What is Kunqu Theatre?

Kunqu (pronounced kwin chu) is one of the oldest and most refined styles of traditional Chinese theatre performed today.

By Charles Wilson based, in part, on notes by Hans Frankel and with edits by David Rolston


Kunqu (pronounced kwin chu) is one of the oldest and most refined styles of traditional Chinese theatre performed today. It is a synthesis of drama, opera, ballet, poetry recital, and musical recital, which also draws on earlier forms of Chinese theatrical performances such as mime, farce, acrobatics, ballad recital, and medley, some of which go back to the third century B.C. or even earlier. In a Kunqu performance, recitative is interspersed with arias sung to traditional melodies, called qu-pai. Each word or phrase is also expressed by a stylized movement or gesture that is essentially part of a dance, with strict rules of style and execution much like classical ballet. Even casual gestures must be precisely executed and timed to coordinate with the music and percussion. The refinement of the movement is further enhanced with stylized costumes that also serve as simple props.

Strictly speaking, the name Kunqu refers to the musical element of this art form. Kun refers to Kunshan and qu means music. The name derives from the fact that one of the principal types of regional music that went into the making of Kunqu came from the district of Kunshan near Suzhou, in modern Jiangsu Province. This type of regional music goes back to the 14th century. It was given shape in the 16th century by Wei Liangfu and others, who combined it with three other forms of southern music and with northern tunes from the drama of the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368). Wei Liangfu and his collaborators standardized the rules of rhyme, tones, pronunciation, and notation, making it possible for this regional form of music to become a national standard. By the end of the 16th century, Kunqu spread from the Suzhou region to the rest of China, and for the next 200 years was the most prestigious form of Chinese drama.

Kunqu is first and foremost a performing art. Performances are valued not only for their riveting synthesis of drama, singing and dancing, but also for the literary refinement of their poetic libretto. The plot is usually familiar to the audience, or else made available through a prose summary. In fact, most Kunqu plays would take several days to perform in their entirety. So any given performance generally consists of a few selected scenes from one or more well known plays.

Musical and Dramatic Structure of Kunqu

In a Kunqu performance, three media work simultaneously and in harmony to convey the meaning and desired esthetic effect: music, words, and dance. An accomplished Kunqu performer must master the special styles of singing and dance movement to convey the meaning and desired esthetic effect.
There are two, easily distinguished, styles of text and music. Arias, which are sung and accompanied by the orchestra, are elaborate poems of high literary quality. Prose passages (monologues and dialogues) are neither sung nor spoken but chanted in a stylized fashion comparable to the recitative of Western opera. Sometimes there is a combination of the two styles: one of the characters sings while another one chants at the same time.

Kunqu music is based on the “qupai ” principle. The poetic passages of the play are written to fit a sequence of tunes, known as qu-pai, chosen from an existing repertory. The libretto must conform to the pattern of the particular “qu-pai” in regard to the number of lines, the number of syllables per line, tonal sequence and rhyme. Since Chinese is a tonal language, there is a delicate relation between words and tunes. Every word has a “melody”, and the musical air must be superimposed on the word melody, without interfering with it. Only after the main and subordinate qu-pai were selected did the author begin to compose the libretto to match the musical structure.

The language of Kunqu is not the dialect of Kunshan or Suzhou, nor is it standard Mandarin. It is an artificial stage language, a modified Mandarin with some features of the local dialect. Since the language in which Kunqu plays are written has eight tones, the composition of the libretto was a complex undertaking. Typically, the author had to continuously refine the libretto and musical notes until the word melody of libretto and the musical melody of qu-pai fell into harmony. In fact, an ideal harmony was seldom fully realized. Since the creation of a new Kunqu play presented such a great challenge to the author, almost all Kunqu playwrights were poets. The libretto typically has significant esthetic value in its own right, and many Kunqu libretti are highly regarded as examples of refined Chinese literature.

