Ming period Kunqu: the fully-blossomed romantic opera of the royal court appears
As an opera genre, kunqu (literally, "songs of kun", "kun" being the shortened form of "kunshan", where "shan" means "mountain") - also known as kunshanqiang - evolved as a refinement of the earlier kunshan diao theatre which had originated in Kunshan, near Shanghai, in the coastal province of Jiangsu. While nanxi and zaju had been more folk-oriented operas, that is, operas which received their impetus primarily from the bottom up, as it were, kunqu (pronounced "kwin chu") was more of a top-down inspired opera genre. That said, it would be unfair to compare kunqu with earlier forms of "opera" commissioned by the royal court.
Whereas earlier forms of song-and-dance exhibitions such as the Pear Garden "opera" troupe commissioned by Emperor Xuanzong (CE 712-755) of the Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty could be considered as somewhat effete royal demonstrations, far removed from the lives of ordinary people, the Chinese opera of the Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty - given the advancements of Chinese society away from its feudalistic past (there was a burgeoning administator and merchant class in China during the period) and given the special circumstances of the migration of massive numbers of Han Chinese peoples southwards as a consequence of warring in the north during the Jin Dynasty and in response to the comparatively harsh Mongol rule (compared to the previous rule) of the Yuan Dynasty - was something of a cultural renaissance for what was believed to be the cradle of Chinese culture, i.e., central China. It was in this much more complexly socially-stratified Chinese society - compared to the more feudalistic Chinese society of the Tang Dynasty - with its spirit of renewed hope and vitality, that the refined, scholarly-directed romantic drama of kunqu opera saw the light of day.*
A leading member of the culturati of the period, Wei Liangfu (1522-1573, circa), dramatist and author of the book, Rules for Kunqu Tunes, collaborated with a number of other dramatists to standardize the rules of rhyme, tone, pronunciation and notation of earlier forms of xiqu, from nanxi to kunshan diao, and in the process created the new romantic theatre that would be known thereafter as kunqu opera, although the performances were strictly intended for royal audiences. The most famous kunqu dramatist and playwright was Tang Xianzu (1550-1616), dubbed 'the Shakespeare of China' by later chroniclers of Chinese opera. Tang Xianzu refined the harmonic structure of the kunqu song style, rendering it even more "romantic", a feature that was especially popular with female members of the royal court.
So popular were the romantic musical arrangements of Tang Xianzu, in fact, that his style became the standard for romantic opera for generations to come. The romantic themes of kunqu opera, combined with kunqu's refined, classical language, its subdued dancing sequences and the restrained manner in which kunqu plots unfolded appealed especially to cultured audiences.
Kunqu opera became the dominant dramatic form throughout China, having spread, by the end of the 16th century, to the rest of China (kunqu, or kun, developed Northern Kun, Xiang Kun, Chuan Kun and Ning Kun branches as a sort of precursor to the later "schools" of Chinese opera), where it would remain the most prestigious form of Chinese drama for the next 200 years. It should be noted that kunqu remains alive and well in today's China (indeed, it is considered as the most sublime literary form of Chinese opera ever created, which automatically places kunqu in an elitist, non mass-consumption category), where it is performed in major theatres round about the country, including in Beijing, Shanghai, Suzhou, Nanjing, Chenzhou, Wenzhou and Hangzhou, as well as in the capital of Taiwan, Taipei.
* As indicated, some scholars of Chinese opera insist that kunqu was the first genuine xiqu, and indeed, the UNESCO Proclamation 2001 on Kunqu Opera, which recognizes kunqu as "one of the oldest forms of Chinese opera still performed today", though it stops short of claiming that kunqu is the original and first example of xiqu, suggests that kunqu is at least a valid competitor to that title.
A fully developed Chinese institution by the middle of the 19th century, with roots a century earlier in kunqu, Peking Opera becomes a thriving opera school throughout China>
An offshoot of kunqu opera introduced into the capital city of Peking (Beijing) in the middle of the 18th century by theatre troupes arriving there from Anhui Province farther to the south eventually developed into Peking Opera, having in the process absorbed influences from other local opera styles such as Hopeh, Shansi, and Wuhan on the one hand, and, on the other hand, having merged with the so-called Han opera from the Hanshui River area in Hubei Province, also newly arrived in Peking, during the Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty Emperor Qianlong's reign (1735-1796).
