Kunqu Opera

Written by ivana Updated Nov. 6, 2023

Kunqu Opera, formerly known as "Kunshan Tone" (or "Kun Tone" for short), is one of the oldest forms of Chinese opera and is often referred to as the "ancestor of all operas". Kunqu Opera is characterized by its singing rhythm controlled by drums and wooden clappers, with accompaniment primarily by bamboo flute and the three-stringed instrument. Its vocal system follows the "Zhongzhou Rhyme".

The literature of Kunqu Opera inherits the traditions of Tang poetry, Song lyrics, and Yuan songs, making it an important vessel of Chinese art and culture. In 2001, Kunqu Opera was declared a "Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity" by UNESCO. It was included in the "Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity" in 2008.

Kunqu Opera

Origin of Kunqu Opera

From the end of the Yuan Dynasty and the beginning of the Ming Dynasty, the opera world underwent a drastic change, with the rise of the Kunshan accent, which was largely due to the reform of a folk musician named Wei Liangfu(魏良辅). This reform had five main aspects:

Types of Roles in Kunqu Opera

Different types of roles in Kunqu Opera have their special performing movements, languages, skills, and procedures, which play a very important part in portraying the personalities and mental states of the characters as well as dramatizing the plot and elevating the appeal of the opera.

As a result, the intact and unique performing system of Kunqu Opera has been formed.

Classic Collections

There are many classic works of Kun Opera, and the following two mentioned stand still regardless of dynasties' wax and wane. 

The Peony Pavilion

It is the crowning achievement of Tang Xianzu's opera writing. The story of The Peony Pavilion is based on novels and folklore from different generations. 

This opera is about Du Liniang, the beloved daughter of Du Bao, the governor of Nan'an during the Southern Song Dynasty, who had been living in seclusion in her boudoir for a long time, and one day entered the back garden under the guidance of a maid and a teaser. The natural scenery of spring awakens Du Liniang's passionate yearning for a beautiful love.

In her dream, she meets a talented man under a plum tree by the Peony Pavilion. Afterward, Du Liniang became sick with grief and fell ill. On her deathbed, she asked her maid to hide her self-portrait. Three years later, a scholar picks up the self-portrait and meets Du Liniang's ghost, and a human-ghost romance ensues, with the ghost taking it upon himself to marry.

At that time, marriage was a parental order. Du Bao did not believe in his "resurrected" daughter, let alone admit that she had married on her own initiative. It was only when the emperor gave the order that he reluctantly recognized the love affair.

The Peony Pavilion was originally a long work with fifty-five acts. There are many versions of The Peony Pavilion performed by contemporary Kunqu troupes, and it is still an ever-expanding repertoire of Kunqu, which shines on stages at home and abroad.

Romance of the Western Chamber

The "Romance of West Chamber" is a drama adapted by Tian Han from the Yuan Dynasty playwright Wang Shifu's "Cui Yingying Waiting for the Moon at the West Chamber". In the history of world culture, Wang Shifu is a great writer comparable to Dante of Italy.

This play tells the story of the courageous union that dared to break free from the bondage of feudal etiquette, expressing people's dissatisfaction with the feudal marriage system and their pursuit of beautiful love. The "Romance of West Chamber" tells a story of the courageous union that dared to break free from the bondage of feudal etiquette, expressing people's dissatisfaction with the feudal marriage system and their pursuit of beautiful love.

The scholar Zhang Sheng (also known as Junrui), who was staying at the Pujue Temple in Shanxi, chanced upon the daughter of the former Prime Minister Cui, Yingying, who was staying in the temple's west chamber while escorting a funeral procession back to their hometown. They fell in love after sharing poetry together. However, Sun Feihu, a rebel general who admired Yingying's fame, besieged the temple demanding to forcibly take Yingying, threatening to burn the temple and kill everyone if she did not surrender within three days.

Yingying's mother, the elder Madam Zheng, proclaimed that whoever could save her daughter would have her hand in marriage. Zhang wrote a letter for help to his old friend, the "White Horse General," Governor Du of Puzhou. One monk, Huiming, managed to break through the siege to deliver the letter, and Governor Du dispatched troops to lift the siege.

After the crisis, Madam Zheng reneged on her promise of marriage due to the disparity in their social status, instead giving Zhang a sum of money and having Yingying thank him by symbolically adopting him as her sworn brother. Heartbroken, Zhang fell ill and Yingying was also greatly distressed. With the help of Yingying's maid, Hongniang, the two secretly exchanged letters and eventually managed to meet in secret.

Ultimately, their clandestine affair was discovered by Madam Zheng, who wished to punish them. However, because of Hongniang's persistent arguing, Madam Zheng had no choice but to order Zhang to go to the capital for the imperial examination, promising that if he passed, she would truly marry Yingying. Thus, Zhang went to the capital to take the exam. He succeeded and returned to marry Yingying, bringing about a happy ending for the two lovers. 

Kunqu Opera Appreciation Recommendations

If you want to experience the unique charm of Kunqu Opera firsthand, we recommend the following places.

Suzhou Opera Museum(The China Kunqu Museum)

Every Sunday at 14:00, the beautiful ancient stage of the Suzhou Opera Museum hosts selected performances of Kunqu Opera. With good luck, you may encounter famous segments by renowned artists, which are well worth the visit.

Shantang Kunqu Opera Hall

Shantang Kunqu Hall is the only venue that performs traditional Kunqu Opera all day long. The hall layout reproduces the full picture of a family troupe in Ming and Qing styles, accommodating over a hundred spectators. There is an antique stage in the first-floor hall and boxes on the second floor. The place has beautiful lighting, and they would lower the projection screen during different acts to explain the history of Kunqu Opera.

Fuxi Tea House

There is a person deeply in love with Kunqu Opera here. Every day from afternoon to evening, he presents delightful performances of Kunqu Opera. If you're new to Suzhou and want to learn about Kunqu and Suzhou, it's worth visiting this place to appreciate the elegance of Jiangnan with everyone.

Pingjiang Cultural Center Lanya Kunqu Garden

It serves as both the teaching and practice base for the Lanya small Kunqu troupe and an ideal place to listen to traditional Kunqu Opera. Here, you can enjoy Kunqu Opera, listen to Pingtan storytelling, appreciate guqin music, taste exquisite tea, sample Suzhou cuisine, and get an up-close view of the panoramic Kunqu performance set in a classical garden-like environment.

Plan Your Suzhou Trip with Us

Usually, it's recommended to visit Suzhou in 1 or 2 days. How can you maximize your travel experience to see Suzhou's highlights? If you tour Suzhou with us, our experienced English-speaking guides and private drivers will escort you to discover the history and stories behind this charming city. They are local experts in Suzhou.

 Please feel free to share your tour ideas with us. We look forward to helping you soon!

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