The plot of this play comes from Gao Zecheng's The Story of Pipa, which is a representative work of drama from the Ming Dynasty (A.D. 1368-1644). There is another version in Cantonese opera which is called The Pipa Player's Gnawing Regret, also included in this collection. The plot of this play concentrates primarily on the scene in which Zhao Wuniang comes to the capital and plays at a food bank event held in the Prime Minister's official residence for famine victims.
Cai Popu must leave his new bride Zhao Wuniang behind when he goes to the capital for the civil service exam. He does so well in the exam that he is named top scholar in the imperial examinations. Prime Minister Niu wants him as a son-in-law, but Cai Popu refuses. While he is away in the capital, a great drought sweeps Cai Popu's hometown, and both his parents die in the ensuing famine. His wife Zhao Wuniang has to beg for food as she makes her way to the capital to seek her husband. After arriving in Beijing, she collects alms in a Buddhist temple, where she leaves behind the portrait of her deceased inlaws.
The portrait is coincidentally picked up by Cai Popu, who has been forced to become a Buddhist monk for his resistance to the arranged marriage. Zhao Wuniang meets Miss Niu, daughter of the Prime Minister, at a food bank event held for famine victims in the Prime Minister's official residence. During this event, the pipa carried by Zhao Wuniang draws Miss Niu's attention, and the two virtuous young women meet. Cai Popu also attends the event as a monk, and mistakes his wife Zhao Wuniang for Miss Niu's cousin. Zhao Wuniang writes a poem on the portrait of her deceased inlaws, and when Cai Popu sees the poem, he realizes that his wife is in town and starts searching for her as well. They finally find each other in the temple and take their story to the imperial court, where Cai Popu receives an imperial order allowing him to return to a secular life. The reunited couple lives, of course, happily ever after.