/read play; indeed, there's not too much embellishment of the kind often found in musical theater (notably opera in the European tradition ...), with the scenes compact and the dialogue quite to the point; what embellishment there is comes mainly in the form of allusion and reference, as much familiar Chinese literature and history is incidentally mentioned.
       The action in The Lute moves quite quickly. Scenes mostly alternate between Ch'en-liu and the capital (with a few along the way, coming and going, as well), with repeated leaps in time. Kao Ming doesn't linger over, or even present, some of the significant events too closely, often focusing on the decision-making (and hemming and hawing) before a momentous change much more than the actual event itself; this goes, for example, for both Ts'ai and the imperial examinations he takes, as well as then his (entering into his) second marriage. So, for example, a scene of Ts'ai journeying to the capital is followed by one in which Wu-niang mourns her fate; it is she who describes (in her imagination) his journey -- "Day by day he draws near the imperial city" -- or then the examination itself -- "Candidates fill the examination hall; / so many talented young gentlemen !" -- while the next scene, set in the capital, reveals that this year Ts'ai is the 'First Winner' -- i.e. the whole examination process and Ts'ai's success is not presented from the perspective of the one going through it, but rather after the fact or in Wu-niang's mind's eye -- and very quickly at that.
       The Lute is a play about duty: filial duty, above all else, but also duty to one's husband (and by extension his family), as well as duty to the state.
       Above all else, Ts'ai wants to do right by his parents. He's always been devoted to his studies, but:

