The Most Famous Cantonese Opera: "Di Nü Hua"
Playwright and Original Performers of Di Nü Hua
Di Nü Hua (帝女花) relates the story of Princess Changping (长平公主), the last princess of the Ming Dynasty. This renowned opera was written in 1957 by the late Tong Dik Sang (唐涤生). He was a very well-known and talented Cantonese opera dramatist in Hong Kong. His sudden death in 1959, at the age of 42, was a great loss to the Cantonese opera circle.
The opera title means “The Emperor’s Daughter”. Its other English language titles include “Princess Changping”, “The Flower Princess”, “The Princess Flower”, and the “Patriotic Princess”. The opera consists of eight scenes.
Scene 1: Vow Under the Entwined Trees (树 盟)
The opera begins with Princess Changping’s selection of a husband. Having passed the stringent selection criteria, Zhou Shi Xian (周世显 ) is led to the palace garden to meet the princess for her final approval.
His righteousness and scholarly talent wins the heart of the princess. Suddenly, there is a strong wind and Changping believes it is an ill-omen. Shi Xian assures her of his faithfulness and everlasting love, and the couple exchanges vows under the entwined trees.
Scene 2: The Princess’s Tragedy (香 劫)
The Forbidden City has just fallen into the hands of the rebel forces led by Li Zi Cheng (李自成). The rebels approach the palace. Fearing that the female members of the royal household will be humiliated by the rebels, the Ming Emperor Chongzhen (崇祯) orders the empress and concubines to commit suicide. When it comes to the turn of Changping, his favourite daughter, he asks her “Why must you be born into the imperial family?” Due to Shi Xian’s interference, Changping was unable to kill herself.
Furious, the emperor has Shi Xian thrown out of the palace. He then tries to kill Changping but only manages to injure her in the left arm. In the process, his youngest daughter, Princess Zhaoren (昭仁公主), is killed instead. By this time, both the emperor and Changping have fainted.
On regaining consciousness and hearing from his eunuch that Changping has died, Emperor Chongzhen leaves for the Coal Hill where he hangs himself on a tree. Changping is subsequently rescued by Zhou Zhong (周锺), the minister who short-listed Shi Xian as the potential imperial son-in-law. When Shi Xian returns to look for the princess, a dying maid tells him that Zhou Zhong has carried away the body of the princess.
Scene 3: Begging for the Princess’s Body (乞 尸)
Princess Changping recovers after two months of recuperation. However, she is shocked and grief-stricken when she overhears the conversation between Zhou Zhong and his son, Bao Lun (宝伦), in which they plan to present her to the Qing Emperor in exchange for official posts.
Assisted by Zhou Zhong’s daughter, Rui Lan (瑞兰) and the head nun of Wei Mo Nunnery (维摩庵), Changping escapes to the nunnery and assumes the identity of Wei Qing, a newly-deceased nun.
Changping leaves Zhou Zhong a suicide note written with blood. She states that she knew about the betrayal and, in order to preserve her chastity, she has disfigured her face and drowned herself in the river behind the house.
When Shi Xian comes to beg for the return of the princess’s body, Zhou Zhong gives him the latter half of the suicide note. Rui Lan hinted to Shi Xian that Changping is still alive. Giving an excuse, Rui Lan moves to one of the family’s properties (紫玉山房) that is near the nunnery so that she could secretly take care of the princess.
Scene 4: Nunnery Encounter (庵遇)
A year has passed. The head nun at the Wei Mo Nunnery has passed away. The replacement nun, not knowing the true identity of Wei Qing, makes Changping go to the mountains to collect wood for making a fire, even during the cold winter.
On one snowy day, Shi Xian sees her. Recalling Rui Lan’s hint, he suspects the nun to be Changping and insists on following her back to the nunnery. A servant of Zhou Zhong happened to be nearby and reports the matter to his master.
