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Exploring Kunqu: A Journey into the Classical Art of China's Intangible Cultura

By LingoAce新媒体团队 |中国 |February 25, 2024

Learning Chinese

In the long river of Chinese culture, Kunqu Opera stands out with its unique charm and profound historical heritage, known as the "mother of all plays." As a prominent representative of China's intangible cultural heritage, Kunqu Opera is not only a treasure of classical art but also a cultural bridge connecting the past and present, East and West. This article will take you into the world of Kunqu Opera, exploring the history, characteristics, inheritance, and modern practice of this ancient art form, as well as its connection with Chinese language learning for overseas Chinese.

The History and Origins of Kunqu Opera

The history of Kunqu Opera can be traced back to the mid-Ming Dynasty in China, when literati and scholars in Kunshan, Jiangsu, created this new form of opera. The birth of Kunqu Opera was a revolution in the operatic arts of the time, integrating musical characteristics from both the north and south of China to form a unique melody and performance style. The music and singing of Kunqu Opera were particularly beloved by the literati, for their elegance, delicacy, and literary and musical qualities.


Over time, Kunqu Opera gradually became the mainstream of Chinese opera, profoundly influencing the development of later operas. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, Kunqu Opera reached its artistic zenith, with countless classic plays being born, such as "The Peony Pavilion" and "The Palace of Eternal Life." These works are still widely performed today and are beloved by audiences. Among them, Tang Xianzu, the author of "The Peony Pavilion," is revered as the "Shakespeare of the opera world" for his exquisite literary skills and deep understanding of Kunqu Opera.

The Artistic Features of Kunqu Opera

The artistic charm of Kunqu Opera lies in its expressive music and singing style. Kunqu music utilizes a unique system of melodies that are graceful and rhythms that are free and flexible. The singing style is known for its softness, delicacy, and fluidity, capable of profoundly expressing the inner world of the characters. As Wang Shizhen, a Ming Dynasty opera theorist, once said, "The sound of Kunqu is higher than all the attitudes of the world and directly communicates with the spirit of heaven and earth."

In terms of performance, the body movements and hand gestures of Kunqu Opera actors are also highly distinctive. Actors convey the characters' personalities and emotions through precise body control and rich facial expressions. The costumes of Kunqu Opera are another aspect of its artistic features, with their luxurious and vibrant colors reflecting the style of ancient Chinese clothing.

Kunqu Opera's repertoire often draws from ancient literary works, such as historical stories, myths, and folk tales. These plays not only showcase profound cultural depth but also reflect the educational value and aesthetic pursuit of Kunqu Opera. For example, "The Palace of Eternal Life" tells the tragic love story of Emperor Tang Ming and Lady Yang Yuhuan, illustrating the complexity of human nature and the unpredictability of fate.

The Inheritance and Modern Practice of Kunqu Opera

The reason why Kunqu Opera has been able to endure for hundreds of years and not decline is due to its rigorous system of inheritance and continuous modern practice. The transmission of Kunqu Opera mainly relies on the master-apprentice system, where older artists pass on their skills and understanding to younger students. In modern times, in addition to traditional master-apprentice teaching, there are more diverse ways to learn Kunqu Opera, including professional art school education, workshops, and online courses.


The performance and promotion of Kunqu Opera both domestically and internationally are also increasingly frequent. Whether on traditional Chinese opera stages or at international art festivals, Kunqu Opera attracts audiences with its unique artistic charm. Moreover, the development of modern technology, such as virtual reality and digital stages, provides new possibilities for the inheritance and promotion of Kunqu Opera.

The modern practice of Kunqu Opera is not limited to stage performances. Elements of Kunqu Opera are also widely used in films and television dramas, allowing this classical art form to rejuvenate in new media. For example, the Kunqu Opera performances in the film "Farewell My Concubine" have allowed audiences around the world to experience the charm of Kunqu Opera.

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