Sat 15 Aug 2015
(updated post, originally from Jan 30, 2011)
Zhang Huoding will be performing the “Unicorn Purse” opera (《锁麟囊》Suo Lin Nang) in New York City next month (2015/09). Details in the previous post.
I thought it would be a good moment to present a quick update of a post I originally made 4 years ago, my number Top Pick of this blog, greatly improved along the way by Fern of the Ear Candy blog who added her translation of this entire opera in English (!), certainly one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me and for which I will be eternally grateful. Below you will find download links for videos of a complete performance of one of this opera, which she will be performing on this side of the globe next month.
I have said it before, and it is true: this opera changed my life. It turned a casual interest into an undying intellectual and emotional passion that has manifested itself by this blog.
Here is the complete 2 1/2 hour opera, “Suo Lin Nang” or “The Legend of the Unicorn Purse” starring Zhang Huoding, my favorite singer. Madame Huoding’s troupe has performed this classic countless times, touring all over China. Despite this being a well-known cklassic of the Cheng School of Beijing opera, she has acquired this role and made it her own, defining a new standard emulated by younger artists.
I have several versions on video of this opera featuring the same cast, even the official 2 DVD set, still available for purchase online here in 2015. In that DVD version, the lighting is harsh and makes all the actors look tired and drawn — it looks like a performance recorded at the end of a gruelling tour. Zhang Huoding’s voice sounds a bit weak and strained at times.
Zhang Huoding took a couple of years of maternity leave. Her comeback in full voice two years ago performing this very opera caused a furor in China. She has spaced performances since. Besides her plans for two performances in NYC, she is said to be ready to re-record definitive versions of selected operas for posterity under her direction and for her own distribution company.
The Unicorn Purse, or Suo Lin Nang, is a 20th Century classic. Written in 1940 by Weng Ouhong at the request of master performer Cheng Yanqiu, one of the Four Great Dan masters who today has a “school” of performers who pattern their style after his. The opera was premiered in May of the same year at the Shanghai Golden Theatre and was an instant sensation. With its moving plot, excellent lines as well as its graceful and lyrical music, it has remained one of the most popular operas of the Cheng and repertoire. (ref)
The performance presented below is instead from an older 2004 Chinese television production when the artist was still not as well known, and the download comes thanks to a fan who uploaded the link to her web site’s official bulletin board, which you have to register and log in to view.
The video comes in two parts. The most famous aria of this opera, Zhang Huoding’s best-known signature song, comes at 37 minutes into Part One. She sings it effortlessly, the sound is great, and the video camera is generous with her. She looks relaxed, making it all look easy as a summer breeze.
Like I said, I have seen several complete videos of my favorite singer performing this opera. This is my favorite bar none.
The file format is .RMVB and can be viewed using VLC.
File size of Part 1 is 360 MB.
File size of Part 2 is 260 MB.
Here is a complete translation of this opera by Fern (Nora), sent to me one day out of the blue because of my admitted fascination with this opera.
Suo Lin Nang
“The Unicorn Purse” starring Zhang Huoding
Enters Xue Liang, the housekeeper taking care of the young miss’ dowry to help the old madam. He’s heading to the embroidery workshop, but old Mother Hu calls after him to wait. She asks what’s in his hand. He replies it’s a unicorn purse, but he doesn’t know whether the miss will like it or not. They decide to call the maid, Meixiang, to ask her about it.
Meixiang comes in and declares about how important it is to be ready with the dowry in two days time in order to please the little miss. The housekeeper and Mother Hu assure her they are ready.
Meixiang asks them who is in charge of the shoes. Xue Sheng answers he is. He hands the shoes to Meixiang who takes them to the miss. Soon she returns, saying the miss didn’t like the shoes, hurrying Xue Sheng to replace them quickly. Xue Sheng says he’s exchanged them several times, Meixiang tells him not to be so pesky.
Xue Xiangling calls Meixiang and bombards her with orders: she wants the pattern of mandarin ducks, there should be one flying, one swimming, they should be neither too small nor too big, have multi-coloured feathers etc. The embroidered shoes must be comfy for the feet. Plus she wants a red lotus flower design too, the center of the lotus should be golden, the petals cinnabar colored…
Meixiang complains to the miss that she can’t remember so many things, it would be better if she could come to the lobby to give instructions to everyone. The young miss scolds that she’s a useless servant, then orders her to come and help her to come out. Meixiang says to herself, ‘She’s not 70 years old, yet she needs a servant to support her by the arm, oh my!’, then goes and helps the miss to come.
Xue Xiangling (with the manners of a rich girl) sings that so as the running water at spring time runs low, so goes her mood lower and lower, because Zhu the tailor can’t make a dress according to her wishes. The pattern of the dress is poor and doesn’t go well with her mandarin duck shoes.
Meixiang tells her miss to calm herself, there are many servants and she can send one of them to exchange the dress. Yet the miss repeats that she’s very angry. Meixiang tries to comfort her, suggesting to go see Zhu the tailor to select a pattern she would like better. Meixiang tells Xue Sheng the servant to hurry to the tailor.
Wang Qing comes with the handkerchief. Meixiang tells him she’ll show it to the miss. She’s asks the miss whether she likes the handkerchief, but she throws it away. Meixiang is a bit upset, saying the handkerchief is so pretty, why did she throw it away? Xue Xiangling is calling Meixiang a stupid girl and says she won’t use such a plain white handkerchief on such an auspicious day. Meixiang admits she’s silly and tells the miss not to worry, she’ll replace the handkerchief. She’s calls for Wang Qing and orders him to replace the handkerchief because the miss isn’t satisfied with it.
Wang Qing says he already replaced it several times and asking what did the miss say exactly. Meixiang quotes the miss, saying she’s a stupid girl, etc., and repeatedly telling him to hurry up.
