Chapter two


Once came into being, Kun opera became popular among litterateurs. During the Longqing and Wanli period, out of the love for Kun opera, some intellectuals wrote new plays or adapted previous southern drama plays. This even grew into a trend and because of which many playwrights emerged. According to Lyu Tiancheng’s Qupin, in around 70 years from late Jiajing to late Wanli period, there were 85 Chuanqi playwrights (excluding anonymous authors and Lyu himself), 162 plays, and 29 unacknowledged plays, a total of 191 plays. Among these authors and plays, 71 plays or 19 authors were recognized as the best by Lyu, and they are: Suzhou’s Lu Cai, Zhang Fengji, Feng Menglong; Kunshan’s Liang Chenyu, Zheng Ruoyong; Shaoxing’s Shan Ben; Nancheng’s (which is in modern Jiangxi province) Zheng Zhiwen; Chizhou’s She Qiao; Xiushui’s Bu Shicheng; Yuyao’s Ye Xianzu, Wujiang’s Gu Dadian; Xuancheng’s Mei Dingzuo; Yinxian’s Tu Long; Xiuning’s Wang Tingne; and Changshu’s Xu Fuzuo. Works of Shen Jing and Tang Xianzu were listed as “best of the best” in Qupin.

Shen Jing was born in Wujiang (a county of Suzhou). He resigned his official position at middle age, and then selected actors to have them perform plays. His Shuyutang Chuanqi is a collection of his 17 plays, of which the most influential one is Yixia Ji (a story of the chivalrous men), and at that time when the play was published, “people in Wu were all eager to perform it”, said Lyu Tiancheng. One scene called “Ming Kan” (a visit to the underworld) of his play Zhuichai Ji (the story of the falling hairpin) was frequently performed by jing (male characters with painted face). Sheng is also a significant dramatic theorist, but most of his theoretical works were lost, remaining only Nan Jiugong Shisandiao Qupu (The Music Score of Southern Melodies). This book emphasizes on rhythm and the nature of Kun opera and it’s a great influence to later generations.

Tang Xianzu was from Linchuan (a district of Jiangxi Province). His earliest play is chuanqi Zixiao Ji (The Story of the Purple Vertical Flute), which was adapted into Zichai Ji (The Story of the Purple Hairpin) in the fourteenth year of Wanli Period (1587AD). Later, during the next fourteen years, he composed Mudan Ting (The Peony Pavilion), Nanke Ji (Record of Southern Bough), and Handan Ji (Record of Handan). The four plays together were called “Four Dreams of Linchuan”, and Mudan Ting was especially popular. According to Guqu Zayan (On the Works of Northern and Southern Opera), written by Sheng Defu, “every household likes this play and they almost forgot Xixiang Ji (Romance of the West Chamber)”. Critics all appreciated this play, and it was even called “the best play by the most talented person” by Pan Zhiheng in the second poem of the third volume of Luanxiao Xiaopin. Even today, Mudan Ting remains a classic of Kun opera.

In addition, a play with an anonymous author, Mingfeng Ji (The Singing Phoenix), criticizes Yan Song[1] and his son. This is a pioneering work of such kind, leaving a profound influence to those chuanqi plays on current affairs of later generations.

Apart from reforming old singing style of southern drama and creating new plays, people also adapted some zaju plays from the north after the Jin and Yuan Dynasties to make them “kunshan tune-like”. For example, such plays include Huolang Dan (The Vendor), Haotianta (The Haotian Pagoda), Dandao Hui (Lord Guan Goes to the Feast), Liangshi Yinyuan (The Predestined Marriage), Xiyou Ji (Journey to the West), Fengyun Hui, and Dongchuang Shifan. Some playwrights followed the trend that they used southern melody partly or even wholly when composing zaju, and these work are called “southern zaju”. [2] Early southern zaju plays were Sishengyuan by Xu Wei from Zhejiang and Dayatang Yuefu by Wang Daokun from Anhui. These two plays adopt the style of Kunshan tune, and were classified “great works” in Lyu Tiancheng’s Qupin. In Jiangsu, during the years of Wanli period, a man in Taican named Wang Heng composed five zaju plays: Mei Naihe, Zhen Kuilei (The Real Puppet), Yulunpao, Zaishengyuan (The Destiny of Rebirth), and Peishen Hehe. Sheng Defu praised his plays, saying that they “inheret the features of Jin and Yuan plays and are unique among other contemporary works”. Changshu’s Xu Fuzuo was the author of a zaju play Yiwenqian (A Coin). Both the zaju plays of Wang and Xu belong to the array of southern zaju that is based on Kunshan singing style.

