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Kunqu Opera

Kunqu Opera first appeared in late Yuan Dynasty (1271A .D. -1368A .D.) some 600 years ago in the lower reaches of Yangtze River. It was one of the earliest genres of drama in China and named for its birthplace, Kunshan, near the city of Suzhou in today's Jiangsu Province. The opera reached its heyday during the reign of emperor Qinglong in Qing Dynasty. Thanks to extensive exploration and recreation by its performers, it gradually developed into today's Kunqu. Besides, it became one of the three components of Peking opera. Kunqu opera has been declared World Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization on May 18th, 2001 in Paris.

Characters of Kunqu Opera
Kunqu Opera is famous for its gentle and clear vocals, beautiful and refined tunes, and the perfect combination of dance and acrobatic performances. The music is much softer and the dialogue is more poetic and refined. The dance and movement of a role is gentle and closely connected with singing.

Kunqu Opera: Peony Pavilion

Musical Instruments

The musical instruments used in Kunqu Opera are distinguished from Beijing Opera. In order to match the poetry style of the play perfectly, flute is widely used as the accompanying instrument instead of instruments with strings. Boasting for its time-honored history and all-around skills, Kunqu Opera is considered as the mother of many other traditional operas, influencing Beijing Opera. It was awarded as one of 19 ‘Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity' by UNESCO in May 2001.


In the early days, the songs were composed of many long and short lines. The singer sang solo, and the orchestra, basically percussion instrument, only came in at the end of each line.

Later, Kunqu music was reformed by famous musician Wei Liangfu, the forefather of Kunqu, in the mid-16th century. After his refinement, Kunqu became milder, smoother and more graceful. Performers began to attach more importance to clear recitation, correct singing and pure tunes. The composers wrote the musical scores after working out the tunes, and the songs were written in seven-character or ten-character lines. The accompaniment began to employ stringed instruments, bamboo flutes as well as drums and clappers.

Peony Pavilion

Roles of Kunqu Opera

The roles of Kunqu are mainly divided into seven categories, including Sheng (male roles), Dan (female roles), Jing (painted face), Mo (middle-aged male roles), Chou (clowns), Wai and Tie, and each category has further subdivisions.

The Sheng roles, for example, have Laosheng (aged male roles), Wusheng (male warriors), and Xiaosheng (young male roles), each of which are further divided. Xiaosheng, the young male role, is divided into Daguansheng (big hat role), Xiaoguansheng (small hat role), Jinsheng (kerchief role), Giongsheng (pauper role) and Zhiweisheng (a warrior whose helmet decorated by a pheasant tail feather).

Stage MakeUp of Kunqu Opera
The Kunqu style of stage makeup is mainly used for Jing and Chou roles, and occasionally for Sheng and Dan roles. The three predominant colors are red, white and black. The shades of blue, green, purple and gold are used to portray forest brigands, or ghosts and demons.

The same with Beijing Opera, the color red represents loyalty and justice, black conveys uprightness and straightforwardness, white signifies cunning and shrewdness, and yellow indicates a fierce, tough character. Most of the patterns and techniques of Beijing Opera facial makeup evolved from Kunqu.

Kunqu is of very grate literary value for its rich traditional repertoire. Most of the themes of the stories of Kunqu Opera are about love romances. It seldom has too many military roles or acrobatic part in a play. The representative works are The Peony Pavilion, The Palace of Eternal Youth, and Fifteen Strings of Cash and so on.

Kunqu Opera