Hu Po is coming, asking where the miss is, she wants to report to her. Meixiang leading her to the miss. Mother Hu tells the Miss, “I have arranged the flower vase for you again, the flowers are nice, the leaves are nice, even it’s name is auspicious, it’s called ‘riches and honour until old age’, take a look, is it good?” Xue Xiangling seems to like the flowers, so Mother Hu puts them down and says if there’s nothing more she may leave. Meixiang tells her she’s very lucky, Hu Po replies, “Merciful Buddha, (it’s not easy to endure the miss)!”, then she leaves.
Xue Liang comes, looking for Meixiang. She asks him what’s that he’s holding, he says it’s a unicorn purse. Meixiang doesn’t know what’s a unicorn, she tells it doesn’t look like a pig, nor like a dog. Xue Sheng enlightens her that the Chinese unicorn is an auspicious new pattern. “Oh I see, a new pattern! I’ll show it to the miss.”
Meixiang asks the miss to take a look again at the flower vase and the unicorn purse. Xue Xiangling starts to sing about the unicorn purse, that there are floating rosy clouds on it, and why does the unicorn have two horns, it looks like a plowing ox. She asks who bought this purse, and Meixiang tells her it was Xue Liang. The miss tells Meixiang to quickly call for Xue Liang and to send him off to choose another purse.
Meixiang tells Xue Liang that the miss is still dissatisfied, and to go replace the purse. Xue Liang sings sadly that it’s not easy to run here and there because of this unicorn purse, why is one’s lordship always dissatisfied, and why don’t servants dare to say the truth bluntly.
Mrs. Xue comes and asks why is he crying so loudly. Xue Liang tells her that the miss is always dissatisfied over and over again, that she now sends him to exchange the unicorn purse, and that this old servant is embarrassed, not knowing where on earth to go and seek for another purse. Mrs. Xue tells him to come with her, they will go and take care of this matter.
Meixiang announces the old madam is here. Xue Xiangling pays respect to her mother who tells her to sit down to her side. The old madam tells that tomorrow the miss will be happy, finally the day of her marriage has arrived. “My dear daughter,’, she says, ‘Your dowry is already prepared entirely, yet you are not satisfied, is there anything else your heart desires? Why don’t you tell your mother? If you don’t speak I’ll get angry!”
Xue Xiangling reluctantly begins to explain what displeases her, but Meixiang interrupts her saying that the miss didn’t like the pattern of the unicorn purse, that’s why she’s disatisfied. Mrs. Xue laughs, saying that if she doesn’t like it, then she can come up with a pattern herself and ask Xue Liang to change it. What’s the problem then? Xue Liang assures that if the young miss isn’t satisfied, this old servant will go and get the pattern changed. Mrs. Xue tells her daughter that Xue Liang is already old, she should appreciate what he’s doing. The miss finally nods, so the old lady tells Xue Liang that the young miss is satisfied, and let’s all go for a rest. He thanks the madam who responds he must say thank you to the miss as well. He thanks the miss in turn. Meixiang tells him that the miss will reward him. “Thanks to the miss”, he says and leaves.
Mrs. Xue calls for Meixiang and asks her to bring her jewelery box. She tells her daughter to look carefully into the box and choose whatever she wants, to fulfill her desires. “Come see”, she says. “This pearl necklace is a priceless treasure, your mother’s beloved possession. Let’s put it inside the purse. And there is still more. See, here is this jade hairpin, isn’t it nice? Let’s pack it in here also.”
Meixiang says to the miss that her mother has given her so many things, is she still unhappy? The servant boldly declares that if she was in the miss’ place, she would grin from ear to ear. “Naughty girl”, scolds Mrs. Xue.
Xue Xiangling asks about the common saying: 多藏亦诲盗 (literally ‘to conceal much and teach to steal’). Mrs. Xue tells her that there is a native custom that if a girl gets married, she needs a unicorn purse in order to give birth to a son soon.
The next time Mrs. Xue turns around, the miss has already left. Mrs. Xue asks Meixiang where the miss is. Meixiang says the miss has returned to her room to rest. Mrs. Xue tells her to quickly deliver the pearls. “Naughty girl”, she laughs. “Mother and her beloved daughter are the same, hahaha! Oh, what a jest!”
Zhao Luhan sings that his fortune is bad, that he was honest but poor for a half a lifetime, and now the marriage day of his daughter has arrived and he doesn’t have a single penny. He depends on borrowed money just to be able to hire a small sedan chair to carry her, and though his daughter doesn’t mind, it’s still hard for him to tell her about it. He’s calls for his daughter to come in.
Zhao Shouzhen enters, singing that a woman born under an unlucky star can’t complain about being poor and living in a humble street; her father is worn out, busy rushing about all day long because of her engagement. She has pity on her parents because they had to borrow money for her wedding.
She asks her father why is he so depressed. Zhao Luhan answers that he has failed as a father, and he is sorry for his daughter. Shouzhen tells him not to speak like that. Her father tells her that her marriage day is tomorrow, and although he had never before borrowed a single cent, today he had. As a father his heart couldn’t endure this. His daughter tries to comfort him, saying he doesn’t need to be so considerate, her heart isn’t sad, tomorrow she will head to her new home in the sedan chair, which was auspicious. Zhao Luhan says though he had a fine daughter, light will not shine up on his face.
He Jixiang enters and tells about the speech he has just finished this morning. Words and sentences came smoothly… Now someone has invited him to come and say flattering words about Zaoshen, the God of kitchen. He Jixiang admits that as long as silver money lands in his hand, he’ll say respectful congratulations, wishing them to live forever in conjugal bliss, honor and riches. He introduces himself as He Jixiang (literally “congratulate” “lucky”) and his father as He Fugui (literally “congratulate” “riches and honor”). His family have acted as wedding attendants from generation to generation for the bride or groom on weddings.
“Today is the 17th. Tomorrow the 18th is a good day, there will be two weddings: one for the Xue family and one for the Zhao family,” he says. “The Xues have a big house, a big family, and they are very rich. The Zhaos have a small house, a small family. I want to go to the Xue wedding to start to broaden my horizons, but I’m afraid my father won’t let me to go. Hey, I ask him to come here and discuss the thing with him. Now that’s a good idea! Dad, please come here!”
