Chapter one

In the second year of the Jingkang period under the reign of Emperor Qinzong in the Song Dynasty (1127AD), the Song court moved to the south. During about a decade around this event, there emerged a so-called nan xi (southern drama) among folks in southern China. The repertoire in southern drama was gradually formed combining Song poetry and folk songs. During the Jiajing period under the reign of Emperor Shizong of the Ming Dynasty, Xu Wei, a litterateur, wrote Nanci Xulu (A Record of Southern Melody), and according to this book, “southern drama was originated from the times of Emperor Guangzong in the Song Dynasty... The songs are based on Song poetry and ballads but don’t strictly follow the tone and rhythm rules, so it didn’t get much attention from those people with high social status.” With a very different style from northern drama, which was popular during the Jin and Yuan Dynasty in northern areas, it is given the name “southern drama”. Nanci Xulu also said: “Zaju (a kind of drama that consists of multiple forms of art) flourished in Yongjia (a county in Zhejiang province), and it is mostly the ditties from villages...” This shows that the earliest southern drama appeared in Zhejiang. Since then, during the next century, southern drama had a great development. With the combination of Song poetry and the folk songs from different dialectal areas in the south, there emerged various styles of tune. According to Weitan (a collection of short stories) authored by Zhu Yunming, who died in the fifth year of the Jiajing period (1526AD), there were four major styles of southern drama that were named after their places of origin: Yuyao tune, Haiyan tune, Yiyang tune, and Kunshan tune. And according to Nanci Yinzheng (A Guide to Southern Melody) written by playwright Wei Liangfu of the Ming Dynasty, there was also a Hangzhou tune, constituting five major styles.

Kunshan is the birthplace of Kunshan tune, one of the five major styles. By the later period of the Souther Song Dynasty, there were already performances of southern drama in Kunshan, which lies in the central part of Wu areas. Zhang Yan, descendent of the Commandery Prince Xun of Zhejiang, was a famous poet and scholar of rhythm and tone of that time, and he often visited his relatives to watch southern drama and made friends with some performers. In Shanzhong Baiyun Ci (a collection of his poems), the are several poems written as gifts for some performers in central Wu area. For example, he sent the famous “middle-aged male character in zaju” Zhu Zhongliang with a poem under the tune Die Lian Hua as a gift, and he wrote another poem under the tune Man Jiang Hong with a note that said: “To Wen Yu. People from central Wu are the best chuanqi performers”. Here “zaju” refers to a form of opera from the north, and “chuanqi” means southern drama mentioned above. From the quote we can know that chuanqi performers already reached the “best” level at that time.

During the Yuan Dynasty, both southern and northern opera were popular in central Wu area. While in the late period, Kunshan became the hub of opera. Kunshan in the Yuan Dynasty in fact included two places – Taicang and Kunshan. In the nineteenth year of this dynasty, Liujiahe county of Taicang was designated as the beginning of south-north see transportation. According to the first volume of Zhizheng Kunshan Junzhi (A general history of the county of Kunshan) of the Yuan Dynasty, this place “gathers both foreign boats and grain carriers and became a market within only several years, where the Han people from different provinces and minorities live together” and developed into “an important ferry along the route”, known as “the port of six countries”. Wealthy merchants and officials there live extravagantly, music played around them day and night. There was a rich man called Gu Zhongying who lived in Jiexi, a place in Kunshan. He owned a cottage called “Yushan” (The Jade Hill), in which airy pavilions, pagodas, gardens, rockeries, flowers and trees made a spectacular scenery. Gu kept some performers in his house, and “these actors’ singing skill is the best in the world”, said Qian Qianyi, a writer of the Qing Dynasty in Gu Qiantang Dehui, one of the chapters of his Liechao Shiji Xiaozhuan (A brief biography of poets in the past dynasties and their poetry). There were often performances of northern drama in Gu’s mansion, according to Baishi Huibian · Qu Zhong Guang Yue (A compilation of unofficial history·Music) , “Gu Zhongying was keen on inviting guests...In those gatherings, they often chant poems together. ... Those who cannot create poems usually perform plays of zaju. These plays belong to the northern opera that use jiu gong (literally means nine gongs—five musical scales and four tunes). A play usually contains four scenes.” However, Gu’s domestic performers acted mostly southern drama (voice only). Some of those famous performers are: Nanzhi Xiu, Tianxiang Xiu, Xiao Pantao, Xiao Yaochi, Xiao Qionghua, Xiao Qiongying[1], etc.Gu Zhongying made friends with many musicians, including the iron flute player Yang Weizhen, the writer of Pipa Ji (The Story of the Lute), a southern drama play, Gao Zecheng, the Chinese guqin (a traditional stringed instrument) player Chen Weiyun, the xiao (a Chinese vertical bamboo flute) player Wu Guoliang. One of his most important guests was Gu Jian, who was specially mentioned in Wei Liangfu’s Nanci Yinzhen : “Gu Jian lived in the Yuan Dynasty, over 10 kelometers from Kunshan, in Qiandun. Despite the far distance, he was known to be good at composing southern style poems and ancient odes. Köke Temür[2] heard about him and offered to be his patron several times, but Gu turned him down all the time. He was friend of Yang Weizhen, Gu Zhongying and Ni Yuanzhen and he called himself Fengyue Sanren (sanren[3] of breeze and moonlight). He published ten volumes of Taozhen Yeji (a collection of the folk art of narrative singing) and eight volumes of Fengyue Sanren Yuefu (a collection of sanqu[4] and zaju by Fengyue Sanren). He was good at exploring the art of southern drama, so his music was first called Kunhan tune.” Therefore, Gu Zhongying’s domestic performers also used Kunshan tune in their songs, and Kunshan tune was already popular in middle and late Yuan Dynasty. By the Ming Dynasty, it had already influenced the capital (modern Nanjing city). It is recorded in Jinglin Xuji, a book of essays written by Zhou Xuanwei of the Ming Dynasty, that the founding emperor of Ming Dynasty Zhu Yuanzhang once summoned a centenarian Zhou Shouyi and asked him: “I’ve heard that Kunshan melody is great. Can you also sing it?” According to Dugong Tanzuan (Mr. Du’s stories of historical figures), authored by Du Mu of the Ming Dynasty, “Some southern drama performers from Wu area have been acting in the capital (modern Beijing). Jinyi Men, the court’s intelligence agency, reported that some male performers act female characters, which is a harm to social custom and morality. The emperor, Yingzong, interrogated these performers in person. They pleaded for a self-defense and the emperor agreed to unleash them. One the them stepped forward and said ‘the Heaven will be satisfied at a righteous emperor, and people will be at peace with righteous officials’ or something similar to that. The emperor was delighted about it and said: ‘This could be an axiom. They didn’t do anything wrong.’ Then he made the office in charge of imperial music regulate them, but they are ashamed of this official recognition. After the emperor died, they returned to Wu.” The southern drama mentioned above may also include Kunshan tune.

