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Kunqu Opera History

kunqu
The Actress of Kunqu Opera Show

Kunqu Opera (昆曲) is one of the kinds of Chinese opera singing and drama style. The significant characteristics are elegiac lyricism, delicate gestures and expressions, and great harmony in singing tone and dancing motions. The musical accompaniment consists of Chinese ancient instruments such as Chinese flute, suona trumpet, sanxian, pipa and traditional percussion. It traces its origin to the late Yuan Dynasty in Kunshan (昆山), east of Suzhou city. Gu Jian (顾坚) and some others compiled the local folk operas and songs, and improved. He called the new born genre as "Kunshan Singing Style", which was the rudiment of modern Kunqu Opera. Opera masters in Ming and Qing Dynasties have renovated and arranged the tone and singing style of Kunqu, which absorbed the excellent ingredients from the operas in neighboring areas. During the years of reign of Wanli Emperor (1563 –1620) of the Ming Dynasty, Kunqu performance troupes toured around China to spread their new culture to the whole nation. In the Qing Dynasty, Kunqu passed to Sichuan Province and south China regions. Thus, Kunqu Opera became a nationwide art form. But when Kunqu was introduced to a local area, it would absorb the local singing and drama styles. Regional dialects have played a great role in changing Kunqu too. Kunqu Opera has been listed in UNESCO's Intangible Heritage on 18 May, 2001.

Historically, the masters of Kunqu Opera include: Wei Liangfu, a Ming-dynasty man who was the opera musician and reformer of Kunqu opera, and used to be respectably called The Founder of Kunqu Opera and The Saint of Opera in China thanks to his unforgettable contribution to the maturity and perfection of Kuqu Opera; Yu Zhenfei who was another prominent Kunqu Opera performer(Mr. Yu was specialized in Chinese classical literature and expert in poem, essay, calligraphy and painting. Besides, he was also an excellent performer of Peking Opera, and he can blend these two operas together and formed his own unique style of performance. He was quickly famous for his bookishness)



History of Kunqu Opera and Peony Pavilion

kunqu opera
A Scene of Kunqu Opera Show Named Gui Fei Zui Jiu( 贵妃醉酒, Concubine Yang Got Drunk)from Chang Sheng Dian(长生殿), a classic work of Kunqu Opera

Kunqu opera originally called Kunshan Qiang or Kunqiang was born in Kunshan, Suzhou City. Kunqu opera is one of the most famous and oldest opera shows in history of China. Kunqu opera also renowned as Kunju. Kunqu opera is the artistic representative of Chinese traditional culture, especially the gem of Chinese opera art and the orchid flower in gardens of Chinese operas. Roughly in middle of the 14th century, Kunqu was firstly shaped in the region around Kunshan, Jiangsu province. In Ming Dynasty, it belonged to the Opera System of South China and was ranked one of Four Top Vocal Operas Nationwide, equally famous as Yiyang Vocal Opera, Yuyao Vocal Opera and Haiyan Vocal Opera.Subsequently, Kunqu Opera became the most famous and influential vocal operas in Ming and Qing Dynasty. And diversity of operas grew up based on learning Kunqu, so, Kunqu also boasts The Mother of Chinese Operas. Kunqu Opera is seized of the most overall performance system. Thanks to its profound historic background and abundant legacy, Kunqu has been the biggest fruit in the process of national cultural and artistic development aside from Peking Oprea. Hence, Kunqu plays a critical role in China's history of literature, opera, music and dancing.

The musical instruments for accompaniment include flute, Sheng, Suona, SanxiaN, Pipa and so on. The performance of Kunqu has its own unique system and style. The largest characteristic is its strong lyricism, delicate detailed act and elegant gestures and lines. In words, Kunqu is divided into two types: Southern Kunqu and Northern Kunqu. Northern Kunqu is mainly featured of Beijing's accent and style of singing. Since Song Dynasty, China has had the classification of Southern Opera and Northern Opera. Kunqu is the first representative of Southern Opera.

