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chuanju 川劇 is a Sichuan xiqu genre of considerable antiquity, sharing some repertoire with kunqu through borrowing in both directions. It incorporates five different musical systems, one of which is kunqu.
errenzhuan 二人轉 is a genre from northeastern China, literally meaning two people (erren 二人) telling stories by performing different roles (zhuan 轉). First recorded in the mid-twentieth century, it has historically been a relatively informal performance genre (Haili Ma 2019b). However, troupes have also developed larger and more formal productions, such as the Zhu Maichen play discussed by Zhang Jiqing in Lecture 3.
Frontline Song and Dance Troupe (Qianxian gewutuan 前綫歌舞團) was a Nanjing-based troupe belonging to the People's Liberation Army, founded in 1955 and disbanded as part of the restructuring of military performance troupes in 2016.
huaiju 淮劇 is a genre that developed in the mid-nineteenth century, popular in northern Jiangsu and among migrants from that region to Shanghai. Perhaps due to its relatively recent origin, it has proven receptive to influences from other genres and open to modernization (Wenwei Du 2012).
huaju 話劇 is a modern spoken drama in China, derived from Western and Japanese models in the early twentieth century. It has a complex, sometimes antagonistic, but often productive relationship with xiqu.
jingju 京劇, formerly also known as jingxi 京戲 and “national opera” (guoju 國劇), is frequently referred to as “Peking opera” or “Beijing opera” in English. It is the best-known and most-studied genre of xiqu, and also the genre with the closest relationship to kunqu. When it overtook kunqu as a court genre in the nineteenth century, it adopted many of its elements and some of its music (Marjory Liu 1974, 64). In the early twentieth century, kunqu repertoire was kept alive to a substantial degree because certain scenes were kept in repertoire by jingju actors, notably Mei Lanfang. Even after 1949, the institutional separation was incomplete, with both Jiangsu and Shanghai troupes being historically connected to jingju companies. Kunqu actors training in martial scenes were and are also often trained by jingju performers, and major figures such as Yu Zhenfei and Yan Huizhu were equally if not more famous for their jingju work.
Kunqu singing, often called water-milled singing (shuimo qiang 水磨腔), is characterized by slow tempi, sustained pitches, and melisma, in which syllables are sung over several notes (Marjory Liu 1974, 65). Voice is usually accompanied by the flute which is the most important instrument in the orchestra. Most scenes have a principal aria (zhuqu 主曲), considered central to the scene's performance. In kunqu the melody is always carried by the singer and the orchestra together, and unlike in many other xiqu genres arias feature no orchestral bridges (guomen 過門). Given that there are “no instrumental interludes where the voice can rest” (Strassberg 1976, 52), where and how to breathe becomes an important consideration, and is often marked on scores.
Arias are divided into two melodic modes, the northern-style melodies (beiqu 北曲), with their seven-note diatonic scale, and southern-style melodies (nanqu 南曲), which are fundamentally pentatonic, using the other two notes only for ornamentation (Mark 2013, 21). Kunqu circles generally consider the former to represent the “spirit of the north” as it is more “male, exalted, lively, and rapid,” while the latter is considered to represent the “spirit of the south” as it is “soft, fluid, and melodious” (Tsiang Un-kai 1932, 14), using slower tempi, more melisma, and “expansive rhythmic structures” (Nine Modes Manual Online 2022). Broadly speaking, northern-style arias may be more martial and strident, and southern-styles more romantic and mellifluous in character.
Since Chinese is a modal language, the melody is deeply structured by the tones associated with each character (Marjory Liu 1974). The pronunciation of certain characters also depends on whether the aria is in the northern or the southern style. One of the most important phonetic distinctions between singing northern- and southern-style arias involves the entering tone (rusheng 入聲) characters. In southern-style arias, entering tones are usually sung with a glottal stop, ref lecting pronunciations in Wu dialects (and other forms of southern Chinese) and furnishing a “tremendously dynamic effect … which brings out every detail of the melismatic patterns and yet does not destroy the overall coherence” (ibid., 84).