At that time, apart from traditional roles in southern drama, the characters of Kun opera also include the three major types of character in northern zaju, namely, mo[3], dan[4] and jing[5] and their sub-characters respectively.

During the Wanli period, those wealthy officials and businessmen liked to keep troupes in their families for entertaining guests in banquents or to highlight their social status. There are also musical savvy intellectuals, who kept troupes only because they love opera. For example, the domestic troupe of Sheng Jing and Gu Dadian mainly perform plays written by themselves. While troupes patronized by the chancellor Shen Shixing and jinshi[6] Fan Changbai can only perform those famous plays. Shen’s troupe was good at Jiaoshao Ji and Fan’s troupe was good at Zhufa Ji. In Changshu, Qian Dai’s domestic troupe had two female teachers and thirteen actresses, and they often played the ten most well-known plays, including Xixiang Ji, Huansha Ji, and Mudan Ting. Some will keep children and teach them in acting, such as Changshu’s Xu Xi. And in Danyang, there was a famous performer Wu Yishi in Wu Taiyi’s domestic troupe. He could perform Mudan Ting when he was only 13 years old and was already able to “play the leading male role Liu Mengde very vividly. Even other boys tried so hard to imitate, they still couldn’t act as good as him.”[7] The domestic troupe of Xu Zichang often performed in the plum blossom mansion. The actors will perform chuanqi plays authored by Xu, such as Shuihu Ji (The Story of Water Margin) and Jupu Ji to entertain guests. The fashion of keeping domestic troupes even spread to other places, such as Shanghai. The owner of the Yuyuan Garden, Pan Yunrui, formed a domestic troupe with “actors he bought from Wu”, and “Gu Zhengxin from Huating and Chen Dating followed him in doing so”.[8] From the 16th to the 29th year of Wanli period, Pan’s troupe performed nearly 20 chuanqi plays, including Pipa Ji (A Story of Pipa) and Jinchai Ji (A Story of a Modest Hairpin). They “almost had banquets and watch plays every day”.[9] In Zhejiang, Jiaxing, Hangzhou, Yinxian and Yuyao, those experts of opera all kept famous troupes. In the capital, when Hou Xun (the father of Hou Fangyu), who was from Shangqiu of Henan province, was holding an official position of the court, he also “paid much attention to his domestic troupes”.[10] A man from Anhua, Shanxi province, Mi Wanzhong, kept a domestic troupe when settling in Beijing in his late years. His troupe could use Kunshan tune to perform Bei Xixiang (The Northern West Chamber)[11].

According to the seventh volume of Yufu Zaji (A Hitsoty of the Ming Society before the Wanli Period) written by Ming’s Wangqi, between the Yuan and Ming Dynasties, Suzhou had a depression because of the war. But after three or four years, it became a whole new city where “business, transportation, infrastructure, and the service and entertainment sector are all blooming”. With a prosperous economy, people started to need more entertainment and cultural service, therefore professional groups of Kun opera actors also developed rapidly. According to Zhang Han’s Songchaung Mengyu, during the next two or three decades after Kunshan tune became popular, people “wanted to become actors” and “the acting business has been feeding thousands of people”.These troupes not only performed in Suzhou, but also move to places around. Pan Yunrui’s Yuhuatang Riji recorded that many “troupes of Wu” or “performers of Suzhou” came to Shanghai to perform, and “the audiences all said that the show was beautiful”. In Yunjian Jumu Chao, written by Fanlian, who is from Songjiang, it is stated that: “people from Suzhou are outstanding. There are also good female characters or female actors acting as male characters. However, local actors could rarely compete with them.” During the Wanli period there were thousands of professional Kun opera troupes, and some are still known to people today: the Ruixia troupe, the troupe of Huizhou, that of Yushan, and that of Kunshan, etc. The first three troupes were the most famous ones. Acoording to Pan’s book, in Shanghai, there were over 20 troupes from Kunshan, and in Zhejiang there also appeared many professional troupes. Crews from Zhejiang, Shaoxing, Yuyao and Zhejiang performed in the Yuyuan Garden for many times.

