27 Mar 2007

New Kunqu, New Possibilities: The Peach Blossom Fan (1699)

Jiangsu Province Kunqu Opera
Grand Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre
Hong Kong Arts Festival
24. 2. 2007 (Sat.)
Directed by Tian Qinxin(田沁鑫)


Written by Kong Shangren (孔尚任) in 1699, The Peach Blossom Fan tells a story of love in which the characters are real and the incident is the documented history. It is such a poignant love story that illustrates vividly the sorrow of the lovers' reluctant leave-taking. This great love is set against the fall of the Ming Dynasty. It was a time when the righteousness was engulfed and the wickedness took control. In the end of the Ming Dynasty, the decayed government was led and manipulated by the eunuchs and wicked politicians, and consequently it could no longer protect its territory but handed its regime to the Manchus. The historical background gives reasons to the characters' inability to protect their love. In the meantime their suffering highlights the sad ambience of Nanjing (南京) where every man experienced an extreme disappointment about the corrupt government and a great loss of losing their beloved country.

Kunqu is the oldest form of Chinese traditional performing arts. It originates in the 15th century and has a great influence on the development of Beijing Opera, which is commonly known as Chinese Opera. Sadly, Kunqu starts its decline in the 18th century, but the best of Kunqu, such as the form of performance and the tones of singing, has set the standard for the performance of Chinese Opera. In other words, the current form of Chinese Opera has incorporated the basic structure of Kunqu, and each element from Kunqu has been transformed to make the performance easier and shorter, to produce more dramatic effects, and to attract more contemporary audiences. Although Kunqu was criticized for its difficult key and pitch for singing, for its long plays that are impossible for real performances, and for its lack of dramatic effects that naturally loses the audience's interest, it is in fact highly characteristic in its original form. The highly stylized performance, the elegant tones, and the particularly artistic lyrics distinguish Kunqu from other forms of Chinese Operas and make Kunqu the most treasured form of Chinese traditional performing arts.

The Peach Blossom Fan is considered one of the most important Kunqu plays. Its importance not only comes from the highly literary lyrics but also from the content of its story. As mentioned above, the historical background supports the development of the story, but it is the author's arrangement of the plot against such a background that heightens the artistic value of this play. Instead of giving a great love story, Kong Shangren broadened the scope of the play to talk about greater issues. Sorrowfulness is a feeling that stays in our heart that needs time to heal, and the best way to heal it is to forgive and then to forget. The author's great success is that he described such a feeling through an easy to understand love story and the sorrowfulness this love story brings about corresponds to a greater sorrowfulness he wanted to illustrate. Instead of plainly describing the lover's sad leave-taking, Kong Shangren switched the focus of the play from a sad love story to the sympathy for those who suffer from losing their country. This change makes the background become the main focus, and it turns the subject into the background. Therefore, be it a trivial sad love or a greater love for the nation, they both lead to the same result. This disposition of themes connects the documented incident with history more tightly and creates a flow that intensifies the sorrowful aura the love story brings about. Hence, the sad ambience created by this play is no longer a simple sorrowfulness for the unsuccessful love, but a complex feeling that sympathizes with those who experience great misfortunes. It is this special quality that gives this play a significant status among all other Kunqu plays.

The Peach Blossom Fan is such a famous play of which any new performance would naturally attract the attention of those audiences who are interested in Kunqu. What is special about this new Kunqu production? Isn't it another reproduction of traditional Kunqu performance, which means a performance that merely presents Kunqu in old and traditional ways? After seeing this new production of The Peach Blossom Fan by Jiangsu Province Kunqu Opera, I believe the answer to the second question is no, and this answer responds to the first question whose answer would require us to analyze in detail why this performance is different and special. In this new production of The Peach Blossom Fan, the director Tian Qinxin (田沁鑫) has given traditional Kunqu a new look and provided us a new possibility to present a renowned traditional Kunqu play. This new look would definitely affect the later development of new Kunqu productions.

Firstly, we should understand what Tian did in this production is not a renovation of traditional Kunqu. It is in fact an innovation that not only refreshes Kunqu but also makes it attractive to both Kunqu connoisseurs and young generations. Let us start with the stage, the first object we perceive once we walk into the theatre. On a stage of traditional Chinese Opera, we usually see a table with two chairs. They are highly symbolic, and their function changes according to the character's acting. They could be used as mountains, they could represent the house, and they could be a symbol of the court. This kind of empty stage has become the characteristic of Chinese Operas, but it also creates a barrier for the audience who are not familiar with this form of performance and who are unable to understand the performance due to language problems. In this production, the presentation of one table and two chairs means the tradition is retained. However, what attracts us is a beautifully decorated pavilion standing on the middle of the stage. This is something new, and the function of this pavilion provides audiences access to capture the specific time and space in the play. Space and time are never specifically presented in Chinese Operas. They are always introduced through the storyteller, the acting itself, or the singing of the lyrics. When this pavilion is used, it creates a small space in which the acting and the singing are highlighted, and the audience is forced to focus on this specific space. This pavilion is also movable, and whenever it moves, it captures the audience's attention and allows the audience to perceive the story more quickly. With supertitles, the audience can easily know the time and space of the acting at a certain moment, which means they are no longer in the state of confusion, which is a disturbance for viewers' experience. In other words, this pavilion not only makes the stage livelier, but also brings in new possibilities for Kunqu performances.

