Once on the brink of vanishing from its native China, the elegant centuries-old theatrical form of kunqu makes a bold comeback.
Gunpowder, irrigation, steel: all these things were first discovered by Chinese scientists. Even the page you’re reading right now was made possible by a Chinese invention, papermaking. So it’s not surprising to find out that the people of the Ming and Qing dynasties were also artistic innovators: the theatrical form known as kunqu, which dates back to the 15th century, fuses music, text, and dance in a fully interdisciplinary manner.
“In terms of the performance elements, Chinese theatre is a far more comprehensive art than the western genres,” says translator and world traveller Josh Stenberg, of the newly formed Vancouver Society for the Chinese Performing Arts. “If you come from the Chinese theatre tradition, it seems like western theatre forms are strangely parcelled off. You have dance for movement and opera for voice and spoken theatre for text. But if you come from the Chinese tradition, or from some of the Japanese traditions, you’d really have to wonder why everything is isolated like that.”
It’s not that western theatre is less sophisticated: the European tradition of naturalism puts a greater emphasis on character development, while kunqu relies on five archetypal figures.
“In all of the traditional forms of Chinese theatre you have role types, and role types are trained differently,” Stenberg explains. “If you’re sort of on the short side, and on the limber side, you’ll be put on the clowning track. If you’re rather tall and rather slender, then you’re likely to be put on the romantic-lead track. And longer faces are for the old men, because they wear beards, and if their faces aren’t long enough, they look scrunched up. So it’s a lot to do with physical characteristics, including coordination, and it’s also to do with voice. It’s much less important that a clown be able to sing beautifully than the romantic lead.”
Three kunqu character types will be on view at the Frederic Wood Theatre on Monday and Tuesday (June 16 and 17). Playing the old man, the clown, and the female lead, respectively, Chinese stars Ji Zhenhua, Liu Yilong, and Liang Guyin will offer two different programs featuring excerpts from some of the most famous scripts in the kunqu repertoire.
Remarkably, it’s the first time this form of Chinese theatre has been performed in Vancouver—but there are good reasons for that.
“Kunqu, particularly in the last 100 years, has been struggling to survive,” explains UBC Asian Studies associate professor Catherine Swatek, in a separate telephone interview. Along with her VSCPA colleague Stenberg, she’s coproducing the Frederic Wood performances—and handling media interviews, as none of the performers speak English. “It was a very elegant style of theatre that appealed mainly to a kind of elite audience—although earlier in its history it had also been widely popular—and it really reached a low in the first half of the 20th century.”
Swatek adds that kunqu almost disappeared entirely during the Cultural Revolution, when its Confucian themes were seen as decidedly counter-revolutionary. “They tried to stamp it out,” she says. “This generation of performers’ stage careers were just budding when the Cultural Revolution came along, and then they were all either sent to factories or performed [politically didactic] model operas. When I started studying kunqu—looking for it, actually, in 1982—it took me months to find it. It was just beginning to recover itself.”
Today, though, the form is enjoying a renaissance both within China and without, as Stenberg reports.
“I was in Nanjing on a scholarship to study classical literature,” he explains, “and since I had always been an avid theatregoer, it was quite natural for me to go out and see what forms were available. Kunqu was the form that was performed most regularly—and it was also affordable.” He wound up working as a translator for Nanjing’s leading kunqu troupe, which is where he met some of the artists who’ll perform in Vancouver.
At the same time kunqu was recovering its popularity at home, it was beginning to win attention abroad. UNESCO designated the style a “masterpiece of oral and intangible heritage” in 2001, and the Chinese government has begun to export its finest exponents as a form of what Swatek calls “soft power”, or cultural diplomacy. It’s a way, presumably, of reminding us that China is not just an industrial superpower but a sophisticated and ancient culture.
Stenberg cautions that a degree of sophistication will be necessary for Canadian audiences to appreciate kunqu. “It takes a good deal of patience to get into it, but it’s extremely rewarding when you do,” he says. “And I don’t see why, in a city like Vancouver, this should be any less accessible than, say, baroque opera.”
Swatek is less reserved. “It’s a beautiful form,” she notes. “It’s very intimate, very soft. The theatre will provide people with an excellent chance to see, up close, master actors—and the chances to see this form of theatre are rare.”