At the end of the Qing Dynasty and the beginning of the Republic of China, among the four Kunqu troupes in Suzhou (Dazhang, Daya, Hongfu and Quanfu), Quanfu lasted the longest. Although it dissolved for several times, it managed to revive. The troupe name Quanfu was passed down by artists and formed the basic team of Suzhou’s “Zuocheng troupe” (a troupe that performs and stays in the city). In the twelfth year of the Republic of China, the troupe was entirely disintegrated.
In order to preserve and revive the Kunqu Opera, in the tenth year of the Republic of China, Suzhou’s amateur song writers Bei Jinmei, Zhang Zidong and Xu Jingqing initiated the “Kunqu Opera School”, which was later sponsored by the Shanghai industrialist Mu Ouchu. It hired famous performers from the former Quanfu troupe, including Shen Yuequan, Shen Binquan, Wu Yisheng, You Caiyun, Zeng Changsheng, etc., and enrolled 50 students from poor background, who were trained to the be successors of Kunqu Opera. The school was influenced by modern civilization. The students not only learned Kunqu Opera, but also learned Chinese language and arithmetic. Years after, it nurtured a group of Kunqu performers, including Gu Chuanjie (male role), Zhu Chuanming (female role), Shi Chuanzhen (old male role), Ni Chuanyue (Wai), Shen Chuanzhi (male, the main female), Zhou Chuanying (male), Wang Chuansong (Fu), Shen Chuan Kun (painted face), Hua Chuanhao (clown), etc. In the sixteenth year of the Republic of China, when the students graduated, they established the Xinyuefu troupe and Xiannishe troupe, based in Suzhou, and went to perform in Shanghai, Suzhou, Wuxi, Changzhou, Nanjing and Hangzhou, Jiaxing and Huzhou. Their business was bleak, and they were the only existing professional Kunqu Opera troupe in Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Shanghai. During the war of resistance against Japan, amateur opera troupes were hard to sustain and were disintegrated one after another. The members of Xiannishe troupe found it hard to make ends meet, so they abandoned singing opera to seek other livelihood. Kunqu Opera as an opera genre had been lasting for over hundreds of years, and it was faced with extinction. Kunqu Opera repertoire can only be passed down by relying on other opera genres, such as Beijing Opera, Sichuan Opera, Yunnan Opera, Wu Opera, etc.
October 1, 1949 marks the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. In the founding ceremony of the new China, the famous north Kunqu martial male role performer Hou Yongkui was invited to Huairentang in Zhongnanhai to perform Lin Chong Flees In The Night. Inspired by this, and under the support of relevant government departments, from November 19 onwards, 13 south performers of the “Chuan” generation, including Zhu Chuanming, Zheng Chuanjian and Hua chuanhao, gathered in Shanghai and rented the Tongfu Grand Theater for over one month in the name of the former Xinyuefu troupe. During that time, they performed 180 opera highlights. It was only two month after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, that the endangered Kunqu Opera made a comeback to the stage.
Soon after, the north Kunqu performers, including Han Shichang, Bai Yunsheng and Hou Yongkui were employed to teach in the North China People’s Art Troupe. Those famous Kunyi performers who were scattered in the rural areas of Hebei, such as Hou Yushan, Meng Xiangsheng, Wei Qinglin, Hou Bingwu and Bai Yuzhen also returned to Beijing. In the south, the former “Chuan” generation of artists who were scattered in Suzhou, Shanghai and Hangzhou were highly valued by local governments and were gradually invited back to the troupes by local cultural departments. On April 17, 1951, the Art and Literary Federation of Suzhou City held the first Kunqu Opera show in the Suzhou Kaiming Grand Theater since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. The performers include famous Suzhou song writers and scattered “Chuan” generation artists. They performed day shows and night shows, and in total they performed 17 opera highlights. In February 1955, the Chinese Dramatists Association gathered Kunqu Opera artists from Beijing and Shanghai to give performance before fellow artists in Beijing. It took two days and it was the first time after the establishment of PRC that the famous south and north Kunqu Opera artists gathered together. In 1953, the north Kunqu artist Hou Yushan’s performance The Wedding of Chung Kuei's Sister was filmed by Beijing film studio as a Kunqu art film. In 1955, Broken Bridge, an opera performed by the south Kunqu artist Yu Zhenfei and the Jingkun artist Mei Lanfang was also filmed as a Kunqu art film. These are the two earliest art films since the establishment of PRC and in the history of Kunqu Opera.