Wei Liangfu’s reform focused on the voice only, and his peers were all singers without any accompaniment. After the new-style Kunshan tune came upon the stage, this tradition still did not change. In fact, since the late Jiajing period, with the hype of new style Kunshan tune went up, singing without accompaniment (including sanqu and opera) became more popular day by day. Not only scholars and officials like it, but so did ordinary citizens—they sang very often and love it passionately. In those Wanli years, there were a singing competition every year in Huqiu (a place in Suzhou), an arena for singers as well as an assembly for tens of thousands of amateurs. “When the day come, the whole city was filled with people. Everyone is dressing up, taking their mats and liquor with them to sit down and drink. Thousands of people, shoulder by shoulder. Thousands of people are all singing...”[12] “After rounds and rounds of competition, the last man would be the champion”. [13] Such a grand event attracted some Kun opera lovers outside the town, such as Tu Xianfu from Jiaxing, Zhejiang province. He once took his troupe to Huqiu at the moon festival, to perform the new work of Bu Shichen—a chuanqi play Dongqing Ji (The Story of Holly).

During the Wanli period, there were quite a lot of singers. Except for Wei Liangfu and Deng Quanzhuo that are mentioned above, there were also Zhou Siyu, Gu Jingfu, Gu Maoren and Niu Shaoya, etc. Zhou Siyu “will go to Huqiu every moon festival for fifty years, never had an absence.”[14]

The emergence of new-style Kunshan tune centered at Suzhou and first spread to Wu areas. Wuxi, due to its short distance from Suzhou, was one of the earliest place to be influenced by the new Kunshan tune. In Wuxi there was a singer named Pan Jingnan, who was one of Wei Liangfu’s best pupils that was “proficient at his skiils”.[15] He established his own school of Kun opera calld the “Liangxi School”. There was another singer An Huiji, who “can sing southern drama, and call himself the pupil of Wei Liangfu. And every detail of his performance is indeed just like Wei.”[16] Zou Diguang, the former head of the department in charge of production, patronized a troupe after he stepped down from his position. He had over ten good performers. After receiving the influence from Kunshan, Shanghai also formed its own style. According to Pan Zhiheng, “Wuxi style is enchanting and complicated, Wujiang (a district of Jiangsu) style is soft, and Shanghai style sounds energetic and refreshing”.[17]

During the Wanli years, Kunshan tune had gained the edge in central Wu area and started to influence places around at a fast pace. People from other places came all the way to Suzhou to hire professional singers, troupes or child pupils regardless of the cost. In On Melodies, Pan Zhiheng talked about the places that were influenced by Kun opera—apart from the Wu areas, there were also Nanjing, Yangzhou, Jingjiang of Jiangsu; Anqing, Huizhou of Anhui, Hangzhou, and Jiangxi. Actually, it has even spread to places as south as Guangdong province. Northward, its influence reached central Hebei province and even Beijing. Wang Jide said in Melody and Rhythm (volume one) that “since the late Wanli period, singers and dancer in the north abandoned previous northern performance that is rough and tough but all imitate southern drama performers. Northern melody almost died out.” Yuan Zhongdao recorded in his Youju Shilu (A Collection of Diaries) his experience of watching performances of Kun opera troupes, for example he watched Wu You acting the play Bayi (The Eight Righteousnesses) on the spring festival of the thirty-eighth year of Wanli period, watched Sheng Zhouban acting as Wu Song in Yixia Ji (The Story of Righteous People) in the forty-fourth year, and also went to Changchun Temple to watch Tanhua Ji (The Story of the Canna). And according to Sheng Defu’s Wanli Yehuo Bian, Kunshan tune had entered into the court during the Wanli period, and “now the in the court there is a Yuxi Palace in charge of all kinds of opera. People in this palace will study operas from other places, such as those of Yiyang, Haiyan and Kunshan”.

