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THE PURPLE HAIRPIN

紫釵記

Story by Tewfic El-Sawy July 25th, 2017

There are more than 300 genres, or performing styles, in Chinese opera, but only three are on Unesco’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity: Kunqu, Peking Opera and Cantonese Opera.

The Beijing Opera, also known as Peking Opera (Jing Ju), is regarded as the standard opera of China. There's also the Cantonese Opera, (known as Yue Ju) and that's performed in Cantonese; the Sichuan Opera which is also widely known in mainland China and is delivered in Mandarin; the Ping Opera (Ping Ju) which is easy for the audience to understand, and thus popular with rural communities and especially where people are not well educated. There's also the Henan Opera (Yu Ju), the Qinqiang Opera, the Kunqu Opera and the Huangmei Opera.

The Legend of the Purple Hairpin was written by Tang Xianzu (1550 –1616), a Chinese playwright and dramatist of the Ming dynasty. The dramatist’s four masterpieces – The Peony Pavilion, The Legend of the Purple Hairpin, The Story of Handan and The Dream of Nanke – are collectively known as The Four Dreams of Yuming Tang, and are still staged regularly by operatic troupes today.

The Legend of the Purple Hairpin: In the Tang Dynasty, a young scholar, Li Yi, is told that a pretty young woman admires his poetry. She is a courtesan named Huo Xiaoyu. On the evening of the Lantern Festival, he picks up a purple hairpin that belongs to Huo Xiaoyu, who falls in love with him at first sight, and gives him the hairpin. They hold an informal wedding on that same evening.

However, a high court official’s daughter has a chance meeting with Li Yi on the night of the Lantern Festival and she too falls in love with him. She begs her father to arrange a marriage, so she can marry Li Yi however the latter refuses. The father, Official Lo, then sends Li Yi to the frontier as punishment.

In Li Y's absence, Xiaoyu’s livelihood becomes harder as days go by. She stops being a courtesan after the marriage, so she has to rely on pawning her jewelry to support her family, including her purple hairpin. When Li Yi returns from his frontier posting, Official Lo detains him in his house in order to force him to marry his daughter. The hairpin is bought by the Lo family for their daughter’s wedding to Li Yi.

Xiaoyu is eventually helped by the yellow-robed the Fourth Prince who is under the Emperor’s instructions to investigate Official Lo for treason, and arrests him. Li Yi’s and Xiaoyu’s mutual love for each other are rewarded, and they are able to be formally married.

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Footnote: Photographs © Tewfic El-Sawy, The Travel Photographer. All Rights Reserved. X-Pro2 + Fujinon 18mm-135mm.
Chinatown, New York, NY, United States