Xu Wei’s Nanci Xulu recorded that the repertoire of southern drama includes 66 plays of the previous Song and Yuan Dynasties and 48 ones of the current dynasty, a total of 114. Among them, there were very likely plays of Kunshan tune. Lyu Tiancheng, an opera critic who lived during the reign of Emperor Wanli of Ming Dynasty called southern drama before the Jiajing period “the antique chuanqi” in his book Qu Pin (comments on playwrights and works of chuanqi). Lyu mentioned 27 plays that “are favored by Wu’s performers”, and these should be the traditional plays of Kunshan tune.

In the early Hongwu period under the reign of Emperor Taizu of the Ming Dynasty, Shibo Si, the department in charge of foreign trade, was dismissed, so Kunshan once had a sluggish time. In the seventh year of the Yongle period under the emperor Chengzu of the Ming Dynasty (1409AD), Zheng He[5] started his voyage to the west from Taicang’s Liujiagang county. In addition, water transportation revived, thus Kunshan prospered again, so did the field of opera. Wei Liangfu was a famous performer in Taicang in the early Jiajing period. He used to perform northern opera, but because he was inferior to Wang Youshan, another performer from the north, in northern opera, he decided to perform southern opera. At that time, southern drama was known to be “straightforward, plain and non-poetic” (Yu Huai, the Qing Dynasty, Jichangyuan Wenge Ji[6]), he then determined to change the situation. Garrisons have been settling in Taicang from the Yuan to the Ming Dynasty. Soldiers guarding the west adored martial arts while those guarding the south were good at music. According to the tenth volume of Taicang Zhouzhi (the history of Taicang), because “soldiers from different places live together for a long time”, they had an opportunity for art exchanges. Among the soldiers in the south, there was a landlord named Guo Yunshi, an experienced southern drama performer. According to volume twelve of Meihua Caotang Bitan (A Collection of Essays) written by Zhang Dafu in the Ming Dynasty, Wei Liangfu also lived in the south side of Taicang, so he made the acquaintance of Guo Yunshi. Wei thought he was not as good as Guo, and “every time he had an idea, he would talk about it with Guo. If he doesn’t get the approval from Guo, he will discuss with Guo over and over.” Later, Wei knew another singer of northern drama--a garrison soldier Zhang Yetang who was from Hebei Province and was sent to Suzhou as a sinner. Since then, Zhang “started to study southern melody. He changed the strings of the instrument to make the music sound more like southern style. He also changed the shape and material of a three-stringed instrument (Suowen Lu (A Collection of Anecdotes), Song Zhifang, the Ming Dynasty). Zhang became the assistant of Wei Liangfu. Wei also study melody and rhythm with Suzhou’s famous xiao player Zhang Meigu and Kunshan’s flute player Xie Linquan. From Meihua Caotang Bitan and Jichangyuan Wenge Ji, we can see that many artists, including Lu Jiuchou, Tao Jiuguan, Deng Quanzhuo, Zhu Nanchuan, Zhang Xiaoquan, Ji Jingpo, Dai Meichuan, Bao Langlang, Zhou Mengshan, became friends with Wei Liangfu and supported his business. These people together formed a revolutionary group of Kunshan tune. After years of effort, they created “Shuimo melody” based on Kunshan tune. Shuimo melody have both the characteristics of northern and southern melodies: northern melodies, with a seven-note scale, sound vigorous and solemn; southern melodies, with a five-note scale, sound gentle and sweet. These two melodies go harmonious together, and at the same time, according to Nanci Yinzheng, they should not be mechanically mixed. So Kunshan tune was improved in both music and singing. According to Nanci Xulu, it is not “straightforward, plain and non-poetic” but has a “lingering beauty”. Shen Chongsui of the Ming Dynasty said in his book Duqu Xuzhi (Notes for Opera Singing) that one should “start with a round mouth and end with low voice”, and “make the four intonations graceful and the articulation decent and complete”. In Jichangyuan Wengeji, the author said that “subtle difference in the shape of lips and teeth when pronouncing can help the actor express emotions”. And in Duqu Xuzhi the author emphasized that Shuimo melody pays much attention to pronunciation and that “its singing style, rhythm, word choice, and pronunciation are all of high level”.

