Jiansu Province Kun Opera

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May 6th 2007
Published: May 6th 2007
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She can't pick up the poured waterShe can't pick up the poured waterShe can't pick up the poured water

Scene from Kun Opera, The Water Poured, from LANKE MOUNTAIN. She rejected her husband, now wants him back; he pours out water and says she can come back if she can pick up the water and put it back in the bucket. She realizes he loves her no longer.
Jiansu Province Kun Opera
It’s not the Beijing Opera, but it’s great to be in the audience. The operas are staged in an old Confucian temple and a small theater so you can really see the details of the performers’ costumes and make up, as well as the emotions they project.

This is a long blog, but my sons and daughter-in-law are coming this week for ten days, so I want to get caught up on these blogs. After this one I want to tell you about the incredible cave paintings in Dun Huang in Gansu province in the desert. But for now, read on about the magical Kunqu (pronounced koon-chew) opera.

We went twice, March 24th and 31st. The first night we met a woman from the Nanjing Normal University staff (my university) who attends every performance, volunteers for any job connected with the opera and even can sing several of the parts. The second night we went, she sat between Linell and me and translated for us.

I’m attaching the program notes in English at the end of this blog. We were allowed to take photos with no flash, so of course, I took a
the lecherous monkthe lecherous monkthe lecherous monk

He left the monastery and is excited. He's in prime condition to meet the nun who left the nunnery.
lot of pictures, always aiming for the perfect one! The stage has minimal set and the lights are just up and down, no spotlight or lighting effects. (The expression ‘lights up’ or ‘down’ is a theater phrase, not used normally except in the theater.) Also, the "green snake" is wearing blue.

But the minimalism forced us to focus on the performers’ movements and expressions. Every move of leg, arm, body is part of the tradition. (You can learn more about Chinese opera by watching the movie “Farewell, My Concubine.”) The actors are in excellent physical shape. They balance on very high platform shoes, not just walking, but dancing and fighting.

The second night we went had an educational session during the break between scenes. First we met the director and he brought up Josh Stenberg who wrote the program notes. Josh is a young Harvard professor who has volunteered his time to help the company with their translations for the notes and for the librettos which were shown in English and Chinese via PowerPoint on both sides of the stage. Josh translated everything that happened during the break. (Weren’t we lucky!) Then we met the man who makes
A monk and nunA monk and nunA monk and nun

Both the monk and the nun have a distaste for the ascetic life. They have found each other. The obscene remarks have been cleaned up and are risque now, but they are a lusty pair.
the wigs and hats and watched him do the head costuming for the star performer. First a black scarf is tied on the head so tight to pull the eyes up and back. Then a wig and finally some form of a headdress. The singers often hold their eyes open wide for long periods. Look at the close up photos.

I loved this opera, but it’s because the seats are so close to the actors and to the musicians and the English explanations are readily available.

Here’s some history as Stenberg writes: * Kun opera, or kunqu, is a form of Chinese theatre that originated in the district of Kunshan (in the vicinity of present-day Suzhou, near Shanghai). •With a history of more than 600 years, it is the oldest of extant Chinese theatrical forms and boasts a continuous stage tradition unrivalled by any musical theatre in the world Jiansu Province KUN Opera is one of China’s six active professional troupes.
Here are the program notes from our two evenings attending the Jiansu Province Kun Opera. These notes were written by Zhenzhen Lu and Josh Stenberg. I have copied their work word for word.
Welcome to the
the ex-husband as high officialthe ex-husband as high officialthe ex-husband as high official

The wife left when her husband was lowly. Now that he's a high official, she wants to come back. This picture shows the high official.
Jiansu Province Kun Opera *! Saturday evening performances are comprised of scenes selected from the kunqu repertoire, self-contained and drawn from different operas. Tickets are sold at the door for ¥20 (10 with student ID), 30, 50, 100, and the show begins promptly at 7:15 pm at JKO's Lanyuan Theatre, 4 Chaotiangong. There is no intermission. Enjoy the show!