He Fugui comes and tells us that this morning he and his son both were best men at the wedding Jixiang previously mentioned; hearing that his son was calling him because of business matters, he suggests to stand a bit aside, then asks him why was he calling him so early in the morning. Jixiang repeats that today is the 17th, tomorrow the 18th, that’s a good day, there will be two weddings: one for the Xue family and one for the Zhao family, and he was calling him to discuss whether he’ll go to the Zhao wedding or the Xue wedding. “Let me think about it”, says Fugui.
Finally Fugui figures out what they will do.
“All right, it will be like this. I will go to the Xue wedding, and you will go to the Zhao wedding.” Jixiang asks why he has to go to the Zhao wedding. His father answers that the Xue family have a big house, a big family and a big ceremony, so because he’s old and has wide knowledge and experience, he’s the most suitable to go to the Xue wedding. The Zhao family have a small household, a small family, theres no business there at all. Moreover, the son still has no beard (so is not experienced enough) to handle such a matter firmly.
He Jixiang says he also wants to go to the Xue family, but his father tells him it seems that his son is a bit self-interested.
“Why am I self-interested?”, he asks.
“Because you dislike the poor people of Zhao family, that’s why!,” replies Fugui. Jixiang responds to his father that in that case he’s self-interested too. Next the father asks, “Why am I self-interested?”
“You dislike the poor Zhao family as well because they have no money; you said they have small house, small family, you are also a snob!,” says the son. They repeatedly call each other, “You little snob!” and “You old snob!”. They come to an agreement that if the father is an old snob, then, since he comes from the same ancestral line, the son is a little snob. Finally the father says, “I told you, tomorrow I go to the Xue wedding, and you go to the Zhao wedding. If you’re disobedient, I will beat you, so don’t make your father angry!” and leaves. Jixiang vows that tomorrow he will also go to the Xue wedding, no matter what, and leaves in turn.
Zhao Luhan tells the gong beater to beat his instrument. “I say you are deaf or blind, am I not beating it?,” he answers. Zhao Luhan says he meant to beat it full force. The gong beater that if he is beats so strongly that the gong breaks, can Zhao Luhan afford to buy a new one? And by making little noise, he’s actually treating Mr. Zhao fairly, for what he deserves. Zhao Luhan tells him he’s a selfish young man.
Meixiang looks at the sky and declares there’s a big rain coming. Zhao Luhan asks the gong beater boy to be more gentle when putting down chairs, someone is inside that sedan chair over there. The gong beater answers that he knows it well, but she’s not a chicken egg, she can stand being bumped. Zhao Luhan says again he’s a selfish young man.
Meixiang takes a closer look at the other group seeking shelter from the rain.
She sees it’s a marriage sedan chair too, though it’s so small, and the green is not green, the red is not red, what colour is it anyways?
Zhao Luhan overhears and asks Meixiang who is she and why so loud-mouthed?
“Who, me, loud-mouthed? Let me inform you: I’ve never seen such a tiny and worn out sedan chair before,” insists Meixiang.
Zhao Luhan becomes very angry that such a young person makes fun of him because he’s poor. His daughter calls for him. Meixiang realizes somebody is inside the sedan chair and begins eavesdropping. Zhao Shouzhen asks her father to stop displaying his emotions so, explaining it is senseless to argue needlessly. If poor people meet supercilious people, those will make fun of them, so he must strive to be patient.
Meixiang returns and says to her Miss the rain may be heavier than expected.
Xue Xiangling sings to the Miss, “Spring and Autumn Pavilion outside is exposed to wind and rain, whence this sad sound is coming? Separating the hanging screen, I see a marriage sedan, presumably a newly wed is crossing the magpie bridge.” (Between the stars Altair and Vega in the Aquila constellation, folk characters and separated lovers Weaving maid and Cowherd boy are said to meet there once a year). “On such a lucky day, when one should be laughing happily, why I see pearl tears falling? Now I understand that on the earth there are rich and powerful people, but also hungry, poor, and sad people, who weep and are bitter. That woman in the sedan chair certainly keeps a secret in her heart, a tidal wave of emotions.”
Zhao Shouzhen, parting the curtains of her poor sedan chair, sees that the other bride’s family is rich and powerful. She’s worried that if they meet mockery again, her father will become very anxious.
Meixiang calls for Zhao Luhan impolitely, asking what about that girl, she’s getting married, why isn’t her family cheerful and optimistic? Zhao Luhan says she’s his daughter, and that she likes to cry; either way whether she cries or not, it’s none of Meixiang’s business. Meixiang ponderas about this old fellow is very tough, and his daughter is getting married tomorrow without knowing she’ll even have a kang (heatable bed with straw mat) or not?
Xue Xiangling says she heard heart-wrenching sad sounds, and asks who is wailing so loudly? Maybe her future husband is too ugly for to her, just like a crow taking possession of a phoenix’s nest? She asks Meixiang to find out why this other girl is crying so bitterly? Meixiang answers, “They came here to avoid the rain, we came here to avoid the rain, but the sky will clear up after rain and we will both leave, so why care about other people’s business?”
The miss declares Meixiang is speaking twisted words to avoid embarrassment. To pity the poor, help the tired is human sympathy. How can one just watch with folded arms?
Meixiang says she will inquire.
Meixiang asks Zhao Luhan to come. “What is it again?,” he asks.
“Our young miss is asking why is your daughter crying?”
Mr. Zhao replies, “You came here to avoid the rain, I came here to avoid the rain, but the sky will clear up after rain, and we will both leave, so why do you care what she does?”
Meixiang insults Mr.Zhao and reports to the miss that he refused to tell her.
The miss declares that it’s hard not to be suspicious with Meixiang asking so bluntly and carelessly. The Miss tells her she shouldn’t be so arrogant to people and speak so imperiouslyy. This time she sends Xue Liang to investigate.
Xue Liang asks Zhao Luhan very respectfully to approach. They have a courteous formal conversation, with Xue Liang asking his name, who is in the sedan chair and why is she crying? Mr. Zhao answers his name is Zhao Luhan, that person is his daughter, and she’s crying because she was touched by a clashing meeting between rich and poor.