Though I've read
Ten thousand books,
Success and fame were not my goal.
       He can not bear the thought of leaving his parents to seek success elsewhere -- especially the distant capital. He is not resigned to his fate, but rather embraces it enthusiastically: he wishes nothing more than to be a good son, and finds satisfaction in that:
How could I leave my parents' side ?
With all my heart I'll serve them.
Merit, fame, wealth, and rank
I'll leave to Heaven's will.
       But it is his parents who egg him on and insist he sit for the examination; Ts'ai sees no alternative: as a good son: "My father's stern command I must obey". His wife is not supportive: her assessment: "Through your studies you aim to become First Winner. / But I fear that your learning is superficial and your intelligence lacking" is cruel, but what really hits home is her charge that: "Of the Classic of Filial Piety and Book of Rites / You've forgotten already half". But Ts'ai sees no alternative: after all, it is his parents who are demanding that he go away, and he must obey .....
       Ts'ai's guilt is compounded by the fact that his parents are already very old (eighty, apparently), and that he can not adequately provide care for them in his absence. His wife, Wu-niang, obviously isn't up to the task:
We have no other relatives at home and my parents are old and weak. Their daughter-in-law is, after all, just a woman. What can she know about anything ?
       Ts'ai does enlist a neighbor, Chang Ta-kung, to help out, and he does prove helpful, but for the most part Wu-niang will be on her own -- and struggle mightily. She, too, however feels a great sense of duty -- even though she was only married for two months before her husband abandoned her. Nevertheless: "With all my heart, with all my strength, I serve them day and night" (even as her parents-in-law are for a long time suspicious of her, and not very grateful). She accepts her fate -- though she's none too happy about it:
Still I mustn't be bitter.
Still I mustn't be bitter.
Since he entrusted me with the family altars,
How can I shirk my duty ?
       As the years pass and there is no word from Ts'ai, his parents and Wu-niang come to be convinced he has truly abandoned them, and all his duties to them. A famine causes great hardship and they all suffer greatly. After the mother has died and the father is gravely ill, Wu-niang knows: "Only the filial duty of his son can ease the father's heart / And save his life" -- but it ain't happening. Once both parents-in-law are dead and semi-buried, Wu-niang decides the only thing left to do is to go to the capital and remind her husband of all his (failed) duties. She is considerably worse for the wear from what she's been through, too: as Chang Ta-kung points out, she should be careful in approaching Ts'ai: "In those days before Ts'ai left you were young and beautiful. But now famine has taken the beauty from your face".
       Impoverished, all Wu-niang can do is play her lute for alms as she slowly makes her way to the capital. (She's apparently fairly accomplished, but this too can be something of a downer: as she admits, her repertoire is limited: "I only know a few songs about filial piety".) At least she ultimately comes to the right place, reaching the capital just as Mistress Niu -- wife number two -- has summoned her servant:
MISTRESS NIU: Go out into the town and look for a good woman to become a servant here.
STEWARD: That's easy ! Here comes a woman now ! I wonder what sort of person she is.
       There's a quite a bit of broad comedy in The Lute, especially involving secondary characters, and such unlikely or exaggerated scenes are not unusual -- but, particularly here, Kao Ming does tie things more reasonably, and Wu-niang's entry into the household does unfold as a considerably more complex scene than this set-up might have suggested.
       This entire time -- these many years -- Ts'ai has nominally enjoyed great success. Becoming First Winner, he was naturally given an important court position, and Prime Minister Niu, who had been angling for a proper husband for his daughter (and has very high standards: "Only the First Winner in the examinations can marry my daughter. Others aren't even allowed to propose") pressures Ts'ai very effectively, getting the emperor himself to act as the marriage sponsor -- making it an offer Ts'ai really can't refuse. Ts'ai isn't just reluctant, he tries everything to avoid going through with it -- all he wants is to return home -- but he sees no way out. Learning of Ts'ai's reluctance to marry her, Mistress Niu is also unhappy about the situation -- but also feels she must do what her father asks of her, and he is very insistent that the two get hitched.
       The whole situation, the entire time, is complicated by Ts'ai's inability to communicate with his parents or (first) wife -- one of the play's curious weaknesses, as also pointed out by Mulligan: it's quite implausible that it was impossible to get word back and forth to Ch'en-liu at some point during all this time. One swindler, recognizing Ts'ai's desperation, does take advantage of it, but when Ts'ai eventually sends a real messenger, he makes it there easily enough (only to find, by that time, that Ts'ai's parents are dead and Wu-niang is on the way to the capital).
       Despite it weighing so heavily on him all the while, it also takes Ts'ai a long time to actually make anyone aware of what troubles him so. He fears it's futile telling Prime Minister Niu that he needs to return to Ch'en-liu -- indeed, that it would make his father-in-law only more determined to keep him in the capital and with his daughter. Only when Mistress Niu gets involved can Ts'ai tackle the first steps to setting things right -- as she, too, fortunately turns out to be someone who greatly values filial and spousal duties.
       Ts'ai is finally allowed to be the filially-dutiful son he has always wanted to be -- even if it's rather late in the day (but honoring the dead is just a continuation of that same duty, so ...) -- and acknowledged as a victim of circumstances, so that it can be agreed:
Though thrice unfilial, he is not to blame.
       Indeed, The Lute shows him torn by the various duties expected of him, as it was his parents that he wanted to serve that sent him away, while once in the capital he has new duties, to the emperor as well as to his new wife and father-in-law. An intellectual, he knows what the writings of old say on the matters -- but comes to understand: "It's senseless to read these books. If it can't be practiced, what good does it do ?" Of course, part of the problem is his inability to act, and so, for example, it is kind of hard of hard to accept his inability to communicate better -- to write or send messages home, or to tell those in the capital what is weighing on him so -- but it all works out, more or less, in a happy end. (His parents are dead, however; there's no getting around that spectacular failure -- especially when the so-successful-son-in-the-capital surely could have seen to it that they (and his wife) were at least better provided for, leaving aside his failures to properly lay them to rest at the proper time.)
       If a simple story and a fairly simple moral view, The Lute is also very entertaining theater. There are a few side-scenes and episodes that are purely comic, mostly involving forms of swindling and trickery, and some of the secondary and subservient characters can get quite cheeky; most of this is very good fun. The comic scenes and asides help in what is also otherwise kind of a dark story: Ts'ai is unhappy for most of it, even if his situation is a very comfortable one (he finds himself: "enjoying wealth and rank", after all, and there's even time for lots of leisure (and reading)), and Wu-niang's lot is truly miserable for most of it. But, a swindler or two excepted, there's also no real bad person in the story: everyone means or tries well, and it's only because of misunderstandings and the desire to do the right thing that the situations long are ones of unhappiness.
       The dialogue, prose, and poetry are mostly fairly straightforward too, though across a wide variety of registers (notably shifting rapidly between them), which seems to be captured and presented well by Mulligan. If much of the dialogue is fairly direct, this is also a very allusive play, with constant reference to figures and incidents from Chinese literature, history, and philosophy; the extensive footnotes -- usefully presented as foot- not end-notes -- provide a helpful gloss -- not essential for basic understanding or enjoyment of the otherwise straightforward play but welcome in pointing out some of the underlying layers, and a helpful starting point for readers looking to dig deeper.
       Although a 'musical' -- i.e. with much of the text sung --, The Lute can readily be enjoyed simply for the text. Both in part -- and, like much chuanqi drama, it is often only excerpts and selected scenes of The Lute that are performed -- and as a whole this is a very enjoyable work. If its focus on the concept of filial duty -- above all else -- no longer resonates nearly as strongly, the play around that is strong enough to stand well on its own, and its easy to see why this is an enduringly popular work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 5 November 2020

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The Lute: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Chinese author Gao Ming (Kao Ming; 高明) lived ca.1305 to 1359.

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