Apart from Wu areas, Kun opera was also popular in Nanjing. After the Yongle Period of the Ming Dynasty, Nanjing became the “alternative capital” with still a large government system. Most of the officials didn’t had anything to do, so these intellectuals and litterateurs were engaged in cultural activities, and sought for entertainment. When they heard Kunshan tune, they found that “compared with Haiyan style melodies, Kunshan melody sounds soft and sweet. The singer could last the voice for a long time at only one syllable. So the officials favored Kunshan tune, since they already got bored at Haiyan melodies, not to mention northern songs.”[18] In the twelfth year of Wanli period, Tang Xianzu came to Nanjing and left in the nineteenth year. Seven years later, he finished Mudan Ting, which was immediately performed in Nanjing. At that time Pan Zhiheng and Zang Jinshu were there to watch the play. Then the play continued to attract audiences for a successive ten years. In those years watching Kun opera has become a social atmosphere. Pan Zhiheng once wrote about a Kun opera lover who broke his family rules only to see the famous Kun opera performer Yang Mei. “After midnight, when his parents fell asleep, he sneaked out of the house through the window.”[19]

At that time, there emerged plenty of great performers of Kun opera in Nanjing. Pan Zhihuan alone mentioned around 30 actors in his opera review. Among these actors there are many courtesans from theatres by the Qinhuai River. They were courtesans and actors, but they are in effct skilled in performing, and most of them could play Kun opera. For instance, Chen Mei, who has been mentioned in the last paragraph, performed Qiefu (Stealing the Commander’s Tally). When acting, she “moves as swiftly as if she is flying, even it is freezing. In the story when someone tell her to “lie down to get warmed”, she could do it immediately and her body never shakes till the play ends”. “Jiang Liu, a man who is good at performing over twenty chuanqi plays. He would not feel difficult to perform, whatever the scene is”. Another actor named Gu Yunqing, “once be on the stage, other actors from Wu were convinced about his strength”.[20] In Jinling Suoshi (Stories of Nanjing) Zhou Hui also mentioned a clown Liu Huai (or Liu Ya), who act as a servant Laixing from the play Xiu Ru Ji (An Embroidered Robe) in at a noble man’s house. Laixing cried about his deep feelings for his master. His performance was so vivid that the noble man took it for real. He comforted Liu Huai with a drink and said: ‘Your master’s going to sell you. You don’t have to miss him.’”

After the rapid development during Wanli years, when it came to the Tianqi and Chongzhen period (under the reign of Emperor Xizong and Emperor Sizong), Nanjing became the new center. This is because in the late Ming Dynasty, Manchu aristocrat invaded and started wars with the court. The central plains saw one peasant uprising after another, and the rich and intellectuals fled to the south, mostly to the prosperous “alternative capital” Nanjing. They brought their money and kept having the extravagant life, seeing courtesans and watching operas everyday. Yu Huai wrote in his essay collection book Banqiao Zaji: “The big city Jinling (Nanjing) is home to souther melodies”. Wu Weiye from the Qing Dynasty wrote in volume twenty-eight of Meicunjia Canggao (A Collection of Manuscript) that “Lanterns never go out along the Qinhuai River, and you can here people singing and dancing all the way”. There were also more geishas than before. Zhang Dai, a litterateur from Zhejiang, had known many of them when he was visiting Nanjing. According to his book Tao’an Mengyi (Reminiscences in Dreams of Tao An), “girls that sing southern songs consider the ability to sing very important. Yang Yuan, Yang Neng, Gu Meisheng, Li Shi and Dong Bai are famous for their acting” (volume seven). Wang Yuesheng, though a performer, she “is lofty, aloof and proud”, and “she can sing songs from the past thirty years and no one can compete with her” (volume eight). Yin Chun could both act male and female characters, and Yu Huai spoke highly of her in Banqiao Zaji that “she could act as Wang Shipeng, a male character, in JinChai Ji, and she can be so grieved in two of the scenes Meeting Mother and Mourning the River that the whole audience is touched. Those old performers admit with regret that they are not as good as Wang.” Li Xiangjun, the disciple of Su Kunsheng, was also an outstanding Kun opera performer, and she was especially good at Pipa Ji. Zheng Tuoniang (given name Ru Ying) was good at both singing and composing poems as the lyrics of songs. People put her on a par with the famous melody composer Shi Dunren that “Mr. Dun has his pipa and Tuoniang has her poems”. Other good singers are Li Daniang, Ge Neng, Kou Baimen, Bian Sai, Dun Wen, Sha Cai, Ma Jiao, Gu Xi, Mi Xiaoliu, Wang Xiaoda, Wang Jie, Dong Nian, etc. Also, at that time, the famous singer Su Kunsheng lived in Nanjing and had a close relationship with these geishas and wealthy officials.