Kunqu, recognised by UNESCO in 2001 as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, is among the oldest and most refined traditions of the family of genres known as xiqu (music-drama or 'Chinese opera'). Today, the art form's musical and performance traditions are being passed on by senior artists in several major cities of the Yang-tze River basin as well as Beijing. This book consists of twelve explanatory narrations, selected and translated from among an expansive collective endeavour in Chinese.
Each performer narration sheds light on the human processes that create and transmit pieces of theatre, allowing actors' voices to be heard for the first time in English. Meanwhile, annotations place these narratives in historical, literary, discursive and aesthetic contexts.
Close critical attention shows how concepts such as 'tradition' are in fact the sites of constant elaboration and negotiation, and reveal kunqu as a living and changing art form. Methodologically, this work breaks new ground by centering the performers' perspective rather than text, providing a complement and a challenge to performance-analysis, ideological, sociological, or plot-based perspectives on xiqu.
The purpose of this book is to help researchers, students, and theatregoers get a sense of how actor knowledge is structured and expressed in Chinese traditional theatre (xiqu 戲曲), specifically in the form of kunqu 崑曲. To this end, it offers some of the necessary tools to interpret what goes on when actors are onstage, placing performance practice within its network of transmission, vocabulary of technique, repertoire structure, and institutional context. Outside of China and Chinese theatre studies, few theatre practitioners have a clear sense of how actor training or repertoire transmission in China actually function, or their terms of reference. Yet theatre accounts such as these are important not only to help enthusiasts and researchers come to grips with xiqu on its own terms but also to assist those who would like to work respectfully on intercultural projects involving xiqu. This introduction can only briskly sketch some information about kunqu that should make the lectures more intelligible to the reader newly coming to Chinese theatre. If we succeed in our aims, the book itself may serve as the introduction to kunqu.
Knowledge about xiqu exists largely in an embodied form. The accessibility of artist expertise has been circumscribed by its tradition of oral transmission. Historically, hard-won knowledge of this kind has not been lightly shared; many aspects of theatre artistry have been regarded as sensitive, even proprietary. Transmission is sometimes treated as delicately as material inheritance. Fortunately for the aficionado, amateur performer, and researcher, xiqu actor accounts of their performance practice began to be published in periodicals in the Republican era (1912–1949) and in books after 1949. Audiovisual lectures were also sporadically recorded, but it is only in recent years that large-scale and more systematic projects to document xiqu theatre practice have appeared. The largest such enterprise to date for kunqu is Masters’ Lectures on One Hundred Kunqu Scenes (Kunqu baizhong, dashi shuoxi 崑曲百種, 大師說戲) (Yip Siu Hing and Masters’ Studio 2014). The present book consists of annotated translations of 12 of its lectures, not even one eighth of the original Chinese project's scope.
Ajia 阿甲 (1907–1994) was the alias and professional name of Fu Lüheng 符律衡. A playwright and director, he was an important intellectual figure in Communist theatre reform, starting from his arrival in Yan’an in 1938 and culminating with his involvement in the revolutionary operas of the 1960s, especially The Red Lantern. He helped to create and institutionalize the role of xiqu stage directors (Xing Fan 2018, Chap. 9). For a summary of his theatre theory, see Liu Yizhen (1988).
Bai Honglin 白鴻林 (1920–1987) was a wusheng performer trained by his father. He taught martial stage movements to students of the “first kunqu class” [Appendix I] in Shanghai before moving to Henan to work in a yuju [Appendix J] troupe in 1958.
Cai Yaoxian 蔡瑶銑 (1943–2005) specialized in guimendan and zhengdan role types. Though graduating from the Shanghai school in 1961, she moved to the Northern Company [Appendix I] in 1979 where she became their leading dan during the 1980s and 1990s, often performing opposite Hou Shaokui. She won a Plum Blossom Prize in 1988.
Cai Zhengren 蔡正仁 (b. 1941), see Lecture 6.
Chang Xiangyu 常香玉 (1923–2004) was a yuju dan, known for her striking voice. Her performance of the woman warrior Hua Mulan 花木蘭 became popular nationally as a result of a 1956 film.
