This month’s series features a novel based on an old 1998-99 TV series “Princess Returning Pearl” that was one of the earliest roles Zhao Wei (I think known as Vicki Zhao in US productions) starred in. Fan Bingbing also appears in the series in a minor role. The series appears to have been remade about a decade later, but I haven’t seen that version. The original run of the first version was two seasons, and it was a mainland Chinese-Taiwanese production based on a quirky historical fact about the Qianlong Emperor. The Qianlong Emperor who ruled in the late 18th century under the Qing Dynasty is a very important emperor on the dynastic list, but it turns out he had a kind of odd relationship with an adoptive daughter, and that fact forms the core for this series. I did hear later about some controversy over the series where the descendants of the historical figures in the story didn’t like the series, but I don’t know what the ultimate result ever was on that.
The basic premise of the series is that precocious, orphaned
street urchin Xiao Yanzi (which translates to Little Swallow) befriends a
well-bred young girl her same age named Ziwei who was raised by a single
mother, and they decide to become blood sisters. The blood sister ritual means
Xiao Yanzi takes on Ziwei’s last name if I recall, and it comes out that
Ziwei’s mother told her her father was the Qianlong Emperor from a brief affair
she had with him. The mother has tokens from him to prove this, and Xiao Yanzi
and Ziwei hatch a plot to get her before the Emperor to have him acknowledge
her as his daughter.
Because Xiao Yanzi is the more physically capable of the girls and the Beijing Palace has some patches in their security that they can breach if Xiao Yanzi climbs up the side of a mountain to his leisure park, she promises to take the tokens up to the Emperor via that route and then have him send for Ziwei. However, things don’t quite go as planned since the Emperor and his sons are deer hunting in the leisure park at the time Xiao Yanzi decides to climb up. She is shot in the chest by the arrow of the Fifth Prince, Yongqi, her ultimate love interest in the series. Because of this, the Emperor discovers the interloper unconscious and near death, sees the tokens she carries and assumes this is his long lost daughter! Xiao Yanzi is horrified when she awakens and realizes she is trapped in this lie, and the Emperor presents her to the people as Princess Returning Pearl. Meanwhile, the true princess Ziwei has to be brought in to serve her as her maid since deceiving the Emperor could mean execution if they are discovered, and they don’t know how to tell him the truth with death potentially being the consequence of the mistaken identity. Both girls find their love interest among the princes of the palace, though I forget Erkang’s exact title; he becomes Ziwei’s partner.
The four main characters Xiao Yanzi, Ziwei, Yongqi and Erkang from this series were the models for my four main characters Bingsong, Weimudan, Azuma and Zhijian in my gothic ghost story The Haunting at Ice Pine Peak. I just played them a little straighter for the darker horror genre, though here the story is a romance/comedy. It has been a long time since I saw it, but it is one of my favorite Chinese TV series.
The series of telenovels based on the TV show was written by Qiong Yao and runs to at least 62 volumes, and this post’s selection is volume 61, Princess Returning Pearl: Companion in the World of Mortals (瓊瑤全集的《還珠格格：紅塵作伴》), which was published in 1999 and covers pages 1171 through 1447. Some of the popular series novels have continuous page numbers from volume to volume, which is why we don’t start with page 1. Here is the cover showing Yongqi and Xiao Yanzi.
I found this page that has the author’s complete collection for this series reproduced in Chinese as an online novel (traditional characters):
You can read along with me starting on this page:
It’s probably available like this because it’s out of print, which would be typical for East Asian books.
Starting with the opening chapter, the untitled chapter 51, it is split into two scenes. The first scene is set in Luoyang, one of the older capitals from an earlier Chinese dynasty, and the characters we meet include Xiao Yanzi, Ziwei, Yongqi, Erkang, Liuhong and Xiaojian. They return to the courtyard of an inn, happy that their street performance was a success. Xiao Yanzi is particularly proud of herself and gushes about their performance and the money they made.
This provokes a fight between Xiao Yanzi and Yongqi over his princely status, particularly because the performance was before the Chinese public. Erkang and Ziwei try to calm them down, but Yongqi also pulls Xiaojian into the situation. Erkang tries to intervene in that argument, too. Xiao Yanzi finally admits she made a mistake, and everyone leaves Erkang and Yonqi alone in the room. Erkang tries to advise Yongqi on the way he handles Xiao Yanzi, warning Yongqi that since he is an important person, his anger can hurt her since he can have her executed.
