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Kunqu Opera Culture


kunqu opera
The Actress of Kunqu Opera

Chinese culture can be systematically divided into two parts, the culture of southern China and the culture of northern China. It is specifically embodied in opera preferences. North China is the kingdom of Peking opera, and South China is the headquarters of Kunqu Opera. They are together influencing Chinese people. However, historically speaking, Kunqu Opera is one of the sources of Peking Opera, which currently boasts the National Essence. Mainstream of Chinese culture is originated from northern China, but in the aspect of opera, it is from south China without question. Kunqu opera is the No.1 among operas of China. Having a classic China tour without the enjoyment of Kunqu Opera, it will be not a satisfying one. Let us have a deeper understanding on Kunqu Opera.

Kunqu Opera is one of the oldest forms of opera still existing in China, with its origins dating back to the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368). It has distinguished itself by the virtuosity of its rhythmic patterns (changqiang) and has exerted a dominant influence on all the more recent forms of opera in China, including the Sichuan and Beijing operas. In 2001, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization) proclaimed Kunqu Opera as a masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of humanity (a UNESCO program that ensures that the best of every country's traditions is preserved and developed as well as made known to the outside world). Kunqu Opera traditionally performed with the traditional motions and the local accent and dialect of Suzhou. So most of Chinese people except the people of Jiangnan region hardly know what they perform. But this does not influence their appreciation at all.

History of Kunqu Opera

kunqu opera
The Actress of Kunqu Opera

Kunqu Opera, also called Kunshanqiang, is said to be the mother of all Chinese operas. Its beginnings can be traced to the late Yuan Dynasty, some 600 years ago, in the lower Yangtze River Delta (including today’s Shanghai, southeast part of Jiangsu Province and northern part of Zhejiang province). Among the earliest genres of drama, the traditional performing art was named for its birthplace, Kunshan, near the city of Suzhou in today's Jiangsu Province of East China. The development of Kunqu Opera music went through several stages. In the early days, the songs were composed of long and short lines. The singer sang solo, and the orchestra came in at the end of each line. In the course, only percussion instruments were used.

In the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), reformed by Wei Liangfu(魏良辅) during the reign of Emperor Jiajing, Kunqu Opera became mild, smooth, and graceful. The performers attached great importance to clear recitation, correct singing, and pure tunes. Meanwhile, the composers wrote the musical scores after working out the tunes, and the songs were written in seven-character or ten-character lines. Moreover, three types of musical instruments (stringed instruments, bamboo flutes, and drums and clappers) formed the accompaniment. In addition, the jing(净) and chou(丑) roles were no longer those exclusively portraying foolish, awkward, or stingy people.

Kunqu Opera is acknowledged as an elegant opera in terms of music, recitation, and the performers' movement. It is foremost acclaimed as "watermill song" because of its soft arias and the graceful movement of its performers. Carrying forward the tradition of ancient poetry and common speech, the art is also of very high literary value. Kunqu Opera has its own distinctive tunes. The orchestra consists of traditional instruments including the dizi, a horizontal bamboo flute which plays the lead part; the xiao, a vertical bamboo flute; the sheng, a mouth organ; and the pipa, a plucked string instrument with a fretted finger board. Many Chinese local operas are greatly influenced by its tunes and acting style. And the most classical representatives of Kunqu Opera include: The Peony Pavilion(牡丹亭), Fifteen Strings of Coins (Shiwu Guan,十五贯), Love at First Sight (Qiang Tou Ma Shang,墙头马上), Longevity Hall(Chang Sheng Dian,长生殿), Peach Blossom Fan(Tao Hua Shan,桃花扇), Story of Jade Hairpin(Yu Zan Ji,玉簪记) and Escorting Jingniang Home (Qianli Song Jingniang,千里送京娘).

The Elite Performance and Classic Cultural Embodiment - Risk of Disappearance

kunqu opera
The Actresses of Kunqu Opera

As the development of modern China, the multi-cultural orientation is more vivid, and the younger generations of China are crazy about the exotic culture and the short-life fashion. The western culture, especially the permanent influence of lifestyle and value of U.S.A, dominates the tendency of Chinese modern culture, plus the anti-traditionalism of the governmental policy which is also deeply controlled by Marxism, resulted in the failure of traditional succession. The textbooks and courses in schools and collected books in libraries are all westernized and under the guideline of political and ideological perspectives. The part of traditional education is decentralized and even ignored. In the early period of 1950s, even some socialistic experts appealed to cancel the usage of Chinese characters via the governmental powers. What’s worse, during the Cultural Revolution, the traditional culture of China was largely destroyed. 10-year destruction really stops the inheritance of tradition. The people born in late 70s and 80s are less educated with tradition, on the contrary, deeply influenced by the governmental propaganda. Many graduates of universities regretted select majors of liberal arts as their study. They believe what they learn on campus is twisted and wrong. Lots of mainland scholars insist that the traditional culture of China is in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore, while the mainland is the vacancy of tradition. This history and situation challenge the further existence or development of Kunqu opera, and cause the risk of disappearance of Kunqu Opera.