“Thank you for your trouble,” says Xue Liang as they part. Xue Lian then reports to the miss what she has been told.
Meixiang jeers. “So she cries half of the day because she has no dowry? Needless to say, if she had the dowry our miss has, if she was given our Miss’ unicorn purse as a present, she could make a living for half of her lifetime!”
Hearing Xue Liang’s words, Xue Xiangling’s pride melts away like snow. She realized she is pampered, that the other girl is poor and hungry, and that one single branch of coral from her dowry would be a solid foundation for Zhao Shouzhen for half of a lifetime.
Xue Xiangling silently calls for Meixiang and asks her to secretly transport the unicorn purse to the Zhaos, without revealing her name.
Meixiang tells her, “Young miss, if you insist on giving the unicorn purse as a present, I will not dare to hinder you. But this unicorn purse, the old madam handed it over to you herself, even referring to a grandson…” Xue Xiangling tells her that giving birth to a promising son due to the mysterious power of the female unicorn is only a fairy tale, merely flowery words to honor rich and powerful persons. It’s more important that this tiny sack save the other girl from hunger and thirst.
“All right, if I must…” says Meixiang reluctantly.
Once again Meixiang impolitely calls Zhao Luhan.
“Our young miss has pitied your daughter, and is giving this unicorn purse as present,”, says Meixiang insolently. “There are pearls and agates in it, all very valuable stuff. Accept it, it’s enough to feed you for a lifetime. Take it, will you?”
Zhao Luhan refuses to take the purse. Xue Liang comes to the rescue, telling Mr. Zhao in a very courteous manner the same things, that their miss heard his daughter crying, pitied her, and has decided to send this purse as a present.
Zhao Luhan still says they really can’t accept it, but Xue Liang convinces him that Miss Xue’s intention is sincere, so finally he accepts with many thanks.
“Good gracious!” he exclaims, “I’ve been rushing from east to west to borrow money to gather together my daughter’s dowry, but couldn’t get a single coin. Today I meet this benevolent young lady. Could she be a living Buddha, or a prominent saint?”
Meixiang notes that the old many is very superstitious.
Mr.Zhao shows the purse to his daughter, explaining it came from the benevolent lady they met today. Zhao Shouzhen asks the name of the miss, so someday in future she can return the favor.
Zhao Luhan asks the housekeeper the name of the miss. Meixiang quickly replies, “Our young lady’s name is Xue…”, but Xue Xiangling interrupts her, warning not to tell. Meixiang quickly changes topic, saying the sky is clear after the storm, so let’s get up and beat the gongs, so they can leave.
Mr.Zhao asks the young man again to beat his gong. “You are very forgetful, wasn’t it said a moment ago that if this gong breaks, you can’t afford another one?” he answers. Zhao Luhan tells him that now they have a unicorn purse, full of money. The gong beater can’t believe it, is he serious? Mr.Zhao assures him it’s not a joke, so happily and noisily they leave.
He Fugui and He Jixiang give out traditional wedding instructions.
“One: worship to heaven and earth!” (wedding ritual, the groom and bride are kneeling down)
“Two: pay respect to the parents!”
“Man and wife must obey one another!”
Enter the bridal room both gong beaters in a heated argument.
Xue Liang asks them to slow down and asking why are they arguing. They both want to be the first to speak. Finally the old man explains, “I tell you what’s the matter. Today is the 18th, it’s a good day, two young ladies are getting married. One of them is the Zhao girl. I permitted my son to go to the Zhao wedding, but he disliked the poor Zhao family and also came to the Xue family wedding. Tell me, isn’t he self-interested?’
Now the son speaks: “Better listen to me: today is a good day, there are two weddings today, one of the Zhao family, one of the Xue family. He disliked the poor Zhaos, he said they have a small household and family. He looked down upon them because they have no money. Tell me, isn’t he self-interested?”
They begin arguing with each other again.
“Slow down, slow down!,” says Xue Liang, “You two don’t need to argue. In my opinion…”
“You tell the truth!” say both the father and son.
“You are both self-interested!”
The Hes admit that he is clear sighted and leave, taunting each other on the way out. “This way please, old self-interested…” “Please, little self-interested…”
He Jixiang comes with bad news. A fierce wind is blowing, heavy rain is pouring down, swelling the river. The dam is flooded. He hurries home to inform his old father.
Meixiang tells us that several years have passed since the young miss married into the Zhou family. Now the little master of the house, Xue Xiangling’s son, has already grown tall. Today is the day when Xue Xiangling returns to her parental home, the trip is all ready. She asks the lady to come in.
Xue Xiangling sings she’s happy to meet the day when she visits her home again. Her son, Zhou Daqi, asks if they are going to his maternal grandmother’s house. When his mother says yes, he declares he won’t go, that when last time they were there, he wanted to tie up a grasshopper in his grandmom’s hair, but she didn’t allow it. His mother scolds him, “How could your grandma allow you to pull out her fine black hair just to entertain you?” She promises her son that they’ll buy a bamboo pony to play with it in the courtyard. “Mom, you’ll really buy me a horse?” he asks. “Will it be fine?” he asks again, then, “Yes, I want a green horse!”
Xue Xiangling tells her son that black and white horses are readily available, but where to get a green horse? Yet Zhou Daqi insists and yells he wants a green horse. When Meixiang says there isn’t green horse, he tries to kick her, yelling, that he won’t listen to her, he obeys only his mother.
Turning to his parent, the child asks, “Mom, is there or not a green horse?”
“There is, there is!,” says Xue Xiangling. Then to herself, “I love him so dearly that I indulge him too …”
Xue Xiangling then sings about how time flies by unnoticed like an arrow after marriage, how one’s youthful appearance changes.
On the long road in the chariot with her son, she hears crying voices that frighten her. Why are all the people fleeing and shouting? She trembles with fear, and hurriedly orders the cart driver to turn back.
