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Learning about Kunqu

with Dr. Dongshin Chan

Mike Luger: Welcome to the Theatre History Podcast, a podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide.

[Kunqu singing interlude]

Hi, and welcome to the Theatre History Podcast. Kunqu is one of the most important forms of Chinese drama, and it's got a long and complicated history. Today, we're fortunate to have Dr. Dongshin Chang with us on the show to introduce us to Kunqu and explain how it fits into the larger context of the Chinese performing arts tradition.

Dongshin is an associate professor of theatre at Hunter College, who's an expert on Kunqu and has both written about it and translated a number of plays. Dongshin, thank you for joining us.

Dongshin Chang: And thanks a lot for your invitation, Mike.

MIke: Can you give us some cultural and historical context to start? Where does Kunqu come from, and when did it begin to develop?

Dongshin: Sure. In Chinese, the term "Kunqu" consists of two words. Kun, which is a shorthand for the region of Kunshan near the cities of Suzhou and Shanghai in China, and qu, which means melody or song. Therefore, Kunqu literally means the music style from Kunshan.

In the mid-sixteenth century, Kunqu became popular by, as its name indicates, its new and distinctive music style that is usually characterized as flowing, sophisticated, and elegant. This new music style is attributed to the work of the musician, Wei Liangfu, who resided in the Kunshan region and refined earlier music styles to create a new one, Kunqu. Soon, plays were written and performed in this new music style from Kunshan. Then, Kunqu gradually gained popularity, spread beyond the region, and then attained nationwide appreciation. As of today, Kunqu has been in existence for more than four hundred years. Very long history.

I will say that in the long history of Kunqu, I observe that there are, in terms of its development, its development can be divided into three periods: The Golden Age, the Era of Actable Plays—and this is a term I will explain very soon, "actable plays"—and the period of Survival and Revival. During its Golden Age, which is from the mid-sixteenth to the mid-eighteenth centuries, there were many plays written and performed in the Kunqu style, building both elite and popular followings. Then, during the Era of Actable Plays, which is from the mid-eighteenth to the late nineteenth centuries, it was performers rather than playwrights who advanced the Kunqu art and sustained its popularity through the creation and performance of what I call "actable plays.” Lastly, during the Survival and Revival period, which is from the late nineteenth century until now, Kunqu lost popular appeal to other forms of traditional Chinese theatre—such as jingju, popularly known as Peking or Beijing opera, and other forms—and almost died out in commercial theatre in the early twentieth century, but received rekindled interest and attention in the late twentieth century. It's great that Kunqu is still around.

MIke: Yeah, I think one of the most kind of wonderful things about this is you're talking about this form, and it's got centuries of history, but it's also something that you can see today. I'm wondering, what does a Kunqu performance look and sound like onstage?

Dongshin: To answer this question, I will need to provide a bit of explanation of the so-called traditional Chinese theatre—or popularly known as Chinese opera—and its performance because Kunqu is one of the many forms that have been categorized under this umbrella term, like traditional Chinese theatre or Chinese opera.

As early as the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, China had developed a very distinct style of theatre that was very musical with a structural core with lots of singing and performers who performed in stylized costumes and makeup and movement. Since then, many forms of theatre in China took shape and then shared these very common practices in stage performance. So if I'm going to answer your question, then a Kunqu performance will have… when you go see it you will see performers who perform in stylized costumes, makeup, and stylized movements, and who will sing a lot, I would say in most plays. Not in all plays. But singing is so important in traditional Chinese theatre. Actually I, personally, I would like to call it musical theatre, that it's like Chinese kind of musical theatre and is also very characteristic of the Kunqu musical style.

I believe that if we see a clip, it will help make sense of these descriptions. I think that maybe this will be a good place I could provide a clip, and I have a clip in mind, which is from The Peony Pavilion from the scene “A Stroll in the Garden.” We could just ask the viewer to watch a little bit.

Mike: Okay, I’m going to interrupt the interview for a moment because for this episode we’re going to do something just a little different. Dongshin has kindly provided us with a clip of a performance of a classic Kunqu work called The Peony Pavilion. If you’re able, I’d encourage you to pause this episode and look at our shownotes, which you can find on howlround.com. There’s a YouTube link there to Part 1 of the performance—you can watch the whole thing in two parts, which I’d encourage you do, but for now you can stick to this opening scene. It starts around a minute and thirty seconds into the clip, and it lasts about three minutes total. It’s OK if you can’t watch the video—you’ll still get the hear the gorgeous music and singing in the audio for this episode. But if you’re able, check out this brief portion, because you’ll get to see the amazing costumes and performers and have a little bit more of a sense of what kunqu looks like as Dongshin helps us learn more about it.

