The Flower Princess:
A Cantonese Opera by Tong Dik Sang

Tr. by Bell Yung, with assistance from Sonia Ng and Katherine Carlitz

Reviewed by Liana Chen
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright March 2013)

Book cover for The Flower Princess

Tong Dik Sang.
The Flower Princess:
A Cantonese Opera.
Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 2010. 244 pp.
ISBN: 978-962-996-374-3.

In 1956, Tong Dik Sang 唐滌生 (1917-1959) joined the Sin Fung Ming 仙鳳鳴 Troupe as a resident playwright and began working closely with the legendary Cantonese opera performers Yam Kim Fai 任劍輝 (1912-1989) and Pak Suei Sin 白雪仙 (1928-). From 1956 to 1959, the trio collaboratively produced some of the most memorable Cantonese opera productions, many of them adapted from Ming and Qing chuanqi plays.[ 1 ] The Flower Princess (Dae neui fa 帝女花), a signature work this talented, highly respected playwright of Cantonese opera produced during the peak of his creative career, proves to be an all-time favorite of the Hong Kong audience. Since its premiere in 1957, the play has seen two film adaptations (1959 and 1976), a 1960 audio recording, and numerous stage productions by professional and amateur troupes each year (16-7). The Flower Princess was created in an era where folk operas were popularized via mass media, and modern technologies of representation in this case shaped the audience’s sensory experience with traditional operatic genres. Bell Yung’s translation is based on a lesser-known performance script—the script the original cast used for their immensely popular 1960 recording—and he had a good reason for choosing this version. For more than half a century this recording has been repeatedly reissued in various audio formats and lauded as the “authoritative interpretation” of the work (x). Many opera fans have memorized by heart the long aria exchange between Princess Cheungping and Saihin during the last wedding-suicide scene. For the older opera fans, listening to, memorizing and singing this “most famous passage in the entire Cantonese Opera repertory” (23) evoked lingering nostalgia for their own past and the bygone golden days of Cantonese opera.

Even though the play chronicles the fall of the Ming dynasty, its narrative can be interpreted as an allegory about the modern colonial history of Hong Kong. Loosely based on a nineteenth-century chuanqi work of the same title by Huang Yunshan 黃韻珊 (1805-1864),The Flower Princess relates the tragic life of Princess Cheungping (Changping 長平 in Mandarin), daughter of the Chongzhen emperor. The celebration of her betrothal to Jau Saihin (Zhou Shixian 周世顯), son of the Chamberlain, turns to tragedy as the Ming court collapses under the attack of Li Zicheng’s rebel forces (Act II). Cheungping survives the family bloodshed, only to learn about the scheme of some former Ming official to present her to the Qing court to curry favor with the new regime (Act III). Cheungping takes shelter in a nunnery by assuming the identity of a nun, where she reunites with Saihin who remains devoted to her (Act IV). Saihin persuades Cheungping to accept the Qing emperor’s offer to hold a wedding for the couple at the court, in exchange for a proper burial for Chongzhen and the release of the Ming crown prince from prison (Act V). At the imperial court, Cheungping presents her petition, confronts the Qing emperor by revealing his intent to use her as a token to pacify the Ming loyalists (Act VI). The play culminates in their suicide in the last act. The couple exchanges their vows and expresses their unyielding loyalty to the Ming court before taking their own lives beneath a pair of trees whose branches intertwine. This location is significant because it is where they first pledge their love to each other (Act VII). As Daphne Lei points out, the themes the play deals with—transition and transcendence, eternality and temporality, loss of identity, vain attempts to “restore an original that never existed in the first place”—mirror those elements embedded in Hong Kong’s self-image.[ 2 ] Perhaps this is why The Flower Princess is deeply intertwined in the collective memory of Hong Kong residents.

Bell Yung, Sonia Ng and Katherine Carlitz’s complete translation of The Flower Princess is a timely, much-welcome addition to the existing corpus of Chinese oral and performed literature. In addition to the original Chinese text and the translation, the volume also includes an eloquent foreword by the renowned Cantonese opera performer Pak Suet Sin (who played Princess Cheungping in the original production), a preface detailing their principles of translation, reprints of stage shots from the original 1957 production, a glossary of the Chinese characters and Romanized names in Cantonese, and a pronunciation guide for the Cantonese dialect. The volume’s comprehensive introduction to Cantonese opera situates the development of the genre and its artistic features in the context of larger xiqu Chinese opera traditions. Cantonese opera distinguishes itself from other Chinese operatic styles by its rich variety of tunes, diverse speech types, a lyrical singing style and a grand instrumental ensemble.[ 3 ] The scriptwriter not only composes arias and dialogue but also selects the tunes and speech types to be used in the play. General readers and drama scholars alike will appreciate the detailed explanation of tune titles and speech types included in the Introduction, because knowledge of the function of these stage directives is essential to a full appreciation of the opera script. The translation team made a great effort to retain stage directions pertaining to blocking, movement, motivation, and musical patterns, but they left out titles of percussion patterns used in various occasions, which is a shame because this information is important in piecing together the atmosphere of the historical recording.

Yung and his team have delivered a self-contained, highly readable English translation of the original work. Translating a Chinese opera script is no easy task. Xiqu translators face a number of challenges, including how best to render the structural shifts between different components of the play text and stage directions and whether to contextualize the idioms, allusions, and puns for English readers. Yung states in the preface that the translation does not intend to “shape the verse structure of the text to mirror the original Chinese poetic text” and their main purpose is to “convey the meaning of the original text as closely as possible, so that the reader can appreciate it as literature and follow the drama” (xi). The translators are successful in this regard. The Flower Princess elegantly and accurately conveys the effects of the play text while offering a smooth read.

Anyone interested in performance studies, Chinese drama and theatre, or Hong Kong popular culture will find The Flower Princess an informative and enjoyable read. For those interested in listening to the original 1957 recording (something I wish the volume could have included), the information on where to purchase it is available in the preface.

Liana Chen
George Washington University


[ 1 ] Some other chuanqi-based plays Tong wrote for the Sin Fung Ming Troupe during this time include Awakening From a Dream in the Peony Pavilion (牡丹亭驚夢, 1956), The Purple Hairpin (紫釵記, 1957), Legend of the Butterfly and Pear Blossom (蝶影紅梨記, 1958) and The Reincarnation of the Red Plum (再世紅梅記, 1959).

[ 2 ] See Daphne P. Lei, “Pacification and Silent Resistance: Performing Hong Kong in The Flower Princess,” in Lei, Alternative Chinese Opera In the Age of Globalization: Performing Zero (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 96.

[ 3 ] Bell Yung, Cantonese Opera: Performance As Creative Process (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 13.