Kunqu, or Kunshanqiang, first appeared in the lateYuan Dynasty(1271-1368), some 600 years ago, in the lower Yangtze Valley. It was one of the earliest genres of drama and named for its birthplace, Kunshan, near the city ofSuzhouin today'sJiangsu Provinceof East China. Carrying forward the tradition of ancient poetry and common speech, it is of very high literary value. It has a rich traditional repertoire.
The development of Chinese opera music went through three stages. In the early days, the songs were composed of long and short lines. The singer sang solo, and the orchestra only came in at the end of each line. Only percussion instruments were used. Later,Kunqumusic was the result of refinements made by musician Wei Liangfu in the mid-16th century.
In theMing Dynasty(1368-1644), reformed by Wei Liangfu during the reign of Emperor Jiajing,Kunqubecame mild, smooth, and graceful, and performers attached great importance to clear recitation, correct singing, and pure tunes; the composers wrote the musical scores after working out the tunes, and the songs were written in seven-character or ten-character lines. Three types ofmusical instruments(stringed instruments,bamboo flutes, and drums and clappers) formed the accompaniment.Kunquhad 12 roles, and all the characters other thanZhengshengandZhengdancould play leading roles. Moreover, theJingandChouroles were no longer those exclusively portraying foolish, awkward, or stingy people.
Kunquhas a complete system of acting as well as its own distinctive tunes. Its wide-ranging repertoire has many delicate and elegant tunes. The orchestra consists of traditional instruments including thedizi, a horizontal bamboo flute which plays the lead part; the xiao, a vertical bamboo flute; the sheng, a mouth organ; and thepipa, a plucked string instrument with a fretted finger board. Many Chinese local operas are greatly influenced by its tunes and acting style.
The performance of the playWashing GauzemadeKunqufamous throughout the country. Later,Kunqudeveloped into a national opera genre.