[Kunqu singing interlude]

Dongshin: That is a clip from The Peony Pavilion from the scene, “The Garden Visit,” that's my translation, depicting the young maiden Du Liniang when she wakes up one spring morning. She's still in her chamber, so she comes into the stage, and then with her maid, Chunxiang. They shared a verse form, but put in the Kunqu music style. That's how it was sung.

Mike: Yeah. It's such an interesting… and not least the musical style, I think, is perhaps very different from what people who aren't familiar with Kunqu might expect. I wonder if you could just maybe talk a little bit more about particularly the way that the performers sing.

Dongshin: Right. You see that Chinese theatre, as I earlier said, is a musical theatre, right? But you see the use of the voice is very distinct. Actually, earlier I mentioned that traditional Chinese theatre in this umbrella term; there are many, many different forms. They shared these characteristics: a stylized makeup, costume, and movement, and this kind of singing as the structural core. But they differ in terms of the vocal range, register. That's definitely something that is really important.

Secondly, in Kunqu I wonder if you heard the lead musical instrument is flute. The lead musical instrument accompanies the singing. In other forms, they might have different kind of musical instruments as the lead musical instruments.

For example, in jingju it's two-string fiddles. Also, I believe the range is much higher. The pitch is even higher. But in Kunqu, it's a little bit mellower. It's a bit lower. But still, you have to sing into sort of a falsetto, a bit like it. And also, the position of the projection, that's why sometimes when we say "opera.” It's a different kind, because the projection, the vocal range is different, but it's a different way of singing.

As I said, you heard that Kunqu is known for many of these romantic love stories, so there are quite a few slower arias. That doesn't mean that Kunqu doesn't have faster, lively arias. But in all, it has this flowing, like flowing arias that go up and down a lot. You have to kind of sing through that in a way to make it sound very smooth, as if you are flowing like water. That's what this musician Wei Liangfu did. Many people attribute him for this revelation to combine earlier style to make Kunqu, this unique music style. That's what I would say.

MIke: Thank you for that explanation. That's such a, I think nuanced and really helpful way as a sort of introduction into this. I think for many listeners, it's probably a rather unfamiliar form, and it's really great to sort of get a sense of what's distinguishing it. Thank you for that.

I'm just curious, too, in terms of context, where and when are these plays performed, either today or perhaps historically?

Dongshin: Yes, and we are now in the twenty-first century, right? For me, I have a very interesting journey, actually. I came to North America in the late 1990s, so actually my exposure to Kunqu has mainly been in North America. I'm from Taiwan, and I haven't been to China, so I always have to put this as a disclaimer. It's kind of interesting that I learned a lot about Kunqu through the diasporic Chinese communities here in different cities in North America.With that, I will share with the listeners what I know in my study and also what I observe here and what I learn from people who I meet here, mainly in New York City.

In the historical past, Kunqu, if it's for public performance, Kunqu is one form of public entertainment. Usually, Kunqu was performed for religious or seasonal festivals, so they would come together. They would perform at temples, markets, and set up these temporary, where they will have all these temporary stations set up for these occasions.

Then, troupes that perform Kunqu will go there perform for these occasions. That will provide livelihood for these troupes. Of course, we could get into more details about the troupes because they are troupes that rely on these performance occasions. They are also temporarily troupes formed by the locals. They will perform as dedication to the gods or to the festivals. That's one thing about this.

Secondly, there's another place, a where and when. It's actually in premodern China. Maybe a little bit of history about China. In 1912, China entered the Republic Era, and before that, China was in a monarchy, like dynasties, right? With all these emperors, empresses, etc. in premodern China, so that's what I call it.

In premodern China, the social classes were very distinct, that you belong to different social classes. Unfortunately, performers were considered outcasts of these social classes. They did not even belong to one, because they are at the bottom. From the top of these social classes were the scholar elites, and they kept their own servants, private entertainers for their banquets. Self-amusements. Some of these performers will serve these higher social class scholar elites, and that's when they will perform.

These scholar elites, because they have the knowledge and skills, they could compose plays. Sometimes they would have their own servant performers to perform for themselves. So that's another place for a performance.

Lastly, during the premodern era in large metropolises, in big cities where you have these entertainment districts, you have the teahouses, taverns, and later on theatre houses. There you could go see the shows.

At that time, by that I meant probably late in… these commercial establishments became very popular in the nineteenth century, but that's the time when Kunqu had lost its popular appeal. But Kunqu was absorbed into other forms. Kunqu was still being performed, but not advertised as Kunqus like some other pieces. So I think these are for the premodern era.

