Kunqu Opera has been spread far and wide since the Wanli Reign of Ming Dynasty. Its early practitioners were artists from around Suzhou. Many local artists started learning Kunqu Opera because of its mainstream status, and they expanded Kunqu troupes outside. Those sophisticated artists started their own troupes, or invited Suzhou Artists and local artists to cooperate. Many Kunqu Opera artists performed on the same stage with other artists who played local Operas. In the course of long-term exchanges, cooperation and running-in, Kunqu Opera has been transformed by local dialects, local opera vocals and performance styles, resulting in different regional genres, which are later called Hui Kun (Anhui Province), Gan Kun (Jiangxi Province), Xiang Kun (Hunan Province), Chuan Kun (Sichuan Province) and so on. Zhejiang Province is close to Suzhou, and Kunqu Opera was first popular there. It nurtured many famous opera artists like Wang Ji De, Ye Xianzu, Lv Tiancheng, Ling Mengchu, Zhang Dai, Qi Biaojia, Li Yu, Gao Yi and Hong Sheng, who greatly influenced the spread of Kunqu Opera in the Province. The Kunqu Opera practiced in Jiaxing and Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province is similar to that of Suzhou, but it has distinct styles in Jinhua, Ningbo, Wenzhou and other places, with the name of “Jin Kun”, “Yong (甬) Kun” and “Yong (永) Kun”.
In the Kunqu Opera genres, one genre has long been coexisting with the orthodox Sukun Opera. It is the so-called “North Kun”, that is, “Northern Kunqu Opera”. Broadly speaking, North Kun include all different styles of Kunqu Opera in the northern area centering Beijing. In the narrow sense, it refers to the “Jingkun Opera”.
In the middle of the Ming Dynasty, Kunqu Opera spread to Beijing. It became popular first in the palace, then among the folks. For more than 400 years, artists constantly coming from the south preserved the original style of Sukun Opera, and were popular in the court and among officials and scholars. Kunqu Opera played a dominant role for a long time. Since the middle of Qianlong’s reign in the Qing Dynasty, Huabu (general term for Chinese opera melodies other than Kunshan and Yiyang melodies) sprung up and took the lead. One branch of Kunqu Opera merged with Pihuang (xipi and erhuang), and the other merged with Yiqiang.
Since the late Qianlong’s reign to Jiaqing’s reign in the Qing Dynasty, the four biggest opera troupes coming to Beijing from Anhui Province still performed a lot of Kunqu Opera repertoire. Besides, the three big opera troupes, namely Nicui, Jixiu and Jinyu, and the three small opera troupes, namely Sanduo, Yuhua and Baohua, also performed Kunqu Opera. After the reigns of Daoguang and Xianfeng, the evolving Pihuang troupes still had artists specializing in singing Kunqu Opera. During the reigns of Tongzhi and Guangxu, the thirteen most famous opera artists included Zhulianfen, who played female characters in Kunqu Opera, and Yangmingyu, who played clowns in Kunqu Opera. Due to the strengthening Pihuang Opera, many Kunqu artists had to perform Pihuang as well, or had to shift to only performing Pihuang. But Kunqu Opera still had its unique position due to its highly mature performance style. For excellent Pihuang performers, knowing how to play Kunqu Opera was a requirement. The early famous Pihuang performers: Mei Qiaoling, Shi Xiaofu, Yu Ziyun, Xu Xiaoxiang, Wang Lengxian, He Guishan, Qian Jinfu, Chen Delin, etc., are all famous for “knowing both Kunqu Opera and Beijing Opera well”. Therefore, in Pihuang opera schools, learning Kunqu Opera was considered to be the basis for learners. From the early Si Zhen Tang opera school of Cheng Changgeng, and the Xiao Rong Chun opera school of Yang Rongshou, to the Fu Lian Cheng opera school in the late Qing Dynasty, they all emphasized the importance of Kunqu Opera. Such tradition is passed down till today. Although Kunqu Opera is on the decline, a large number of repertoire and rich music resources of which are preserved in Pihuang Opera and Beijing Opera—the final form of Pihuang.
