Kunqu Opera

Kunqu Opera is an old opera originated from Kunshan, Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, which has a history of more than 600 years. Although performed in Suzhou dialect, Kun Opera is also popular in Yangtze River delta including Shanghai and Hangzhou, as well as Beijing. It has been regarded as the father of other operas in China, for it has far-reaching influences on most of Chinese operas in artistic presentations, use of facial makeup, division of roles, and many other ways. It plays an important role in the Chinese history of literature, opera, music and dance. 

 Chinese name: 昆曲 kūn qǔ; 昆剧 kūn jù
 English name (s): Kun Opera, Kunqu Opera
 History: over 600 years
 Popular in: large cities in Yangtze River Delta, such as Suzhou, Kunshan, Nanjing, Yangzhou, Hangzhou and Shanghai; Beijing; Hunan…
 Features: strong lyricism, Shuimo Tune
 Noted Plays: Peony Pavilion, The Palace of Eternal Life, The Peach Blossom Fan, Fifteen Strings of Copper Cash, The Jade Hairpin

Over 600 Years’ History of Kunqu Opera

Kunqu Opera was formatively founded in Kunshan over 600 years ago. It outshined other operas for 300 years in ancient time since its tune had been improved by folk musician Wei Liangfu in 1500s in Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644 AD). Later it began to decline in mid-age of Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911 AD). There was no professional team to perform Kun Opera before 1949. In 1950, six Kunqu Opera troupes were established one after another. Now, there are 8 troupes of Kunqu Opera in mainland China. In 2001, Kunqu Opera became the world cultural heritage. The renaissance of Kunqu Opera is going on, though it is not so easy.

Features of Kunqu Opera

Kunqu Opera has a strict and complete system of its own, with the artistic presentations of singing, dancing, speaking, etc. The most obvious feature of Kunqu Opera is strong lyricism, which asks performers to pay attention to details on each posture and each voice. The dances in Kunqu Opera adopted the folk and court dances in ancient times, to match up with the whole drama harmoniously. Meanwhile, famous plays of Kunqu Opera are almost written in ancient times, thus all words are spoken or singed in Classical Chinese. In this way, Kun Opera has been taken as living fossil of Chinese classical operas. 

3 Main Types of Roles

Dan - Female Roles

These Dan roles are usually made up to be beautiful with white skin and rosy checks. They include Lao Dan - old females, Zheng Dan - brave married females of integrity, Zuo Dan - kid girls, Cisha Dan - also called Si Dan, the females who take the actions to kill someone in secret, Guimen Dan - young girls who begin to think of love, or newly married females, Tie Dan - also Liu Dan, lively and frank girls with low class, such as servant girls, and Wu Dan - females who play martial works.

Sheng - Male Roles

With simplest makeup among all roles, Sheng refers to male roles. In the performances of Kunqu Opera, there mainly is Lao Sheng or Zheng Sheng - old males, Wai - older males with long and white facial hair, Mo - old males of lower class, with dense black facial hair, Guan Sheng - adult male officers, and Wu Sheng - young males have fighting actions, Jin Sheng - male intellectuals, Zhiwei Sheng - male roles who wear feathers of pheasants on head and Xiepi Sheng - poor Confucian learners.

Jing and Chou - Special Roles

Jing and Chou are two kinds of male roles in Kunqu Opera that painted with exaggerated and colorful patterns on their faces. Jing is composed of Wen Jing - mighty men, Wu Jing - straightforward and brute-force men and Bai Mian - vicious men that painted white.

Chou are comedy roles, including Fu, Wen Chou and Wu Chou. Fu are those roles whose personality and appearance are not in agreement. Wen Chou are those men who have ridiculous actions. Wu Chou are agile in general.

Traditional Chinese Costume

The costume for Kunqu Opera performers is the traditional ones in Yuan and Ming (1271 - 1644 AD) Dynasties. Different clothing is for different roles respectively. There are more than 20 kinds of costumes, mainly including official robes, uniform robes for officers, cloaks and pleats. These clothes are made of silk, satin, cloth, etc., embroidered with patterns of dragons, phoenixes, birds, animals, fishes, flowers, clouds, water and so on. The colors are mainly red, yellow, blue, white, black, purple, and pink, which are bright and colorful.

Shuimo Tune – The Main Singing Tune of Kunqu Opera

Shuimo Tune, also called Kunshan Tune, is the major tune of Kun Opera, which was formed in late Yuan Dynasty (1271 - 1368 AD). Based on folk music in south China, and absorbing characteristics of ballads in the north, Shuimo Tune sounds soft, sweet and mellow with long syllable and flowery language. The performers usually sing the words slowly. It is quite affectionate, like the process of grinding rice with water, thus it was named as Shuimo, literally meaning grounding grains with water mill. It makes people feel pleasant and relaxed.

Accompaniment of Classical Chinese Musical Instruments

When performed, Kunqu Opera is accompanied by various kinds of classical instruments, such as flute, Xiao (a vertical bamboo flute), clappers, Pipa (4-stringed Chinese lute), Sanxian (a three-stringed plucked instrument), gong and drum.

Where to Watch Kunqu Opera

 China Kunqu Opera Museum
Chinese Name: 中国昆曲博物馆
Address: inside Suzhou Opera Museum, No.14, Central Zhangjia Alley, Gusu District, Suzhou

 Shantang Kunqu Opera House
Chinese Name: 山塘昆曲馆
Address: No.45, Xiatang, Tonggui Bridge, Shantang Street, Gusu District, Suzhou

 Xiaoheyi Kunqu Opera International Saloon
Chinese Name: 小河驿昆曲国际会客厅
Address: No. 31, Xiaohezhi Street, Gongshu District, Hangzhou

 Theater of Shanghai Kunqu Opera Troupe
Chinese Name: 上海昆剧团
Address: No.9, Shaoxing Road, Huangpu District, Shanghai

 Mei Lanfang Theatre
Chinese Name: 梅兰芳大剧院
Address: No.32, West Street, Ping’an Li, Xicheng District, Beijing
- Last modified on Mar. 13, 2020 -
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