Kunqu Now, Then and Forever

June 7, 2010
Editor: zhuhong

Kunqu, also known as Kunju, Kun opera and Kunqu Opera, is one of the oldest extant forms of Chinese Opera. Kunqu's 600-year history has given rise to the epithet, Mother of One Hundred Operas.

The author of the Kunqu play, Two Belles in Love performed at Beijing's Poly Theatre from May 11 to 14, is Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) playwright Li Yu. As the title suggests, the play is the love story of two women, a theme controversial enough to keep it from being staged for 350 years. Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan, noted for his melancholy films about women and gay love, brought Two Belles in Love to the Poly Theatre. He invited sociologist and sexologist at the Academy of Social Sciences Li Yinhe to be cultural consultant and Guo Pei, costume designer of China's Spring Festival Gala, to design the costumes. These well-known figures have magnetized public and media attention on the production.

The Two Belles in Love billboard[sohu.com]
The Two Belles in Love billboard[sohu.com]
The play has won both applause and criticism. The latter say the play fails to uphold the aesthetic traditions of Kunqu, the former that it is innovative and in tune with the times. We take a retrospective look at major Kunqu plays and performers over the centuries and let you, the reader, decide whether a contemporary production lives up to the Kunqu tradition.

Kunqu Classics

The Palace of Eternal Youth

The historical opera, The Palace of Eternal Youth, written by Hong Sheng (1645-1704) in the 27th year of Emperor Kangxi's reign (1688), is one of the most important items of classic Kunqu repertoire.
It tells the love story, told for generations, of Tang Emperor Li Longji (reigned 712-756) and his concubine Yang Yuhuan. Hong Sheng's telling of the story of the emperor and his concubine who wished to be "two love-birds flying wing to wing, and on earth two trees with branches twined from spring to spring" fuses dreams and reality. It also reflects the machinations and intrigues within and outside the Tang court, the joys and sorrows of the people and the rise and decline of the country at that time.

Hong Sheng is one of China's most famous playwrights. He was born in 1645 in a shack outside Hangzhou City. His The Palace of Eternal Youth and the play, The Peony Pavilion by accomplished Ming Dynasty playwright Tang Xianzu (1550-1616) are regarded as Kunqu masterpieces. In 2004, Taiwanese investors staged a revival of the two classics so that contemporary Chinese audiences might witness the cream of ancient Chinese theatre.

The Peony Pavilion
The play tells the love story of Du Liniang and Liu Mengmei. Its original text also contains subplots pertaining to faltering Song Dynasty defense against Jin Dynasty aggressions.
The plot unfolds during the last days of the Southern Song Dynasty. Du Liniang is the sixteen-year-old daughter of an important official, Du Bao. One fine spring day her maid persuades Du to take a break from her studies and go for a walk in the garden. Du heeds her maid's advice and, after sitting down to rest, falls asleep. She dreams of meeting a young scholar, later identified in the play as Liu Mengmei, of his bold advances and the passion that blooms between them. According to her soliloquy in a later act recounting the incident, Reflection on the Lost Dream, a petal falling on her face interrupts Du's slumbers, but it is actually her mother who wakes her. Du Liniang is obsessed with the intense, albeit dreamed affair, and lovesickness rapidly consumes her. Unable to overcome her fixation, she wastes away and dies.
The King of the Underworld rules that marriage between Du Liniang and Liu Mengmei is predestined and that Du Liniang should return to the earthly world. Du Liniang appears in a dream to Liu Mengmei, now resident in the garden where Du Liniang had her fatal dream. Once he sees that Du Bao's deceased daughter is the woman of his dreams, Liu agrees to her request to exhume her body, and Du comes back to life. Liu tells Du Bao of his daughter's resurrection, but Du Bao does not believe him and has Liu arrested as a grave robber and impostor. The ending follows the formula of many Chinese dramas. Thanks to news of the results of the imperial examination in which Liu comes top in the whole province, he narrowly escapes death by torture, and the emperor grants him a pardon.

Master Performers

Mei Lanfang

Méi was born in Taizhou in east China's Jiangsu Province in 1894 to a family of Beijing Opera and Kunqu performers. He made his stage debut in a Kunqu play at the Guanghe Theatre in 1904 at the age of 11. In his 50-year stage career, Mei maintained strong continuity while constantly working on new techniques. His roles as dan, or female characters, won him international acclaim. His smooth, perfectly timed, poised style came to be known in opera circles as the Méi School. He was also instrumental in carrying on the performance tradition of Kunqu. He received particular acclaim for his interpretations of Du Liniang  in The Peony Pavilion and Bái Sùzhēn in Leifeng Pagoda. His role as Beauty Yu, which deeply moved all that saw him perform it, is regarded by many as his finest ever.

Mei Lanfang in the role of Du Liniang. [cich.org.cn]
The Imperial Japanese Army occupied Beijing after the Marco Polo Bridge Incident of July 1937, The commander of the Japanese Army ordered Mei to perform for army officers, and appointed him to a high ranking official position. But Mei refused to sing throughout the duration of the war and endured an impoverished lifestyle until the war ended in 1945.