On May 5, 1951, the State Council of the Central People’s Government promulgated the Guidelines on Opera Reform Work (referred to as Five-five Guidelines). China’s drama community started to “reform operas, reform artists and reform the system”.
In terms of “reform operas”, it promoted the cleaning up of the stage, the establishment of the director system, the utilization of modern Chinese literature workers to enrich the troupe, and the reform of the stage performance arts, etc. It especially focused on implementing the Party’s “Let A Hundred Flowers Blossom and Bring Forth the New Through the Old” policy and the “Walking on Two Legs” repertoire policy (which later evolved into “Three Major Measures”). Thus, China’s Kunqu Opera community was renewed. When the traditional repertoire was arranged, Kunqu Opera showed significant results. In 1954, the Chinese style Sukun troupe rearranged the highlight of “Longevity Hall”, and renewed all aspects of stage performance arts based on inheritance, and they were highly praised after public performances. At the beginning of 1956, the troupe staged the adapted highlights of Fifteen Strings of Cash. When they performed publicly in Beijing in April, they instantly created a sensation. It was truly “a play saved an opera genre” event. The state and party leaders Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai watched the show. The Ministry of Culture issued a letter to the country to recommend the show, and changed people thinking that “Kunqu Opera is doomed to die”. In July the same year, Shanghai film studio filmed the show into a Kunqu stage art film. With this opportunity, in September Suzhou held Kunqu Opera shows before fellow artists for the purpose of discussion and emulation, the participants include Kunqu masters from Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Shanghai, such as Yu Zhenfei and Xu Lingyun, 33 “Chuan” generation artists, and north Kunqu masters, including Baiyun Sheng, Hou Yongkui and Ma Xianglin. In November, many famous south and north Kunqu artists, like Han Shichang and Yu Zhenfei, and 28 “Chuan” generation artists gathered in Shanghai to hold Kunqu Opera shows before fellow artists that lasted for a month. They performed 30 chang and 124 chu (including the repeated) traditional opera highlights and 5 whole operas. It was called the first “south and north Kunqu performance” since the founding of PRC. With hundred years of history, Kunqu Opera was creating a sensation in China. In December, Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces respectively held north Kunqu Opera shows before fellow artists. The delegation of the north Kunqu Opera performed a number of outstanding traditional operas with northern characteristics in Hangzhou, Suzhou and Nanjing. The southern audience was refreshed.
In terms of “reform the system”, it mainly refers to the civil professional troupe’s registration and regulation, and the building of state-run troupes (including experimental troupes and key troupes). In the Kunqu Opera community, Zhejiang Province took the first step to change Chinese Suzhou Opera troupe into “Chinese Sukun Opera troupe” in the troupe registration process (1951), it was then changed into “Chinese Kunsu Opera troupe” (1952) and “Zhejiang Chinese Kunqu Opera troupe” (1954). Wenzhou converted the Julun Kunqu Opera troupe, which was established by scattered artists before Liberation, into “Yongjia Kunqu Opera troupe” (1954). Xuanping county in Jinghua special area expanded the Minshengyueshe sit singing troupe into Xuanping Kunqu Opera troupe (1955). The troupes mentioned above were all private troupes with support from the government. In April, 1956, right before the Zhejiang Chinese Kunsu troupe entered Beijing to publicly perform Fifteen Strings of Cash, the troupe was converted into a state-run Zhejiang Kunsu troupe. Then in June, 1957, Premier Zhou Enlai directly made instructions to mobilize the north Kunyi artists, Jingkun artists, and the south Kunqu artists who originally set foot in Beijing, and established the North Kunqu Opera Theater. He signed the appointment of Han Shichang as the head of the theater, and made it a sate-run theater.
As early as before the Fifteen Strings of Cash came to Beijing, in 1952, the Zhejiang Chinese Kunsu Troupe began the plan to train the “Shi” generation of young performers. In 1953, Jiangsu Province gradually recruited a number of “Ji” generation students, and hired the former teacher at the Kunqu Opera School, You Caiyun, and famous Suzhou song writers to teach there. In 1954, Shanghai also enrolled a group of students, and hired “Chuan” generation artists to teach them, so as to pass down Kunqu Opera art. Then, Chenzhou in Hunan Province, Wenzhou in Zhejiang Province, south Kunqu theaters, Zhejiang opera schools and Heibei opera schools all implemented plans to cultivate successors of Kunqu Opera.