Three Classical Scenes March 24, 2007

"Descending the Mountain" from OCEAN OF SIN
"Ocean of Sin" is the work of Ming Dynasty playwright Zheng Zhizhen (1518-95), among the first generation of literati to write for the Kun operatic form. Originally meant as an admonitory play, Ocean of Sin is said to have finished with the protagonists---a young monk named Benwu (Matter-is-Nothing) and a novice nun named Sekong (Desires-are-Empty)---transformed into a sow and a mangy mule for their transgressions against Buddhism. "Descending the Mountain" is one of few remaining scenes from the larger, now lost, play.
In the beginning of the scene, the young monk Benwu confesses of his distaste for the ascetic life and decides to escape from the mountain temple during the absence of his master. On the way, he meets the nun Sekong, who has also
defeated in the enddefeated in the enddefeated in the end

After she can't pour the water back in the bucket, she's a defeated ex-wife. This actress was great.
run away from her nunnery. At first, both strive to give the impression that they are running legitimate errands---he tells her that he is going to find food for his sick master, and she says that she is visiting her mother, who is ill. They part; Benwu longingly gazes back at the nun, only to find her also gazing at him. They go on their separate ways and find each other again inside an empty mountain shrine. Nun and monk confess to each other of their escapades and vow to consort once they both descend the mountain. Since neither is willing to part with the other, they continue on the voyage together. They reach a river, and despite the cold and icy water, Benwu bravely steps in, taking the nun on his back, motivated by the thought of nuptial consort at last.
The scene is a classic act for the chou or clown-role, here played by the monk, with a heavy load of song and dance and acrobatic feats involving beads and boots. The script, full of lewd references and obscene remarks, has been trimmed for performance since the revival of kunqu in the 1950's, and' the originally revolting facial
green snake white snake husbandgreen snake white snake husbandgreen snake white snake husband

This is a classic Kunqu opera. The Tale of the White Snake. After she became a human, the man married her and she's pregnant. The Buddhist monk has warned him they will never be happy. The Green Snake is her sister who has come to help her.
make-up of the monk has been somewhat beautified, Yet the risqué tone and biting sarcasm remain; at the end of the scene, as one lusty Benwu chants the Buddha's name, he dreams, "let me take off my monk's covering I and grow my hair again I replacing it with a new groom's hat I and we shall make husband and wife I ever after."
Benwu (the monk) Liu Xiaoyun
Sekong (the nun) Tao Yichun
"The Water Poured" from LANKE MOUNTAIN
Lanke Mountain is a late Ming dynasty adaptation of the story of Cui Shi and Zhu Maichen, a couple who is said to have lived on Lanke Mountain during the Western Han period (206BC-25AD). Zhu, a poor scholar, has trouble making ends meet even by collecting firewood, and though he is both industrious and talented, his efforts have not translated into an official position. After twenty years of marriage, his wife Cui decides to leave him and remarry despite his promise of officialdom and warnings against her unfaithfulness. Much against his will, Zhu signs the divorce letter, and soon Cui is remarried to the brusque carpenter Zhang by a deceitful matchmaker who had promised her better.
Remorseful and
married couple arguingmarried couple arguingmarried couple arguing

The snake became a human after millions of years of self-cultivation. She loves her husband, but he's afraid for their future.
bitter, Cui dreams of her first husband, clothed as a high official, coming to take her back, only to wake and realize that it is but a dream.
In "The Water Poured", Zhu Maichen has actually ascended to officialdom and returns home gloriously, on horseback and with entourage, and is soon surrounded by townsfolk coming to greet him. Among the crowd is the penitent Cui, who begs him to take her back. Zhu responds by censuring her for the divorce. In a dramatic display of resolve, Zhu commands his servants to fetch a bucket of water and pours it out in front of her. If she can put the water back into the bucket, he tells her, he will remarry her. Cui finally realizes that Zhu has truly abandoned his feelings for her; mulling over her disastrous second marriage and the public shame she has just been made to bear, the despaired woman jumps into the river and drowns herself. What the story affects is perhaps not a simple moral to marry right but a grave meditation on the private meanings of justice; the inner ambivalence and powerful emotions of Cui as a character make for various possible interpretations by