Zhou Tingxun arrives by boat, with a lifeguard flag indicating “life-saving”. He laments the misfortune and disaster that has fallen down from the sky, causing widespread flooding by a vast body of water. Are his beloved wife and son alive or dead? How could he not be heartbroken?
He Jixiang begins to weep. He Fugui asks him why is he crying.
“Hey, can’t you hear what he says?” replies He Jixiang. “Was his wife able to escape the flood? As he was saying this, my grandmother came to my mind.” His father is upset.
He Jixiang continues. “He also doesn’t know whether his son escaped the flood, and as he was saying this, my father came to my mind…” He Fugui interrupts him, explaining that his son isn’t allowed to speak. The son argues that three lifetimes are too short to speak in front of a wealthy person. They start a dispute again over who is the most self-interested, nearly turning the boat over.
Zhou Tingxun tells them there’s no need to argue.
Suddenly, Zhou Tingxun sees that in front of them there is a child on a lifeboat. The child looks like his son, Daqi. Is it he?
“I see him, I see him!’, says the young He.
“Good eyesight!” replies the old He.
“You two, quickly set sail to there!” orders Zhou Tingxun.
Lu Yi and Lu Ren discuss that the Deng prefecture is under flood, and that there are victims everywhere. They don’t know how their landlord can manage the famine relief charity kitchen alone. Since the flood, refugees flee from here to Laizhou. Their landlord’s heart cannot bear this, he has asked in vain the local wealthy families to set up charity kitchens to help disaster victims. Who would believe that those rich families are not willing to spend money on charity? Their landlord, Lu Shengshou is furious about this lack of help, and has set up a charity kitchen alone for that’s what his heart dictated to him.
They decide to go to the charity kitchen without delay to help out there.
Old Mother Hu tells that due to the flood, the Deng prefecture is on the verge of becoming fully depopulated. Formerly, she was a servant at the Xue residence, but now with the city flooded, where could she go to find some food? Fortunately she adds, here’s Landlord Lu who has set up a free food stand. She now relies entirely on the three daily meals she gets there to stay alive. It’s already late today, but still she has to fill this old belly of hers…
Old Mother Hu hears Xue Xiangling’s bitter cry from a distance. “Oh, do you hear it?” she asks. “There’s the sound of moan and groan everywhere!”
“Oh, my old mother,” Xue Xiangling laments. “My son, Daqi! Officials, hurry and bring me news! I sent Meixiang to the public courtyard, why hasn’t she returned yet? Officials! I’m hungry! My belly is starving. My husband has disappeared, he’s neither here nor in the town’s surroundings. Could it be true that the ruthless flood has separated him from everyone who were carried in the boat? My dear old mother was surely killed by the waves, and my son had the bitter fate to be buried in a fish’s stomach.”
Hu Po realizes it’s the Madam, and they greet each other.
Xue Xiangling says it’s as good to see Hu Po as to hear music on an deserted hill, and asks her whether she has seen her husband or his chariot?
Hu Po answers that she’s afraid that Xue Xiangling won’t see her mother or father again in this lifetime.
Xue Xiangling says hearing this causes her whole inside to ache. She asks Hu Po to come back to her parental home to seek for the bodies of her parents.
Mother Hu says that she’s afraid that their corpses have become fish and shrimp manure by now. She asks Xue Xiangling to stop weeping, and whether she’s hungry or not.
“Yes, I’m starving, Hu Po!” says the lady. “Will you serve me a meal?”
Hu Po informs her that she should go to the government residence. There she can order a meal and get four dishes in eight big bowls: pan-fried shredded pork, meat slices, exotic delicacies, and whatever more she wants.
Xue Xiangling worries about what kind of meal she can buy, she has no hipsack on her side with silver money. Hu Po suggests that in this case she should go with her to eat some porridge. Xue Xiangling doesn’t know what kind of porridge. Mother Hu tells her that a local landlord, Mr.Lu, has opened a porridge shack for the victims of the Deng prefecture disaster.
Xue Xiangling declares the meal won’t be good.
Hu Po asks why not?
The lady answers that she thinks that the porridge must be leftovers, bad quality product, and that a bowl of thin porridge will hardly allay one’s hunger.
Hu Po laughs about how the lady bites words and chews characters. “These times are different from those times.”
This conversation breaks down Xue Xiangling’s illusions. Slowly they both go to the charity kitchen.
Lu Ren and Lu Yi are distributing the porridge.
“How dare you!”, says Lu Yi to He Jixiang. “One man, two bowls?”
“There’s my father too!” He Jixiang answers.
“Right! This drop of porridge is all you’ll get, go back! Go go go!” says Lu Ren.
“There’s no more today.”
“Come back tomorrow!”
Xue Xiangling gives her bowl of porridge to a grieving old lady. Hu Po protests, “What are you doing? Now my bowl is gone too!”
“Each and every man and woman is as thin as a match,” says Xue Xiangling.
Hu Po is still lamenting why she has given the porridge to the old woman. Lu Yi is asking her why are they still bothering here if the porridge distribution has finished. Hu Po explains them that the lady is a newcomer. The Lus ask her to return, explaining they have to discuss something with her. Lu Yi says that at their residence there is a vacant post for an older female servant, to nurse the boss’ little son. He saw this lady in sorrow, and pitied her, thus he asks Hu Po to discuss with her whether she mighy be willing to apply for the post.
“Wait, we discuss it!” says Mother Hu. “Did you hear that?”, she asks Xue Xiangling, repeating what Lu Yi said. “Are you willing to go or not?”
The Lady asks Hu Po if it’s such a good thing, why won’t she go for it herself? Mother Hu scolds her not to speak like that, she’s already too old, how could she help out? Yet if the lady takes the nursing job, she’ll have food and accomodations. She will ask about the whereabouts of the lord and the madam, all right?
“I understand you went to a lot of trouble for me. I’m willing to follow to the rich family’s household, if only to have enough food and warm clothes,” says Xue Xiangling.
Hu Po is relieved that the lady has agreed and she leaves to tell the Lus. They ask Xue Xiangling to follow them.
