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Most famous Cantonese opera: Di Nu Hua

Updated on September 4, 2017
The original performers of Di Nu Hua - Yam Kim Fai as Zhou Shi Xian and Pak Suet Sin as Princess Changping.
The original performers of Di Nu Hua - Yam Kim Fai as Zhou Shi Xian and Pak Suet Sin as Princess Changping.

Di Nu Hua (帝女花) relates the story of Princess Changping (长平公主), the last princess of the Ming Dynasty. The opera title means “The Emperor’s Daughter”. Its other English translated 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 began with Princess Changping’s selection of a husband. Having passed the stringent selection criteria, Zhou Shi Xian (周世显 ) was led to the palace garden to meet the princess for her final approval.

His righteousness and scholarly talent won the heart of the princess. Suddenly, there was a strong wind and Changping believed it was an ill-omen. Shi Xian assured her of his faithfulness and everlasting love, and the couple exchanged vows under the entwined trees.

Scene 2 – The Princess’ 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 were approaching the palace.

Fearing that the female members of the royal household will be humiliated by the rebels, the Ming Emperor Chongzhen (崇祯) ordered the empress and concubines to commit suicide. When it comes to the turn of Changping, his favourite daughter, he told 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 tried to kill Changping but only managed to injure her in the left arm. In the process, his youngest daughter, Princess Zhaoren (昭仁公主), was 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 left for the Coal Hill where he hanged himself on a tree.

Changping was subsequently rescued by Zhou Zhong (周锺), the minister who short-listed Shi Xian as the potential imperial son-in-law.

When Shi Xian returned to look for the princess, a dying maid told him that Zhou Zhong has carried away the body of the princess.

Scene 3 – Begging for princess’ body (乞 尸)

Princess Changping recovered after two months of recuperation. However, she was shocked and grief-stricken when she overheard the conversation between Zhou Zhong and his son, Bao Lun (宝伦) , in which they planned 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 escaped to the nunnery and took over the identity of Wei Qing, a newly-deceased nun.

Changping left Zhou Zhong a suicide note which was written with blood. She stated 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 came to beg for the return of the princess’ body, Zhou Zhong gave him the latter half of the suicide note. Rui Lan hinted to Shi Xian that Changping is still alive.

Giving some excuse, Rui Lan moved 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, made Changping go to the mountains to collect wood for making fire, even during the cold winter.

On one snowy day, Shi Xian saw her. Recalling Rui Lan’s hint, he suspected the nun to be Changping and insisted on following her back to the nunnery.

A servant of Zhou Zhong happened to be nearby and reported the matter to his master.

Scene 5 – Acknowledgement (相 认)

After several failed attempts to get the truth out of Changping, Shi Xian was so saddened and angry that he threatened to end his own life.

The princess has no choice but to acknowledge him. As her identity has been exposed, she could not stay in the nunnery any more. Before leaving for Rui Lan’s residence, she cautioned Shi Xian not to leak out her whereabouts.

Just after she left, Zhou Zhong arrived. Shi Xian at first denied having seen the princess. Zhou Zhong lamented that it is a pity that the princess had died, otherwise the Qing Emperor (清帝) will reward them handsomely for the 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 requested for an audience with the Qing minister who was responsible for this matter.

Scene 6 – Welcoming the princess (迎 凤)

Changping was bitterly disappointed with Shi Xian when she saw him coming with Zhou Zhong, palace maids and a carriage. She attempted to blind herself with the 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 retreated to outside the house. With no outsiders around, only then Shi Xian dared 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 had negotiated for the proper burial of the Ming Emperor and the release of the Ming Crown Prince, as conditions for the princess’ return to the palace.

However, Changping was reluctant to be fostered by the Qing Emperor as this equates to disloyalty to the Ming Dynasty. Shi Xian revealed that he was 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 brought 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 captive. She, therefore, sought for the above conditions to be fulfilled before she can return to the palace.

Shi Xian insisted 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 was actually 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 told Shi Xian to announce for the princess, saying that as an emperor, he will definitely be true to his word.

When Princess Changping finally appeared, the emperor tried to evade the important issues and announced the wedding ceremony for the couple instead.

Both Shi Xian and Changping were well-prepared for such a situation. Shi Xian prompted the princess to cry sorrowfully in the Qing court, reminding the ex-Ming Dynasty ministers about the tragedy in the Ming Palace. She urged 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 gave in and ordered the burial of Emperor Chongzhen and the immediate release of the Ming Crown Prince.

The Patriotic Sacrifice (Scene 8)

Scene 8 – The Patriotic Sacrifice (香 夭)

Having achieved the goal, Princess Changping requested that the wedding ceremony be held in the palace garden. After sending the palace maids away, they paid respects to the late emperor and empress.

The couple then professed their love for and commitment to each other. Together, they drank the poisoned wine of grapes and died under the entwined trees where they had earlier exchanged vows.

[Note: In Chinese culture, submitting themselves as hostages to 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 fulfilled 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.]

Playwright and original performers of Di Nu Hua

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.

For information on the original performers, please refer to Cantonese opera Di Nu Hua and Yam-Pak.

© 2011 pinkytoky


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    • CYong74 profile image

      Kuan Leong Yong 14 months ago from Singapore

      One of the artistic gems of the Cantonese. Thank you for introducing this to the world at large.