Kunqu (pronounced kwin chu 昆曲) is one of the oldest and most refined styles of traditional Chinese theatre performed today. It is a synthesis of drama, opera, ballet, poetry recital, and musical recital, which also draws on earlier forms of Chinese theatrical performances such as mime, farce, acrobatics, ballad recital, and medley, some of which go back to the third century B.C. or even earlier. In a Kunqu performance, recitative is interspersed with arias sung to traditional melodies, called qu-pai. Each word or phrase is also expressed by a stylized movement or gesture that is essentially part of a dance, with strict rules of style and execution much like classical ballet. Even casual gestures must be precisely executed and timed to coordinate with the music and percussion. The refinement of the movement is further enhanced with stylized costumes that also serve as simple props.
Strictly speaking, the name Kunqu refers to the musical element of this art form. Kun refers to Kunshan and qu means music. The name derives from the fact that one of the principal types of regional music that went into the making of Kunqu came from the district of Kunshan near Suzhou, in modern Jiangsu Province. This type of regional music goes back to the 14th century. It was given shape in the 16th century by Wei Liangfu and others, who combined it with three other forms of southern music and with northern tunes from the drama of the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368). Wei Liangfu and his collaborators standardized the rules of rhyme, tones, pronunciation, and notation, making it possible for this regional form of music to become a national standard. By the end of the 16th century, Kunqu spread from the Suzhou region to the rest of China, and for the next 200 years was the most prestigious form of Chinese drama.
Kunqu is first and foremost a performing art. Performances are valued not only for their riveting synthesis of drama, singing and dancing, but also for the literary refinement of their poetic libretto. The plot is usually familiar to the audience, or else made available through a prose summary. In fact, most Kunqu plays would take several days to perform in their entirety. So any given performance generally consists of a few selected scenes from one or more well known plays.
Musical and Dramatic Structure of Kunqu
In a Kunqu performance, three media work simultaneously and in harmony to convey the meaning and desired esthetic effect: music, words, and dance. An accomplished Kunqu performer must master the special styles of singing and dance movement to convey the meaning and desired esthetic effect.
There are two, easily distinguished, styles of text and music. Arias, which are sung and accompanied by the orchestra, are elaborate poems of high literary quality. Prose passages (monologues and dialogues) are neither sung nor spoken but chanted in a stylized fashion comparable to the recitative of Western opera. Sometimes there is a combination of the two styles: one of the characters sings while another one chants at the same time.
Kunqu music is based on the “qupai ” principle. The poetic passages of the play are written to fit an a sequence of tunes, known as qu-pai, chosen from an existing repertory. The libretto must conform to the pattern of the particular “qu-pai” in regard to the number of lines, the number of syllables per line, tonal sequence and rhyme. Since Chinese is a tonal language, there is a delicate relation between words and tunes. Every word has a “melody”, and the musical air must be superimposed on the word melody, without interfering with it. Only after the main and subordinate qu-pai were selected did the author begin to compose the libretto to match the musical structure.
The language of Kunqu is not the dialect of Kunshan or Suzhou, nor is it standard Mandarin. It is an artificial stage language, a modified Mandarin with some features of the local dialect. Since the language in which Kunqu plays are written has eight tones, the composition of the libretto was a complex undertaking. Typically, the author had to continuously refine the libretto and musical notes until the word melody of libretto and the musical melody of qu-pai fell into harmony. In fact, an ideal harmony was seldom fully realized. Since the creation of a new Kunqu play presented such a great challenge to the author, almost all Kunqu playwrights were poets. The libretto typically has significant esthetic value in its own right, and many Kunqu libretti are highly regarded as examples of refined Chinese literature.
In addition to music and words, dance movements and highly stylized gestures form an integral part of the performance. As in classical ballet, the whole body is engaged, but the movement is much more grounded. The movements convey an intricate language of gestures and body movements that is similar but much more complex and extensive than the mime in classical ballet. Although the meaning of some movements is immediately understood even by the uninitiated, other movements are stylized and conventional, involving not only the body but also the costume (especially the sleeves) and props held in the hand, such as a fan.
Stage, Props, and Costumes
As in all traditional Chinese theater, Kunqu uses a minimum of props and scenery, which permits the performers to more easily express their stage movements in the form of dance. There is no curtain, and few props: sometimes a table and a chair. The performers appeal to the audience’s imagination and conjure up a scene or a setting (such as a door, a horse, a river, a boot) with words, gestures, and music. The costumes are elaborate exaggerated versions of the style of dress during the Ming Dynasty and make no attempt to fit the time or place of the action. For instance, in many roles, the performers wear robes with extremely long white sleeves call “water sleeves”, which essentially serve as props to accent their dance movements. One of the signs of accomplished Kunqu performers is the skill with which they manipulate their water sleeves and fan to enhance of the movement.
The costumes and simple props often convey additional information about the characteristic of the character. For instance, peonies on a young man’s robe might indicate a playboy, or carrying a magnifying glass might indicate social blindness. A Buddhist nun always carries duster to ward off evil spirits.
The meaning and accessibility of Kunqu performances are further enhanced by well defined role types. These roles differ not only in the type of character – young man, young woman, clown, etc — but also in the vocal requirements and the form in which the body is engaged. In fact, the stylized movement associated with each role type constitutes an art form in itself. The three most popular types of roles in Kunqu are 1) young women (dan), 2) young men (zheng scholar or civil officer), and 3) the clowns (qao). Other important role types include the old man role (lao zheng), old woman role (lao dan), and the painted face (jing).
The Kunqu Orchestra
Each Kunqu performance is accompanied by a small instrumental ensemble, generally consisting of between 6 to 10 musicians. This ensemble is divided into two sections, named wen-chang, the section composed of wind and string instruments, and wu-chang, the percussion section. The primary function of wen-chang is to accompany singing, led by the dizi, a horizontal bamboo flute. Depending on the play, it might also include a San-hsian (a three-stringed lute), erhu (a two-stringed fiddle), zheng (a bamboo wind organ or Pan’s pipe), and zither, The Wu-chang section consists of a Chinese xiqudrum, ban (wooden clappers), xiaoluo (small gong), daluo (big gong), and naobo (cymbals). It is led by a drummer who performs with a small drum and a pair of wooden clappers to set the pace of the play, while the gongs and cymbals are used to punctuate the action and emotion. The drummer is also the conductor of the orchestra.
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