There were a number of performers that can act various types of characters. The most famous one is Ding Jizhi, who is said to be “good at playing any role”, especially old females, clowns, and males with painted face. He usually worked with geishas from the Qinhuai River, such as Li Shiniang, Li Xiangjun and Gu Meisheng. One of his best works is playing as the mother of Zhang Lyuer in Jinsuo Ji (A Tale of Golden Locks), which won him the reputation of “excellent performance at one time”. He can also play Liu Tang—the ghost with red hair, in Shuihu Ji. Similar performers of the same period include Zhang Yanzhu, Zhu Weizhang, Shen Gongxian, and Wang Gongyuan. “They are all good at cross-acting and are all on the top of the list”. [21]

Most of the Kun opera troupes in Nanjing were professional ones. During the Tianqi and Chongzhen years, “there are around ten outstanding troupes, and the best two among them are Xinghua and Hualin.” According to volume five Ma Ling Zhuan (The Biography of Ma Ling) of Zhuanghuitang Ji, the two troupes once had a rival performance, playing the scene Hetao from Fengming Ji (A Tale of the Singing Phoenix). Ma Ling from Xinghua Troupe failed, and he then went to the capital and became a domestic servant of the chancellor. Years later, he came back to compete with Hualin Troupe again, and this time he won. In Kunshan, the most famous troupe was that of Ruan Dacheng. Zhang Dai praised them for they “pay attention to the plot, the logic and emotion, and the coherence of the drama, which makes them different from those troupes with casual attitude. And their plays were all created by the troupe owner himself. He was careful and serious to this process, which again make the troupe different from those thoughtless troupes. The Ruan troupe also loved to use colored-lanterns. “They made beautiful lanterns to add more colors to the stage”. [22] When there was no banquet, the troupe will perform in the public with a sign that read “Wei Qing Xiyu” (Wei Qing Theatre). For example, Mao Pijiang, a litterateur from Rufu, asked the troupe to play Yanzi Jian (The Swallow’s Letter) with 500 grams of silver to welcome Dong Xiaowan[23], in the fifteenth year of Chongzhen period (1642AD). Ruan’s troupe had a composer Zhu Yinxian who was also a talent.

During the reign of Emperor Tianqi (1605-1627) and Chongzhen (1611-1644) of the Ming Dynasty, the Chinese Kunqu Opera was also very popular in Suzhou with the then center of Kunqu Opera being Nanjing, though. Thanks to the convenient waterways in Suzhou, Kuqu Opera performances usually took place in boats. “The deck is set to be the performance stage, and the the boat cabin was the backstage”, “(To watch the opera) people lease small boats called Shafei and Niushe lining along the performance boat, latecomers have to have their men wait in Beimatou and peddle all the way to Shantang for another show”. “In cases of windy or rainy days, or the performance was not satisfactory, opera-watchers would throw bricks or rocks upon the stage, announcing the end of the show. Or if the boats are overcrowded with opera lovers, the performance also has to be cancelled for the sake of safety reasons (Gu Gongxie, Xiao Xia Xian Ji)”. Stories like this would showcase the popularity of Kunqu Opera back then. In the countryside of Suzhou, the fever for Kunqu Opera continued. “In a village around the Dongting Mountain at the Wu County at the end of the Ming Dynasty, a man who makes his living by collecting firewood once came to watch the opera performance of Jinzhongzhuan (The Autobiography of the Patriot Yuefei) with firewood on his shoulder. The moment the man playing Qin Hui (who framed and killed Yuefei) come onstage, he is furious and jump upon the stage and beat the man to nearly death. The crowd grows panic and scream for help.” (Yu Chu Xin Zhi, Vol. 8) opera performance was staged in villages and villagers like those firewood collectors could enjoy anytime during the day. Beautiful singsong girls like Chen Yuanyuan could sing the Yiyang tune and was good at singing the Kun tune; Chen could even perform onstage, “(she) plays a matchmaker, a minor role in the West Chamber, frivolous, superficial and glib, one could find a typical matchmaker of the Tang Dynasty all in her. Thus she is often invited to perform at my (Zou Shu) house, doesn’t want to leave”. Other singsong girls like Liang Zhao, Xu Liu, Yu Ai, Wang Jun, Guan Wu, all being famous in Suzhou. “In the Autumn Festival in Huqiu with a great gathering of people eager to enjoy Liang Zhao’s opera performance, once Liang didn’t show up, the crowd would walk away disappointed, leaving the beautiful moonlit festivity behind” (Zou Shu, Shi Mei Ci Ji).

