Kunqu: China’s ancient art form

A beginner's guide to the original Beijing opera

Often called ‘the mother of 100 operas,’ kunqu gave birth to over 300 types of xiqu, or Chinese traditional theatre, also known as Chinese opera. From its hazy origins during the Yuan dynasty (1271 to 1368), kunqu gradually codified its refined movements and complex music to dominate China’s performance scene from the 1600 to 1800s. In 2001, kunqu was named a Unesco Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, and is regularly performed in Beijing, Shanghai, Suzhou, Nanjing, Changsha, Wenzhou and Hangzhou, as well as in Taipei, Hong Kong and Macau.

Kunqu’s most famous offshoot is jingju, or Beijing opera, which appeared in the mid-1800s, but they evolved along different paths. All forms of xiqu are stylised performances that blend singing, dancing, drama and poetry recitation, but comparing kunqu to jingju is akin to comparing a Wagner opera to a Beyonce concert – both great shows, but vastly different in detail and complexity.



Similar to flamenco, kunqu’s core element is actually its music, hailing from the Kunshan district, near Suzhou. In 1530, actor/musician Wei Liangfu and like-minded colleagues combined Kunshan’s music with other southern and northern melodies, standardising the format and making this regional art form a national one.

But that’s only part of the story. Kunqu’s language is not a local dialect or standard Mandarin, but a special eight-tone stylised vernacular where each word has its own melody. Playwrights used qupai, a sequence of songs chosen from an existing repertoire, after which they wrote elaborate poetry matching word tones to song patterns. Even in the world’s capital of poetry, kunqu libretti are often stand-alone literary works done by the greatest poets of the age.



While techniques such as face painting and simple staging came to jingju directly from kunqu, storytelling styles are poles apart; to make another comparison, think basketball game versus cricket match. Jingju is heavy on the percussion, has a faster pace, and employs a wide range of martial arts, which is one reason it crosses borders so well. By comparison, the refined kunqu’s limited martial arts movements are expressed through dance in an elegant, fluid style. Jingju stories send strong messages about moral codes – possibly because the palace sponsored many early shows. For its part, kunqu’s tales chronicle human – usually romantic – relationships, in 55 acts. Full performances can last several days. Modern theatres provide abbreviated versions or highlight shows, often with plot summaries, but audiences go for the style, not the story.

Role types


Chou role. Image: Wikimedia commons

Both jingju and kunqu use basic role types such as sheng (male), dan (female), chou (clown) and jing (painted-face), with their myriad of subcategories that indicate age, social status and personality. However, jingju showcases laosheng (old man) with his thick beards, as well as the vivid-faced jing. These roles exist in kunqu, but the stories focus on relations between the wudan (young, well-born women) and jinsheng (young male scholars), with the clown (chou) delivering comic relief. Kunqu also uses mo, middle-aged male roles.

Costumes, makeup and props

Peony Pavilion(NKO)c

Kunqu roles have many subdivisions and characteristics, indicated through the use of costumes and makeup – for example, the age and status of a young man could affect the size and shape of his hat. Face colours in jing roles are crucial to determine personality; red, for example, means loyal and black means honest and forthright. Characters with white faces are seen as sly and cunning, while yellow face paint indicates a fierce, rough type. Blue, green, purple, and gold can indicate bands of forest robbers or can delve into the supernatural, with ghosts and demons.

Much like other forms of xiqu, kunqu is performed on a bare stage, with simple props, elaborate costumes, and codified gestures the audience would know well. Walking in a circle means a long journey, while holding a whip indicates riding a horse. Tables can show courtrooms, palace halls or private homes, or even mountains and clouds. A young man with peonies on his robe may be a playboy, and performers are judged on how ably they handle their helmets’ soaring feathers or their robes’ long white water sleeves.

Music and dance

The sweet, sentimental style of kunqu is referred to as shuimodiao, or water-polished music. Vocal parts come in two forms: performers sing arias to orchestral accompaniment but chant prose monologues and dialogues, much like arias and recitatives in Western opera. However, kunqu takes that one step further, by sometimes requiring one character to sing an aria while another chants a monologue.

As for instrumentation, the di, a side-blown bamboo flute, takes centre stage. This is ably accompanied by the xiao (vertical bamboo flute), suona (Chinese oboe), and sheng (Chinese mouth organ similar to pan pipes). The ban (clapper), luo (gong) and bo (cymbals) make up the percussion section, while from the lute family comes the ever-popular pipa (fretted), sanxian (unfretted), and yueqin (round and banjoesque).

Dance is equally complicated; different dance postures accentuate both the singing and spoken parts, and specific movements define the individual characters. Every pose is exacting and perfectly timed, similar to classical ballet, and performers utilise elaborate costumes to tell their stories or illustrate their characters.