kunqu opera
A Scene of Kunqu Opera Show

In the end of Yuan Dynasty, Gu Sui, a famous founder of Kunqu Opera, improved the original vocal system popularizing around Kunshan, so it was called Vocals of Kunshan or Kunshan Qiang. It was the original Kunqu opera. In Ming Dynasty, the outstanding dramatist Wei Liangfu renovated and upgraded the vocal rule and singing style of Kunshan Qiang, and learned a lot from Haiyan Vocals and Yiyang Vocals as well as absorbed many good point of Northern Opera when he continued to spread the merits of Kunqu in the aspect of elegance and grace. So historically, Kunqu was also called Shuimoqiang(水磨腔). Liang Chenyu, a native of Kunshan, succeeded the achievements of Wei Liangfu, continued to do some research and reform to Kunqu Opera in the aspect of singing style and playing of musical instruments. It is a milestone in the development history of Kunqu Opera. Since then, Liang Chenyu basically fixed. And Liang Chenyu also wrote a classic story named Huan Sha Ji(浣纱记), the first opera masterpiece of Kunqu in history. The play of this legend extended the influence of Kunqu Opera, and more and more literators began to write things for it. And the Kunqu lovers increased dramatically, many of who were geishas, In history, Chen Yuanyuan, a famous geisha in Ming and Qing Dynasties, was an expert in singing Kunqu opera.

Peony Pavilion(Mu Dan Ting, 牡丹亭)is the most famous masterpiece representative of Kunqu opera, one of Four Kunqu Classics, also famous as Four Dreams of Yuming Hall(玉茗堂四梦), and the other three are Cichai Ji, Handan Ji and Nanke Ji. It is a most famous play created by Tang Xianzu of Ming Dynasty. It is also an outstanding romantic work in history of opera.

Liu Mengmei, a poor intellectual, incidentally met a beauty under a plum tree of a garden. The beauty said she had a born mission to love him, and since then, Liu Mengmei began to miss this beauty very much. This beauty was the daughter of Du Bao, the Nanan Governor, and she named Du Liniang was quite talented and pretty. He followed Chen Zuiniang to reading. She was saddened by the description of Guan Ju(关雎), the first poem of Book of Songs(诗经) and had a dream after visiting the back-garden that she met a handsome intellectual called Liu Mengmei holding a weeping willow twig said love to her, and they fell in love. When waked up but could not find the man, she got ill, and before her death, he requested to be buried under the plum tree of garden, and ordered her close servant called Chun Xiang to hide his portrait at the bottom of Taihu Lake. but Du Liniang's father was promoted to be the governor of Huaiyang and he entrusted Miss Du's teacher, Chen Zuiniang, to bury her and built a Nunnery named Mei Hua An. Three years later, Liu Mengmei on his way to imperial examination, stayed at Mei Hua An at night and he also found the portrait of Du Liniang under a Taihu-Lake Rock. Finally, he found the girl of the portrait was whom he met and loved deeply in dream. And Du Liniang's soul revisited the back garden with Liu Mengmei. Liu Mengmei opened coffin and saved Du Liniang, and they married and went to Linan. Du Liniang's teacher found the tomb was opened illegally by Liu Mengmei and went to the authority to prosecute Liu Mengmei. After his examination, He went to Du Liniang's family to report the message of Du Liniang's revival, but was imprisoned by Du Bao. After the release of examination, Liu Mengmei was the winner of the first place, but Du Bao refused to admitting their mareage and forced her daugher to divorce. This dispute became worse and known by Emperor, and Emperor approved of their marriage. They finally led a happy life together since then.

The story pays a tribute to the braveness of young people boldly sought for freedom and love and their spirit of objecting to feudalism. The story portrays the love story of Liu Mengmei(刘梦梅) and Du liniang(杜丽娘)and shows the eternality and prominence of love in life and society. Love could leads human to crossing death and living. Du Liniang is a successfully-portrayed female figure in succession to Cui Yingying(崔莺莺), the heroine of Tao Hua Shan(桃花扇, The Peach Blossom Fan)

kunqu opera show
Kunqu Opera Show
Kunqu Opera Show
Kunqu Opera Show



The Contributors of Kunqu Opera

Tang Xianzu(汤显祖,1550—1616)the most famous and influential founder, playwright and literature master of Ming Dynasty, and he had an important role in the literature history of China and world and was crowned to be Oriental Shakespeare. Tang Xianzu was bron in Linchuan, Jiangxi province. Since infancy, he was quite brillant, and became the winnter of Zhongju at the age of 21. He was too honest and stubborn and was not welcomed by the official circle. And at his age of 34, he became Jinshi. In 1591, he impeached some authorities and was demoted to be the governor of Suichang County, Zhejiang province. In 1598, he resigned and spent more time in operas and poems. When he was young, Tang Xianzu learnt from Luo Rufang(罗汝芳)who was a predominant representative of Taizhou Academy and influenced a lot by anti-orthodox beliefs.