Chen Baichen 陳白塵 (1908–1994) was an author of fiction and huaju drama, now best remembered for his wartime satires. He became an important cultural official in the People's Republic of China (PRC) and produced patriotic plays such as Song of the Great Wind, which in 1980 was adapted for kunqu as Empress Lü Usurps the Throne.
Chen Furui 陳富瑞 (1904–1971) was a jing ju wusheng. After an acting career during the Republican period, he became a key wusheng instructor for the Shanghai Troupe in the 1950s.
Cheng Yonglong 程永龍 (1873–1946) was a jing ju hualian, especially popular in the Republican era for playing the Three Kingdoms hero Guan Yu.
A reasonably robust stylistic distinction divides the main troupes into southern (Shanghai, Jiangsu, Suzhou, Zhejiang), northern, and Hunan styles. This division affects both what and how repertoire is performed. The “southern” troupes largely derive their repertoire from the “chuan” generation whereas northern and Hunan styles each have independent lineages and inheritance.
In ordinary conversation, troupes are not given full names but instead are referred to by a two-character abbreviation consisting of a place designation and “kun” 崑 for kunqu or kunju. Before the Cultural Revolution, perhaps because of the unwelcome elite associations of kunqu, Zhejiang and Jiangsu kunqu troupes were also suju [Appendix J] troupes, while Shanghai kunqu actors were also included in jing ju youth troupes. After the Cultural Revolution, these were reconstituted as kunqu-only troupes and the Jiangsu Company's Suzhou ensemble became an independent company. At present, the distinction between “troupe” (tuan 團) and “company” ( yuan 院) is not institutionally substantial.
The Hunan Troupe was founded in 1960 and became a provincial-level organization in 1964. Situated in the city of Chenzhou 郴州, the troupe is geographically isolated from the genre's core areas and performs in a distinct style, so it has been relatively peripheral to the revival of national interest in kunqu.
Jiangsu Company (Shengkun 省崑)
Jiangsu Kunju Company ( Jiangsu sheng kunju yuan 江蘇省崑劇院)
The success of Fifteen Strings of Cash caused the Suzhou municipal government to form the Jiangsu Suju and Kunju Troupe ( Jiangsu sheng su-kunju tuan 江蘇省蘇崑劇團) in 1956, replacing an existing suju company. In 1960, a troupe of 30 people, including Zhang Jiqing, was split off and moved to the provincial capital of Nanjing while another group continued in Suzhou.1In 1970, during the Cultural Revolution, the troupe briefly became the second provincial jing ju troupe, Second Peking Opera Troupe of Jiangsu Province ( Jiangsu sheng jingju er tuan 江蘇省京劇二團). Regrouping in 1977 after the Cultural Revolution, it acquired its current name (going from “troupe” to “company”) and venue.
Liu Yilong 劉異龍 (b. 1940) has for many years been a leading chou 丑 of the Shanghai Troupe. Born in Jiangxi, outside kunqu's core area, he had to acquire the Suzhou dialect as a young man. In theatre school he cycled through numerous role types before settling into the chou repertoire. He studied with “chuan” generation (chuan zi bei 傳字輩) performers, including Hua Chuanhao 華傳浩 and Wang Chuansong 王傳淞 [Appendix H]. His stage collaborations with the versatile dan 旦 Liang Guyin 梁谷音 [see Lecture 11], including for this scene, are particularly well known.
“Descending the Mountain” (“Xiashan” 下山) is one of the most popular comic scenes in kunqu. Since Chinese monasteries and nunneries are usually (and in narratives, reliably) located on hills and mountains, reference to “descending the mountain” already implies escape from religious life.
“Descending the Mountain” can refer to the whole scene or just to a solo section for the monk Benwu 本無, which can also be called “The Little Monk Descends the Mountain” (“Xiaoheshang xiashan” 小和尚下山). When specified as “Double Descending the Mountain” (“Shuang xiashan” 雙下山), also known as “Monk Meets Nun” (“Sengni hui” 僧尼會), a second part is performed during which Benwu is joined by the nun Sekong 色空. “Descending the Mountain” is closely linked to Sekong's scene, “Longing for the Ordinary World” (“Si fan” 思凡), which takes place previously, and in which Sekong prepares to leave the abbey and rejoin the ordinary world.