Modern opera is the essence of opera reform, and Kunqu Opera community is no exception. Since 1958, a number of modern Kunqu Operas has been composed and performed. For example, Red Sunset by north Kunqu theater, Treasure Hunt by Zhejiang Kunsu troupe, Sea Fishing Song by Shanghai opera school’s Kunqu class, Iron and Steel Flaming Mountain by Chenzhou, Hunan Jiahe Kunqu training class, Take Luo Genyuan Alive by Jiangsu Sukun troupe, etc. In the modern opera heat starting from 1963, a number of modern repertoire has been composed or implanted into other opera genres.
In 1964, under the influence of the “left” trend, the opera Li Huiniang performed by north Kunqu theater was likened to poisonous weeds and was harshly criticized, for it played “ghosts”. Other Kunqu Opera performances also encountered setbacks. Up to the Cultural Revolution started from 1966, Kunqu theaters around China were gradually canceled (only Xiangkun troupe in Chenzhou, Hunan Province revived in 1972). The artists were forced to work in rural areas or changed their career. The best way out was joining the Art Troupe and shift to singing Beijing opera “model plays”. Those clothes and materials related to Kunqu Opera were destroyed, which caused huge damage.
In October 1976, the “gang of four” was shattered and the “decade of turmoil” ended. In October, the some artists from the canceled Yongjia Kunqu troupe in Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province merged with the Wenxuan team of Yongjia county, and became Yongjia Jingkun troupe. In June 1977, Zhejiang Kunqu Opera Troupe was resumed. In November 1977, Jiangsu Kunqu Theater was built. In February 1978, Shanghai Kunqu Opera Troupe was established successfully. In 1979 the North Kunqu Opera Theater was restored. In February 1982, Jiangsu Sukun Theater was rebuilt. In June 1984, the Xiangkun troupe in Chenzhou was renamed as “Hunan Kunqu Opera Troupe”. Since then, the country’s important Kunqu Opera troupes has been fully restored or built success, marking the beginning of Kunqu Opera’s new era.
In April 1978, the Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Shanghai and Hunan Kunqu Opera Meeting hosted by Jiangsu Kunqu Theater was held in Nanjing. Experts and scholars from Beijing, Shanghai, Zhejiang, Hunan, Nanjing and Suzhou attended the meeting for two weeks to discuss the succession and reform of Kunqu Opera as well as other matters. This is the first important meeting after the end of the “Cultural Revolution”. In mid-April 1980, the Ministry of Culture, China Theater Association and Shanghai Municipal Bureau of Culture jointly held celebration for the 60th anniversary of Yu Zhenfei’s career life, during which time the Bring Forth the New Through the Old Kunqu Opera Meeting was held to discuss the status quo, reform and development of Kunqu Opera. The new era of Kunqu Opera adhered to both inheritance and development, which was the consensus of these two meetings. For Kunqu theaters around China, in addition to sorting out and adapting traditional repertoire such as Tale of the White Snake, A Legendary Pipa and Zhu Maichen Xiu Qi, they also composed a large number of new historical operas, such as Cai Wenji, Guan Hanqing, Chunjiang Qin Hun, Flowers Princess, Red Lady, Blood Splash Beauty Picture, Empress Lu Usurping Power, Xi Shi, Chai Tou feng, Emperor Taizong of Tang, The Legend of Lady Yang (Years After) , San Fu Ren, Legend of Suxianling, Fubo General and so on. They also composed modern operas, such as Unforgettable Day, Gold and Silver Shuttle, etc., and adapted from Pushkin’s prose Miss Village.
The first generation of young artists nurtured after the founding of PRC, including “Ji” generation of Jiangsu, “Shi” generation of Zhejiang and Dakun class of Shanghai opera school, “dominated” on the stage after the end of Cultural Revolution, and became the backbone of Kunqu Opera. In 1983, the Plum Performance Award was set up. Zhang Jiqing from Jiangsu Kunqu Theater was granted the first prize (ever since then till 2005, for the overall 22 terms, almost every term has young Kunqu artists was honored, among whom Wang Fang from Suzhou Kunqu Theater and Zhang Jingxian from Shanghai Kunqu Troupe won Second Blossom Awards).
