Our story begins in a small fishing village in China. The Villagers are in the midst of celebrating the New Year when they are interrupted by the beautiful song of the Nightingale. Po, a village elder and wise woman, welcomes the bird and her beautiful song. The Nightingale finds Mei, a shy village girl, and immediately identifies with her. We learn from Po that Mei has been "blessed by the Beast of the White Marsh," giving her the power to interpret the Nightingale’s song. In 15 days the New Year's Celebration culminates with the Lantern Festival, and it is critical that the Emperor sing to assure China's prosperity. The Emperor is very ill however and can hardly draw breath. Po decides that Mei must travel to the Emperor with the Nightingale, hoping that the joy of her song will ease his burden and make him able to sing at the Lantern Festival. Reluctantly the shy Mei agrees to her mission.
We arrive at the Emperor's Palace and meet the Music Master and his Choir (five marionettes operated by one actor). They are busy in rehearsal for the "Presentation of the Gifts" a ceremony where each territory of China presents the best of its individual region as a gift in appreciation of the Emperor's leadership. The Emperor enters with much pomp, and after consulting with the Music Master on the state of the nation, the presentation commences and is constantly interrupted by Sying, the operatic Diva of the Choir. At the conclusion of the ceremony the Emperor is just about to give the Music Master a gift of his own in appreciation when he hears the song of the Nightingale. Mei enters and meekly begs forgiveness for the interruption. The Emperor allows the Nightingale to enter and is immediately touched by the Nightingale’s song and finds he is able to breathe more freely. He decides to keep the Nightingale and Mei at the palace to help ease his burden. Mei however steps forward and tells the Emperor that "the Nightingale cannot stay here with her wings all but clipped." Furious, the Emperor imprisons both Mei and the Nightingtale.
The Music Master is humiliated that he will be the first Music Master in China's history to be replaced by a bird. In a humorous song the Music Master and the Choir revisit China's long succession of dynasties and confirm that in all of its rich history, no Music Master has ever been replaced by a bird! Not one to back down, the Music Master decides to create a present of his own to give the Emperor as revenge for his humiliation.
At the beginning of the next scene we are in the midst of the Dragon Parade, and the Emperor once again captures the sun, assuring China of a lucky and prosperous New Year. The Nightingale enters attached to Mei by means of silk ribbons, prisoners of the court. They perform a beautifully haunting duet, touching the Emperor deeply. The Music Master intervenes and introduces his gift, a mechanical Jade Bird that is beautiful to look at and always sings the same tune without variation.
Impressed, the Emperor becomes enchanted with the Jade Bird and asks that the Jade Bird and Nightingale performs a duet together. The Nightingale asks to be freed from her silk fetters in order to perform with the Jade Bird. This duet is a disaster, and while the Jade Bird performs again, the Music Master and Choir use the distraction to push the Nightingale out of the palace. Mei, seeing this as the best choice to assure the Nightingale's freedom, willingly says goodbye. After learning that the Nightingale is gone, the Emperor begins to have a seizure while the Music Master intervenes and bans Mei from the Lantern Festival for her part in the escape.
After a long day working in the palace kitchens, Mei returns to the village and is greeted by Po and her brother Chung, who are waiting up for her. Mei is disheartened by the Emperor's health, and Po asks Mei what he needs most. Mei says "Bi xi" (breath). Po suggests that she light a Fu (a Taoist practice where a wish is written on a piece of paper and then thrown into a fire in hopes of heaven answering the wish). Mei, Po and Chung each make their wishes and throw them into the fire; eventually the entire village enters and also makes their wishes supporting Mei in her quest. At the end of the scene the Nightingale's song is heard, letting Mei know that the bird is very close and will help Mei save the Emperor.
A very weak Emperor enters and attempts to sing the Lantern Festival song and is far too weak to do so. The Music Master suggests that they rehearse a portion of the song involving the Jade Bird. The Jade Bird knocks over the Emperor, and he collapses. Mei, Po and Chung enter and assist the Emperor, and he realizes how much he needs and misses the Nightingale. He took away from her the very thing he most needs himself—freedom. He apologizes and realizes that everyone should be free to make their own choices, "to live their own individual life." Mei summons the Nightingale back, and she joins the Emperor to help him sing the Lantern Festival Song, welcoming the New Year.