Both scenes had become popular in kunqu by the eighteenth century (Goldman 2001). Older versions ended with karmic retributions for the characters for their sins, perhaps extracted from or related to the Mulian narrative. In the scenes as extant in repertoire (which do not treat their later lives at all), that harsh judgment is absent in favor of the celebration of the characters’ amorous rebellion against the strictures of religion, since they were given to the temples as children (to save their lives) and have no religious vocation.
Kunqu, recognized by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2001 as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, is among the oldest and most refined traditions of the family of genres known as xiqu. For many connoisseurs, kunqu represents the towering achievement of the Chinese traditional stage. Its texts are refined and literary, its stage movements distinctive and graceful, its music haunting and mellifluous. It can make a serious claim to being both an ancient and a comprehensive art, with gesture and gaze observed and regulated as much as pitch or timbre. These qualities give it a prestige that has successfully passed from late imperial literati culture to the arts cognoscenti of today's Chinese cities.
Having survived the turmoil of the Chinese twentieth century, kunqu's musical and performance traditions are currently passed on by senior artists in the professional troupes of several major cities of the Yangtze River basin as well as Beijing and Chenzhou (Hunan). Since research has largely focused on the textual basis of performance, the transmission of kunqu performance technique, and the shifts and refinements of kunqu tradition have been only patchily understood outside of theatre circles.
Despite the efforts of generations of performers, academics, translators, community organizers, and connoisseurs, it remains difficult to initiate a student or an actor who does not read Chinese into the world and logic of kunqu. Materials in English often require a great deal of philological knowledge and are not very reflective or practical. By providing access to experienced actors’ lectures, this book constitutes an attempt to give insight into the history, society, and practical considerations of kunqu as seen from the perspective of contemporary actors. Each chapter contains a lecture by a master performer on how to perform a particular kunqu scene, thus shedding light on the human processes—technical, pedagogical, ideological, social—that create a particular piece of theatre and transmit it over time. These translations allow kunqu actors’ voices to be heard for the first time in international theatre and performance studies. Meanwhile, the annotations help the reader to place these narratives in historical, literary, discursive, and aesthetic contexts.
“Blocking the Horse” (“Dangma” 擋馬) is a scene about the heroic Yang family of the early Song. A maiden dresses as a man to reconnoiter enemy territory and passes by a tavern run by an ally. He wants to steal her identifying waist tag, since it would allow him to return home. Only after combat do they discover their real identities and resolve to join forces. Drawing the script from Qing miscellanies, kunqu performers and aficionados developed it for the stage in the 1950s and 1960s, probably to introduce more martial scenes into regular repertoire.
Burning Incense (Fenxiang ji 焚香記) is a late Ming chuanqi play by Wang Yufeng 王玉峰, telling the much older story of the scholar Wang Kui 王魁 and the courtesan Guiying 桂英. When he abandons her, she seeks redress. “Appeal to Heaven” (“Yanggao” 陽告), in which Guiying asks the supernatural spirits who witnessed their love vows to intercede, has remained a popular kunqu scene.
The Butterfly Dream (Hudie meng 蝴蝶夢) is a narrative, popular in several theatre and storytelling genres, based on an irreverent folk tale and featuring the early philosopher Zhuangzi 莊子 and his wife, whose n ame in the kunqu version is Tian-shi 田氏. Zhuangzi tests the fidelity of his wife by faking his death and then reappearing as a handsome young man. An old man, who is actually a transformed butterfly, acts as a go-between between his wife and the handsome young man. The most frequently performed extract is a double scene called “Arranging a Match and Making a Response” (“Shuoqin huihua” 說親回話), in which Tian-shi desperately seeks to secure the match while the drunken butterfly prevaricates. On the new couple's wedding night, Zhuangzi, still as the young man, pretends to be mortally ill and in need of human brains for medicinal purposes. Tian-shi, seeking to oblige him, hews Zhuangzi's coffin open, only for him to rise up out of it, accusing her of faithlessness. The shame drives her to suicide.