Xue Xiangling asks Hu Po whether she will come and see her there. Hu Po assures her that if she has some spare time, she surely will go.
Xue Xiangling asks again, will Hu Po surely come and see her?
The old woman reassures her and asks her to go with the Lu brothers, but Xue Xiangling asks the same thing for the third time.
“Haven’t I told you a moment ago?” says Hu Po. “If I have spare time, I certainly will go and see you, now go with them! Go, go!”
Lu Yi declares they must leave, there is a long way to go. On the way, he speaks about the rich family’s boy, pampered and spoiled since childhood.
Once arrived, he asks Xue Xiangling to wipe off her tears and to wait outside while he informs the master about her coming.
The lord and the madam arrive.
Lu Shengshou and Zhao Shouzhen explain that they used to be poor people in Dengzhou, but that they received a purse as a gift. Lu Yi pays respect to them and reports that following Lu Shengshou’s wishes, he has found someone to amuse the little master of the house. The lord asks to call her in.
“Don’t look so distracted, greet our lord and lady!” orders Lu Yi.
Xue Xiangling pays respect to the madam who in turn asks her name and where she comes from. Xue Xiangling tells her that her family name is Xue and comes from Dengzhou. The madam asks about the conditions in Dengzhou. Xue Xiangling informs her that it’s entirely submerged by the flood.
“That’s really, really tragic,” says Zhao Shouzhen. “My dear husband, can we not offer her shelter?”
“As you wish,” he answers.
Zhao Shouzhen calls for the maid and orders her to lead Xue Xiangling away to change clothes. Zhao Shouzhen then asks Biyu to call the little boy to come in.
“Little master of the house!” yells Biyu. “The madam is calling you, hurry up!”
The son, Lu Tian Lin (“lin” means unicorn), pays respect to his parents, and in answer to his mother’s question about what he has done behind to entertain himself, he explains that he had been studying a book and had fun.
His mother queries the boy how is it fun to read a book? Tian Lin explains to her that he was reading while playing, isn’t it more interesting?
His parents discuss that though he is young in age, their son has an ambitious spirit because normally studying is not fun for children. The father notices that the son is covered with dust, his mother asks where the dust comes from.
Tian Lin replies that when he got tired from reading, he went to swing in the backyard garden but wasn’t careful and fell down. His mother asks anxiously if he is hurt but the son assures her it’s nothing.
“My son,” says Zhao Shouzhen. “We hired a nanny to entertain you, are you happy?”
Tian Lin replies he doesn’t want a nanny, that she surely will be like the other one (pointing at Biyu): ugly, dirty, and very unsightly.
His mother assures him that this person has a pretty appearance, that if he sees her he will be fond of her at once.
“I will take a look then,” says the boy. His mother orders Biyu to call “Mother Xue”.
“Xue Ma!” calls Biyu. “Have you changed clothes? Hurry up, come!”
Xue Xiangling, feeling awkward in black servant clothes, appears. Seeing her, the boy declaeres she looks outstandingly beautiful, and that he wants to play with her.
“I came here to entertain you, little boss!” says Xue Xiangling.
The boy repeats he want to play with her, so Zhao Shouzhen instructs “Xue Ma” to lead the boy to the backyard garden to have fun.
“I follow your order,” says Xue Xiangling.
Biyu guides them to the garden, but the mother Zhao Shouzhen repeatedly asking Xue Xiangling to return to receive new orders: when in the garden be careful near the goldfish pond, watch out for the rocks at the lake, don’t provoke the bees, push aside the spiderwebs, don’t let the long pine needles prick the little lord.
Last time the mother Zhao Shouzhen asks them to come back, the husband Lu Shengshou interrupts: “Madam, let me remind them myself instead: be careful at the goldfish pond, watch out the rocks at the lake, don’t provoke the bees, push aside the spiderwebs. That’s all you said, isn’t it?”
“No,” answers his wife. “There’s one more important thing I want to say to her. As you lead the little lord to the garden, there is that vermilion house at the eastern corner, he absolutely cannot go up there! If you go against my order, there will be no pardon!”
“This, on the contrary, is an important matter, you must remember it,” says Mr. Lu to Xue Xiangling.
“Come along, follow me,” repeats Biyu to Xue Xiangling and finally they leave.
Tian Lin asks his nanny whether her family has a big house. Biyu enlightens him: if Xue Xiangling’s family had a big house, why would she come here to be a servant?
Next the boy asks whether they have an especially big garden.
“Xue Ma! You see, this is our garden, isn’t it very fine? The air is really fresh. Look, these flowers are very beautiful! Look, look! Come here, and listen to me! To amuse the young master of the house is easy, you just cannot tap, touch, pinch, or rub him, because if you tap, touch, pinch, or rub him, you will have to ask for a pardon. Are you listening to me?”
“Many to beware of,” says Xue Xiangling. Biyu tells her it’s nothing, she’ll teach her. Biyu shows the toys, but Tian Lin takes them.
“Here’s one toy, can you hear it?” and he blows the trumpet. Tian Lin explains it’s extremely unpleasant to hear and sends Biyu away.
“Goodness, the little one has no conscience,” says Biyu. “Enamored with new people, bored with the old! If he doesn’t play with me, I can go and be alone!”
Tian Lin says he wants to play with Xue nanny. Xue Xiangling says all right, then hands over different toys to the boy, asking for each if it will do. But none of the toys are good enough for Tian Lin.
“None of them are good? Let me collect them for you…” says Xue Xiangling, picking up the toys. Tian Lin says that he’s already tired of all those toys, he wants her to give him a new toy.
“A new one? How about if I cut out a paper doll silhouette for you?”
“A small paper doll? Very good! Xue Ma! Quickly cut it out for me!” Tian Lin repeatedly asks Xue Xiangling to hurry. She cuts a paper doll and asks the boy whether he likes it.
“Really not bad! I want more like this!” he replies. “Xue Ma! Can you cut out a horse?” When she replies she can, Tian Lin says that he wants a green horse.