Bai Xianyong(白先勇,1937—)is a famous Kunqu opera promotor, famous writer in Taiwan and the playwright of Youth Edition of Peony Pavilion. Originally born in Guilin, Guangxi province, the son of Bai Chongxi(白崇禧), the famous general of Kuomintang government. His edited Peony Pavilion has been brought a fashion of appreciating and revaluing the charm of Kunqu when his representative Peony Pavilion performance successfully and amazingly shown in Peking University.



Where to enjoy Peony Pavilion of Kunqu in Beijing

Tang Xianzu, Kunqu Opera Master
The Portrait of Tang Xianzu

Beijing Imperial Granary(Huang Jia Liang Cang, 皇家粮仓) is a superiorly-selected destination for enjoying Kunqu performance themed with famous programme named Peony Pavilion(牡丹亭). The Kunqu show expresses the beauty of tradition and returns to the style of Kunqu played in Ming Dynasty. The Imperial Granary has a history of 600 years, and it is as long as the history of Kunqu. The representative Kunqu show of Peony Pavilion performed in the main hall of Imperial Granary absolutely is a perfect combination of tangible cultural heritage of China and intangible cultural heritage of the world. The celebrated dramatist and director Lin Zhaohua as well as the performance master of Kunqu Wang Shiyu work together to seek for the way of cultural resuscitation and challenge all the performance editions of Peony Pavilion. They abandon the stage performance predominating in Qing Dynasty. They firstly perform the Peony Pavilion in the form of Jia Ban, and the actors and musicians all wear the finery of Ming Dynasty. The stage design sufficiently defers to the original of the building complex in Imperial Granary. The surrounding of theater performance is decorated with furnishings of Ming Dynasty. The actors are all absolutely playing with the real voices and techniques, and the musicians also absolutely play simutaleously. They never use Microphone and loudhailer. The back-end tiring-room is also open to the outside world, which is surely good for appreciating the procedures of painting the face. Moreover, the calligraphy performance and Kunqu show jointly embody Chinese traditional aesthetics.

Imperial Granary located on Dong Sishitiao No.22 takes advantage of the perfect location in the aspect of Fengshui in Beijing. In 1409,Imperial Granary was extended and reconstructed based on the Northern Imperial Granary of Yuan Dynasty. It shares the same age as the Palace Museum. Up to today, it has more than 600 years of history and is the ideal site to witness the history of China in the reign of 24 emperors in Ming and Qing Dynasties as well as the stories of The Republic of China and The People's Republic of China after 1949. The Imperial Granary is the only best-preserved imperial granary with the largest scale all over the world. The height of the buildings of Imperial Granary is 10 meters, and the thickness of the wall is 1.5 meters. It has the venthole and clerestory and has the constant temperature and sutiable mositure. It is the most original ecological buildings. Imperial Granary also called Southern New Granary as the termination of transporting grains from south to north via Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal has been ranked the list of National Cultural Heritage Sites. The performance of Peony Pavilion in Imperial Granary is a breakthrough in the aspect of Kunqu show. In the 120 minutes, the whole theater and the touching story mixing together bring the audiences to a romantic world. It remodel the legendary story of Liu Mengmei and Du liniang.

kunqu opera show
Kunqu Opera Show
Kunqu Opera Show
Kunqu Opera Show

Where to enjoy Peony Pavilion of Kunqu in Shanghai

Shanghai Hua Ya Tang (Huayatang, 花雅堂) is a top site for appreciating Kunqu Opera named Peony Pavilion in Shanghai. Located on Maoming Beilu No. 65, Hua Ya Tang owns an old style of building in Jingan District in downtown Shanghai. The main hall is named Hua Ya Tang(Flower-Elegance Hall). Following the particularly classic and delicate charm of Kunqu, this is a high-level platform for sociality and commerce-oriented cultural consumption in Shanghai. The most prominent and leading actor is Zhang Jun, who is a famous young Kunqu performer. He is crowned to be The Kunqu Prince of China and belongs to the state first-rate actor and also is the winner of Plum Award, the top award of China's drama performance. He is expert in Xiao Sheng(小生) of Kunqu. The performance duration is 30 minutes, and ticket price is 288 Yuan(including wine and buffet dinner). The ticket price is not flexible, and the charter price can be talked. The performance site is Hua Ya Tang located on Maoming Bailu No.65, which is near to Yanan Zhonglu.

kunqu opera
A Scene of Kunqu Opera Show Called Chang Sheng Dian by Performers in Hangzhou







Writer: David from Seeraa International
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