Méi was the first artist to take Beijing Opera overseas, having taken part in cultural exchanges with Japan, the United States, and other countries. He toured the world, forming friendships with western contemporaries of his day, including Charlie Chaplin. During his visit to Hollywood, he was also welcomed by Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.

After 1949, Mei served as director of China Beijing Opera Theatre, director of the Chinese Opera Research Institute, and vice-chairman of China Federation of Literary and Art Circles. Besides his autobiography, Forty Years of Life on the Stage, several of his articles and essays have been published in The Collected Works of Mei Lanfang. Recordings of his best-known performances are published in A Selection of Beijing Operas Performed by Mei Lanfang. In 2000, his life story was filmed in a documentary entitled The Worlds of Mei Lanfang. Acclaimed director Chen Kaige directed Forever Enthralled, a film biography of Mei's life, released in December 2008.

Mei Lanfang (October 22, 1894 – August 8, 1961) was one of the most famous Peking opera artists in modern history, best known for his qingyi roles as young or middle-aged women. His born name was Méi Lán. He, Shang Xiaoyun, Cheng Yanqiu and Xun Huisheng were the Four Great Dan of the golden era of Peking Opera.

Ke Jun

Ke Jun is dean of the Suzhou Kunqu Opera Theatre of East China's Jiangsu Province. He initiated New Concept Kunqu. He has won the Plum Blossom Award and the Wenhua Award, both considered accolades in the world of Chinese opera. Performances that combine grace and exquisite vocals have made him known as the Kunqu Prince. His experimental plays have been shown in countries and regions such as South Korea, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Japan, India, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. One of his team members is a Harvard graduate, responsible for translating lyrics into English. He says of Kunqu, once you fall in love with it, Kunqu is with you forever.

Kenneth Hsien-yung Pai

Hsien-yung Pai is a writer from Taiwan, but has long been closely involved with Kunqu. He refers to himself as a volunteer Kunqu worker. Thanks to his efforts, the classic play The Peony Pavilion was staged in Taipei in 1992 by performers across the Taiwan Straits. It sparked Kunqu fever in Taiwan. In 1994 Pai adapted this great play to the international stage. In 2009, in cooperation with Peking University, he launched his Inheriting Kunqu program, dedicated to nurturing inheritors of Kunqu and its culture. Pai fell in love with Kunqu when he was nine years old. Now 73, he is as passionate about this refined performing art as ever. Pai once said, "Through Kunqu, you can know how ancient Chinese people appreciated beauty. Beauty is a force of redemption. There is hope for a nation that loves beauty."

Kunqu Prospects

No opera in the history of Chinese theatre has had the impact of Kunqu, which was the toast of the nation for two centuries. The 17th and 18th centuries could be called China's Kunqu epoch.

Kunqu was the only opera school to appear in the top listing of the first batch of UNESCO representative works of Human Verbal and Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Whether or not Kunqu performers and lovers are willing to admit it, however, the Mother of One hundred operas is in trouble. China is quickly modernizing, and far fewer people, especially the young, have the time to stop and listen to a Kunqu refrain or ponder on the profundity of its lyrics. Compared with its past glory, Kunqu is now the reserve of a select few.

But thanks to the efforts of people like Hsien-yung Pai, a Kunqu revival is going on in China and its outlook seems brighter. But younger people – both as performers as well as in the audience -- need to be drawn under the Kunqu spell to renew its vitality. At a time when Chinese culture is battling to hold its own against that of the West, Kunqu as "best of the best" is testament to the uniqueness of China and its culture.

A Taste of Kunqu

Kunqu combines the arts of music, dance and literature. Below are a few sources through which to sample the delights of the Mother of all Dramas.

The Peony Pavilion  

The Peony Pavilion billboard[sohu.com]
The background music to this film adaptation of the play into a modern tale set south of the Yangtze River is Kunqu and the mood of the film is, like Kunqu, slow and lingering. It whets the appetite for more.

Director: Yang Fan
Starring: Joey Wong, Rie Miyazawa, Daniel Wu

Kunqu: From This Life to the Previous Life

Kunqu lover and author Guo Chenzi gives an account in this four-part book of the development history of Kunqu. It includes several classic plays and talks about the outlook of Kunqu.

Author: Guo Chenzi

Suzhou Kunqu Museum, Jiangsu Province

The museum stages classic Kunqu plays every Sunday afternoon at two o'clock. It also holds Kunqu classes taught by famous Kunqu performers which are open to the general public.
Address: No.14, Zhongzhangjia Alley, Suzhou, Jiangsu Province

Kunqu originates in Suzhou, whose ambience could be compared to the Kunqu temperament, or vice versa. The feeling in Suzhou of calm contentment is deeply embedded in its gardens, crafts and opera. If you come to Suzhou, you can visit the Humble Administrator's Garden (Zhuaozhengyuan) and listen to Kunqu refrains while enjoying the scenery and a cup of tea. Apart from listening to Kunqu in fragrant gardens, you can also see famous Suzhou embroidery, fans, jade carvings and listen to Pingtan -- traditional Chinese storytelling and ballad singing. All of this will help you better understand and appreciate Suzhou and Kunqu.  

(Translated by womenofchina.cn)

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