When China entered its Republic era, and then after the People's Republic of China was established, as well as where I'm from, I'm from Taiwan... During the twentieth century there were—I think there still are—state funded training schools, so you could have performers train there and then you will have these commercial establishments. They will work with these troupes and to provide opportunities for them to perform.

But I would say, so do they still do these traditional roles, like for the religious and seasonal festivals? Possibly, I think, but since Kunqu lost its popular appeal, maybe very few. That's my guess. I’d have to read more.

In terms of the North American context, I am part of a cultural arts organization called the Kunqu Society in New York City. We provide public programs, mostly free to low-cost, in order to promote, to introduce this form to the general public. We do shows at libraries, cultural arts venues, colleges, etc.

The clip that you just saw was a troupe, the Shanghai Kunqu Troupe, invited by the Kunqu Society, when they came over to perform in 2016 at my school, Hunter College. They perform at the Danny Kaye Playhouse. That's where it was performed.

MIke: You were just talking a little bit about some of the performers, both today and historically, who have done Kunqu. You mentioned these training schools. Who becomes a Kunqu performer, and what does it take? If you're enrolled in one of these training schools, what does it take to become a recognized performer in this style?

Dongshin: In the historical past, during the premodern era, theatre... We talk about the social classes, right? Theatre could be family business, so you were raised in that environment, you perform with your family. Theatre could be, if you were a servant, your masters ask you to receive training, you could become performer for the masters, you know? Or you could be procured or be bought by troupe owners if they are looking for performers, and usually these are children from the poor classes, so there may be an opportunity for them to earn money. Usually, they started young in the environment, and then they learn either from the family members or from the troupe owners, from the masters, etc.

During modern times, as I just mentioned about these state funded training schools, I could give some examples from the teachers that I am learning Kunqu from here in New York City. They relocated to North America after they received their training in China. From what I learn, they enter the training school young, at the age of between ten to twelve, very young. And then they receive, in general, eight years of training.

Then, I believe for the first few years they do basic training, and then they are separated into different role types depending on their look, their voice, what they can do. Then, they learn all these different plays for these role types, and then after they graduate in their late teens or early twenties, and then they start to perform.

I learned that ... Probably you know about the Cultural Revolution. There was this one generation when they were in the training and they received training, it was during the Cultural Revolution. During the Cultural Revolution, basically the traditional forms were suppressed. They were not allowed to be on stage. But it was after the Cultural Revolution that traditional forms came back.

I believe that it was in the late 1980s and 1990s they started to have more performance opportunities. Then there's something I will say, that in 2001, Kunqu was proclaimed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, in 2001 as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. That gave lots of attention to Kunqu, so actually Kunqu had kind of a revival in the early twenty-first century. Kunqu became popular again.

From my teachers' accounts, it takes a while to become proficient, good, in performing. It takes at least a decade for them to become good and then to... And they all train in one of very specific role types. Then eventually, I believe they mature, I'm going to say in their late thirties or forties, and then they become a master artist. They continue refine and perform well into their fifties and sixties. It's a life-long profession.

Mike: You were mentioning role types there. I'm just curious, could you explain what those are and how they work a little bit within Kunqu?

Dongshin: Sure. As I mentioned, Kunqu belongs to this umbrella term, traditional Chinese theatre, and then in all these different forms, they all have this similar style of role types. Simply put, they separate their roles in terms of training and performance into very basic in terms of gender, like male/female, sheng/dan. I think this is a very, very basic male/female.Then there's this very specific role type called jing, or later translated as "painted face," like larger-than-life characters. And then chou, clowns.

Then under, sheng, male role types, there are sub-role types from elderly, wise, lao sheng (mature male), to xiao sheng meaning a young male. In Kunqu, even under all these male sub role types, there are quite a few specific male role types that are very specific to Kunqu. There are all these state official, like male, guansheng, men with official ranks, all these government officials to the emperor. Then another one called jinsheng, meaning young scholars. Mainly they are playing romantic types.

Then there's another kind called zhiweisheng, meaning... It's because of their costume. They have these too long feathers, like really long, and usually they have martial arts skills. Then in Kunqu, there is also a destitute, poor scholars, gongsheng. Because usually for the jinsheng they are handsome, in their early twenties or teens, young, good looking. But for the gongsheng, because they fall in terms of their fortune, so they're poor in terms of their look. It requires different kind of skills, performance styles to portray that kind of character.

I would say that the role types might sound very generic, like man, woman, but actually it's quite complicated. I just described about the male, right? Under dan, female, again you have the elderly woman, mature woman, young maiden, vivacious younger girls, etc. And also wu dan, who have martial arts skills, etc. So under each, you are required to become really good at one specific type that will suit you well.