The words ‘green horse’ remind Xue Xiangling about her own lost son. Tian Lin tells her to stop daydreaming, and to do it more quickly!
Xue Ma tells him that the man has two legs, the horse has four legs, naturally it goes a bit slower. Finally the horse is ready.
Tian Lin says, “Let’s have the small paper doll ride the big horse! Xue Ma! It can’t walk!”
“How could a papercut doll be able to walk?” asks Xue Xiangling.
The boy says he will show her how a horse walks, getting down on all four. Xue Xiangling asks him to stand up quickly, not to make his clothes filthy. Tian Lin replies it doesn’t matter, if the clothes get dirty, his mother will buy him new ones. Now that he was shown her how, she too should walk like the horse for him.
Xue Xiangling tells him people are people, and horses are horses, so she can’t. The boy repeatedly asks her to walk like a horse. She says again she can’t. Finally Tian Lin frightens her that he’ll go and tell his mom she won’t play with him.
Xue Xiangling finally agrees to imitate the horse, but the boy thinks her performance doesn’t resemble a horse. Xue Ma says she can’t do it, because there’s no horsewhip. Now Tian Lin takes the role of the horse rider, and Xue Ma is the horse. Yet the boy says she still doesn’t look like a horse. Finally Xue Xiangling distracts his attention by asking whether he sees the butterfly flying over there. Now the boy wants the butterfly.
“Little master, don’t cry,” says Xue Xiangling. “I will cut you a paper butterfly, all right?”
“A papercut butterfly? That will be good. Hurry up, Xue Ma, do it quickly!” insists Tian Lin, but soon he falls asleep.
Xue Xiangling sings how in an instant, her former circumstances go entirely concealed, now she’s miserable and her clothes are wet from tears. She was leading a rich and honourable life, who would have thought that one’s life can be ruined in so little time. Back then she too acted like a spoiled child, now she cannot trust the future. This is a lesson from God, to make her regret how pampered she was, to change her nature into a better one… The female unicorn actually doesn’t bring luck. She remembers when she was married, her mother gave her a purse, decorated with an embroidered unicorn. Now her beloved mother was gone.
Tian Lin wakes up and asks why Xue Xiangling is crying, and why doesn’t she play with him? He will go tell his mother now.
“Don’t go,” says Xue Xiangling. “I was waiting for you to wake up, and didn’t want to make any noise. How about I catch you a black-naped oriole, would that be good?”
“To catch a little bird? Very good! Xue Ma! Let’s go!” he answers. “I want a little yellow bird! In addition, I want a red one too! Surely you can catch me a red one, right? Look, here’s my ball, Xue Ma! Look, I can play with the ball!”
Xue Xiangling repeatedly asks him to be careful, but he says it doesn’t matter, he’ll throw the ball as far as he can.
The ball goes on the roof of the vermilion house and the boy tells her to go get it.
Xue Xiangling says the madam said itwas forbidden to go there, she doesn’t dare to follow the little master’s order. Who will take the Madam’s blame? Tian Lin assures her that if his mom gets furious, he’ll take the responsibility. He repeatedly asks for his ball.
Xue Xiangling decides she has no alternative but to take her courage into her hands and get the ball, so very reluctantly she agrees to go up together with Tian Lin.
Stunned, Xue Xiangling finds the unicorn purse, while Tian Lin says that if she won’t play with him, he’ll inform his mom.
Xue Xiangling sings:
“Suddenly I see this purse, I still recognize it. It’s clearly the unicorn purse my mother gave me on my wedding day! Now I see it again, is it a dream? Holding this purse in my hand, remembering the sorrowful happenings of the past, it’s difficult to bear the pearls of tears.”
Zhao Shouzhen appears. “Outrageous! How dare you? Didn’t I tell you not to come up here? Indeed you violate my command and enter without permission? Come down with me and take responsibility!”
Xue Xiangling asks for forgiveness, explaining just a little while ago the little master was throwing his ball up here, and he then ordered her to bring it back.
The madam asks her son whether this is true. The boy assures her that it’s true, but when Xue Xiangling saw the red purse of his family, she began to cry.
“Really?” says the madam. “Xue Ma! Come down with me, I have something to ask. Don’t be afraid, come with me!”
The Madam asks her what she has seen. Xue Ma answers, “A unicorn purse.”
“What did you see?” asks the madam again.
“A unicorn purse!” she repeats.
The madam asks Xue Xiangling where she is from exactly, and when was she married?
Xue Xiangling answers she’s from Dengzhou and was married on the 18th of June, six years ago.
“Six years ago,” repeats Zhao Shouzhen. The Madam asks her son to go outside to play, and Biyu to let Xue Ma sit down.
Biyu is upset. Since when do servants have a seat in their honorific home?
“No need to be so talkative, hurry up!” orders the madam.
Biyu still arguing that it’s not right, bumps a seat besides Xue Xiangling and rudely says, “At your service, sit down!”
As she motions to sit down, Biyu makes a groaning sound.
Xue Xiangling offers the seat to the older servant, but Biyu says it’s not needed, that she’s accustomed to stand.
The madam asks Xue Xiangling whether she still remembers what the weather was like on June 18th six years ago, and to speak slowly.
Xue Xiangling says slowly: ‘Madam, allow me to make a repoooooort.’
Then Xue Xiangling sings, “On that very day the nice landscape suddenly changed. In a split second the sun turned pale like at sunset. In the sedan chair I felt that the sky had fainted into darkness. I heard the loud sound of wind, rain and thunder. Happy voices stopped, people began yelling, and heavy rain poured down from the sky.”
The madam asks if her marriage sedan braved the rain?
Xue Xiangling explains that they sought shelter in the Spring and Autumn pavilion to avoid the rain.
The madam has another question. At that pavilion, besides her marriage sedan, was there another sedan chair?
Xue Ma answers there was one.
Zhao Shouzhen then asks her whether she can remember the appearance of the another sedan chair.
“Separating the curtains of my sedan chair, I casted a short glance at the other marriage sedan. It was not pretty but usable,” she answers. “It was plain and simple, its colours worn out, with an old flower patterned curtain and ragged tassels, almost entirely broken.”
