Kunqu: a rocky journey to world cultural heritage

Written by Yin Xiuqi China Plus Published: 2019-03-12 15:16:28
Share this with Close
Messenger Messenger Pinterest LinkedIn

The play, Sifan, was the first milestone in Shen Shihua's Kunqu career. It was in 1954 that she first performed it after about a year learning Kunqu. [Photo: by courtesy of Shen Shihua]

The play, Sifan, was the first milestone in Shen Shihua's Kunqu career. [Photo: by courtesy of Shen Shihua]

"The first major play I performed on stage was Sifan. Sifan is a monologue. Even now I'm still very fond of this play," 78 year old Shen Shihua recalls.

Sifan depicts a nun who longs for a worldly life and love. To express the nun's inner feelings requires superb performance skills. It was in 1954 that Shen first performed it after about a year learning Kunqu.Back then, 13-year-old Shen had received intense training under her Kunqu masters.

And it was her innate love for traditional Chinese operas that had led the teenage girl to meet her masters just one year ago.

Shen was born in Shanghai, a hub of traditional Chinese operas in the first half of the 20th century.

"I was born and raised in Shanghai. There were lots of theatres in the city. The Great Theatre of China was just opposite the street I lived in. In my spare time I would go there to look at the performances staged there, even though I couldn't afford a ticket."

The Great Theatre of China was one of four major theatres in Shanghai which focused on staging Peking Opera performances.

After she came out of night school at 7pm, the young girl would go to the theatre to watch the operas, but as she couldn't afford to buy a ticket, all she could do was to peer at the performance from backstage.

Besides doing whatever she could to see the live performances, Shen also sold cigarettes at the theatre to make some extra money for her poor family. But it was this bittersweet experience that gave her a close-up taste of how Peking Opera performers prepared for on-stage performances, such as doing their make-up.

Out of an innate love for the traditional art, Shen finally summoned up the courage to ask her father to send her to learn opera at the theatre.

Her father did what she wanted. But things didn't go well.

"Just before my prospective teacher was going to hold an apprentice-admission ceremony for me, my father got a new job in Zhejiang Province. All of my family had to move there. So I wasn't able to learn Peking Opera at that time. But I really loved operas!"

Shen was thoroughly disappointed. She had to move to Zhejiang, a province to the south of Shanghai.

About half a year later, her father's business in Zhejiang failed. The family decided to move back to Shanghai and on their way back, they stayed in the city of Hangzhou for two days.

Hangzhou is the provincial capital of Zhejiang, and has long been a picturesque city rich in culture and learning.

During their stay in Hangzhou, Shen's father took her to wander along the West Lake, one of the city's most prominent and best known scenic spots.

After enjoying the scenery for some time, Shen felt hungry and tired, so her father took her to a shabby food restaurant to eat wontons. They sat at a table waiting for their food.

Sitting opposite them was a middle-aged man, who Shen could see had sweat emerging on his forehead as he tucked into his food. Her attention was caught by this.

"I was staring at him. I spotted a badge on his coat which partially read 'Jutuan'. These two Chinese characters made me very happy. I spoke to him in the Shanghai dialect, 'Uncle, are you in a troupe?' he said, 'how do you know?' I said 'I spotted your troupe badge'. 'Yes, yes, I was. Why are you interested?' He asked me. I said I wanted to learn opera. 'That's Good! What kind of opera do you want to learn?' he asked. I replied, 'Peking opera'. "

But her fellow diner's next answer surprised Shen.

"He said, 'I don't do Peking Opera. What I perform is Kunqu.' I asked,' what is Kunqu?' He said Kunqu was the ancestor of Peking Opera. Wow, I thought Peking opera was fantastic already; its ancestor must be even better, I thought. I said, 'I want to learn it!' He asked me to come to him at the Renmin Youyi Chang the next day."

Renmin Youyi Chang, which means People's Entertainment Theatre, was a major theatre in Hangzhou, similar to the Great Theatre of China in Shanghai.

And it wasn't long before Shen discovered that the man she had encountered in the restaurant was Wang Chuansong, a performer with the Hangzhou-based Guofeng Kunsu Troupe, which specialized in Kunqu.

The next day Shen and her father went to the troupe's headquarters and met with Wang. Her interview went well. Shen, then 12 years old, finally began her career in Kunqu.

An on-stage rendition of the Peony Pavilion, another renowned play of Kunqu,by Shen(right). [Photo: by courtesy of Shen Shihua]

An on-stage rendition of the Peony Pavilion, another renowned play of Kunqu, by Shen(right). [Photo: by courtesy of Shen Shihua]

As Shen Shihua began her apprenticeship in the Hangzhou-based Kunqu troupe in 1953, the traditional art was actually on the brink of extinction.