And not to mention even under jing, the painted face, there are different kinds, chou, there are also different kinds of clowns. And these are the larger categories in Kunqu. I would say in terms of the categories, most forms of traditional Chinese theatre follow these larger categories, but for each they all have this very specific subcategories.

Then it depends on the repertoire, the kinds of plays, and also this long lineage of performance tradition. What kind of plays have been passed down from performers to performers? And what they are good at, so they could train the next generation to perform in certain plays?

MIke: Yeah, you're talking about these plays. We've talked a little bit about the performance, about who's doing the performing. What about the plays themselves? I understand that these are not performed the same way that you would perform, say, a five-act Shakespeare drama.

Dongshin: Earlier I mentioned that, in my own observation, there are three historical periods. During the Golden Age, between the mid-sixteenth until mid-eighteenth centuries, there were many plays written for Kunqu, and many of the playwrights were scholar elites. Many of them actually wrote the plays for their own self-amusement and for their own troupes. In that way, I question whether many of the plays have ever been performed in full, because they are very… the plays are written in the traditional Chinese style.

Let me give the example of Peony Pavilion. For example, that playwright, Tang Xianzu, by profession was an official, but he resigned young due to his protest against certain policies. He retired, and then he started to compose plays. In the example of Peony Pavilion, it's a play of fifty-five scenes, so it's not only five acts. Just imagine there are fifty-five acts of the play involving, I would say in my estimation, at least one hundred characters. Probably more than one hundred. So it's quite impossible, because it's a play with multiple plots. The romantic love story serves one, and there's warring conflicts between the two countries.

Eventually, all these plots are disentangled towards the end, but the play could serve for reading pleasure as well, because usually the play was set up in scene one. Scene one already gives you the synopsis of the play. If you just want to know the story, you just read scene one, then you'll read a synopsis. You'll know what the play is about. This is the style of the script.

In terms of scripts, many of the scripts are long. Earlier, we just listened to this very short aria, and then the music could be traced back to the, probably early eighteenth century. It's hard to imagine that these plays were performed in full. There's something about this idea of the plays. So this is what happened, because there were records of plays being performed if they were performed at these scholar elites' households. It's possible they were performed in full length if they could take two or three days-

Mike: Yeah.

Dongshin: Take a break-

Mike: Right.

Dongshin: Then in terms of the role types, again, this is where the role types come into play. They would separate ... I mentioned that in the example, Peony Pavilion, probably there are more than one hundred characters. But these characters could be separated into these role types, so if you are trained in one role type, you could play multiple characters if they belong to this role type as long as they are not in the same scene. As long as you know that you're going to play different roles, they will be onto this role type.

Actually, it's like this idea of different compositions. Maybe the troupe might have, say, up to ten to fifteen performers, but they could do different roles. That's really a large, pretty big troupe. Probably between ten to fifteen is quite standard, but they could play plays that involve lots of different characters. That's how they play these plays.

But earlier, I mentioned that when you perform for these religious or seasonal festivals, probably the audience wouldn't be able to have this, right, luxury to watch these plays in full. That's when these ideas of the actable plays, that I think this idea started. The troupe would select highlights or excerpts, say from one play or from different plays, and to make an interesting program for the audience.

Say that they would perform two scenes from The Peony Pavilion, another scene from a different play, etc. They would showcase different kinds of different kinds of characters and stories, so all together you will form an interesting program. Because in Kunqu, even though many of the plays that are still performed are mainly romantic love stories, in Kunqu they are also histories, folklores, folklore heroes, religious plays, etc. There's a wide range. There are different kinds of characters.

So there are many Kunqu plays that are still being performed, but we are not going to see them being performed in one play in its entirety. But we're seeing all these highlight scenes from these plays that have been modified by the performers.

Of course, the playwrights will protest against this, right? But the performer is wanting to make these plays work for the audience, so they did a lot. They changed a lot to these plays, so that's what I'm interested. I'm still learning all these plays, and I noticed that actually very, very few of these plays in performance, the text is exactly the same as what the playwrights write. That's what I thought, that's interesting. I would like to bring this to the listeners' attention.

MIke: You're talking about, earlier, the playwright Tang Xianzu. And you sometimes see these kind of odd comparisons, maybe, to Shakespeare, just because they happened to be alive at the same time. They're both these great playwrights in their separate parts of the world who are great in their own right.

That does make you think a little bit about the historical perspective. This has been an art form, as you were saying earlier, that's been around for a few centuries, and it does make me wonder how people view Kunqu today. You mentioned a little earlier, it's gone through a little bit of a revival in the last couple of decades. Where does it fit into the theatrical hierarchy in, say, the same way that Shakespearean drama fits into, for better or for worse, the theatrical hierarchy in the English speaking world?

