My fascination with Chinese Kunqu opera began when I was eleven or twelve—just about the age when one can first fall in love with words and start hoarding them. At first, my interest was purely literary. I enjoyed the imaginative language and thoughts. I copied my favorite lyrics into a notebook, and before long, I could recite entire opera acts. Then I started noticing the rhymes and tones and appreciating the musicality. I understood that Kunqu is not only what’s written—it is also the melody infused with complex imagery and historical references, the dance moves, the silk robes with elaborate Su style embroidery, the glistening jewels in the actress’s headdress that quivers with her movements.
Kunqu should be seen, heard, and sensed. One might say, without exaggerating, that Kunqu is the ancient Chinese people’s way of celebrating the grace of living to its fullest extravagance.
This ancient form of Chinese opera matured in the sixteenth century, in the vicinity of Suzhou in southern China. Its elegant expression and demanding techniques made it the origin of many types of Chinese opera, such as Peking Opera and Wu Opera. My Kunqu teacher, Ms. Zhang Yuwen, a woman who has dedicated seventy years of her life to performing and teaching the art form, often calls it “our Kunqu Peony,” because only peony, queen of the flowers and an important motif in the masterpiece The Peony Pavilion, can represent its high literary and artistic value.
Kunqu uses a lyrical poetry form called Qupai—a set of complicated rules that determine the number of sentences, the numbers of characters in each sentence, and the rhyme and tones on certain characters. There are hundreds of such formulas, and each has a beautiful name: Zuifugui, Lanhuamei, and Shanpoyang, to name a few.
Because I grew up in a northern town with no Kunqu performances, I never imagined I could learn and perform it myself, until I heard about funded Saturday classes with teachers from the Northern Kunqu Opera Theatre. Undaunted by the two-and-a-half-hour train commute or my schoolwork, I often got up before 5 a.m. to go to class. My training started with the basics, like how to stand and walk onstage. I understood then that the many constraints of the form are the only way to artistic perfection. Performers put in so much effort to show how seemingly effortless they are onstage.
I performed at galas that our teacher organized in educational settings. Literature teachers often brought their classes to see our performances, so there were lots of young people in our audience. Each gala had a theme. One year it was “Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter,” as it included four pieces, one set in each season.
In this video, I’m performing the piece set in spring: “A Walk in the Garden” from The Peony Pavilion. It is about a seventeen-year-old girl named Du Liniang secretly touring the garden that her parents forbid her to enter—one of many restrictions upon girls in her time. Her joy of seeing the beautiful scenery quickly turns into sadness, as the fast fading of springtime makes her think of her how her youth is wasted in loneliness.
I was also seventeen at the time. On stage, I did not have to adopt a different persona. I really felt like I was living the restrained life I might have had 400 years ago. Now, I am only a few years older, but I sense both my voice and understanding are different. This makes the role harder to play because it is further away from my real life. That’s why I am in awe of my favorite actress, Shen Shihua, who is teaching and performing this piece at the age of seventy-eight. After experiencing much social turmoil and illness in her life, she can still render this role with such purity and grace.
“A Walk in the Garden” is a good example of the minimalist philosophy in Kunqu staging. There are no props in this piece. Everything Du Liniang sees in the garden—flowers, birds, and mountains in the distance—are indicated in the actress’s eyes and physical movements. My teacher would say, “To make the audience see what Du Liniang saw in the garden, you, as the actress, must believe they exist yourself.” From my experience, I think the staging brings the focus to Du Liniang’s thoughts and responses, emphasizing the moment of surprise for an individual who has led a life of constraint and quietude suddenly becoming aware of the attractive outer world.
As I continue practicing Kunqu after moving to the United States for college, I am delighted to see how this ancient art form converges with my studies and creations in contemporary art and poetry. When people ask me why Kunqu is relevant to my life and to the Western dominated art world today, I say that Kunqu’s artistic values and nurturing effects are never outdated.
In an act named “Breaking off a Willow Branch” from the opera A Purple Hairpin, I particularly appreciate the lines:
“The willow by the bridge is weeping in the wind,
its slender waist extends swaying threads,
as if to hold on to the person that I am about to part with.
But look! How it can’t even control its own flower clusters from departing!”
It references the tradition of breaking off a willow branch as a gift to a departing friend or lover, because the Chinese character for “willow” is a homophone of the character for “to keep”—an act of endearment. Instead of directly expressing grief in parting, the lovers sing to each other about the willow, embedding deep feelings in subdued language. In my studies and writings of contemporary poetry, I find these texts a vast reservoir that I can always draw ideas from.
On a more personal level, Kunqu is a modern refuge built of ancient poetics. The fragments of lyrical poetry, labeled with different dates and sources, are scattered in the library of my memory. Over time they have decoded from words into my basic cognitions and constantly play with their silent musicality to the meter of my life. I often relate moments in daily life to phrases, melodies, and dance moves in opera, or my memories of learning and acting them with friends and teachers. In these moments, I realize that writers hundreds of years ago have defined many circumstances in my life. And then, I can better unravel myself from my own condition.
Reflecting on Nietzsche describing this world as an “imperfect image and contradictions’ image,” I think, Kunqu has the power to transform and to unify in a realm of momentary perfection. But I am not afraid to step out of this realm into different art forms concerning contemporary issues, because as a bearer of cultural heritage, I know I have my home within.
Lucy Xiaochuan Liu is a cultural sustainability intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She is a student at Smith College, double majoring in studio art and French studies, with a concentration in poetry.