On the other hand, Kunqu Opera, acknowledged as an elite opera, has suffered some of a decline since the eighteenth century because it requires a high level of technical knowledge from the audience. Today’s people’s standard of appreciation is quite low or westernized. The difficulty to know the beauty of Kunqu opera is unavoidable. At present, it is facing competition from mass culture and a lack of interest amongst the young. Of the 400 arias regularly sung in opera performances in the mid-20th century, only a few dozen continue to be performed.

The Popularity of Peony Pavilion - The Rebirth of the Kunqu Opera

A young girl appears as soon as the first notes of music are heard. Draped in a richly embroidered costume, she performs graceful hand movements. The elegance of her gestures is enhanced by her long silk sleeves. Accompanied by a flute, she begins to sing and the audience holds its breath. The scene is an excerpt from The Peony Pavilion, written by Tang Xianzu(汤显祖) who lived in 16th century and is now known as "China's Shakespeare." Kunqu Opera is now becoming the object of renewed interest although it has long being threatened with extinction. Since 2001 when Kunqu Opera was proclaimed as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage, the traditional performing art has experienced a rebirth in the past few years. Four classical plays, including The Peony Pavilion, have been restored and updated.

kunqu opera peony pavilion
The Still of Peony Pavilion, the Classic Work of Kunqu Opera

Peony Pavilion(Mu Dan Ting, 牡丹亭)is the most famous masterpiece representative of Kunqu opera, one of Four Kunqu Classics, also famous as Four Dreams of Yuming Hall(玉茗堂四梦), and the other three are Cichai Ji(紫钗记), Handan Ji(邯郸记) and Nanke Ji(南柯记). It is a most famous play created by Tang Xianzu of Ming Dynasty. It is also an outstanding romantic work in history of opera. The Peony Pavilion tells the tragic tale of Du Liniang, who dreams during a walk in the park that she meets and falls in love with a young man. Unable to live her dream in reality, she falls mortally ill and, as she is dying, asks to be buried in the garden where she met her beloved. Later, Lui Mengmei, a student on his way to the capital, passes in front of Du Liniang's house and asks to spend the night there. As he sleeps, he dreams about the young girl. Revealing to him that he is the one her heart desires, she asks him to open her coffin. Liu Mengmei does so and Du Liniang comes back to life. Since 2004, this updated version of the play, produced by Bai Xianyong(白先勇), the song of Bai Chongxi(白崇禧, the famous general in the period of the Republic of China) and one of China's best-known contemporary authors, has been staged in a dozen universities in China. Teachers and students can buy tickets for as little as 10 Yuan (US$1.23). Each time the performance attracts a large audience who praises the opera as being very sweet, graceful, and profoundly touching.

Fifteen Strings of Bronze Coin Cash(十五贯) is a representative detective story in the repertoire of Kunqu Opera, which narrates how an official with a high sense of responsibility comes upon a queer case and unravels it through conscientious efforts. With lively enthralling plots, the drama appeals greatly to the ordinary audience in China. Peony Pavilion is a representative love story in the repertoire of Kunqu Opera, which tells of how a couple of young lovers die for love and miraculously come back to life for the simple reason of love. This drama has been favored by the literati and young lovers in China.

Taiwan film director Yang Fan applied Kunqu Opera to the film Peony Pavilion, whose leading actress Rie Miyazawa won the best leading actress for this film at the Moscow Film Festival. With a gather-together of quite a few celebrated contemporary opera performers in China, the film can claim to be an artwork. No efforts were spared in its art design, with as many as 250 embroidered costumes and over two million Yuan's worth of curio clothing and cheongsam. Probing the relationship between human life and opera, the film The Night Runner explores Chinese people's passionate love from the perspective of opera.

The Opera Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Arts maintains a rich collection of written and audiovisual resources and conducts research into a wide range of areas. The State funds seven permanent theaters, which specialize in Kunqu Opera and encompass a total of 500 practitioners. Two of these theaters also offer classes. The action plan aims to publish a complete edition of the texts of Kunqu Operas since the Ming era, to produce an archive of the expertise of elderly actors through video recordings and to revive those plays which have not been performed for a considerable time. Furthermore, the actors training program needs to be strengthened to allow an intake of around 10 students per year and to be widened to incorporate training for technical experts, researchers, and directors.

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Editor: Julius from Mildchina
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