Meanwhile, Xiao Yanzi is talking in the bedroom with Ziwei about how angry Yongqi makes her. Technically, Yongqi is Ziwei’s half-brother brother, and Xiao Yanzi asks why Ziwei pities him. Ziwei says it’s because he left his gold and silver nest to sleep with Xiao Yanzi in a grass nest and notes how mean Xiao Yanzi is. This refers to the class status difference between Yongqi and Xiao Yanzi.
For some reason, Xiao Yanzi goes to the kitchen to get an axe, and she takes it outside. Ziwei follows in alarm. Xiao Yanzi brushes Ziwei off, but Erkang also sees her and asks what she’s doing. Xiao Yanzi says she’s going to the mountain to chop wood, but he tells her there are tigers on the mountain and that it’s not safe to go there. He tries to persuade her to go shopping instead. Yongqi is sitting nearby, and Ziwei asks him to go with Xiao Yanzi to chop wood, but Xiao Yanzi doesn’t want him to go with her, and she and Yongqi argue again, mostly about her low status. Erkang tries to intervene and talk some sense again into Yongqi. Xiao Yanzi finally apologizes, and Yongqi tells her he loves her, but she says something inappropriate that makes him go red with either embarrassment or anger, I’m not entirely sure which.
The second scene in this chapter continues later that day. After some more quarrelling among the group, Ziwei and Liuhong go to the kitchen to make and serve food, and they talk about all of the dishes the three girls like to make. Then they go back out into Luoyang to perform. Xiao Yanzi performs specifically with Xiaojian, but the performance is disrupted by Noble Li from Beijing who has recognized them and wonders if the Emperor knows where they are and what they are doing. The group of young people evades Noble Li and takes off in a carriage over the plains, driven by Yongqii and Xiaojian. Erkang looks out the window of the carriage, thinking about how far away the imperial palace in Beijing seems.
Chapter 52 has four scenes, and the first scene shows the palace back in Beijing. A messenger named Balang goes to the Empress’ pavilion, and he’s whisked in to give her a report. He has been investigating in Luoyang and the whereabouts of Princess Ziwei – by this time in the series, the identity of the true princess has been revealed to the Emperor – but he describes the scuffle.
The Twelfth Prince is also there at the meeting of Balang and the Empress, and I recall that he’s pretty young and the Empress’ own son. The Fifth Prince, Yongqi, is around late teens to 20 years old, so there are seven sons between him and the twelfth prince, though all through different concubines. The Twelfth Prince is therefore around 10 or 12 years old.
The boy thinks his mother wants to murder the Fifth Prince, Xiao Yanzi and the others, and he threatens to tell on her to another member of the royal family, Huangama. He asks why she would want to kill Ziwei and Xiao Yanzi since they are good to him when no one else in the palace wants to play with him. The Empress is nonplussed at this and protests that he misunderstands. She claims it was Huangama who actually wants to kill them.
In scene 2, Ziwei and Xiao Yanzi are going down the street to an inn, and there are a few 11 or 12 year old girls in the street performing acrobatics. A crowd has gathered and is watching them as they perform more and more challenging moves. Xiao Yanzi and her group clap and get the crowd’s attention. They talk about collecting money then leave with the girls.
In scene 3, the story continues with the group in Luoyang. A little time has passed, and the group has less and less money and more and more children gathered around them. They are buying the children clothes, bathing them, and feeding them. Asking how long it has been since the children have eaten, the children respond it has been 2 days. The girls don’t really have personal names, but Xiao Yanzi and Ziwei give at least one of them the name Xiao Gezi, or little dove or pigeon. Scene four just shows them all getting up early the next morning and heading off to Nanyang in the carriage with Xiao Gezi.
Chapter 53 has 6 scenes. In the first scene, everyone is quiet in the carriage for awhile, but when the conversation begins again, they ask how long Liuhong knew Xiao Yanzi. She says they met seven years ago. It comes out that Xiao Gezi is 12 and one of them, maybe Xiaojian, is 15. They talk about their earlier experiences with Xiao Yanzi.