The beautiful pavilion is not the only innovation we can see in this performance. The background and the wings of the stage also capture the audience's eyes. What we saw in the background is a huge screen on which the detail of a 16th century painting (南都繁會景物圖卷) was printed. This painting is believed to be the work of the Ming Dynasty court painter Qiu Ying (仇英). Through the painter's stokes, the painting depicted the flourishing everyday life of Nanjing in the most developed period of the Ming Dynasty. The use of this painting in fact highlights the theme of this story. The busy streets on the screen clearly show an optimistic ambience in Nanjing, but this ambience contradicts to the sorrowful feelings that are generated through the acting and the singing on stage. This sorrowfulness at the end supersedes the optimism of the painting because paintings can never produce more powerful feelings than real conversations and movements of human beings. Therefore, the optimistic ambience at the back only strengthens the sorrowfulness of the performance. Its existence helps the performance to interpret the complex feeling the play intends to bring about. Due to the effect from the use of the painting, the performance succeeded in delivering this complex feeling to its audience. Hence, we could say that this performance is successful and special because it presents us a new Kunqu stage and points out the emotion the original play intends to convey.

This screen in fact has another function. It divides the stage into two different sections. The lower stage is exclusively reserved for performers, while the special space in the upper stage is for all musicians. The light material of this screen allows us to see through this barrier. We could see every action of both the performers and musicians during the performance. Musicians are important in Chinese Opera, and their presence in a performance is considered as part of the performance. In traditional Chinese opera, percussion and strings are the main instruments used, and they control the musical notes and the tempo of the performance. Actors sing and perform according to the music, and music helps them to deliver the required emotion for the performance. Wang Guo-wei (王國維) says in his research on Chinese Opera in Song and Yuan Dynasties (宋元戲曲考) that Chinese drama is "Telling stories by singing and dancing" (以歌舞演故事). Though his observation does not clearly point out the special position of musicians in Chinese Opera, it indicates that music in fact leads the performance whose story is delivered completely through singing and dancing. It is the combination of music, singing and dancing (the musicians and performers) that forms the structure of Chinese drama.

The importance of music in Chinese Opera is similar to the one in western opera, but the difference lies in the positions of musicians. Western opera places its musicians under the apron that makes them invisible from the audience. By doing so, the audience can focus on the plot and the singing of the performance, which means that they can be fully hypnotised by the dramatic illusion created in front of them. Chinese Opera asks its musicians to be present with all other performers on the stage. They are usually positioned on the wings of the stage. Though musicians are not performing the story, their musical performance is part of the show. This type of performance allows the audience to recognize every individual musical achievement just like their recognitions for the performer's accomplishment. In other words, musicians in Chinese Opera share the same importance as the performers. In such a performance space, the performance is not aiming at creating any dramatic illusion, and the audience is expected to be sensible for this visual and acoustic experience.

The displacement of musicians and the expectation on audiences has made Chinese Opera highly distinct from western opera. In fact, this performance space presents us an example of "alienation effect" proposed by Bertolt Brecht. In Brecht's theory, the audience is positioned as participants, observers, and critiques, and they should not be hypnotized by any dramatic illusions that only make them believe in what they have seen and heard. In this dramatic experience, audiences are required to be in good sensible condition so as to understand and respond to what they have seen and heard. In order to provide the audience this environment, Brecht proposed to use music and conversations to prevent any possible hypnotization. Thus the use of music and conversations in Brecht's plays produces distance between the auditorium and the stage, but this distance does not reject the participation of the audience but invites them to speak to the play. Does this "alienation effect" provide the audience better dramatic experience? I believe the embedded "alienation effect" in Chinese Operas truly gives audience different aesthetic experience because they are no longer there to agree with what the storyline says. They observe and participate in the performance, and they digest and criticise what they see and hear. This is the tradition of Chinese Operas, which means that the audience always appreciate the music, singing and acting with high self-awareness.

In this performance, the musicians are placed behind the screen instead of the wings of the stage. By doing so, the tradition of Chinese Operas is retained, and the new position of musicians is indeed an innovation for traditional Kunqu performances. This new position still provides the audience the chance to observe and judge the performance of the musicians. However, this new position leaves the upper stage completely exclusive to the performers. In other words, the audience can focus more on the performers' acting and singing while at the same time they can still have access to musical appreciation. Therefore, this beautiful screen at the back of the stage not only heightens the aesthetic presentation of the stage but also intensifies the required dramatic effect of the performance.