In the early 1980s, due to various factors, especially the rapid changes in social and cultural structure, opera audience was on the decline. It was seen as a “crisis”. This situation is even more threatening to the ancient Kunqu Opera. In September 1984, Yu Zhenfei wrote a letter to the general secretary Hu Yaobang, and directly mentioned the predicament of Kunqu Opera. In May the following year, Beijing celebrities initiated the construction of the Chinese Kunqu Opera Research Society. In October, the Ministry of Culture issued the Notice on the Protection and Revitalization of Kunqu Opera in accordance with the spirit of Hu Yaobang, and then the Arts Council of the Ministry of Culture held a national Kunqu troupe leaders’ meeting in Kunshan, Jiangsu Province, to research on the policies and measures for protecting and reviving Kunqu Opera. Two months later, on January 12, 1986, the Kunqu Opera Guiding Committee of the Ministry of Culture was established, and it discussed the draft of Suggestions on the Protection of Kunqu Opera made by the Ministry of Culture. On March 15, China Kunqu Opera Research Association was also established in Beijing. After the establishment of the Kunqu Opera Guiding Committee, it adhere to an eight-character principle: “rescue, inheritance, innovation, development”. In the same year, they established two terms of training courses according to plan, and so did the next year. By using recording, video, writing and other means, during the 4 terms of courses, they rescued and inherited 133 traditional repertoire. In 1987, the committee held a meeting in Suzhou on processing and arranging the traditional repertoire of Kunqu Opera. In August, the Ministry of Culture issued a notice on the special protection policy of Kunqu Opera arts.
The above measures have played a role in encouraging and promoting the development of Kunqu during the low periods of opera community, and more and more people were enthusiastic about performing Kunqu Opera. In October 1986, in order to celebrate Zhejiang Kunqu Opera Troupe’s “three good events” (the 30th anniversary of Zhejiang Kunqu Opera Troupe, 30th anniversary of Fifteen Strings of Cash performing in Beijing, and 80th birthday of “Chuan” generation artist Wang Chuansong), they held the grand “South North Kunqu Opera Artists Performance”. The seven biggest Kunqu theaters in China jointly performed 6 plays, 30 scenes traditional opera highlights. In addition to outstanding young artists, more than seventy years old Yu Zhenfei, Zheng Chuanjian and Bao Chuanduo also performed Eight Yang, Ku Jian and Jian du. The event was joined by many famous performers. It was fully equipped and of high level, combining the essence of the whole Kunqu Opera community. From December 17 to December 25, 1987, the Kunqu Opera Guiding Committee held “National Kunqu Opera Repertoire Rescue and Succession Performance” in Beijing, which performed 7 plays, 28 scenes opera highlights and 2 whole operas. In November 1989, in order to congratulate the open ceremony of the Hong Kong Cultural Center Arts Festival, the Ministry of Culture gathered 6 elite Kunqu troupes in the country, with Yu Zhenfei as consultant, to form a Chinese Kunqu Opera Art Troupe, which participated in international performing arts gathering and achieved great success. For 4 to 5 years since 1986, Kunqu Opera troupes went abroad to perform almost every year. 1987 witnessed most frequent visits. Shanghai alone saw 3 troupes went abroad.
Opera creation also saw a bumper harvest. The renewed traditional repertoire with new ideas injected include Wen Shi Jia Gui (adapted according to Shi Hou Ji), Returning Ghost (according to Peony Pavilion), Pan Jinlian (according to Yi Xia Ji), Zhan Hua Kui (according to Li Yu’s legend), Jun Chou Ji (according to A Wrong Kite), New Butterfly Dream (according to Butterfly Dream), Jia Shen Ji (according to Tie Guang Tu), Yan Xijiao (according to Water Margin), Zhao Wu Niang (according to A Legendary Pipa), Yi Peng Xue (according to Li Yu’s legend), Kan Qian Nu (according to a Yuan drama of the same name), Zhang Xie Zhuang Yuan (according to a southern opera of the same name), Huan Guan Zi Di Cuo Li Shen (according to a southern opera of the same name) and a number of renewed traditional opera highlights. Newly composed historical operas include San Shang Xi Tian, Yi Tian Tai Shou, Nan Tang Yi Shi, Xue Yuan, Wu Shi Lou Tai, Shao Nian You, Sima Xiangru, Shui Yan Qi Jun, Song of a Pipa Player, Ban Zhao, Gongsun Zidu, etc. Modern operas include Trifles of Jiafu Village, Du Shi Xun Meng, Regret, as well as adapted foreign operas, such as Blood Notes (according to Shakespeare’s Macbeth) and Crane in the Sun Set (according to a Japan Drama of the same name), etc. and so on. Kunqu musical play Wan Rong (single opera highlight) and Cross the East Sea, a musical opera composed in cooperation with the Japanese Hero Ltd, were very creative, which were performed both in China and Japan. In order to cultivate young people’s love for Kunqu Opera, a number of easy to understand, vivid and chic textbook plays and myths plays were composed, such as Chu Ren Yin Xing, Hai Li Bu, Looking for the Sun, Shang Ling Shan, etc. Some classic novels, such as Peony Pavilion, Peach Blossom Fan, and Longevity Hall, were sorted out and rearrange over and over again according to the directors’ own interpretation. The most eye-catching one was youth edition Peony Pavilion (first, second and third parts), which was composed by Suzhou Kunqu Opera Theater (the former Jiangsu Sukun Troupe) and Chinese American writer Bai Xianyong in 2004. It was warmly welcomed by young college students.
