Preserving and Revitalising 昆曲 (Kunqu Opera) on the World Stage

12 minute read

昆曲 (Kunqu Opera) one of the oldest remaining forms of Chinese opera, was listed on the ‘Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity‘ by UNESCO in 2004. It has acted as a representative of traditional Chinese culture and national treasure, receiving attention both nationally in China and around the world.

In general academic and artistic circles in China, 昆曲 (Kunqu Opera) is regarded as an outstanding subject for Chinese nationals and foreigners. 昆曲 (Kunqu Opera) allows them to gain further understanding of Chinese ancient history, literature, music, and art. Over the past 20 years, with immeasurable support from central and local governments as well as NGOs, educational organisations, and private companies, this inherited art form has continued to receive increasing attention from home and abroad after having been threatened with extinction for decades. For the majority of the 20th century, 昆曲 (Kunqu Opera) was considered old-fashioned, surviving within a small circle of professionals and receiving lukewarm reception from younger audiences.

For the past two decades however, schoolchildren and undergraduates have been encouraged to learn the art form through government and community-supported initiatives such as 昆曲进校园 (Kunqu Opera Goes on Campus). The most influential performance resulting from this was ‘The Youth Version of Peony Pavilion’ directed and performed by Suzhou Kunqu Opera Theatre of Jiangsu Province, China. It generated wide interest among younger generations as the protagonists’ parts were played by 20-year-olds. It also aroused controversy amongst the professional 昆曲 (Kunqu Opera) circles as leading parts have previously only been played by senior actors.

As cultural exchanges between China and other countries developed, 昆曲 (Kunqu Opera) has been able to increase its exposure on the international stage. It has been performed in major opera houses and community halls. ‘The Youth Version of Peony Pavilion’ has been particularly well-received in American universities.

Despite the increasing attention, the vast majority of foreign audiences, including overseas Chinese audiences, cannot fully appreciate the exquisite nature of 昆曲 (Kunqu Opera). They lack the cultural and historical context to fully appreciate the art and the resources available to enable this understanding are very limited.

A bamboo flute with illustrations on it.

Figure 1: 笛子 (dizi, side-blown flute). 笛子 (dizi) are classical instruments used widely in many genres of Chinese music. This one was used as a child’s toy. It was made in the 苏州民族乐器厂 (Suzhou Ethnic Music Factory) in Suzhou, the birthplace of 昆曲 (Kunqu Opera). Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, China. Collected by Laurence Picken in 1972. MAA 1977.265.

Museums can play an important role in helping 昆曲 (Kunqu Opera) to be understood better. Scholars and collectors in Europe and the US have been interested in Chinese music and opera for a long time. Among the ancient Chinese musical instruments exhibited in museums across the US and Europe, many were originally used to perform 昆曲 (Kunqu Opera). For example, musical instruments such as the 笙 (sheng), the 箫 (xiao), the 琵琶 (pipa), the 二胡 (erhu), the 笛子 (dizi) and the 拍板 (paiban) are found in the collection of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA), University of Cambridge. Similarly, a wooden 琵琶 (pipa)with ivory fittings of the Ming Dynasty and a vertical pottery flute from the Qing Dynasty are housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

A mouth organ with two long pipes.

Figure 2: 笙 (sheng, mouth organ). This important part of a 昆曲 (Kunqu Opera) orchestra is also popular with soloists. Versions are played in folk, ethnic minority, and classical traditions across China. The player inhales or exhales through the mouthpiece, changing the melody by closing the blowholes on the pipes. China. Collected by Laurence Picken in 1972. MAA 1977.277.

However, for many collections mentioned above, opportunities to be represented in the original context are very limited. Most of them are stored in warehouses or silently displayed in exhibition halls.

Since the mid-2010s, several projects relating to 昆曲 (Kunqu Opera) have been set in motion in Cambridge. Seminars and educational workshops have been held for scholars and artists since 2015 by the Cambridge Rivers Project at King’s College, and Kun Opera has now been performed thrice at the College. The Cambridge Rivers Project has also hosted a 昆曲 (Kunqu Opera) tour to China for a group of British scholars and artists which encouraged cross-cultural cooperation and art creation.

In 2016, to benefit the understanding of 昆曲 (Kunqu Opera) further, the Kun Opera Digital Museum project was launched. It is the first major result of a collaborative effort between MAA and the Cambridge Rivers Project, aiming to highlight the important but under-appreciated Asian collections at the Museum. Its mission has been to collect, document, and exhibit collections of 昆曲 (Kunqu Opera), stored in various organisations in the UK and China, taking 昆曲 (Kunqu Opera) beyond the stage, and beyond the brick and mortar museum. As such, the project has built an online archive of historical documents, artworks, and information about relevant projects and events, allowing for 昆曲 (Kunqu Opera) to enter into dialogue with the outside world and the younger generation, both in China and abroad.

A display case with two glass shelves. Three marble figures and a lute are standing on the upper shelf in the case. On the lower shelf are two pots, the one of the left is taller and thinner than the one of the right. In front of the pot on the right are some paper-cut figures.

Figure 3: 昆曲 (Kunqu Opera) objects displayed in the ground floor gallery of MAA during the exhibition More Than Music: Collecting Kun Opera, 16 October 2018 – 13 May 2019. Photo by LIN, Weiguang.