The madam suddenly orders Biyu to move Xue Ma’s seat to the guest side (the host sits on the east side of the guest).
Biyu again has objections, but Mrs. Zhao tells her once again to be quiet and hurry up.
The Madam then asks Xue Xiangling whether she heard sounds coming from that sedan chair.
Xue Xiangling sings that the sedan chair surely was hiding bitterness, for tears were plucking heartstrings, someone was weeping, resembling a cuckoo’s lamenting voice who wants to leave the courtyard, longing for the gorges. On the marriage day one’s face should appear pleased, why this pathetic, mournful weeping?
“When you heard the pitiful crying, did you just sit there motionless?”
Xue Xiangling explains that in those days her dowry was no less than millions, and that she wanted to help out the empty handed person in that sedan chair. Her unicorn purse came to her mind. Though it was small, it could support someone for a lifetime.
“What? You gave the unicorn purse to her?” asks the madam.
“Exactly,” answers Xue Xiangling. Hearing this, Zhao Shouzhen orders Biyu to move Xue Ma’s seat to a superior position.
“Madam, we already moved her seat to the guest side, now to a supreme position, can it be that a servant wants to deceive the master?”
Biyu is upset that she has been here for years and hasn’t been offered a seat. She cynically wishes Xue Xiangling to be proud of herself of rising higher and higher day by day.
Zhao Shouzhen asks whether there was something inside the purse.
“In the purse?” answers Xue Xiangling. “Gold, pearls, red coral, green jade, emerald, all kinds of brilliant treasures. Many dark pearls, a pure gold necklace, an amethyst hairpin, a white jade ring with the engraving of two phoenixes, eight precious hairpins and bracelets, all shiny and splendid. Though these were not enough for an eternity, it could provide for food and clothes for many years.”
Hearing this, Zhao Shouzhen now knows for sure that her great benefactor has arrived in her home, and orders Biyu to help Xue Xiangling to change clothes, giving her the madam’s nicest clothes.
Biyu asks why should she change clothes, hasn’t she changed them just a moment ago?
The madam, again, tells her not to talk so much and hurry up.
Xue Xiangling asks why the madam desires this?
Zhao Shouzhen assures her intention will become clear in a short time.
When Xue Xiangling asks the same from Biyu, the other says, “Why? Come here, I will tell you: both our master and madam are very good people, they have the greatest pity on every poor people on this whole world. No idea about our master, maybe he wants to fill up two bedrooms (keep a concubine), earlier there was my turn…”
Lu Shengshou comes and informs her wife that Xue Ma’s husband, mother, son, all her kith and kin have arrived to join her.
“What? They have all arrived? Good, good, good!” says her wife overjoyed. Lu Shengshou declares his wife is very merciful, she’s too compassionate, it cannot be helped. He asks her whether she’s ill or insane? Zhao Shouzhen tells him in a little time he will understand why is she so excited.
She asks the maid to request Madam Xue to come.
Xue Xiangling’s family arrives.
Zhao Shouzhen asks the old lady whether she’s the old Madam Xue? The old madam asks about her daughter.
Mrs. Zhao tells her they’ll meet each other very soon. She asks the maid again to call Biyu. “Biyu Jie, come quickly!” she calls out.
Zhao Shouzhen asks Biyu whether Xue Ma has changed clothes?
“Madam! Following your orders, I opened the chest for her to pick the best items, and guess what? When she changed clothes, she simply looked like a goddess, so very beautiful!”
Zhao Shouzhen tells her to request the pleasure to see Xue Niangzi. Biyu wonders how she became Xue Niangzi (mother/wife), then imitating her lady, she calls for her.
Xue Xiangling comes and sings, “When I changed my clothes to this beautiful garment, I look like I did before, when I was rich and honourable. Probably it’s a fantasy, am I in the land of dreams? Suddenly raising my head I see my old mother’s smiling face! I ask my dear mother, from where has she come here?”
Her mother tells her that she got onto a lifeboat, and they went ashore just a short while ago, then Hu Po informed them that she was here at this house.
Xue Xiangling sings that they can celebrate, luckily everyone returned alive.
As she sees her son, she can’t help but laugh with extreme happiness. God has raised her on his palm, hopefully her bosses won’t blame her for doing her job so flustered. Her husband asks her why she hasn’t discussed with him that she come here to be a servant.
Meixiang notes that if she’s a servant at this family, yet she’s dressed up so well, she must be truly blessed. Her husband also wonders why indeed, if she’s a servant here, is she wearing the highest quality clothes?
“You are a servant here?” asks her mother in turn.
Xue Xiangling says that she’s ashamed, her face is red like a begonia, but she can’t tell why she got the nice clothes.
Her husband says that alas, at this time he has no words to tell then. To the repeated question by her mother why the fine clothes, Xue Xiangling says she doesn’t know, they should ask Madam Lu who knows.
“Oh, I see!” says her mother. “I think you harbor malicious intentions!”
Biyu says that’s enough, they treated her well, she could eat and drink…
“Don’t talk nonsense!” interrupts Zhao Shouzhen. “I have something to tell you all, please listen to me. Long ago, when we escaped to the Spring and Autumn pavilion to avoid the rain, Xue Niangzi gave me a unicorn purse as a present. This great favor can never be forgotten. My desire has always been to pay her back, but I didn’t even know her name.”
“Oh, so it turned out this is she!” says Hu Po.
Mrs. Lu continues, “Today we met each other, and I intend to tie a profound friendship with Xue Niangzi. What do you think?”
“It depends on you, Madam!” answers Xue Xiangling.
“So, elder sister, please let your little sister pay great homage to you!” says Mrs. Lu.
Xue Xiangling’s sings that life is difficult to predict, now they unexpectedly here is a reunion. Looking back, the past is like a flourishing dream, surviving a line of stormy waves. At one’s darkest hour, a glimmer of hope comes to end the tears. Toss a peach, get back a plum, virtue will eventually have its rewards.