The melding of the Han opera with the offshoot kunqu opera was more than happenstance, however, as there had been many and frequent exchanges between the Hanshui and Anhui opera troupes prior to their meeting in Peking, therefore it was only natural that the newly arrived Han opera would join its old comrades from Anhui in a common cause, rather than establish a separate opera genre in the capital city. The new opera style was eventually known as ching hsi, or "capital (city) play", which is synonymous with "Peking Opera" in the English language. Its major tunes, the xipi and the erhuang, were borrowed from the Hanshui opera that had been absorbed into the new joint capital city opera.
Chinese opera in general had developed four main character types: the male (sheng), the female (dan), the painted face (jing), and the clown (chou). The jing was generally a male figure, typically a warrior, a statesman, an adventurer or a demon (as indicated, the difference in makeup, headdress and costume would identify the specific jing figure in question). Peking Opera scripts included passages for song, poetry, dance and allusive martial arts movements, all choreographed to the accompanying music. To aid the audience in navigating a play's storyline, Peking opera troupes made use of a series of conventions, or cues, whose complexly layered meanings were expressed in time with the accompanying music.
The costumes of the Peking Opera, at least those for court performances, were colorful and elaborate. The troupes which made up the Peking Opera in the capital city performed namely on the sly in local tea houses, though most likely not dressed in full regalia, as they often lacked adequate halls in which to rehearse their official performances. In this fashion, Peking Opera was introduced to ordinary people already at an early stage in its development, as those who frequented the tea houses in question began to appear specifically to see the troupes rehearse. The theatre troupes continued to earn their living solely via the income paid them by the royal palace, at least officially, though one naturally wonders whether some establishments, notably, those which changed from being simple tea houses to perhaps establishments serving alcoholic beverages as well as a solid meal, did not perhaps offer a compensation to the artists in question for "services rendered".
It was perhaps a not very well-kept secret that ordinary people were thus able to see theatrical performances intended for the royal palace. In any case, the practice was eventually accepted by the palace, and it may even have evolved into a commercial theatre in the sense that the public paid admission to see the regular performances, not just rehearsals, though no concrete evidence of this exists. One can also readily imagine that members of the royal circle who were highly appreciative of the performances of the opera troupes may have come to feel that part and parcel of the creativity of the artists in question was dependent on the troupes' interaction with a more ordinary public, who no doubt also appreciated these theatrical performances.
In general, Chinese society was evolving rapidly, with wealth and status being spread far and wide, not only in the capital city, since many purveyors to the royal court as well as administrators, scholars, artists and artisans, etc., were from the provinces, to which they eventually returned with their accumulated wealth. Indeed, as earlier mentioned the very artists who jointly formed the original Peking Opera were from two such provinces, namely, Anhui and it neighboring province, Hubei.
Peking Opera has continued up to this day, and is not likely ever to disappear, given its status as a standard-bearer for Chinese culture worldwide. Peking Opera has namely become an institution and a "school", or opera style, with a select few, albeit major, Chinese cities boasting their own "Peking Opera", such as the Tianjin Peking Opera Theatre and the Shanghai Peking Opera Theatre in mainland China, and the Taipei Li-Yuan Peking Opera Theatre on Taiwan. In addition, Peking Opera troupes exist in Japan and in the United States.
(To learn more about Peking/ Beijing Opera - specifically, the roles, the costumes, the music and the instruments used in the opera's lavish productions, as well as the opera's most famous actors and actresses down through history
Originally from Hubei province, Huangmei Opera is transformed in neighboring Anhui Province into a more standard opera, albeit, one with a distinctly non-mainstream style
Huangmei Opera started as a local song-and-dance repertoire in Huangmei County in the tea-growing region of Hubei Province (the same province that gave birth to the Han opera that would join forces with an offshoot kunqu opera group from Anhui Province, famously becoming the Peking Opera) known as Lanyang Plateau, and in roughly the same time period in which Peking Opera was born. The repertoire of Huangmei Opera consisted of the short ditties that were sung by local laborers as an accompaniment to tea picking ("caicha"), which is why Huangmei Opera was also known as "Caicha Opera".
