Subscribe to free Email Newsletter

  Chinese Way>Life
Kunqu Opera's Revival


On stage, Du Liniang, the leading character in The Peony Pavilion by Chinese playwright Tang Xianzu (1550-1616), dies on a raining day. For dramatic effect, water falls from the ceiling into fish tanks surrounding the venue. The stage light trails Du, donned in white, as she walks through the arena to the back of the performance hall. The lights then suddenly shut off, as if Du's spirit has left the world. This breathtaking scene is from the Imperial Granary's rendition of The Peony Pavilion.

The Imperial Granary in Beijing was built in 1409 during the Ming Dynasty. (1368-1644). The well preserved venue now functions as a place for business meetings, fine dining and Kunqu Opera performances. The combination of traditional Chinese architecture and Chinese opera performances yielded successful results that made watching The Peony Pavilion at Imperial Granary a posh and fun activity.

With the stage play directed by Kunqu Opera master Wang Shiyu and the stage art designed by the renowned Lin Zhaohua, The Peony Pavilion has been continuously held over the last five years to packed audiences almost every Friday and Saturday.

To celebrate the staging of 600 performances, the show's production team will hold an event on November 17 and 18, inviting the industry's big names to attend a Kunqu Opera feast. "Most of the [invited performers] are over 70 years old. They represent the highest quality of Kunqu Opera in China. We hope this becomes an annual event for audiences to enjoy and appreciate Kunqu Opera," Wang Xiang, the producer of the show, wrote in an email to the Global Times.

Breakthrough style

Kunqu Opera is famous for its heavy literary lyrics, soft singing style, glamorous costumes and stage design. It has over 600 years of history and is known as the "ancestor of a hundred Chinese operas."

According to Cao Qijing, chief director of Kunqu Opera A Dream of Red Mansions, Peking Opera along with other regional operas have all inherited features from Kunqu Opera.

"Dance always accompanies singing. In Peking Opera, the performer may stand still to sing a long piece. But in Kunqu Opera, as soon as the performer starts to sing, he needs to move his body. This is a distinct feature of this art," said Cao.

He told the Global Times that Kunqu Opera faced extinction during the 1940s and 1950s, when many of the opera's biggest talents abandoned their professions for survival. It wasn't until 1956, when Fifteen Strings of Cash was made under the encouragement of the then premier, that the art saw a revival.

In 2001, Kunqu Opera became an UNESCO World Oral and Intangible Heritage, and people were reminded of the art's importance.

Pai Hsien-yung, a renowned writer from Taiwan, produced The Young Lover's Version of The Peony Pavilion in 2007. The show has toured around the world, receiving critical acclaim. The Imperial Granary's rendition, a recent version set outdoors in Shanghai, and A Dream of Red Mansions among other shows, have all revived the appeal of Kunqu Opera.

1 2