Kun Opera: Origin of chinese operas

UNESCO's List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

Kun opera originated in Kunshan, Jiangsu Province more than 600 years ago. It is called the “Forefather of a Hundred Operas”, as it has deeply influenced many other regional Chinese operas. Kun opera, ancient Greek drama, and India’s Sanskrit opera are considered the world’s three greatest ancient operas.

Kun opera
Du Liniang in Peony Pavilion “arrives at” the 2010 CCTV Spring Festival opera gala.

Confucius Institute Reporter
Cheng Ye
本刊记者 程也
On the stage, a young woman walks gracefully in mincing steps. An elegant stroke of her hand smoothes her beautiful hair, rustling the strings of pearls and flowers adorning the hair, like the spring breezes caressing blossoming twigs. She faces the audience and softly sings her yearnings for romantic love. With the melodious flute, the watery flow of her long sleeves, and her lingering plaintive voice that expresses exquisite, touching poetry, the audience is utterly captivated.

Kun opera originated in Kunshan, Jiangsu Province more than 600 years ago. It is called the “Forefather of a Hundred Operas”, as it has deeply influenced many other regional Chinese operas. Kun opera, ancient Greek drama, and India’s Sanskrit opera are considered the world’s three greatest ancient operas.

Kun opera
Stage photo of Hero Guilt which is the first newly created opera receiving great support from Chinese Kun Opera Art Protection Project

Although operas in different regions of China have their own distinct melodies, they fall into two general categories: southern and northern. Kun opera took its elementary form in the hands of Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) drama musician Wei Liangfu, who, combining the melodious softness of southern opera with the lofty rigor of northern opera, created an exquisitely elegant “water mill melody” based on the Kunshan melody that was popular in the Kunshan area.

Kun opera troupes toured extensively and by the end of the reign of Ming Dynasty’s Wanli Emperor (1620), Kun opera had entered Beijing and Hunan by the way of Yangzhou, quickly becoming the most popular opera in the country. In its repertoire was Tang Xianzu’s representative work The Peony Pavilion, a romantic masterpiece in the history of drama that is still performed today. Some of its acts, including “Prankish Chunxiang at School” and “A Walk in the Garden and an Interrupted Dream” are classical segments frequently performed.

Kun opera became a national opera when it entered Sichuan, Guizhou and Guangdong Provinces. As various local dialects and folk music are incorporated, Kun opera branched into numerous schools, becoming a Kun opera family dazzlingly varied and highly representative of Chinese opera.

Kun opera

During China’s Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368-1911), Kun opera was a national fascination. Captivated by the melodious flute, people from all walks of life loved seeing and singing Kun opera. They could sing along, just as we do with a popular song of today as soon as we hear someone singing it. When men of letters gathered, they would hold a folding fan and sing an act. Cart drivers and porters, too, would sing a few lines when they were not very busy.

Although its aesthetic taste has obvious southern characteristics, Kun opera does not belong to just one region or one period; instead, it embodies the traditional philosophies, aesthetic pursuit, and artistic creation of the literary intelligentsia of all of China. The handsome scholars and beautiful ladies, the sorrows and joys, and the partings and reunions on the opera stage speak of a traditional spirit deeply rooted in the Chinese character. In 2001, China’s Kun opera was among the first in the world to be proclaimed by UNESCO as “Representative of Oral and Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity”.

Considered in China a highly refined form of music, Kun opera is still popular, yet it has a limited number of fans. Through its long history, it has been perfected almost to a realm of sublimity, and countless souls through the generations, both on the stage and in the audience, have lived and died with it. However, the slowness of its rhythm and the highbrow nature of its lyrics have made Kun opera less popular in modern society. Cai Zhengren, National First-Class Performer and former Director of the Shanghai Kun Opera Troupe, said: “Just like the line from ‘A Walk in the Garden’ in The Peony Pavilion, ‘Had I not come to the garden, how would I have known that there is already such spring scenery? Now I see that deep purples and bright reds are everywhere’, if you have never seen Kun opera you have little appreciation of it; it’s only after you have seen it that you can really have a deep understanding of it.”

Kun opera

Every weekend, Cheng Yijun, a young Suzhou girl, finishes her homework early and goes to the Suzhou Kun Opera Theatre, where she immerses herself in Kun opera for the rest of the day. “Threads of silk come with the wind, into the courtyard where I stroll with peace in my heart. O, threads of spring, how you ripple my heart…”, sings the pigtailed second grader, in a melodious voice, at a measured pace, and with graceful movements. Today, people are looking at Kun opera in new ways. Attention is coming from connoisseurs as well as the curious, from young people with dark eyes and black hair as well as foreign friends with blue eyes and blond hair. Many, who used to be unappreciative of Kun opera because they didn’t understand it, have taken a deep interest after seeing it. Some, like the eight-year-old Cheng Yijun, have started to enjoy Kun opera, reveling in learning to perform it.

In its own unique ways, Kun opera touches those who have the chance to experience it, be they old or young, Chinese or foreigners.

Kun opera
The performers are applying makeup before the performance.

In 2006, Kun opera The Peony Pavilion went on tour to the west coast of the United States, giving 12 public performances to packed audiences who showed unprecedented enthusiasm. There was a tidal wave of favorable reviews in all the major newspapers. In 2008, The Peony Pavilion went to the UK. Many in the audience were moved to tears during the performance! With a long tradition of seeing operas, the British audience is naturally not easy to please. However, the youthful version of The Peony Pavilion became a major “cultural phenomenon” in London. After seeing the opera, an Oxford University professor said that he had found one more reason to justify his life-long devotion to the study of Chinese civilization. Advanced in years, Professor Hawkes is an eminent sinologist in the UK. On the day of the performance, he traveled to London by train together with two other top scholars of Oxford University’s Center of Chinese Studies. He said that they had to see it because, “even Dream of the Red Chamber has The Peony Pavilion in it!” According to opera reviewer David Dougill, The Peony Pavilion dance movements are “sweet and stately: simple, elegant measures making expressive use of long sleeves”.

While more and more Kun opera performances are given overseas, there are also many students who come to China to learn this art. The wives of some foreign diplomats in China learn Kun opera as a way to understand and experience Chinese culture. Kun opera, a flower of Chinese culture that used to dazzle the entire country, is gaining appreciative followers again.

More about Chinese Opera in ConfuciusMag


Confucius Magazine 15

pdfPublished in Confucius Institute Magazine
Magazine 15. Volume 4. July 2011.
View/Download the print issue in PDF

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