The story goes that before the government of the People's Republic of China came to power, the rivers and lakes of many parts of China, including the region surrounding Huangmei, often burst their banks, causing widespread flooding. It was during one such flooding period that the Huangmei opera troupe ended up in neighboring Anhui Province, where it established itself as a new form of song-and-dance entertainment in the city of Anqing, the then capital of Anhui Privince, albeit, initially only during festivals and on other special occasions, but eventually developing into a somewhat more standard opera with more elaborate costumes and more polished roles for its actors, although, with respect to costumes and role types, Huangmei Opera cannot be compared to more traditional Chinese opera forms (and may not even qualify as xiqu).
The uniqueness of the early Huangmei Opera lay in the fact that its songs were very high-pitched - the singer quickly reached a high pitch and remained there for the duration - a feature which put exceptional demands on the performers, since not everyone is capable of such sustained, high-pitch performances. The uniqueness of Huangmei Opera's caicha tunes set this opera style distinctly apart from all other extant Chinese opera styles of the period. Huangmei Opera, like nanxi opera before it, was truly a folk opera, performed by and for ordinary people. The short operas often obliquely poked fun at the upper classes by portraying the "problems" faced by the privileged, which "problems" were of course of a completely different caliber than the stark, existential problems faced by ordinary people.
Huangmei Opera has continued to define itself in a separate category compared to mainstream Chinese opera. Accordingly, the "costumes" seen at Huangmei Opera performances today might resemble the everyday dress of a simple housewife, a factory worker, or a secretary. The emphasis is on the acting/ singing and the music - and here the genres are much more wide-ranging than in traditional Chinese opera - rather than on the visual impact. Moreover, during the first ever China Shakespeare Festival in 1986, the Anhui Provincial Huangmei Opera Troupe staged a Chinese adaptation of Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing.
China's youngest "old" opera, Yueju Opera becomes a fixture on China's cultural landscape, though Yueju Opera differs radically from all other Chinese opera forms
Yueju Opera (alternatively, Yue Opera) came into being in 1906 on the origins of a much older (800 years old, circa) opera tradition that called itself Luodi Changshu Diao and which was popular in the city of Shaoxing in present-day Shengzian County, Zhejiang Province (Luodi Changshu Diao is sometimes also referred to as Shaoxing Opera, and occasionally as Shaoxing Clapper Opera, due to the opera's use of sandalwood clappers, which, together with drums, created the original opera's simple "didu" music). The most impressive fact about Yue Opera is that it has become the second-largest opera form in China, after Peking Opera, though maintaining such a prominent position is a constant struggle.
Initially, Yueju Opera was composed of males only, i.e., all female roles were performed by males. Today, the inverse applies: Yueju Opera is composed strictly of females, with male roles being performed by females. The songs of Yueju Opera are soft and melodious, and delivered in a restrained, refined style. The opera, which continues to adapt to modern influences in order to remain relevant to its evolving audiences, reformed itself in the 1950s, incorporating elements of drama, kunqu, and even Western music.
The earlier sketchy plays which were only loosely constructed (the actors ad-libbed within the rough outline of the sketch) were replaced by standard plays with detailed scripts and with a director to manage the rehearsals and stage the finished product. In 1938 women actors replaced the all-male crew, and special costumes harking back to Chinese opera's traditional past were introduced, albeit, together with modern stage settings, lighting, and orchestral arrangements often played on Western musical instruments. All of these diverse initiatives have helped to make Yueju Opera popular with both Chinese audiences as well as with tourists and official visitiors.
As of 2005 there were 112 private Yueju opera troupes registered in Shengzhou, the original and current hometown of Yueju Opera. These troupes give some 36,000 performances each year, including road performances. However, it is generally recognized that if Yueju Opera had not left Shengzhou in search of work opportunites in nearby Shanghai, Yueju Opera would either have disappeared altogether, or would have been reduced to a small, countryside opera. The artistic challenges and opportunities that a major metropolis like Shanghai offered the Yueju opera troupes at the time transformed Yueju Opera into the vibrant and resilient opera form that lovers of Yueju Opera enjoy today.