Scene 5: Acknowledgement (相 认)
After several failed attempts to get the truth out of Changping, Shi Xian is so saddened and angry that he threatens to end his own life. The princess has no choice but to acknowledge him. With her identity exposed, she cannot stay in the nunnery any longer. Before leaving for Rui Lan’s residence, she cautions Shi Xian not to tell anyone her whereabouts.
Just after she left, Zhou Zhong arrives. Shi Xian at first denies having seen the princess. Zhou Zhong laments that it is a pity that the princess had died, otherwise the Qing Emperor (清帝) will reward them handsomely for news of the princess. (Note: Li Zi Cheng was subsequently defeated by the Manchu (满洲) who then established the Qing Dynasty to rule China.) On hearing this, Shi Xian requests an audience with the Qing minister who is responsible for this matter.
Scene 6: Welcoming the Princess (迎 凤)
Changping is bitterly disappointed with Shi Xian when she sees him coming with Zhou Zhong, palace maids, and a carriage. She attempts to blind herself with a hairpin for “not having eyes to see the true character of Shi Xian”. To give the couple the chance to reconcile, Zhou Zhong and the rest retreats outside the house. With no outsiders around, only then Shi Xian dares to disclose his plan.
The Qing Emperor intended to use the princess as a political tool to win the hearts of his conquered people. Knowing that the princess is well-loved by the people, the emperor wanted to foster Changping (in reality, as a hostage).
Shi Xian negotiated for the proper burial of the Ming Emperor and the release of the Ming Crown Prince, as conditions for the princess’s return to the palace. However, Changping is reluctant to be fostered by the Qing Emperor as this equates to disloyalty to the Ming Dynasty. Shi Xian reveals that he is willing to die with her upon achieving their goal, and that their reputation will not be damaged.
Finally, as a precaution, Shi Xian himself will first seek an audience with the Qing Emperor to establish his sincerity. He brings along Changping’s written statement to the emperor.
Scene 7: Negotiation in the Qing Court (上 表)
Princess Changping wrote that it was against Confucian ethics for her to receive the Qing emperor’s favour when her deceased father was still not properly buried and her half-brother in captivity. She, therefore, sought for the above conditions to be fulfilled before she can return to the palace.
Shi Xian insists on reading out the princess’ written statement, saying that if the emperor has done nothing wrong, there is nothing to worry about. (The purpose of this gesture was to have the court officials be witnesses to the agreement by the emperor.)
The Qing Emperor is angry that the princess has made the first move and is smarter than him. However, in front of the 300 officials who were from the Ming Dynasty, he has to pretend to be benevolent towards their princess. He tells Shi Xian to relate to the princess, saying that as an emperor, he will definitely be true to his word.
When Princess Changping finally appears, the emperor tries to evade the important issues and announces the wedding ceremony for the couple instead. Both Shi Xian and Changping are well prepared for such a situation. Shi Xian prompts the princess to cry sorrowfully in the Qing court, reminding the ex-Ming Dynasty ministers about the tragedy in the Ming Palace. She urges them not to serve the new dynasty for the sake of riches.
As the Qing Emperor hoped to use the princess as a political tool to appease the Han Chinese, he gives in and orders the burial of Emperor Chongzhen and the immediate release of the Ming Crown Prince.
Scene 8: The Patriotic Sacrifice (香 夭)
Having achieved her goal, Princess Changping requests that the wedding ceremony be held in the palace garden. After sending the palace maids away, they pay respects to the late emperor and empress. The couple then professes their love and commitment to one another. Together, they drink poisoned wine and die under the entwined trees where they had earlier exchanged vows.
Note: In Chinese culture, submitting themselves as hostages in exchange for the proper burial of the Ming Emperor, Changping and Shi Xian fulfilled their filial duties. By securing the release of the Crown Prince, the only hope to the restoration of the Ming Dynasty, the couple fulfill their political obligation to the fallen dynasty. Apart from preserving their reputation, the couple chose suicide as a declaration of their unwavering loyalty to the Ming Dynasty.
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