Costuming is an area of comparative resemblance across xiqu genres. Specific Chineselanguage resources for kunqu exist (Liu Yuemei 2010), though at present English resources are limited to work on jing ju costuming, which however features considerable overlap with kunqu. Xiqu costumes generally do not reflect differences between historical eras (nor do they reflect any given period's historical dress accurately) so audiences can clearly perceive a character's role type but not their historical period. Seasons and Chinese regions are also mostly invisible in costuming, although status, wealth, rank, ethnicity, and the martial/civil binary of repertoire are very clear. Although there are accepted costuming practices for each role type, it is common for mature actors to make alterations for aesthetic or practical purposes.
Robes and trousers
• Court robe (mang 蟒) is the most formal and high-status garment.
• Official robe (guanyi 官衣) is used by male characters of middling rank.
• Pi robe (pi or pei 帔) is used by imperial characters and high officials. While the court robe is fastened at the side, the pi robe is fastened at the center front. An informal robe is often worn underneath the pi robe.
• Informal robe (xuezi 褶子) is side-fastened and principally used by young scholars. For lower-status characters, it may be a somber, unpatterned robe called a dark robe (qingshan 青衫). Serving characters may wear a shorter, even more informal robe called a tea robe (chayi 茶衣), so called because it may be worn by a serving lad in a teahouse.
• Armor (kao 靠) is used by martial figures. Hard armor ( yingkao 硬靠) has four pennants on the back while soft armor (ruankao 軟靠) does not and is therefore is more convenient for dynamic choreography.
• Archer's robe ( jianyi 箭衣), apparently of Manchu origin, is a less formal military garment than armor, used for a variety of characters (Bonds 2019, 142–43).
• Colored trousers (caiku 彩裤) are unembroidered cotton trousers. They are usually worn underneath robes or armor but are sometimes visible.
• Water sleeves (shuixiu 水袖) are extended white sleeves attached to robes, though lower-class or martial characters typically do not use them.
Zhang Jiqing 張繼青 (1939–2022), like her husband Yao Jikun 姚繼焜 [Appendix H], was a member of the post-war “ji” 繼 generation of students of the Jiangsu Company. Zhang had a successful early career before the Cultural Revolution, but reached her greatest fame in the post-Mao reform and opening years, winning an inaugural national Plum Blossom Prize (Meihua jiang 梅花獎) in 1984. Her performances in Europe and Japan in the 1980s and 1990s played a major role in building kunqu's 崑曲 international profile. This lecture concerns one of kunqu's great dream scenes and by far the most bitter. Along with “The Dream Interrupted” (“Jingmeng” 驚夢) and “Seeking the Dream” (“Xunmeng” 尋夢) (both from The Peony Pavilion [Mudan ting 牡丹亭] [Appendix F]), this is one of the performances that earned Zhang Jiqing the nickname “Three Dreams Zhang” (Zhang Sanmeng 張三夢). The role she is describing in this lecture belongs to the zhengdan 正旦 type but her performance as Du Liniang 杜麗娘 in The Peony Pavilion, captured in a 1986 film, has become an equally enduring standard for the younger and more innocent guimendan 閨門旦.
The story of Lanke Mountain, also known as Zhu Maichen Divorces His Wife (Zhu Maichen xiuqi 朱買臣休妻), has its origins in the biography of the actual Han dynasty official Zhu Maichen. The narrative has a long pedigree on the Chinese stage and continues to be popular in various genres. However, no full chuanqi 傳奇 script is extant, nor is an author known, though key scenes feature in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century collections. The story concerns Zhu's wife Cui-shi 崔氏, who, frustrated by unfulfilled promises of an end to their poverty, demands and receives a divorce from Zhu (“Divorce under Duress” [“Bixiu” 逼休]). However, her remarriage to Carpenter Zhang 張木匠 is a bitter disappointment (“Regretting Remarriage” [“Huijia” 悔嫁]).