In scene 2, Erkang is sitting on the mountain in a pavilion. He has been looking for Xiaojian, whom he finds sitting there playing the flute. They talk about the carriage and the girls. Erkang argues with Xiaojian since he doesn’t seem to want to return to the carriage. Xiaojian says he can’t bear being around Yongqi. Erkang explains that Yongqi has a prickly personality that particularly comes out when it comes to Xiao Yanzi. Xiaojian says that he and Yongqi are enemies and could never be friends. Erkang asks Xiaojian if he likes Xiao Yanzi, but Xiaojian says he loves her a lot just the same way he loves Ziwei! It isn’t romantic. After that statement, Erkang convinces Xiaojian to return to the carriage with him, but they find it’s gone.
In the next few scenes, the carriage enters a forest of fruit-laden persimmons trees. When Xiao Yanzi sees them out of the carriage window, she calls to stop the carriage and has the girls get out with her so they can pick some of the fruit. However, a farmer’s wife catches them and scolds them, and Ziwei protests that they really didn’t intend to steal the persimmons and would pay for them. Meanwhile, Xiaojian and Erkang catch up to the carriage.
Scenes 5 and 6 shift back to Beijing. Noble Li returns to give a report on the kids’ whereabouts to the Emperor Qianlong and Concubine Ling. Qianlong is shocked to hear of the Fifth Prince and Princess Returning Pearl’s antics in public, and Concubine Ling asks if Noble Li saw this with his own eyes. When he says yes, Qianlong sends him back to Luoyang. He is particularly concerned to hear that Erkang was injured. Then Qianlong goes to the Empress’ pavilion to chat with her about the matter.
Chapter 54 has only 2 scenes, and it returns to Erkang, Yongqi and the rest of the group finally arriving in the city of Nanyang, a city not that far from Luoyang. Xiaojian has a friend here, and he goes to the He household to meet with him. He introduces the group to Elder Brother He, and they chat awhile. After they settle in at the house, Erkang asks Yongqi if the war between him and Xiaojian can end. Xiaojan comes in a few minutes later and joins the conversation, and things get a bit rowdy.
In scene 2, everyone is sitting in the small room listening to Xiaojian talk about his secret. He asks Xiao Yanzi if she remembers Baiyunguan, but she doesn’t. He says this was the name of the Buddhist nun who brought her up when she was a child in the convent. Xiao Yanzi says she remembers the convent but not the nun’s name. She remembers another woman named Jingzhi Shitai, which he recognizes, and this solidifies their bond as brother and sister. They decide they are truly related.
Xiaojian tells her about their father and mother, who are part of the jianghu life and were killed by the family’s enemies. Jianghu refers here to the martial arts community, and the reference shows up a lot in the Chinese martial arts genre. I should do some Jin Yong here at some point since he is the predominant martial arts author, and maybe I’ll think about adding him next year, but his writing is really dense and uses a lot of specialized written characters that sends me to obscure places to decode. But this jianghu connection is why Xiao Yanzi flies in this series. She’s involved in the martial arts where this is a normal experience.
Xiaojian and Xiao Yanzi talk about their family’s enemies and vengeance, which is another hugely important topic in East Asian culture generally, but Xiaojian says he has already gotten revenge upon them.
In chapter 55, the 4 scenes continue with this new
revelation of kinship. In the first section, Xiao Yanzi can’t sleep since she
is still marveling about having a real brother, and in the second section, Xiaojian
also can’t sleep. The next morning, he talks more with Xiao Yanzi on the
mountain about their parents. Their father’s name was Fang Tan, and he was a
talented scholar-warrior, but the details he gives about their mother are
scanter. Both parents are dead. Xiao Yanzi wants to know the names of their
enemies. They both are really excited at discovering they are related, and she
wants to study playing the xiao flute like Xiaojian does.
Everyone goes to Nanyang later that day. Xiao Yanzi gushes on and on to everyone about her brother and the fact she now has a real name, but the other girls in the group laugh and tell her they already heard this 300 times. Later they eat and drink together in a pavilion while Xiaojian plays the flute. The chapter closes with them going to the street in Nanyang to sell artwork or maybe it’s sell their performance services, I’m not sure which since the term is a little ambiguous, but it’s more of the same.
We’ll finish up the book next time.
Part one of a two part series.