The popularity of Kunqu Opera went beyond Suzhou to the whole southern region. Yu Huai said in the Song in the Jichang Yuan about a vocal performance in Jichang Yuan in Wuxi, “September, 1790, I was traveling along the Hui Mountain by boat in Liang Xi, Mr Qin Liuxian joined with several people with instruments, singing along the way to the Jichang Yuan in a beautiful pleasure boat. … the singers and instrument players on the boat all dressed in plain clothes and shoes, gentle as scholars, graceful as fairies. They sat there playing and singing, sweet voices like bird, one after another. All was still even the clouds above seemed stopped to listen. … the way they sang accompanied with instruments gradually became a hit in Liang Xi.” There were amateur players from all walks of life. Pan Zhiheng wrote in the vol. 2 of his Essays that these amateurs would be as many as 20, of who Peng Tianxi ranked first in playing sheng (painted faces) and chou (clown). Zhang Dai also commended Peng for playing unscrupulous and cunning characters in vol. 6, Amateur Player Peng Tianxi in his Tao An Meng Yi (Reminiscences in Dream of Tao An), “the way (he) sees and frowns is everything a honey-mouthed, dagger-hearted man could be”.

Beijing, the Capital of the Ming Dynasty in the north, also witnessed the boom of the Kunqu Opera. Shi Xuan wrote in Jiu Jing Yi Shi, “The Kunqu Opera is the most popular in the capital city.” The royal family and officials selected best female opera players from the south, or adopted displaced former opera players of rich families in the southern region, all documented in this book. The Emperor Xizong once played Zhao Kuangyin the Song Emperor with opera players in the Feng Yun HuiFang Pu. In 1632, on the birthday of the Empress, the Shen Xiang Troupe was instructed to play the West Chamber for five or six time; and played once or twice Yu Zan Ji in 1641 (Jin Gong Yi Lu, last vol.)”. Shen Xiang Troupe was the leader of Kunqu troupes. The Censor Qi Biaojia took office in 1631-1632; he watched numerous Kunqu performances on many formal and informal occasions in Beijing. From his Qi Zhong Mingong Ri Ji (Dairy of Qi), it’s estimated that there were a dozen of Kunqu troupes in the capital city.

The end of the Ming Dynasty saw the peak of Kunqu enthusiasm in these areas. It’s a common for Troupes being invited to perform at official or personal gatherings, with Kunqu troupes being the most favored. Qi Biaojia watched 14 performances in 14 formal banquets in one month in 1633. Qi was the governor of Susong Province in 1635, and on his way to Beijing, he was invited by Wu Qisheng on April, 15th to watch opera performance in Tianjin, “I was invited by Wu Qisheng to watch Bai Mei Ji; we drank in a boat…”Qi Zhong Mingong Ri Ji (Dairy of Qi). On occasions of rituals and festivals, villagers all gathered to enjoy the opera performances. The temple fair in the Lantern Festival in the Yanzhu Temple, Taoyan of Shaoxing County in Zhejiang Province, would have 5 nights’ opera performance in a row, “best troupes from the Yue regions or from Hangzhou are invited, making untold money in a single day”. The plays performed include: short stories like Quan Bo Jie and Quan Jin Chai, “an old man sitting and rehearsing his lines in the play was asked to start over as he skipped one word.” (Tao An Yi Meng, vol. 4). Festivals, fairs, weddings and funerals couldn’t equal the glamor and noise of Kunqu performance. The status and income of Kunqu players rose rapidly accordingly, “Kunqu players were paid around 700-900 RMB equivalent during 1573-1620; now the best troupes chosen for performance were worthy of 12 times that much” (Lu Wenheng, Qiang An Sui Bi). One performance costs plenty of money, and the opera players still want more of it. Some even ride horses or carriages to watch the performance; some have unreasonable demands, things couldn’t be worse in the backstage. Gentries were willing to pay a large amount of money for a day’s opera performance only reinforced such unhealthy practice.” (Xu Shupi, Shi Xiao Lu). Zhao Qian wrote in Zhou Cheng Zi that: In 1634, Peng Xixian scrutinizes gentries’ extravagances but treats Kunqu Opera players and singers as guests when he was the Prefecture Chief of Tongzhou.

