What is Kunqu?

By Peng Xu

Musicologists define Kunqu as “either the musical theater originating in Kunshan,” located near Suzhou in China, or “a codified system of tunes, vocal techniques, and ornamental elements associated with Kunshan theater.”[1] In the sixteenth century, the musical genre was known as the “Kunshan tunes” (Kunshan qiang).

Historical Background

The history of Kunqu is, first of all, a history of the fusion and distillation of multiple musical styles, especially the merge of the southern (nanqu) and northern (beiqu) styles; and second, a history of private performances, which shaped it as a theatrical form on three different levels—aesthetics, acoustics, and architectural space. The bygone Mongol rule from 1234 to 1368, the cruel, barbaric age in the eyes of Confucian scholars, nonetheless provided unusual opportunities for traveling troupes featuring female entertainers performing in public arenas, who would have become largely invisible in the native Chinese ruled Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Commercial theaters were vanished and itinerant troupes were invited into private theaters to perform.

The cultural stature of the Ming dramatists was much higher than those of the Yuan drama. Wealthy and devoted dramatists kept their own private troupes to rehearse their new verses, the distance from the page to the stage a short one; and their finished manuscripts would go into private printing projects as resultative gifts being disseminated among friends and peers. Performances in private settings often involved candle lights, delicate cuisine, fine wine, courtesans (who served the wine and offered witty conversations during the performance), and the equivalent to subtitle screens in modern theaters—exquisite drama imprints or lyrics copied by hand. This kind of theater had a great capacity for poetic devices and classical language; to the poet’s delight, he was free from being concerned with the listener’s comprehension and could use drama as a vehicle for his literary attainment, rendering dramatic verses deeply poetic and spoken parts essayistic. Scholar-officials and land-owning gentry put their talents to drama: as connoisseurs, singers, actors, and playwrights. Music and prosody became the object of serious scholarship. In this sense, Kunqu theater in the Ming dynasty was truly “elite theater,” meaning theater for those with a classical literary education. 

The impression has therefore long lingered that before its marriage to the full-fledged theater form in the mid-sixteenth century, Kunqu had always been a monopoly of the elite, the only acceptable musical genre for literati. Even today, to some hardcore “pure-singing” advocates, Kunqu is essentially an opera of the educated elite in which vocal art reigns supreme. A recent revival of Kunqu in the sense of an elite drama among college-educated Chinese urbanites testifies to the vitality of this long-term legacy of Kunqu.

In the mid-sixteenth century, however, urban centers continued to thrive and expand, and the centralization of authority at the court winded down, both leading to a commercial and cultural dynamism that nurtured Kunqu: It evolved into a new musical phenomenon that dominated the theatrical scene for nearly another century. The city of Suzhou, located at the intersection of the Grand Canal and the Yangzi River, was such a commercial hub connected to the rest of China and was naturally the hotbed of Kunqu as a full-fledged theatrical form. Professional teachers began to emerge as a social group, working for both wealthy households and brothels; alongside the process of professionalization, a music industry centered on pedagogical developments and publishing Kunqu scores thrived.

The Literary Form

The major literary form of Kunqu theatre is called chuanqi (lit. transmitting the remarkable tales) or southern romantic comedy, and its historical evolution corresponds to that of Kunqu theatre. Japanese scholar Aoki Masaru put forward in the early 1930s an interpretive model that has dominated the field of Kunqu studies nowadays. Aoki uses the rise and fall of Kunqu as a measure to lay the ground for the periodization of chuanqi drama. Another hypothesis he is famous for is the great divide between playwrights after 1598, the year of the completion of The Peony Pavilion, based on their understanding of the musicality of Kunqu. One group supported and practiced the aesthetic principles displayed in The Peony Pavilion, and valued literary quality above musical merits; the other camp castigated the masterpiece for its poor musicality, hence challenges it posed for the singer. The former unified in literary undertakings by means of emulating or echoing parts of The Peony Pavilion in various aspects of literary craftsmanship. Its opponent published song formulas or self-help manuals serving aspiring playwrights to write musically ‘appropriate’ lyrics. They claimed to be peculiarly aware of the ‘real’ nature of playwriting, that is, to serve the professional singer and actor. When necessary, they would rather be immured in the musical and prosodic rules they put forward than display their literary talents and skill at the expense of musical correctness.