In addition to music and words, dance movements and highly stylized gestures form an integral part of the performance. As in classical ballet, the whole body is engaged, but the movement is much more grounded. The movements convey an intricate language of gestures and body movements that is similar but much more complex and extensive than the mime in classical ballet. Although the meaning of some movements is immediately understood even by the uninitiated, other movements are stylized and conventional, involving not only the body but also the costume (especially the sleeves) and props held in the hand, such as a fan.

Stage, Props, and Costumes

As in all traditional Chinese theater, Kunqu uses a minimum of props and scenery, which permits the performers to more easily express their stage movements in the form of dance. There is no curtain, and few props: sometimes a table and a chair. The performers appeal to the audience’s imagination and conjure up a scene or a setting (such as a door, a horse, a river, a boot) with words, gestures, and music. The costumes are elaborate exaggerated versions of the style of dress during the Ming Dynasty and make no attempt to fit the time or place of the action. For instance, in many roles, the performers wear robes with extremely long white sleeves call “water sleeves”, which essentially serve as props to accent their dance movements. One of the signs of accomplished Kunqu performers is the skill with which they manipulate their water sleeves and fan to enhance of the movement.
The costumes and simple props often convey additional information about the characteristic of the character. For instance, peonies on a young man’s robe might indicate a playboy, or carrying a magnifying glass might indicate social blindness. A Buddhist nun always carries duster to ward off evil spirits.

Role Types

The meaning and accessibility of Kunqu performances are further enhanced by well defined role types. These roles differ not only in the type of character – young man, young woman, clown, etc — but also in the vocal requirements and the form in which the body is engaged. In fact, the stylized movement associated with each role type constitutes an art form in itself.

The three most popular role types in Kunqu are: (1) young women (dan 五旦/闺门旦、六旦/贴旦); (2) young men (sheng 生, scholars 巾生 and civil officers 官生/冠生); and (3) clowns (qao 丑).  Other important role types include old men (lao sheng 老生 and wai 外); older women (lao dan 一旦/老旦, zheng dan 二旦/正旦, and cishar dan 四旦/刺杀旦); early teens  (zhuo dan 三旦/作旦/娃娃生); painted faces (fu 付 and jing 净), etc.

The Kunqu Orchestra

Each Kunqu performance is accompanied by a small instrumental ensemble, generally consisting of between 6 to 10 musicians. This ensemble is divided into two sections, named wen-chang, the section composed of wind and string instruments, and wu-chang, the percussion section. The primary function of wen-chang is to accompany singing, led by the dizi, a horizontal bamboo flute. Depending on the play, it might also include a San-hsian (a three-stringed lute), erhu (a two-stringed fiddle), zheng (a bamboo wind organ or Pan’s pipe), and zither, The Wu-chang section consists of a Chinese xiqu drum, ban (wooden clappers), xiaoluo (small gong), daluo (big gong), and naobo (cymbals). It is led by a drummer who performs with a small drum and a pair of wooden clappers to set the pace of the play, while the gongs and cymbals are used to punctuate the action and emotion. The drummer is also the conductor of the orchestra.

Kunqu and Chinese Xiqu

Kunqu theater is type of xiqu (pronounced hsi-chu) or traditional Chinese theatre. Although distinguished by differences in musical form, staging conventions, and repertoire, all forms of Chinese xiqu have a number of characteristics in common. They all combine singing, dance, poetry recital, and drama, and the music is played on traditional Chinese instruments. There is no scenery and only a minimum number of essential props to help the viewer identify the type of character or his action. Also, the stage movements tend to be very stylized and with exaggerated costumes, which also helps the audience to understand the action when viewing from a distance.

Roughly 260 forms of Chinese xiqu are performed in China today, but the two most famous are Kunqu and Beijing Opera. While most of the other forms of Chinese xiqu are associated with a specific region and sung in the local dialect, Kunqu and Beijing opera are performed throughout China and have an essentially national character. In fact, the development of Kunqu theater in the second half of the sixteenth century marked the beginning of the Chinese xiqu era, from which all other forms of Chinese theatre performed today evolved. Consequently, many Kunqu plays have been adapted for other types of xiqu.

