This was the first screen dramatization of a famous legal case commonly referred to as "Yang Naiwu and Xiao Baicai," a notorious case of injustice in the waning years of the Qing (Manchu) dynasty. It is listed by Chinese historians as one of the four great criminal cases of the last imperial dynasty, and regarded as symbolic of the corruption that contributed greatly to the once-powerful dynasty's eventual fall. The case has been dramatized in several other forms, particularly operatic productions but also in several Hong Kong and Singapore film versions. In addition to "Yang Naiwu," these subsequent versions used the English titles "The Adulteress," "Yang Naiwu and Little Cabbage" and "The Scholar and the Serving Maid."
Yang Naiwu (1930) I-III 杨乃武 (Yang Naiwu, pts.1-3)
Tianyi. B&W. Silent. 27 reels total. Direction and Screenplay: Qiu Qixiang. Cinematography: Zhou Shimu. Art design: Wu Yonggang, Maxu Weibang. Cast: Chen Yumei (Bi Xiugu), Sun Min (Yang Naiwu), Zhang Zhenduo, Lu Jianfen.
Although she came from obscurity, Bi Xiugu (1855-1930) became a legendary figure in Chinese drama and fiction. A native of Yuhang County in Zhejiang Province, she was an attractive girl who often wore a green dress with a white apron, which gained her the nickname "Xiao Baicai" (Little Cabbage) after the green and white Chinese vegetable known in the West as "Bok Choy" (Cantonese for "Baicai"). She gained a reputation in her teens as a seductive woman without a high degree of moral scruples. In 1872 she married a man from her county named Ge Pilian (? - 1873), a humble worker in a bean curd factory, work which often kept him away from home working long hours, although he was often in ill health. The neglected young wife's charms and easy virtue gained her numerous handsome and wealthier admirers, among them a young man named Yang Naiwu (1841-1914), a scholar who had already earned a reputation for his skill at writing legal documents. Yang had a wife, but planned to make Bi Xiugu his concubine when he passed his degree exams, which would entitle him to an official position at the provincial level.
But Bi Xiugu had other influential admirers, including the son of Liu Xitong, the county magistrate, as well as the county's official scribe, and a constable, relatively low in rank but still possessed of the power that comes with police authority. So when Yang Naiwu received his degree in 1873 and sought Bi Xiugu as his concubine, the woman's other suitors were outraged. At this time, her overworked and sickly husband had fallen ill, and was bedridden. Bi asked Yang to examine her husband, and after doing so he gave the woman some fruits stuffed with raw opium, saying by eating them the sick man would soon recover. But when Ge Pilian ate them, he immediately began to secrete black fluid from his nose and mouth and died. His mother demanded the authorities investigate, believing he had been poisoned.
County magistrate Liu Xitong examined the corpse and also had his son conduct a private investigation. After consulting the county physician, the scribe and the constable, Liu imprisoned the two and charged them with murder. He also ordered the coroner to alter the death report to say the deceased had "bleeding from all seven apertures in the head," and moreover pressured the local medicine shop to give false testimony that Yang Naiwu had bought arsenic there.
So Yang and Bi were convicted with tampered evidence and false witnesses. Both were sentenced to death by beheading. But as usual in capital convictions, the case was sent to the next level of government - the prefecture - and then to the provincial governor. When neither found any problem with the decision, Yang's wife Yang Mei appealed on the basis of the accused having confessed under torture. Meanwhile, details of the case were leaking, leading to public indignation. One after another of Zhejiang province's gentry and officials began speaking out.
At last, the Empress Dowager Ci Xi personally intervened and ordered two officials in the Ministry of Justice in the imperial capital to assume charge of the case. These men ordered that the two accused and the evidence against them be brought to the capital for a new trial to be held jointly by the Ministry and two other judicial bodies. In January, 1877 the two accused, the witnesses, and Ge Pilian's coffin finally reached the capital and the trial began. The coffin was opened for an autopsy which concluded the death was not caused by arsenic, but by an illness, most likely cholera. Employees from the medicine shop confessed that the county magistrate had pressured them to perjure themselves. Now, with all previous evidence and testimony discredited, the imperial authorities probed further and in January 1878 the verdict was reversed and Yang Naiwu and Bi Xiugu acquitted. Subsequent investigation of everyone involved (more than 300 officials at various levels of government) resulted in dismissal or banishment into exile for over 30 of them, and over 150 receiving reprimands that meant their careers would see no further promotions in rank.
Abandoning all his earlier dreams of an official career, Yang Naiwu returned home and joined his father's sericulture business, producing silkworms. He died in September, 1914.
After her release, Bi Xiugu returned home, but was so disillusioned by the experience (she had been subjected to brutal torture while in detention) she turned her back on the world and became a Buddhist nun, spending the rest of her life in repentance. She died in 1930.