In 1991, the Ministry of Culture set up “Wenhua Award”. In 2004, the 11th awards were presented. The Kunqu Opera Xue Yuan, Peach Blossom Fan, Sima Xiangru, Zhang Xie Zhuang Yuan, Ban Zhao and Huan Men Di Zi Cuo Li Shen were awarded the New Repertoire Prize. Guo Hancheng, Tan Zhixiang and Zhang won the Drama Writing Award. Zhou Shicong and Yang Xiaoqing won the Director’s Award. Hu Jinfang, Cai Yaoxian, Shi Xiaomei, Yue Meiti and Zhang Jingxian won the Performance Award.
On May 18, 2001, UNESCO announced in Paris, that the world’s 19 cultural activities and oral cultural expressions were the first to be awarded the title of Human Oral and Intangible Heritage Masterpiece, including Chinese Kunqu Opera. It shows that relevant international organization highly recognized Kunqu Opera’s value as a human cultural heritage. In terms of literature, Kunqu Opera draws from the essence of poetry in the Han Dynasty and Tang Dynasty, Lyrics in the Song Dynasty and Dramas in the Yuan Dynasty. In terms of performance arts, it draws from the fruits of singing and dancing from the pre-Qin dynasty, various acrobatics in the past, dramas in the Jin and Yuan Dynasties, and the south operas in the Song and Yuan Dynasties, combining the achievements in music, dance and drama. Kunqu Opera is a kind of literature, drama and dance, highly integrating multiple art elements. Kunqu Opera has a long history. If starting from the beginning, so far it has been alive for more than 600 years. In its peak period, it was spread around the whole country. There was a saying goes that “all songs follow the lead of Wumen (in Suzhou)”. Until the mid-18th century, it had dominated China’s mainstream cultural for nearly 300 years. Afterwards, Huabu came to the stage. Although it threatened Kunqu’s “dominance”, Kunqu was still a shining star with great influence. Then, Kunqu gradually declined, but it never died. Its practitioners, followers, researchers, fanatics still attached their lives to it. Countless people throughout generations wanted to revive it. The reason why Kunqu Opera has such a charm and consolidates people, is because it concentrates the essence of traditional Chinese art, and embodies the essence of Chinese culture. Its inherent integrity, system and regulation, and a high degree of artistic consciousness and self-discipline, ensure its tenacious vitality throughout the ups and downs in its life. But this announcement given by UNESCO also reminds us of the modern dilemma of Kunqu Opera. Do economic globalization and China’s new era of social transformation necessarily cost China’s brilliant traditional culture? It is a question that triggered serious concern and discussion among China’s opera circle, cultural circle and academic community. On June 8 the same year, the Ministry of Culture introduced eight measures to protect and revive Kunqu Opera. Afterwards, Suzhou was designated to host the China Kunqu Opera Festival, which is held once in three years. In 2003 the China Kunqu Opera Museum was established in Suzhou. In March 2004, the Central Committee approved the Suggestions on Increasing Rescue and Protection of Kunqu Opera submitted by CPPCC. According to the spirit of this document, the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Finance jointly promulgated the National Kunqu Opera Salvage, Protection and Support Project Implementation Plan in March 2005, which was supported by the Central Government’s special fund since 2005. Its basic objectives are: to mobilize all positive factors in the next five years to establish three or four Kunqu Opera Ecological Reserve; strive to create 10 profound and artistically excellent repertoire, rescue 15 endangered traditional repertoire and 200 excellent opera highlights; sort out Kunqu Opera materials and cultivate a group of Kunqu talents and enthusiastic audience; make the living conditions of Kunqu Opera live up to its cultural status in the world; help it out of dilemma, and ensure it is back to the track of benign and healthy development.