Kunqu remains the most refined and literary of all forms of Chinese xiqu, but the most popular form of xiqu in China today is Beijing opera. It has retained many of the features of Kunqu theater, but uses fewer and a less sophisticated set of melodies. It also uses different lead instruments in the accompanying orchestra. For example, where the bamboo flute is used as the main accompaniment to Kunqu singing, it is generally the jin-hu (a string instrument with a louder sound) that provides the principal accompaniment in Beijing opera. To broaden its public appeal, Beijing opera also added acrobatic elements. Traditionally, in a Kunqu play, there are no acrobatic movements, and any Kung Fu movements are expressed in dancing form.

Beijing opera also reduces the vocal requirements for some of the role types. For example, in Beijing opera, the clown role rarely sings, relying almost exclusively on spoken dialogue. In Kunqu theatre, vocal quality is an essential requirement of each of the major roles, with little difference in the vocal technique required for the clown, young man, and young woman roles.

A more subtle difference between Kunqu theatre and Beijing opera is the type of stories and the way they are presented. In all Chinese xiqu, the basic plot is generally based on some historical event or well known story that has particular cultural significance to the Chinese people. However, the plots of Kunqu theater tend to focus more on human relationships and the inner life of individual, while Beijing opera tends to focus more on public moral conduct. This difference may be the consequence of the different origins of the two art forms. Beijing opera was initially sponsored by the emperors and royal families in the Ching dynasty. To entertain the emperor, the new Beijing opera tended to deliver the message of official policies and thereby became a kind of educational tool for the general public to learn about China’s historical past and its moral, and social values.

A Brief History of Kunqu Theater

As noted in the introduction, the basic rules of the musical form were established by Master Wei Liangfu around 1530. However, Kunqu was not adopted for theatre until 1560, when the famous playwright Liang Chenyu used Kunqu as the musical foundation for his new play Laundering the Silken Yarn. Thereafter, Kunqu theatre quickly became the most popular form of Chinese theatre and soon was referred to as “Official Melody” (Kwan Qiang). During this period, the composition of new plays for Kunqu theatre became a collaborative project shared by poets, scholars, musicians and artists, who together wrote the play text and developed the choreography. It was during this period of dominance, which lasted for about 200 years, that almost all of the Kunqu repertory was developed.

Toward the middle of the 18th century, a new offshoot of Kunqu theatre emerged, which eventually became known as Beijing opera. With the support of the emperor Chienlung, it quickly began to supercede Kunqu to the point where by 1900 Kunqu had almost disappeared. It is probably due to the success of a single play, Fifteen Strings of Copper, in the first half of the twentieth century that Kunqu survived at all. In fact, all Kunqu performers today can trace their lineage back to a handful of masters that kept the art form alive in the early part of the 19th century.

By 1966, Kunqu and Chinese xiqu in general was thriving again. However, the Cultural Revolution dealt a serious blow. Not only was no traditional Chinese opera permitted, but because no training took place, an entire generation of performers was lost. Just as seriously, the Cultural Revolution destroyed much of its audience. Fortunately, during this period, people in the art and educational communities in Taiwan and Hong Kong began to rediscover this precious traditional Chinese theater. Since the opening of China in the late 70’s, they have organized large scale Kunqu performances and arranged a series of classes to teach Beijing opera students and amateurs in Taiwan to sing and perform Kunqu.

There are six professional Kunqu troupes in China at beginning of 21th century, consisting of 600 to 700 professionally trained performers, musicians, and related theater supporting personnel. Each has its own school for training future generations of performers. Four of the troupes are in Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, one in Beijing, and one in Hunan province. In addition, The New York Kunqu Troup, consisting primarily of émigrés from the Shanghai Chinese troupe give regular performances and in affiliation with The Kunqu Society based in New York, runs workshops for amateur performers. At the first Kunqu Art Festival held in Suzhou, China in April 2000, the first professional Kunqu troupe in Taiwan was introduced. Its members consist primarily of professionally trained Beijing opera performers.

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