Kunqu ?? is a highly classical form of Chinese opera, characterized by an elegant musical and performance style. Favored by the educated elite and the court, kunqu exerted a powerful influence on the history of Chinese theater. The last two centuries saw an overall decline in the performance of kungu, but it survives to this day, enjoying government and international support.

Kunqu, a regional operastyle, was the dramatic style of the educated elite from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Its music, delicate and usually in four-four time, is dominated by the large side-blown flute (dizi).

Originally an obscure music form, kunqu was fashioned into a body of elegant song by Wei Liangfu (c.1502–c.1588), whose disciple Liang Chenyu (1520–c.1593) wrote the first recognized kunqu drama. The initial home of kunqu was Suzhou and nearby Kunshan and Taicang, Jiangsu Province, but it spread widely, in particular to Beijing.

Kunqu spawned a significant literature, illustrated by three outstanding works. One is the love fantasy Peony Pavilion (Mudan ting) by China’s most famous playwright, Tang Xianzu (1550–1616). The Palace of Eternal Youth (Changsheng dian) by Hong Sheng (1645–1704) dramatizes historical events of the mid-eighth century, notably Emperor Xuanzong’s love affair with the famous beauty Yang Guifei. Peach Blossom Fan (Taohua shan) by Kong Shangren (1648–1718), a direct descendant of Confucius, also concerns historical events but in the context of a fictional love story. Because the events took place mainly from 1643 to 1645, within living memory, and portrayed the ruling Manchus negatively, Kong was dismissed from office, and the play never did as well as its masterwork status warranted.

The educated elite often purchased children, whom they trained as actors to form private troupes, some men taking actresses as concubines. The troupes performed for special occasions or for guests, especially during banquets, some mansions even having their own stage. Because the dramas were long, individual scenes were performed. Public professional kunqu troupes also existed, most of them all-male, although brothels could support female troupes. Records indicate that public performances of complete kunqu could last three days and nights.

Early in his reign the Qianlong emperor (1736–1795) set up a body at court to organize drama, mostly kunqu. The actors were initially court eunuchs, but when Qianlong made his first southern visit in 1751 he began to recruit actors from Jiangsu Province. Occasions for court drama included popular festivals or birthdays or weddings in the imperial family.

Kunqu influenced (and was also influenced by) Beijing Opera but declined in competition with this and other regional opera styles. The Taiping Rebellion (1851–1864) devastated the areas in which kunqu was especially popular, and consequently kunqu itself. The twentieth century featured several attempts to revive kunqu, but modernization and reform processes were inimical to this highly classical drama. In 1921 some enthusiastic amateurs set up a training school, but its impact did not survive the War of Resistance against Japan (1937–1945). The People’s Republic of China (founded in 1949) took over kunqu and established troupes and training schools. It gave patronage and encouragement to the greatest of twentieth-century kunqu actors and theorists, Yu Zhenfei (1902–1993), and reformed selected plays to conform to the government’s political canons. The Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) put an end to this revival attempt.

From Peony Pavilion

The first lines from one of the most famous examples of kunqu, The Peony Pavilion:

Prologue Speaker:

By busy world rejected, in my own world of

I pondered a hundred schemes

finding joy in none.

Daylong I polished verses for the bowels’

for the telling of “love, in all life hardest to

Dawns warmed and twilights shadowed my

White Camellia Hall

till “with red candle I welcomed friends”

—and always “the hills and streams raised
high my powers.”

Let me only keep faith with the history of
this longing,

of the road that led

through three incarnations to the peony

Source: Xianzu Tang, Birch, C., & Swatek, C.. (1980). The peony pavilion. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

The reform period since 1978 has included further efforts to resuscitate kunqu. In May 2001 the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recognized it as a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.” The Jiangsu Provincial Kunju Troupe (Jiangsu sheng Kunju yuan) was a main leader of performance revivals of classical masterworks, including a revised three-evening version of Peony Pavilion performed at the Beijing Music Festival in 2004 and a two-evening version of Peach Blossom Fan in 2006.

Further Reading

Birch, C. (1995). Scenes for mandarins: The elite theatre of the Ming. New York: Columbia University Press.

Lu, Tina. (2001). Persons, roles, and minds: Identity in Peony Pavilion and Peach Blossom Fan. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Shen, Guangren Grant. (2005). Elite theatre in Ming China, 1368–1644. London: Routledge.

Strassberg, R. E. (1983). The world of K’ung Shang-jen: A man of letters in early Ch’ing China. New York: Columbia University Press.

Swatek, C. C. (2002). Peony Pavilion onstage: Four centuries in the career of a Chinese drama. Ann Arbor, MI: Center for Chinese Studies.

Source: Mackerras, Colin (2009). Kunqu. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1259–1260. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Kunqu (K?nqu? ??)|Kunqu (K?nqu? ??)

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