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the Complete Review
the complete review - libretto

The Flower Princess

Tong Dik Sang

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To purchase The Flower Princess

Title: The Flower Princess
Author: Tong Dik Sang
Genre: Libretto
Written: 1957 (Eng. 2010)
Length: 222 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: The Flower Princess - US
The Flower Princess - UK
The Flower Princess - Canada
  • A Cantonese Opera
  • Chinese title: 帝女花
  • Translated, edited, and with an Introduction by Bell Yung
  • Assisted in translation by Sonia Ng and Katherine Carlitz
  • This is a bilingual edition that also includes the original Chinese text
  • Includes seven photographs

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Our Assessment:

B+ : good overall introduction to 'Cantonese opera', fine example

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       As Bell Yung explains in his Introduction, there are many kinds of Chinese opera -- musical theater that is comparable but still quite different from traditional Western opera -- with many local and regional variations. 'Beijing opera' is the best known of these; 'Cantonese opera' is a more localized form, but also enjoys great popularity among Cantonese speakers internationally.
       Yung tries to explain:

Cantonese Opera combines fabulous miming and dancing, elaborate costumes and stage sets, rich pageantry, thrilling displays of martial arts, all woven into dramas based upon historical episodes, legends, and folktales.
       The Flower Princess is apparently one of the most popular examples of Cantonese opera, and with its Romeo and Juliet-like tragic ending and historical basis the story certainly holds considerable dramatic appeal.
       For those unfamiliar with Cantonese opera, Yung's introduction offers a helpful guide. The primacy of libretto over score -- in contrast to most Western opera -- is particularly noteworthy; composition and arrangement is left almost entirely up to the dramatist rather than any musical composer, as familiar music is repurposed for the play at hand; indeed, there is generally no actual musical score for the opera:
The tunes are not newly composed but pre-existent and well-known to the performers, so that the titles suffice and no notation is needed.
       There are also a variety of different 'speech types' in the libretto, indicating how the words are to be spoken (or sung); these are also indicated in this translation, and while it is difficult for anyone unfamiliar with the different types to get a true sense of the presentation simply from the page (differentiating, for example, 'Haugu' (rhymed speech) from 'Sibaak' (poetic speech) -- much less 'Wanbaak' (comic rhymed speech)') it's a helpful guide for anyone looking to parse the libretto more closely. While a bit dry, Yung's explanations and glossary at last give some sense of what is at work here.
       All the technicalities shouldn't scare readers off: the actual text of The Flower Princess is straightforward enough, and can be read like any other drama (i.e readers don't have to worry too much that they catch the nuance of a passage being a 'Gwanfa lower line' or 'Yifaan Muk'yu').
       A synopsis in the Introduction summarizes the action, but that, too, is straightforward enough: the story is set in the mid-seventeenth century, around the time of the collapse of the Ming dynasty. It begins with the emperor Chongzhen's stunning fifteen-year-old daughter, Cheungping, being introduced to yet another suitor, Saihin: the picky princess has "rejected the Ministry's choices one after another" -- and she does seem to have a bit of an attitude problem. But Saihin's clever talk sways her, and it looks like the perfect match has finally been found.
       Unfortunately, things are not going well in the empire -- indeed, it looks like it's all over for the Mings. Saihin's knowledge of the "literary arts have won her heart", but these are times when more practical qualities are called for. Indeed, the emperor realizes (way too late):
Ai ! What is the use of literary arts in this time of war ? I studied literary arts just as you do, and that is why we are not able to rescue our country from disaster.
       Indeed, Saihin seems to have bet on the wrong horse, too:
I simply followed your wishes in pursuing literary arts. Who could have expected turmoil in this splendid era ?
       Yes, the noble crowd is certainly presented as having their heads in the clouds -- "the streets were as peaceful as usual", Saihin tells the emperor, "I saw no signs of any fighting" ... as the battledrums sound. To make clear just how bad things are: it's the eunuchs -- emasculated men -- who lead to the downfall, opening the gates to let the rebels in to the Forbidden City.
       The emperor realizes that all is lost, but his last act has to be to kill himself -- and his daughters. He isn't quite successful, however, and Cheungping survives; she soon finds refuge in a nunnery, disguised as one of the nuns. But there are many who still have an interest in finding her: Saihin, for one -- but also the opportunists from the former administration who realize that she is "more valuable than ten thousand taels of gold": if they can hand over the princess to the new rulers that they'll be sitting pretty.
       Saihin also discovers what has happened to the princess, but being reunited with her in these new circumstances poses obvious difficulties. Indeed, at least in this world, their love cannot be. But, in time-honored creepy-romantic tradition there is another way, which Cheungping looks forward to:
My heart yearns for us to be buried together,
Like mandarin ducks, hugging and cuddling,
We'll build a new wedding chamber in the world beyond;
Down in the underworld we shall find a home for ourselves.
       So, yes, there's apparently a happy ever-after for them; that's what they bet on, anyway.
       Whether seen simply as a melodramatic story of star-crossed lovers or also read for the historical and political commentary implicit in it, The Flower Princess is a solid work of drama.

       As Yung explains in his Preface, the translation is largely literal, with:
no attempt to shape the verse structure of the text to mirror the original Chinese poetic text, or to give any semblance of the verse structure of English poetry.
       This introductory text is well-served by that approach: the story's the thing here, while the poetry and music can only be fully appreciated in performance. Admirably, however, this is a bilingual edition, so that readers with adequate Chinese can also refer to the original text.
       Yung also notes that he chose to forego annotation -- despite the fact that there are a: "large number of literary and historical references in almost every line of the script". Notes would have been helpful and welcome, though the Introduction (and the text itself) provide at least the essential context and background; as is, even without footnotes, the libretto is an interesting and entertaining read. (The Shakespearean comparison again seems apt: while obviously easier to enjoy and more fully comprehend when properly annotated, Shakespeare's plays similarly stand well enough on their own.)

- M.A.Orthofer, May 31, 2010

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The Flower Princess: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Tong Dik Sang (唐滌生; 1917-1959) was a leading Cantonese opera librettist.

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