Despite the opposing ideologies, chuanqi dramas shared major literary themes—amorous relationships between a scholar and one or two beauties, the worldly ambitions of the hero that expand the geographical range of the story, the perfect match of lovers’ connoisseurship in the artistic realms such as Kunqu singing, poetry composition, or zither playing (paralleled with material objects as love tokens), and ending with happy reunions in marriage or in heaven. The interplay of social responsibilities and the desire for romantic love missing from arranged marriages is one of the creative tensions at the heart of the dramatic literature of chuanqi.

Chuanqi drama is notorious for its inclusion of both high and low registers of language—the classical and vernacular (even expanded to local dialects, in particular, the Suzhou dialect). Some playwrights strove for maximum clarity within the bounds of classical Chinese. The idea was that drama should work within a language accessible to all, including “village girls and boors.” But others took pride in the arcane style; their poetry was so difficult that one would suspect the plays were designed solely for desktop reading and doomed for a barren stage life.

The great majority of the plays only exist in the form of printed texts; some belong to the category of “dramatic canon” but never endured in the repertoire for a long time. However, their literary identity as a classic instilled vitality in them, turning them into lost gems to be revived by ingenious contemporary stage directors. One salient example is The Peach Blossom Fan, completed in 1699, a historical drama about traumas caused by the collapse of the Ming dynasty. It fell outside of its contemporary repertoire but speaks strongly enough to our age to gain several stage adaptations and win a new audience.

After the mid-seventeenth century, there was a fleeting trend for making political comments by writing chuanqi plays. No work of art should be regarded as a direct transcription of lived reality, but certain works accommodated documentary content better than others and offer undoubtedly mimetic representations of scenes that would have been experienced in historical reality. Some Suzhou-based playwrights deviated from the traditional scholar-beauty paradigm and created a politically aligned subgenre, characterized as “reportage play” (shishi ju).

The Golden Age(s) of Kunqu Theater

From the distance of our century, the golden age of Kunqu theater came late – not until the eighteenth century when actors manifested their artistic prowess in commercial theater and when their repertoire gradually stabilized.

One manifestation was the rising of a new climate of musical ideas in the eighteenth century that would bring with it a new capacity for the free-spirited but hard-for-singers literary style represented by The Peony Pavilion. The first complete notation for Kunqu vocal music was compiled and published by a virtuosic singer in the late eighteenth century.

The second salient proof of the power of professional actors was the rise of the “excerpted scenes” or zhezi xi tradition in which minor characters were more often put in the spotlight, transcending the boundaries of supporting parts. While in Kunqu theatre—now in its “performer-centered” stage—power was shifted from literati playwrights to actors. Its literary companion, the chuanqi dramatic genre, moved into the “closet-drama” phase with little contribution to the repertoire of Kunqu theatre despite the increasing productivity of the literati.

The third manifestation was that scholars began annotating dramatic works in the performing repertoire with notes on details of acting. This was unprecedented in the history of drama publishing, a revolution against the large late-Ming compendium, Sixty Plays (Liushi zhong qu), which used the procedures that had been developed for editing the classics and history books.

Since UNESCO designated Kunqu to be an intangible cultural heritage in 2001, its global appeal has grown in new forms including multiple-night productions with staple “excerpted scenes” strung together (e.g., several stage productions of The Peony Pavilion in 1999), adaptations of classic plays outside of Kunqu repertoire (e.g., Grandee’s Son Takes the Wrong Career), intercultural theatre (e.g., Kunqu Macbeth), and experimental theatre with Kunqu as key elements (e.g. Gazing Homeward). The worldwide revival of interests in Kunqu theatre forces us to rethink what “Chinese” theatre means in an era of transcultural interchange.

[1] Isabel K. F. Wong, “kunqu” in The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, East Asia volume, p. 289.

A headshot of Peng Xu with a bob haircut and a grey turtleneck sweater.

Dr. Peng Xu is a professor of Chinese Theatre in the Department of Theatre & Dance at University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. Visit the Our Teachers page for a more detailed bio.