The most famous style of the North Kunqu Opera is the merging of Kunqiang and Yiqiang. Since the reign of Daoguang in the Qing Dynasty, Kunyi troupes were very popular in Beijing and Zhili (Heibei Province). Kunyi troupes practiced both Kunqiang and Yiqiang. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, while the court valued Kunqiang, it never neglected Yiqiang. Kunqiang and Yiqiang received equal attention. During the heyday of the reigns of Kangxi and Qianlong in the Qing Dynasty, Yiqiang took around 30% of court performances. Even during a time when Huabu and Yabu were competing with each other, and Kunqiang was declining, the court banned Huabu while still encouraged “Kunqiang and Yiqiang”. During the reigns of Jiaqing and Daoguang, Xiao Xiang Rui opera troupe was established in the Prince Cheng’s mansion, which nurtured the “Xiang” generation of Kunyi artists. From Tongzhi’s ealy reign to the middle of Guangxu’s reign, the Prince Chun’s mansion established Kunyi troupes for three times (namely the Anqing troupe, Enqing troupe and small Enrong troupe). Over thirty years, they nurtured the “Qing” and “Rong” generations of Kunyi artists. During the reign of Xuantong, the Anqing troupe made a comeback from the Prince Su’s mansion, it created a sensation in Beijing by writing and playing the whole Qing Qing Bin opera. In the civil society, since the second year of Tongzhi’s reign utill the tenth year of Guangxu’s reign, over 30 Kunyi troupes existed in Beijing, including the Wan Shun Kui, Chongqing and Songqing, etc.
Before Xianfeng’s reign, Kunyi has been spread among the towns in Zhili (Heibei Province). Kunyi troupes are mainly active in the south of Beijing, centering Baiyangdian waters and Anxin County. The rural Kunyi students organization and professional Kunyi troupes are two forms that took place. During the middle of Guangxu’s reign, Kunyi spread to the east of Beijing, with Yutian, Fengrun and Luanzhou taking the lead, and professional Kunyi troupes are the only form of organization. During the reigns of Tongzhi and Guangxu, the Kunyi students organizations in south Beijing nurtured generation after generation of excellent Kunyi experts, such as Zhang Yuanhong (clown), Bai Yongkuan (main martial male, old gentleman and painted face), Hua Qifeng (Red painted face), Guo Penglai (Black painted face and clown) and Hao Zhenji (painted face and male). It all thanks to the establishment of Anqing and Enqing troupes in the Prince Chun’s mansion in Beijing, which constantly recruited famous Kunyi artists from the rural areas in south Beijing to perform and teach in the mansion, and thus the artists continued to strive for excellence. In the eleventh year of Guangxu’s reign, the Prince Chun’s mansion dismissed the Enqing troupe and offered cases of clothes to an uncle and a nephew named Bai Laohe and Bai Yongkuan, who brought them back to the rural areas in Anxin county. The event resulted in the establishment of professional Kunyi troupes: Enqing troupe and Heshun troupe in Baiyangdian region. It was not until 40 years that the Heshun troupe dissolved. Ever since then, a lot of professional Kunyi troupes sprung up in the south and east Beijing. According to records, the south Beijing had Yuanqing troupe (Wen'an), Hefeng troupe, Hetsui troupe (Wuji), Qingchang troupe (Gao Yang), Deqinghe troupe (Wan county), Rongqingshe troupe, Baoshanhe troupe (new city), Xiangqingshe troupe (Shulu, include two troupes before and after); The east Beijing had Tongqing troupe (Luanzhou), Tonghe troupe (Yutian), Jishunhe troupe, etc. These Kunyi troupes were not only active among the towns and counties in the south and east Beijing, but they also performed in cities. In the winter of the sixth year after the establishment of the Republic of China, the Tonghe troupe went into Beijing and put on a sensational monkey show called An Tian Hui in the Guangxing Park, featuring Hao Zhenji. At the beginning of next year, Rongqingshe troupe also came to Beijing to put on a show in Tianle Park. Their famous artists outshone that of Tonghe troupe. Hao Zhenji, the main performer in Tonghe troupe, was