Compared with the more popular Peking Opera, Kunqu's fan base was far smaller because of the opera's elite-oriented aesthetic focus and the poverty of the public.

Recalling the situation at her Beijing home some seven decades later, Shen says that across the whole country there was only one Kunqu troupe struggling to survive.

And even worse, the Hangzhou Kunqu group was described as "half a troupe" because of its disorder and low morale.

"In the entire country there was just half a Kunqu troupe. Who knew this opera? People couldn't understand it. There were no subtitles to go with the performances. People couldn't understand it even with subtitles because Kunqu uses very formal, classical Chinese."

Kunqu has often been considered an elite strand of Chinese drama. In its 600-year history, it has accumulated a repertoire of more than 400 Zhezixi, which are the selected highlights of a larger play.

Traditional masterpieces include The Peony Pavilion, The Palace of Eternal Youth and The Peach Blossom Fan. These were all written by renowned Chinese playwrights such as Tang Xianzu, who lived in the 16th century.

Most stories in traditional Kunqu plays are romantic and poetic. The stage performance features singing and dancing along with a small ensemble of wind, string and percussion instruments. Refinement, lyricism and rigor are its main appeal.

But such elegance and appeal has also made it difficult to strike a chord with the less-educated general public.

It's only due to the persistence of the only Kunqu troupe in Hangzhou and the innovation of the opera itself that it was saved from disappearing.

Shen remembers she and several of her troupe's young members quarrelling over some trivial things amid the gloomy state of the troupe. And this led to a dramatic moment with their team leader and her teacher, Zhou Chuanying.

"Master Zhou said to us that we had lost heart. But he said he was determined to continue Kunqu opera. Suddenly he took out a fruit knife and stabbed the back of his hand to show his determination. Blood spurted out. We were shocked and scared. We said to him we'd never quarrel again and would work hard."

After this incident, the Hangzhou Kunqu troupe tried their best to present the best performances to attract audiences.

Things gradually began to change for the better. One day in 1955, a Zhejiang government official came to watch the troupe's performance of Shi Wuguan, a traditional play about a criminal case.

The official, Huang Yuan, was in charge of the publicity and cultural affairs of Zhejiang Province. He thought the play Shi Wuguan was very good and suggested revising it to expand its appeal.

A revision team was soon established and government subsidy was granted to the troupe so it could finish the job. After months of work, the troupe came up with a compact and revised edition of Shi Wuguan.

Shi Wuguan literally means 15 strings of copper coins, which are the same as about 75 grams of gold. The play is set in a small town during the Ming Dynasty some five hundred years before now. It's about a hooligan, who steals that amount of money from a butcher after killing him.

Without investigating, the local county magistrate decides that the butcher's daughter is the murderer, but the sentence is later corrected by a higher official after making thorough investigations and the real culprit is brought to justice in the end.

The revised edition of the traditional play by the Hangzhou troupe focused more on the importance of ordinary people in bringing the real culprit to justice. And this was significant as China in the mid-1950s was undergoing huge societal changes amid government-led socialist reforms.

The combination of the ordinary-people focus and the aesthetic appeal of the traditional art form meant the play was well received by local government officials as well as common audiences.

The turning point came in the spring of 1956, when the Hangzhou troupe was recommended to perform in Beijing.

After three days' trip by train, the 50-member troupe arrived in the capital city. But when they first performed for Beijing's ordinary audiences, the reception was lukewarm. Afterwards, it was arranged for them to perform for the top state leaders, including Chairman Mao Zedong.

Shen remembers their performance received a standing ovation from the officials. Their efforts had finally begun to pay off.

"After this, the People's Daily published an editorial on its cover -- 'On a play which saves an opera'. The editorial created quite a stir in Beijing. The play instantly became so popular that you couldn't get a ticket."

The troupe stayed in Beijing for about seven weeks, during which time they put on 46 performances. This means they performed almost every day, in front of more than 70-thousand people in total.

Zhang Yifan is a researcher on traditional Chinese operas at the Beijing-based Renmin University of China. He says the revised play marked a watershed moment in the revival and development of Kunqu.

"The performance of Shiwuguan in Beijing was a complete turnaround for Kunqu. This turnaround was historic. No Kunqu performer could even imagine such a great change before their trip to Beijing."

After the success in the Chinese capital, the play Shiwuguan and the Hangzhou-based Kunqu troupe enjoyed some ten years of healthy development.

Shen Shihua, the teenage girl who participated in the 1956 Beijing charm offensive, witnessed another milestone in her own Kunqu career two years later. In 1958, she took over the main role in Shiwuguan.

But the good days for Kunqu and Shen didn't last long. The ten-year Cultural Revolution, which was launched in 1966, dealt a heavy blow to Kunqu and Shen, who was in her 20s at that time.