Finally the husband promises never to leave her again and Bai, the white snake, has a fragile reconciliation.
the actress.
Cui Shi ---Xu Sijia
Zhu Maichen ---Wang Ziyu
"The Broken Bridge" from LETFENG TEMPLE
"Leifeng Temple", also known as "Tale of the White Snake", is a play by Qing Dynasty writer Fang Chengpei based on the familiar folk story of a white snake named Bai Suzhen. She has achieved human form through millions of years of self-cultivation; as a beautiful woman, she falls in love with the scholar Xu Xian. Though he requites her love, a Buddhist monk has warned him about the impossibility of a happy union between a man and an animal spirit, and repeatedly tries to separate them. In this scene, the now pregnant Bai Suzhen has barely escaped destruction at the hands of the monk. Now she and her sister Qing'er, the warlike green snake, look desperately for shelter.
Xu has fled from the Buddhist temple where the monk has left him in captivity. Fearing that Bai and her sister will accuse him of inconstancy for listening to the monk's words of warning, he elects to flee when he realizes that the snakes are nearby. Meanwhile, at Broken Bridge, Bai is overcome with emotion, and feeling sick, she stoops to rest. The
fearsome green snakefearsome green snakefearsome green snake

The sister, Qing'er, wants to avenge her sister's plight.
snakes soon realize that Xu is nearby and set off to find him. The wrathful Qing' er takes the lead; she seeks to avenge her sister and punish Xu for his fecklessness. When he is caught up, Bai, though aggrieved, protects him from her sister's violent intentions. Xu maintains that the monk is to blame for their separation and that he should not be faulted. When Bat has elicited his promise that he will never abandon her again, she forgives him, despite the warnings of Qing'er that he is constitutionally unreliable. Ultimately, Bai affects a fragile reconciliation between all concerned, and they continue on their journey together.
Bai Suzhen (The White Snake)---Kong Aiping
Qing'er (The Green Snake)---Jiang Peizhen
Xu Xian (the scholar) ---Qian Zhengrong
-Program notes compiled by Zhenzhen Lu and Josh Stenberg
[h1Individual Showcase: Starring Shan Xiaoming March 31, 2007
BORN in 1961, Shan Xiaoming is a National Performer of the PRC in the wusheng (martial male) role. He graduated in 1985 from the Jiansu Province School of Drama and has since been an active performer of JKO He is the winner of the national Orchid Blossom Prize for Acting.
"Wedding the Sister" from JOY
holding a poseholding a poseholding a pose

Qing'er held this pose with her eyes wide, for a very long time. You could feel her anger.
In "Wedding the Sister", the only segment of the larger work by Qing dynasty playwright Zhang Dafu (1554-1630) to have survived the stage, the mythical character of Zhong Kui makes a rare stage appearance. The goblin king returns to the human world to attend the wedding of his beloved sister---with his donkey and a traveling entourage of little goblins, who hold lamp and parasol and wedding gifts, conjuring no less than a magical aura.
According to the story, Zhong Kui was a fine scholar of hideous countenance---so hideous that though he did well on the imperial examinations, he was denied his title. In rage he rammed himself to death against the palace doors. After his death, the sympathetic authorities in the heavens above granted Zhong Kui the title of goblin king. Meanwhile, Zhong Kui's friend Du Ping sought redress for him in the imperial court and was conferred the top scholar's title by the emperor. The full scene of "Wedding the Sister" has four parts: Zhong Kui sets happily on his way home; Du Ping, now a high official, also returns home for his wedding; Zhong Kui meets his sister and tells her of all that had happened
goblin kinggoblin kinggoblin king