In “The Mad Dream” (“Chimeng” 痴夢), Cui-shi learns that Zhu's learning has been recognized and he has been appointed to an official post.
Bai Pu 白 樸 (c.1226–1306), also known as Bai Renfu 白仁甫, is a Yuan zaju playwright, three of whose works survive. None of these are currently staged but the best known of these, Rain on the Paulownia Tree (Wutong yu 梧桐雨), is an earlier canonical treatment of the same love story as The Palace of Lasting Life, though with a more critical representation of the emperor.
Cui Shipei 崔時佩 is a little-known early sixteenth-century figure, remembered today for a lost chuanqi version of The Western Chamber, elaborated by his friend Li Rihua (Lorraine Dong 1978, 238–39).
Dong Jieyuan 董解元 ( fl. 1190–1208) is the attribution given to an early chantefable version of The Western Chamber. Jieyuan is a title rather than a personal name, and little else is known.
Feng Menglong 馮夢龍 (1574–1646) is a prolific late Ming writer and editor of fiction, drama, and poetry. Feng is important in kunqu history both as the editor of an influential adaptation of The Peony Pavilion with kunqu performers in mind, and as the author and editor of works that inspired theatre narratives.
Gao Lian 高濂 (1573–1620) is a Hangzhou author whose best-known extant work is The Jade Hairpin. Besides a brief residence in Beijing and a later record of him living by West Lake, little is known of his life.
Gao Ming 高明 (c.1305–1369) is also sometimes known by his courtesy name, Gao Zecheng 高則誠. He held minor administrative posts in Wenzhou from 1345 to 1356. His major work, The Lute, was apparently written in retirement.
Guan Hanqing 關漢卿 (c.1240–1321) shares with Tang Xianzu a position at the apex of the Chinese dramatic canon. Recorded as being from the Mongol capital of Dadu (now Beijing), roughly 18 extant zaju scripts are attributed to him, of which the most famous is The Injustice to Dou E (Dou E yuan 竇娥冤) (West and Idema 2010, 1–2). Only one play, Single Sword Meeting, is regularly represented on the kunqu stage.
Liang Guyin 梁谷音 (b. 1942) is a performer in the Shanghai Troupe, admired for her portrayals of zhengdan 正旦 and liudan 六旦 roles, including celebrated performances as transgressive women such as Yan Poxi 閻婆惜 from The Water Margin Chronicle (Shuihu ji 水滸記) and Pan Jinlian 潘金蓮 from The Noble Knight-Errant (Yixia ji 義俠 記) [both Appendix F]. Professor Harold Shadick of Yenching and Cornell universities noted of a 1986 performance that Liang “displays an incredible intensity and variety of emotion as her singing and gesturing give expression to anger, bitterness, tenderness, piteousness, sorrow and despair” (Shadick 1986, 162), though she is equally noted for playful roles such as the one she describes here.
The Western Chamber (Xixiang ji 西廂記) tells the love story of a talented scholar and beautiful young woman. Though the narrative ended badly when it first appeared as a literary tale in the Tang, it has been treated predominantly as a comedy since a chantefable version by Dong Jieyuan 董解元 appeared in 1200 (Lorraine Dong 1978; Geng Song 2004, 25). Various dramatic versions followed in later centuries, with a version by Wang Shifu 王實甫, composed of five successive zaju 雜劇 scripts, becoming a canonical literary text. As Liang explains, the kunqu Western Chamber, however, is based not on Wang's drama but on an early sixteenth-century chuanqi 傳奇 drama by Li Rihua 李日華, known as the “southern” Western Chamber. The Li version is thought to be a redaction of a lost text by Cui Shipei 崔時佩 [all Appendix G] (Ling Hon Lam 2005, 369).
The name of the heroine, Cui Yingying 崔鶯鶯, is stable from the beginning, while the young man is originally and still mainly known by his surname, Zhang 張. In the Wang and Li versions he becomes Zhang Gong 張珙, but most often he is referred to simply as Student Zhang 張生.