During the reign of Emperor Tianqi (1605-1627) and Chongzhen (1611-1644) of the Ming Dynasty, the creation of short stories was booming. Famous writers include Fan Wenruo from Songjiang who passed the highest imperial examinations in 1619. His work includes 16 short stories, of which the Hua Yan Zhuan, the Meng Hua Han and the Yuan Yang Bang are collectively called Bo Shan Tang San Zhong, and the carving copy of it still exist; Wu Bin from Yixing has 5 short stories: Hua Zhong Ren, Xi Yuan Ji, Lv Mu Dan, Liao Du Geng and Qing You Ji, collectively called Can Hua Bie Shu Wu Zhong. Hua Zhong Ren was created at the late 1620, with other 4 works created between 1620 and 1644. His stories were all romances between men and women, but revealed the dark side of officials and flaws of the imperial examinations through these love stories. These love stories were based on “humans are emotional creatures” (preface to Qing You Ji), proving him a follower of the master playwright  Tang Xianzu; Ruan Da Cheng from Huaining was removed from office as a result of colluding with Wei Zhongxian the head of eunuchs in 1613. Later he moved from hometown to Nanjing. Despite his wrongdoing, he is talented in creating many plays include 11 short stories, 4 out of which still exist today, and they are: Yan Zi Jian, Chun Deng Mi, Mu Ni He and Shuang Jin Bang, collectively called Shi Chao Yuan Si Zhong Qu, with Yan Zi Jian being the most famous. Zhang Dai commented that “every play, every act, every episode, every word is excellent” (Tao An Meng Yi, vol.8); Feng Meng Long from Suzhou didn’t pass the imperial examinations, but his writing spanned from 1573-1620 to the end of 1644. His focus is on folk literatures and he has created many short stories, such as Shuang Xiong Ji and Wan Shi Zu; he also adapted 14 short stories (some say 12), and collected in Mo Han Zhai Ding Ben Chuan Qi. Feng was an apprentice of Shen Jin, thus his style of “perfect rhythm and rhyme” in his adaptations is clear and suitable for performance onstage; Yuan Yuling from the Wu County has short stories such as Xi Lou Ji, Su Shuang Qiu, Jin Suo Ji, and Chang Sheng Le. Xi Lou Ji being the most popular; it’s about romance between gifted scholars and beautiful ladies, “(when he) was immersed in story-telling, he covered every aspect of the romance, … the play of Xi Lou Ji is superior to other work like Xiu Ru and Xia Jian” (Qi Biaojia, Yuan Shan Tang Qu Mu). The story remains popular in the Qing Dynasty, and now Lou Hui, Chai Shu and Wan Jian from Xi Lou Ji are still often performed; Shen Zizheng from Wujiang is nephew of Shen Jin. He is bold and unconstrained and talented; he created poetic plays Ba Ting Qiu, Bian Ge Ji and Zan Hua Ji, collectively called Yu Yang San Nong. These plays are stories about scholars in low spirit, “words of complain and bitterness” (Wu Mei, Introduction to Chinese Traditional Opera); Shen Zijin from Wujiang is a brother of Shen Zizheng. He is interested in ancient histories, classics and anecdotes. He has 3 short stories: Cui Ping Shan, Wang Hu Ting and Qi Ying Hui. The Wang Hu Ting was based on real stories in the 1573-1620 periods, and the first performance was a huge success. Besides, he created Guang Ji Ci Yin Xiansheng Nan Jiu Gong Shisan Diao Qu Pu and a collection of Qu Poetry Ju Tong Yue Fu; Lin Mengchu from Wucheng is excelling at Qu creation. He has 8 poetic plays and 3 short stories, with only Bei Hong Fu, Qiu Ran Weng and Nao Yuan Xiao remained; Ma Jiren from the Wu County has Can Xia Guan Chuan Qi Wu Zhong, with only He Hua Dang (i.e. Mo Lian Meng) survived; Ye Xiaowan from Wujiang has a poetic play Yuan Yang Meng, which is sad story about her premature-died sisters, making her the first female playwright in China; Shen Sheng from Qiantang was killed by neighbors as a result of connection with Ma Shiying and Ruan Dacheng, and misinformation about invasion of Qing forces. He has 3 short storied: Zai Xu Ji, Xi Zai He and Wan Chun Yuan; the latter two survived but the former two received highly commend; Meng Chengshun from Kuaiji has 5 short stories: Jiao Hong Ji, Er Xu Ji, Zhen Wen Ji, Er Qiao Ji and Chi Fu Fu, and the former three survived; his 5 poetic plays include Tao Hua Ren Mian all survived; he also complied Gu Jin Ming Ju He Xuan (Selected Plays Collection), which collected and commented on 56 poetic plays in Yuan and Ming dynasties; Yao Ziyi from Xiushui (today’s Jiaxing) has 4 short stories: Xiang Lin Xian, Bian Di Jin, Shang Lin Chun and Bai Yu Tang; the last one didn’t survive. And selected scenes from Xiang Lin Xian still enjoy popularity. At the end of the Ming Dynasty, Mao Jin, a bibliophile who loves operas built Ji Gu Pavilion and Mu Geng Pavilion collecting 8000 volumes of books, most of which being rare books, “rich in the country”, his Liu Shi Zhong Qu collected 59 short stories of the Ming Dynasty include Huan Sha Ji, and West Chamber of the Yuan Dynasty, with most being popular Kunqu operas in the Ming Dynasty. His grand collection has such a profound impact to this date, and it is regarded a must-read for modern playwrights.

