When Professor Hung Wei-chu talks about Kunqu, his main research interest during the past two decades, his eyes sparkle, revealing his love for this distinct art form from China. His devotion has not waned over time, but has deepened through 20 assiduous years spent doing research and promoting Kunqu in Taiwan.
"Kunqu is among the very few old operatic forms that has survived and had a tremendous impact on the development of the theatrical genres such as Peking opera in the Ching Dynasty in China and later on in Taiwan," he said during an interview with the Taiwan News on December 15.
"One cannot fully understand the history of Chinese drama without understanding Kunqu."
Kunqu, also known as Kun opera, is widely considered to have the most exquisite literary script and the most delicate performing techniques in Chinese culture.
It originated in the Ming Dynasty in Kunshan of Jiangsu Province and is the oldest extant form of Chinese opera.
The accompanying musical instruments in Kunqu opera are the bamboo flute, Chinese wind pipe, Chinese clarinet, balloon guitar, lute, and percussion instruments.
Combining literature, music, dance, recitation, and drama with extraordinary purity and precision, Kunqu has dominated Chinese theatre from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, and gradually went into decline. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) proclaimed Kunqu a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage in 2001.
Kunqu Opera Study Plan
Born into a family of music performers in 1943, Hung said he learned to appreciate traditional Chinese and Taiwanese operas at a very young age. But it was not until he began to teach Chinese literature at National Central University in 1973 that his interest in Chinese operas, especially Kunqu, was revived.
The Council for Cultural Affairs was set up in 1981, and in 1991, Prof. Hung and Professor Tseng Yung-yi jointly promoted the "Kun Opera Study Plan," aimed at cultivating kunqu talents and followers. The plan ended in 2001.
During the 10 years, the two professors invited many of China'存 best-known Kunqu actresses and teachers to teach the Taiwanese trainees who enrolled in the program. The study plan was well-received by university students and young adults, attracting many professional Peking opera performers to take part in the training, and prompting Hung to establish the Taiwan Kunqu Opera Theatre, http://www.taikun.com. tw/ in 1999. The troupe stages 20 performances every year by professional Kunqu actors and actresses.
According to Hung, many of the important Kunqu assets were lost during the Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1976). But he managed to rescue some of them, mainly documents and costumes, during the numerous trips he made to China from the late eighties to the nineties.
In 1992, Hung set up the Chinese Drama and Opera Research Center at the National Central University, which stores more than 10,000 books of traditional operas, over 2,000 periodicals and 6,000 more video tapes and CDs of opera performances.
The center is believed to be the only center in the world to have put together a complete, large-scale collection of Kunqu documents, costumes, and manuscripts. It is also home to more than 20 historical Kunqu wardrobes, including the only costume left by Yu Zhenfei (1902-1993), the most renowned Kunqu actor in northern China.
The research center has collected more than 400 Kunqu manuscripts, with the earliest dating back to the 31st year (1766) of Emperor Chien Lung of the Ching Dynasty. Some of the manuscripts are smaller than the size of a palm---Hung explained that this made it easier for opera performers to memorize and recite their lines during rehearsals. A stele collected by the center showed that the first Kunqu performance staged in Taiwan was in 1783.
In addition to the center's vast collection of Kunqu documents, Hung spent 1992 to 2002 compiling a two-volume Kunqu dictionary, the first published in the world.
In Hung's view, researchers in Taiwan and China had not devoted much of their time to Kunqu before the art form was proclaimed by the UNESCO as a heritage in 2001. But now research proposals and performances on Kunqu are mushrooming and younger audiences are more willing to watch a Kunqu performance.
Revival and rejuvenation
In 2004, the esteemed Taiwanese literary scholar and producer Kenneth Pai (Pai Hsien-yung) presented his interpretation of Ming Dynasty playwright Tang Xianzu'存 epic love story "Peony Pavilion"?in Taipei. Tang's "Peony Pavilion"?is often compared to Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet."?
In his nine-hour, three-night "Peony Pavilion," Pai broke with tradition by selecting young and beautiful actors and actresses for the cast who were trained by Chinese Kunqu master Wan Shiyu. He also used modern lighting techniques and stage design, re-inventing the 400-year-old art form.
Since its premiere in 2004, the show has been performed over 180 times in the mainland, United States and Europe, to great acclaim.
Pai's modern presentation of "Peony Pavilion" is generally considered the phenomenal rebirth of Kunqu; in May, 2009, he made a new production?The Jade Hairpin"?for Kunqu lovers. Tickets for the Taipei performances were all sold out months ahead of the scheduled Taiwan debut, so many people rushed to Hsinchu and Tainan in search of a good seat for the performance. Audiences streamed into the Hsinchu Government auditorium on May 26, many of them students and young adults. I only managed to purchase a ticket at the corner of the third floor and had to use binoculars throughout the three-hour performance.
Learning from the masters
In addition to Hung and Pai'存 tangible efforts to promote Kunqu opera, various theatre troupes including the Shuimo Kun Opera Troupe (established in 1987 by a group of amateurs) http:// shuimokun.pixnet. net/blog , the Lanting Kun Opera http://www. lantingkun.org.tw/news.html , and the 1/2 Q Theatre http:// halfqtheatre.blogspot.com/ also played a vital part in rejuvenating the art of Kunqu.
Emerging Chinese Kunqu actor Wen Yuhang was invited by the Lanting Kun Opera as artist-in residence in 2008. Wen, working with Taiwanese performers, presented "The Palace of Eternal Youth" at the National Palace Museum from July to September.
The 90-minute performance tells the love story of Li Longji, a Tang emperor (reigned 712-756) of China and his concubine Yang Yuhuan in the setting of the ancient Imperial Palace, beginning from the time they met and fell in love, to how the Emperor had to give the decree to kill his beloved because of a political coup led by his own soldiers.
In order to pass the classic Kunqu singing styles and movements on to Taiwan actors, Wen played the role of Emperor Li for the first few performances so that Taiwanese male actors could learn from his acting and later play the lead role themselves. That role required an actor to use his real voice a lot.
The 1/2 Q Theatre, set up in 2006, uses experimental approaches to interpret Kunqu. Its 2009 production "Dream Digger" was inspired by the classic "Peony Pavilion,"?but it focuses more on the neurotic state of mind (i.e. dementia, obsession, and cleaving of self) when one falls in love, instead of the familiar storylines used for the lead characters Du Liniang and Liu Mengmei.
Yang Han-ru, who co-founded the theatre troupe and is a rising star for her portrayal of the Sheng (male role) character of Kunqu, said she is addicted to Kunqu because the operatic form has the most beautiful movements, and it's a great thing to learn from master Kunqu teachers in person.
Yang is a Taiwanese opera-trained actress who participated in the "Kun Opera Study Plan"?in 1994.