Kunqu classics

Palace of Eternal Youthc

The Palace of Eternal Youth/Life (Chang Sheng Dian) is a 50-act Qing dynasty (1644-1911/12) kunqu play written by poet Hong Sheng. He in turn sourced material from the narrative poem ‘The Song of Everlasting Sorrow’ and from the historical Tang dynasty (618-907) tragedy of Tang Xuanzong and his favourite concubine Lady Yang Guifei. Hong’s story tells of Emperor Ming’s devotion to Lady Yang; he even gives her a gold hairpin and a jewellery box to pledge his eternal love. Sure, he spends a night with former favourite Consort Plum, but the course of true love, blah, blah, blah – in short, broken hearts are soon mended. Meanwhile, as Ming focuses his attention on wine, this particular woman, and song, his kingdom is falling to ruins. Rebels stage a palace coup, and to appease his defenders, he ‘allows’ Yang to commit suicide. However, the damage is already done; he loses his throne and then builds a shrine to Yang, spending his final days weeping over her statue. But the fates intervene – moon goddess Chang'e arranges for the two to forever live together in paradise.

The Story of the Western Wing/Romance of the West Chamber (Xi Xiang) was set during China’s prosperous Tang dynasty (618-907), but written by Wang Shifu during the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), which many feel was the nation’s golden age of traditional theatre. Coming in at a relatively speedy 21 acts, the story tells of minister’s daughter Cui Yingying and aspiring scholar Zhang Sheng, who fall in love at first sight – he at her beauty, her at his poetry, as was the common theme of the time. However, trouble soon arises. When Yingying’s mother hears that local bandit Sun of the Flying Tiger has also set his sights on her daughter, she promises Yingying’s hand in marriage to whoever could rid her of this potentially deadly threat. Zhang Sheng comes through, but the matriarch renegs, claiming she had forgotten about her daughter’s previous betrothal to a much wealthier man. Yingying’s maid arranges a secret assignation for the lovers, and the mother relents – provided Zhang can pass the imperial examination. He does, and the two are married.


Image: Wikimedia commons

In terms of stature, Peony Pavilion (Mu Dan Ting) is the Hamlet of Chinese literature; in fact, Ming dynasty (1368-1644) author Tang Xianzu was a contemporary of Shakespeare and is considered by many to be the Bard’s Chinese equivalent. Peony Pavilion is the catalyst for the recent kunqu revival, with youth and modern versions trying to entice new audiences. Set in the Song dynasty (960-1279), the story tells of beautiful, wealthy, and cloistered Du Liniang, who finally wanders out into her own garden. Overcome with the beauty of nature, and realising that her own youthful bloom is also impermanent, she does a self-portrait, which she hides under a rock. Later, she dreams she is in her garden having a romantic interlude with a handsome young scholar on his way to take the imperial examination. Upon waking, she realises this dream will never come to pass, and eventually wastes away to nothing. Years later, that same scholar (called Liu Mengmei) is examination bound, when he reposes in that same garden, now overgrown with weeds. He finds, and is smitten with, the portrait of Du Liniang, then has intimate relations with her spirit before she clues him in – that digging up her coffin will bring her back to life. He does; then he passes his examination, and they live happily ever after.



While Western tragedy generally sees a strong, dynamic hero brought down by his own flaws, Chinese tragic – and often female – protagonists are pure, honourable figures crushed by an unjust system, be it palace intrigue or strict feudal parents. The West agonises over the loss of power; the East mourns over the destruction of beauty. These echo common themes in traditional Chinese drama – love stories are often between emperors and concubines, or between well-born women and struggling scholars who win status through their literary prowess. And let’s not forget the universal mirrors for princes – those who rule cannot also have love; something’s got to give. Plus, notice all the happy endings – Chinese dramatists believed that everything moved in cycles. As night becomes day, so too shall sad become joyful – plus, it couldn’t hurt ticket sales sending audiences home happy.

This is not to say these plays were without controversy, which is probably why they have endured. For centuries, The Story of the Western Wing was considered a dangerous work that encouraged young people to defy their parents’ arranged marriages and to engage in pre-marital sex. The Peony Pavilion’s protagonist dared to pursue her lover (even if she was a ghost), and married for love, not her parents’ wishes. Furthermore there is a strong undercurrent of hedonism and eroticism that is still felt today – modern government officials still impose the occasional ban, calling it ‘feudal, superstitious and pornographic.’ But that never stopped Shakespeare. Given the decades of required training, and the depth of music, language and poetry, hopefully kunqu will be subsidised into the modern mainstream. Even if you don’t have 20 hours to spare, the abbreviated versions are a must-see.

See it

Peony Pavilion

Zhengyici Theatre. 7.30pm. Every Wednesday. 280-1,080RMB;80RMB students.

Regular showing of kunqu’s most famous work.

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