The reformed Kunshan Tune (Kunqu Opera) started in the reign of Emperor Jialong of the Qing Dynasty, and has evolved to perfection in a century. It grew popular from Wuzhong to the whole Province to further beyond the provincial boundary. At the end of the reign of Emperor Chongzhen, “other operas all originated in Wuzhong” (Shi Xiao Lu).

[1] A corrupt official of the Ming Dynasty.

[2] See the notes of volume twenty-six Gaotang Ji of Qunyin Leixuan (A Collection of Kun Opera) by Hu Wenhuan of the Ming Dynasty.

[3] Middle aged male characters.

[4] Female characters.

[5] Male characters with painted face.

[6] A person who passed all three examinations held by the government.

[7] See the preface of the third volume of Luanxiao Xiaopin.

[8] See the second volume of Fan Lian’s Yunjian Jumu Chao.

[9] See Pan Yunrui’s Yuhuatang Riji (The Diary of Yuhua Hall).

[10] See The Biography of the Hou Family of Zhuanghuitang Ji.

[11] See the preface written by Fan Jingwen in Ti Mijiatong (On the Child Actors of the Mi Family).

[12] The second volume Huqiu Ji (The Story of Huqiu) of Yuanzhonglang Quanji (A Full Collection of Yuan Zhonglang).

[13] Jichangyuan Wenge Ji (Listening to Music in the Jichang Garden), Zhang Chaoba.

[14] Chuxue Ji (A Collection of Bigginers), Qian Muzhai.

[15] See Jichangyuan Wenge Ji.

[16] The preface of volume one of Moyan Yigao, authored by Feng Shu.

[17] See volume two Xuqu (On Melodies) of Luanxiao Xiaopin.

[18] See the ninth volume of Ming’s Gu Qiyuan’s Kezuo Zhuiyu.

[19] See volume two Chuyan of Luanxiao Xiaopin.

[20] These quotes above can all be seen in volume two Chuyan of Luanxiao Xiaopin.

[21] See Banqiao Zaji and volume six of Jushuo (On Drama) by Jiao Xun from the Qing Dynasty.

[22] The quotes mentioned above can all be seen in volume eight of Taoyan Mengyi.

[23] Dong Xiaowan, a courtesan, poet and writer.