"Our troupe was disbanded. We couldn't put on Kunqu performances. You couldn't even think about it. It was worse than before. I was moved to work in a factory. All the Kunqu troupes were disbanded and their members were moved to work on farms or in factories. It was all finished!"

Fortunately, this ten-year gap did not completely kill off the opera or the resilience of the performers themselves after the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976.

"Zhou Chuanying asked us back to restore the troupe. We first restored Shiwuguan and other plays. You know, I learned Kunqu when I was little. I could never forget how to perform it. During the 10-year Cultural Revolution, you didn't dare to think about it. At the end of that period, all the plays came back to me¬¬ again. There were no recordings or videos, all we could do was to remember it. Now we have all these technologies which can help you. But then we just relied on our memories."

With a U-turn of government policy at the end of the 1970s, Shen and her beloved Kunqu underwent a long-craved restoration, but it was brief. Fresh new challenges lay ahead.

Shen Shihua, her husband Niu Biao and traditional Chinese opera researcher Zhang Yifan(left). [Photo: Chinaplus/Yin Xiuqi]

Shen Shihua, her husband Niu Biao and traditional Chinese opera researcher Zhang Yifan(left). [Photo: Chinaplus/Yin Xiuqi]

In the reform and opening-up era since 1978, Kunqu, like other traditional operas, was facing challenges from other modern genres of art – such as film and television.

Fan bases and the supply of new performers were both in crisis during the 1980s.

"At that time, foreign performing troupes and films began to come to our country. Our troupe recruited some 70 new students. Almost all of them quit and went to work in the TV or film industry."

Amid the decline of Kunqu, Shen faced another personal challenge when her husband, who was a Peking Opera performer, decided to move from Hangzhou to his hometown Beijing.

Shen, at that time in her 40s, followed her husband. She became a teacher at the Beijing-based National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts in 1986.

Shen says her new job gave her a good platform from which to promote Kunqu to young people, making use of her years of on-stage experience.

"During my teaching at the academy, many of the students learned Peking Opera and other local operas. But they all wanted to learn Kunqu as it's regarded as the ancestor of all other traditional operas. So I've taught a great number of students, I think hundreds so far. Although a teacher should support her students like a ladder, I think it's good. You know, more than 30 of my students have received Plum Blossom Prizes."

The Plum Blossom Prize, awarded by the China Theatre Association, is the highest theatrical award in the country.

Shen's performing and teaching career in Kunqu has contributed to a sound development of the traditional art in the new century.

In 2001, UNESCO, the United Nations' cultural organization, awarded Kunqu the title "Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity".

And to reward her for her contributions, Shen Shihua was named by the Chinese government as the representative inheritor of intangible cultural heritage for Kunqu in 2011.

At the same time, her husband Niu Biao was awarded the same title for Peking Opera.

With their lifetime experience, the two retirees are still coaching Kunqu learners at their home in Beijing.

Shen's husband says it's their responsibility to pass down their knowledge and experience to the younger generation.

"Actually, Peking and Kunqu both epitomize classical Chinese aesthetics. We are both inheritors of intangible cultural heritages. She is for Kunqu. I'm for Peking Opera. We feel we have a great responsibility to pass down what we know to the young people so that these traditional arts can develop well in the future."

Traditional Chinese opera researcher Zhang Yifan says Shen Shihua is a pivotal figure in the development of Kunqu since the founding of New China in 1949.

"Shen belongs to the first generation of Kunqu performers since 1949. The coaching she received from her teachers was abundant. This means she has inherited a lot, which is very important. And during her youth, she had a lot of on-stage practice."

Zhang adds that because Shen went into teaching in her middle age, she managed to avoid the tendency to adopt modern changes, which many frontline Kunqu performers had done to attract fans.

Ironically, it was this largely off-stage teaching experience that led to Shen preserving many Kunqu traditions, which Zhang regards as very important.

Zhang says Kunqu has now entered its best era in terms of fan base and government support.

"There were never bigger Kunqu audiences, especially young audiences, than today. Yet we shouldn't be over-optimistic about the development of Kunqu. Frankly speaking, many so-called fans of Kunqu are just influenced by the way it's promoted, and they might change their minds after a brief trend. For a sound development, there should be a small core group of performers and fans. But the larger fan base is, of course, helpful for the small core group."

Zhang thinks the small core group, represented by Shen and her students, has been firmly established.

According to Zhang, there are now at least eight Kunqu troupes and some 1,000 artists and related workers across China. He adds that though the exact number of the fan base is unknown, it must be large and substantial.

[Selfie is a revamped daily features program produced by CRI that gets to the heart of Chinese society, life and culture. To know more about this program, you can download the China Plus App on your mobile phone.]

Related stories

Share this story on