recruited by Rongqingshe troupe, and thus the Tonghe troupe dissolved. Those remained in the Tonghe troupe returned to the east Beijing to meet with the Baoshanhe troupe, and then went back to Beijing to perform in the Dangui Park. Meanwhile, the Rongqingshe troupe had gained a firm foothold in Beijing and received warm support from the teachers and students in Peking University. Not after long, the main performer in Baoshanhe troupe, including Bai Jianqiao, joined the Rongqingshe troupe. Baoshanhe troupe could do nothing but leave Beijing. Since then, Rongqingshe troupe recruited famous Kunyi performers from Beijing, Tianjin and south Beijing for many times, almost employing all the famous artists from the rural Kunyi troupes in Beijing and Zhili. They replayed Qing Qing Bing, and played Fan Tian Yin, Wu Ren Yi and Gui Yuan Jing, etc. Apart from performing in Beijing and Tianjin, they also went to perform in Shanghai, Taiyuan, Baoding and Shijiazhuang, etc. In the twenty-eighth year since the establishment of the Republic of China, Rongqingshe troupe encountered a flood in Tianjin while putting on a show, and was forced to disintegrate.
Some Kunyi troupes in the north would first organize schools and then establish troupes. For example, in the sixteenth year of Guangxu’s reign, Wangsheng from a famous family in Yutian county in the east Beijing established the Yihe Kunyi school, which nurtured 38 “Yi” generation of artists. Around in the twenty-sixth year of Guangxu’s reign, Yihe troupe was reorganized for several times. With the “Yi” generation of artists as the base, they invited famous performers from the south Beijing, and performed in several counties in the east Beijing, until the troupe came to a halt in the early years since the establishment of the Republic of China. Some troupes cultivated students by letting them come along with the troupe and learn from the masters, so as to fill the lack of staff. For example, Xiangqingshe troupe (the latter one) nurtured ten artists of the post “Xiang” generation.
The north Kunyi lasted for around a hundred years in Beijing, Tianjin and Zhili area, and witnessed the springing up of a large number of famous artists. The most famous ones, apart from the above mentioned artists, include Tao Xianting (martial male, painted face and old gentleman), Wang Yiyou (martial male), Han Shichang (female), Bai Yusheng (female shifted to young male), Hou Yushan (Jiazihua painted face), Hou Yongkui (martial male), Ma Xianglin (painted face), etc.
In the autumn of the seventeenth year of the Republic of China, Han Shichang made the Binqingshe troupe that played Pingju (Pihuang) as the base, and led a group of famous Kunyi performers to perform in Japan. They performed Si Fan, Qin Tiao, Xu Tang, Jing Meng, Jiaqi and Kaohong, Cihu, etc., and was warmly received by the Department of Literature of Tokyo Imperial University. It was the first time that Kunqu Opera was invited to performed abroad.
In the twenty-third year of the Republic of China, four brothers surnamed Hou from Hexi village, Gaoyang county in south Beijing jointly established Xiangqingshe troupe (the latter one). In the twenty-fifth year of the Republic of China, they cooperated with Hou Ruichun, Han Shichang, Bai Yusheng, etc., and started off from Tianjin to perform in 12 cities in 6 provinces. It was the biggest north Kunyi troupe tour. In the twenty-seventh year of the Republic of China, they returned back to Tianjin and Beijing. The next year, they performed in Baoding. Not long after, they disintegrated after a performance in Shijiazhuang, and no other north Kunyi troupe exist ever since.
Since the establishment of the Republic of China, high pitched tunes became fewer and fewer in north Kunyi. Kunqu Opera repertoire almost took the whole Kunyi stage. Because that Kun and Yi were always performed on the same stage for a long time, Kunqu tones were inevitably influenced by high pitched tunes. The performances were tough, focusing on martial arts and stunts. The opera band used high pitch tunes and drums to create intense atmosphere, which could not be seen in other branches of Kunqu Opera.