On 16 October 2018, MAA launched the exhibition More Than Music: Collecting Kun Opera​​. It showcased Chinese musical instruments collected by noted ethnomusicologist Lawrence Picken (1909-2007) in the middle of the 20th century, as well as a folding fan collected in the early 20th century by Cambridge anthropologist Ethel Lindgren.

A fan made of rice paper used by Kunqu performers. It has been opened and displayed on a white background. A landscape in black ink is illustrated on the fan.

Figure 4: Fans of this size and colour are normally held by the 小生 (xiao sheng, young man) in 昆曲 (Kunqu Opera). Made of 宣纸 (xuan zhi, white race paper) on wooden ribs with an ivory edge, on one face is a landscape of mountain, forest, and pagoda. On the reverse is prose from 17th-century author 张岱 Zhang Dai’s 西湖寻梦 (xi hu xun meng, Searching the Dream in the West Lake, 1671). China. Collected by Dr. Ethel Lindgren. MAA 1942.109.

The exhibition also included pieces made by contemporary artists. For example, three blue-glazed statues of principal characters from one of the most popular 昆曲 (Kunqu Opera), 牡丹亭 (mu dan ting, The Peony Pavilion), were on display. These were made by 张志刚 (Zhang Zhigang), an artist from Fuzhou, Jiangxi Province, the hometown of the renowned Chinese playwright 汤显祖 (Tang Xianzu).

Figure 5: 柳梦梅 (Liu, Mengmei) and 杜丽娘 (Du, Liniang). Two blue-glazed statues of principal characters from one of the most popular 昆曲 (Kunqu Opera), 牡丹亭 (mu dan ting, The Peony Pavilion), based on the 1598 play by 汤显祖 (Tang, Xianzu 1550 -1616). Made by 张志刚 (Zhang, Zhigang), Fuzhou, Jiangxi Province, China, 2018. Collected by the Vanishing World Foundation. Photo by 张志刚 (Zhang, Zhigang).

Other artefacts included a vase and a high footed plate made by 干道甫 (Gan Daofu), also from Jiangxi Province, and a ceramic vase painted by British artist and former president of the Royal Watercolour Society, David Paskett, in Jiangxi Province, China.

A collage of two images. In the image on the left a man is painting the face of a bearded man on a white pot. In the image on the right, the man is holding the pot up to the camera. The image that he was painting is now complete, and the pot has been glazed. On the pot is an illustration of a bearded man in traditional Chinese dress.

Figures 6 and 7. Left – British artist David Paskett painting the celebrated playwright 汤显祖 (Tang Xianzu, 1550-1616), on a 梅瓶 (mei ping, plum vase) at 景德镇 (Jing Dezhen), Jiangxi Province, China, during his visit to the hometown of the playwright in 2018. Right – Paskett showing the vase after it was glazed. The vase was displayed in the exhibition More Than Music: Collecting Kun Opera. Collected by the Vanishing World Foundation. Photo by Zilan Wang.

In an effort to further emphasise the importance of international understanding of 昆曲 (Kunqu Opera), part of the exhibition was given the title Kun Opera in the Eyes of International Artists. It was displayed at the opening ceremony and presented a selection of artwork from both Chinese and British artists, as well as a group of students from Anglia Ruskin University who created drawings of a 昆曲 (Kunqu Opera) performance at King’s College in 2016.

Attendees of the opening ceremony were also treated to a performance of 昆曲 (Kunqu Opera) by a London artist, allowing them to enjoy an integrated experience of the play. Around 20 students of Anglia Ruskin University were invited to the event and created drawings of the performance.

The lower gallery space at MAA. Three banners with the title of the exhibition and with some illustrations of objects exhibited hang from the railing of the upper gallery, in the background. In the foreground, a performer is dancing. To her right, some students are sitting on the floor, sketching something in their sketchbooks. Behind them more people stand. To the left of the room, people stand and watch the performance.

Figure 9: Opening ceremony of the exhibition. Photo by Lin, Weiguang.

The More Than Music: Collecting Kun Opera ​​exhibition at MAA has generated interest from Chinese media as well as professionals and academics relating to 昆曲 (Kunqu Opera). They were surprised by the rich collection of objects relating to 昆曲 (Kunqu Opera) housed in MAA. Many noted that the exhibition and its corresponding events provided a unique opportunity for those in Cambridge to catch a glimpse of what the Museum can offer when scholars, artists, students, and acting professionals are able to work together.

昆曲 (Kunqu Opera) has proven to be a timeless form of art, and it continues to provide a cross-cultural bridge. MAA has provided an excellent space for cross-cultural learning and creative projects. We hope to continue organising projects relating 昆曲 (Kunqu Opera) in collaboration with young artists and local communities.


I thank Jiangsu Kunqu Opera Theatre and Suzhou Kunqu Opera Theatre for their great support to my fieldwork in Nanjing and Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, China. I thank Professor LU, Jianfang, senior research associate and Curator Emeritus of Nanjing Museum (China), and WANG, Hong, Vice-chairman of Cultural Heritage Committee at Vanishing Worlds Foundation (U.K), who provided insight and expertise that greatly assisted Kunqu opera related projects at Cambridge since 2016.


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