Dongshin: Yes. This is a very interesting question, and as I said, I have been learning Kunqu in the North American context, so probably I will speak from this view and from my observations.

I will say that ever since the proclamation by UNESCO, because the proclamation also asked the Chinese government to safeguard, preserve the art form, so it does help to elevate Kunqu to this world heritage, to that status. Also, efforts were made to promote Kunqu, to make it popular. I will speak a little bit about the Kunqu Society in that the earlier, when the organization was founded, it was founded, again, from people from the higher social class. In the premodern era probably would be the scholar elite equivalent to that class, people who receive Chinese literary education, appreciate the poetry because the scripts, if not in performance, could be read as high literature. They appreciate that, and then they put that into music and perform.

There's something about how the art form came to the US in that way, preserved by these people, the intellectuals who are interested in the art form. And then with the proclamation of Kunqu, and then here in the US, of course, when the Kunqu Society presents program, usually this is something to promote Kunqu as a form of a very refined, elegant form of Chinese literature and art.

What I notice is in the members who have joined the Society. I notice that, for those who are from the younger generation, it seems to me that they found Kunqu interesting in that's something that might connect them to the past history and literature. That's something. But also something new for them to learn. So that's kind of interesting for me to see that.

I am lacking the context, right, for China and Taiwan, but that's what I learned. There's something they are not familiar in their education, so there's something to learn about Kunqu, that's something new and interesting.

MIke: You mentioned the Kunqu Society, which you are a part of. I think many listeners at this point might be wondering, how do you find out about where and when to see a performance, and if you do attend, what should newcomers look and listen for?

Dongshin: I would say that of course, many of these activities occur within the Chinese communities. Something I should say is that as early as the mid-nineteenth century, when Chinese immigrants came over to North America or the Americas, they also brought along the cultural arts practices, including theatre. Early immigrants who were mainly from Southern China from the province of Guangdong, so they brought a regional form of Cantonese opera here.

For Kunqu, Kunqu came a bit later through probably the most prominent one—probably you also know Mei Lanfang was known as a jingju performer, but actually he also performed Kunqu plays in his repertoire. When he came over, he did perform some Kunqu pieces. And then, as I said, there are some professors or Chinese immigrants who have the cultural knowledge and background. They enjoy Kunqu,

so they practiced Kunqu first for self-amusement, to seek mutual interest in that, and then later, for example, the Kunqu Society was funded to promote and study and preserve the artform here in North America.

I would say when to look for Kunqu, probably, if you have the language skills, that would be great to look for Chinese news outlets, etc., so you know that there are—Because there are, in addition to the Kunqu Society, there are also other organizations usually in bigger cities in North America, as well as sizable Chinese community, probably you will be able to find performance occurrences.

I know in New York, Washington DC, in the Bay Area in California, in Los Angeles, there are groups. They have internal gatherings, which they just sing, and they get together and sing, or they put on public performances. Sometimes inviting guest artists from China, Taiwan, to perform. Some groups, like the Kunqu Society, will provide bilingual subtitles and program notes with the host providing English explanations.

Now, with the internet, you could also find some of these groups about their Facebook pages, websites, so maybe this is a place I could provide some links then, to provide some list places.

One thing I will mention is that there are also some cultural arts organizations in the examples that I know. For example, Flushing Town Hall is a place that promotes multiculturalism. They promote all these different cultural arts practices from different cultures. They presented some Kunqu programs as well. It’s definitely their goal to reach, promote the art form beyond the Chinese community. It’s definitely bilingual to make the art form more accessible.

MIke: As we've been talking about, Kunqu is this wonderfully complex art form, and as great as it's been talking with you Dongshin, I'm sure listeners will want to be able to see and read about some of the material that we've been talking about. We'll make sure to post more information, videos, images, all sorts of things so that people can explore the world of Kunqu.

Dongshin, thank you so much for introducing us to this incredible art form.

Dongshin: You're very welcome, Mike. Thanks again for your invitation.

Mike: This podcast is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of this series and other HowlRound podcasts in our feed on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you find podcasts. Be sure to search HowlRound Theatre Commons podcasts and subscribe to receive new episodes. If you loved this podcast, post a rating and write a review on those platforms. This helps other people find us.

You can also find a transcript for this episode, along with a lot of other progressive and disruptive content, on howlround.com. Have an idea for an exciting podcast, essay, or TV event the theatre community needs to hear? Visit howlround.com and submit your ideas to the commons.

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