What about the empty wings of the stage that were occupied by musicians before? Chairs, what we saw were a row of beautiful Ming style wooden chairs on each side of the wings. This is puzzling to most audiences when they walked into the theatre. When the performance started, we finally saw the function of these beautiful chairs. Each character sat on the chair before or after his/her acting and singing. Instead of coming onto or going off the stage through the curtains, they just sat on these chairs and waited for their turn to perform. To a certain degree, their position is like the audience whose responsibility is to appreciate the performance and to ponder the represented idea of the storyline. In traditional Chinese Operas, there are usually two doors that are set at the back, and the performers come onto the stage through the door on the right (出將) and go off the stage through the one on the left (入相). When the proscenium stage is introduced to Chinese Operas, the doors are replaced with the side curtains. Though the use of doors is abandoned, the tradition of using the right hand side as the entrance to the stage is retained. In this new Kunqu production, we also see this tradition, but keeping performers on stage on each side of the wings is the innovation of this production.

Due to the highly symbolic presentation, the combination of singing and acting, and the language barrier, Chinese Operas always seem difficult to understand for both foreigners and the younger generations. In the tradition of Chinese Operas, performers always introduce who they are at their first appearance, and the audience only has this chance to remember who they are. When the performance starts and story develops, it is very common for those audiences who are not familiar with the storyline and the characters to be confused with who is who on stage. However, in this production, this condition has been reduced to the limit because most leading characters stay on the stage after they perform their part. Instead of leaving the stage, the performers walk to the wings and sit on the chair. Their presence makes it easy for the audience to recognize who is who because they don't go off the stage and come back that makes them somewhat like a complete stranger again. This eliminates unnecessary confusion, which interrupts the audience's artistic appreciation of the performance. In the meantime, presenting all performers on the stage also highlights the embedded "alienation effect" of Chinese Operas. It tells the audience that what has been seen and heard is an artistic work that requires the audience to give values to it, whether it is the value concerning the performance itself or the value that responds to the storyline. Therefore, those performers who sit on the side of the stage has become part of the audience, and their participation in the performance encourages the other audiences in the auditorium to ponder the represented idea and respond to it.

Asking the audience to appreciate the performance with high self-awareness is the tradition of Chinese Operas. This aesthetic appreciation includes the appreciation of the acting, singing, music, and lyrics. Due to the aesthetic appreciation of the audience, the whole performance can finally acquire its artistic values. Without the participation of the audience, the performance is only a form that is alien to us, which is meaningless. The artistic value in one way educates the audiences and equips them with good ability for appreciating this performance. In the other way, this value becomes the foundation of the performance and fosters the development of the form of this performance. When the audience responds to the performance, it creates new possibilities for the development of it, and this connection between the audience and the performance reassures the existence of the performance. Therefore, the participation of the audience is highly crucial to the preservation of Kunqu. How do we attract the audience that can help prevent Kunqu from dying out? This question should be easy to answer if we only consider attracting those Kunqu connoisseurs. Giving a performance that is a traditional presentation of Kunqu would definitely attract those who are already familiar with this type of performance.

Aesthetic appreciation is very important to the development of Chinese Operas. This appreciation requires the audience to be familiar with the plot, the characters, and the symbolic performance. They should have the ability to enjoy and comment on the performances of the actors and musicians. Because of this tradition of how to appreciate Chinese Operas, the highly artistic and symbolic performance can be developed and preserved. A traditional Kunqu performance allows these connoisseurs to appreciate the performance in traditional ways. The maintained tradition indeed invites them to enjoy the beauty of Kunqu. It satisfies their needs for aesthetic appreciation. However, all acting and singing that only follows the traditions restrains the performance from further developments. It keeps Kunqu in its old form, which is difficult to perform and lacks dramatic effects. Furthermore it leaves very limited possibilities for new artistic presentation in this type of performance. Consequently, the result of always giving traditional performances only attracts the same group of people as its audience.

In this new production, it provides us new innovations for traditional Kunqu performances. But we still see good traditions been maintained and performed. This presentation of the tradition says this performance is Kunqu, not a hybrid form that simply rejects traditions. In the meantime, new innovations in this performance help attract new generations and foreign audiences. All innovations give new presentations, and new presentations are placed within the framework of traditions. Therefore, it not only keeps its old audiences but also attracts new ones. The new audience means the possibility of preventing Kunqu from dying out. In fact, it not only helps preserve Kunqu but also reintroduce good traditions of Chinese Operas to these new audiences. When these new audiences taste the beauty of Kunqu, they naturally develop a new knowledge concerning this form of performance. This new knowledge allows them to remember what they have seen and heard, and furthermore, it may encourage them to see more of this type of performance. In other words, innovations in this performance contribute to the preservation of Kunqu, and moreover, it contributes to the new Kunqu presentations. It is this harmonious combination of the new and the old that gives this production its unique status. It is this good combination that distinguishes this performance from all other traditional ones that only simply reproduce Kunqu as museum works. As a result, Kunqu will not vanish, and it can start to restore its status as the most popular traditional performing arts.


  1. Anonymous6:40 pm

    Amiable post and this enter helped me alot in my college assignement. Thanks you for your information.

  2. Gload that my post about Kunqu helps! Hopefully you put a reference if you quote from my writing. So, there are young students interested in this amazing theatre form in danger. Let's keep working hard to keep it from dying out!

  3. Anonymous1:14 am

    Sorry for my bad english. Thank you so much for your good post. Your post helped me in my college assignment, If you can provide me more details please email me.

  4. I am currently do a project on this form of theatre and I was wondering if you could possibly give me more information.