Wei Liangfu’s reform happened at around the twenty-sixth year of the Jiajing Period (1547AD), when his Nanci Yinzheng was finished. He already made a great achievement when Cao Hanzhai wrote a recommendation for his book, in which Cao wrote: “(shuimo melody) evokes much emotion, and is melodious, thought provoking and beautifully worded”. After over a decade, Xu Wei said in Nanci Xulu (finished in the thirty-eighth year of the Jiajing Period) that “now in Kunshan, southern drama performers sing along with flutes, pipes, sheng (a reed pipe, also a traditional Chinese instrument), and pipa. The ensemble sounds quite harmonious and pleasing to the ear. This is a fantastic art in Wu area.” Later, Shen Chongsui also said in his book Xuansuo Bian’e[7] (The Debate about Strings) that “in those years of Jiaxing period, a man named Wei Liangfu reformed the old-style southern drama, adding the accompany of musical instruments to make it suitable for theater stages”. These show that not only in singing and music, but Wei also made great progress in instrumental accompaniment.

During the process of reform, Kunshan tune “was only popular in central Wu”, and most of the songs did not have any accompaniment. (Nanci Xulu). In the late Jiajing period, Wei Liangfu was acknowledged as “the founder of Kunshan tune” because of his contribution. He became so well-known that many people asked to be his pupil. Some of the reformers were his students, and some other were his peers, such as Deng Quanzhuo from Suzhou, who, according to Pan Zhiheng of the Ming Dynasty in the third volume Qu Pai (schools of opera) of his book Luanxiao Xiaopin (A Record of Talented Performances), “performs in Wu-style in hit hometown”, established an independent school of the new Kunshan tune, and “had seven pupils, all of whom made their own accomplishment”.

Among those famous singers, one named Liang Chenyu “inherited Wei’s artistry and has a golden voice”. He was “wild and free” and “invited talents from other places over to his luxury mansion”, known as a celebrity at that time. (Kunxin Liangxian Xuxiu Hezhi[8], volume thrity). Liang was devoted to improving and spreading the new Kunshan tune, together with his teacher Zheng Sili, Tang Xiaoyu, and Chen Meiquan, etc. He did research on operas of the Yuan Dynasty and added his own innovation. His sanqu Jiangdong Baining and chuanqi Huansha Ji (A Story of Washing Gauze) were sung among squires and villagers. During the Longqing period under the reign of Ming’s emperor Muzong, Zhang Xin, Zhao Zhanyun and Lei Fumin, who created Nan Matou Qu (The Melody of the Wharf in the South), played a positive role in the development of Kunshan tune[9]. Liang’s Huansha Ji adopted a new singing style of Kunshan tune. And by far it is said that the use of this new singing style begins with Huansha Ji. Or, though not the first play that uses the new singing style, but definitely the first of such plays to achieve success. Baneng Zoujin (a collection of plays), published during the Wanli years, covers Shihou Ji (As a Lioness Roars, authored by Xiunin’s Wang Tingne), Hongfu Ji (a story of Hongfu the legendary woman, authored by Suzhou’s Zhang Fengji), and Yuzan Ji (a story of jade hair clasp, authored by Qiantang’s Gao Lian), which were of the same time of Huansha Ji. With these works, the new-style Kunshan tune were able to get on stages of theatres as a new genre of drama.


[1] These are all stage names, usually meaning flowers, aroma, fairyland or fine jade in Chinese.

[2] A military officer of the late period of the Yuan Dynasty.

[3] Sanren means a man out of the secular world.

[4] a type of verse popular in the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, with tonal patterns modelled on tunes drawn from folk music

[5] Zheng He (1371–1433 or 1435) was a Hui Chinese mariner, explorer, diplomat, and fleet admiral during China's early Ming dynasty. Zheng commanded expeditionary voyages to Southeast Asia, South Asia, Western Asia, and East Africa from 1405 to 1433.

[6] An essay about listening to operas in Jichangyuan

[7] The content of the book is about Kun opera.

[8] A local history for two counties—Kunshan and Xinyang.

[9] see Meihua Caotang Bitan and Jiaoxun’s quote from Woting Zading in his book Talking about Opera