Here's the goblin king and some goblins and a donkey. Look at his platform shoes and he's balancing! with a little help from his friends.
since he went to the capital; and at last, he accompanies her to Du Ping's home on her wedding day. Tonight's performance ends with the first part, consisting of Zhong Kui's monologue telling of his joy to go home, interspersed with acrobatic performances by the little goblins. The varied rhythms and rich acrobatic play make for a dynamic stage throughout the performance.
Zhong Kui, typically a jing role (the role of ghosts and gods), is played as wusheng tonight.
The dual demands of his role point to deeper contradictions: though Zhong Kui died a violent death, his heart remains kind; though he has the majesty of a raging god, he also reveals his poet's sentiments as praises the beauty of spring. Zhong Kui is one of the more elusive characters of the kunqu stage not only because he rarely shows up but also because of that elusive mélange of the beautiful and the hideous which he embodies. Typically depicted with glaring eyes and a menacing black beard, the Zhong Kui of folk culture is the slayer of demons. Here, however, he is beautified, in a colorful costume with accentuated shoulders and hips to emphasize his elegant shape.
Zhong Kui
costume exaggerates figurecostume exaggerates figurecostume exaggerates figure

Note his exagerated shoulders and butt.
---Shan Xiaoming Big goblin ---Sun Jing
Goblin with shoulder-pole---Zhu Xianzhe The donkey---Xi Yufeng
Goblin holding the lamp ---Qian Wei Goblin holding parasol ---Uu Xiaoyun
"Fighting the Tiger" from THE RIGHTEOUS SWORDSMAN
The Righteous Swordsman is one of various plays adapted from The Water Margin, a l4th century classical Chinese novel of enormous influence, telling of a group of heroes-cum-bandits in the legendary Liang-shan-po mountain enclave during the reign of emperor Song Zhenzong. Written by the playwright Shen Jing (1553-1610), a close contemporary, critic and friend of the great Ming dynasty dramatist Tang Xianzu (1550-1616, author of The Peony Pavilion), The Righteous Swordsman focuses on the character of Wu Song, a young man of remarkable courage and martial deftness, who, in this very scene, throttles a man-eating tiger with bare fists. The play is thirty-six scenes long in its entirety; including this scene, there are about ten still alive on the kunqu stage.
At the beginning of the scene, Wu Song has fled from his hometown on account of a fight in which he committed manslaughter. Many years away from home, and yearning to reunite with his brother, he stops at a tavern near his destination. The tavern-keeper warns
riding a horse or donkeyriding a horse or donkeyriding a horse or donkey

The red stick he's holding means he's riding his donkey.
him that a man-eating tiger has been prowling the area, and advises him not to leave the inn for the night. Wu Song, however, is fortified by liquor and confident of his skills. He decides to take his risks and sets out anyway. When the tiger attacks, Wu Song kills it, freeing the village from its terror.
The dramatic buildup and spectacular acrobatics of the scene make it a favorite of the kunqu stage and a classic act for the wusheng role. Wu Song, young and courageous, is also a playwright's favorite. In The Righteous Swordsman, Wu Song appears again in the home of the beautiful Pan Jinlian, his sister-in-law, where he eludes her dangerous seduction. Pan eventually cuckolds her husband with yet another and kills him to cover up the affair. Wu Song finally exacts revenge on her for killing his brother and shaming the family.
Wu Song ---Shan Xiaoming
The Tiger ---Ge Yajun
The Tavern-Keeper ---Ji Shaoqing
Four hunters ---JKG Ensemble
"Three Obstructions" from THE KYLlN PAVILION
The play is the work of early Qing dynasty writer Li Yu (c. 1600-c. 1670. The "kylin" of the title (pinyin qilin, Japanese kirin) is a mythical
Here is Wu SongHere is Wu SongHere is Wu Song

He's a man of courage, but he stopped at the tavern to have a drink. Note the size of the container. Everything is larger than life.
dragon-headed creature.
Qin Qiong, hero of the resistance to the debauched emperor's reign at the end of the Sui dynasty (581-618 AD), is in secret communication with the stronghold of rebels at Wagang. This has come to the attention of the higher authorities of the imperial court, who sent the general Wei Wentong, among several other fine swordsmen, to arrest him. Qin Qiong flees in the night after being informed by his courtesan friend Zhang Ziyan. In the long night, Qin must overcome three great obstructions in order to pass through to the stronghold and reach his comrades-in-arms. The scene, originally a classic of the northern school of kunqu, demands a sizable ensemble on the part of the performing troupe and intricate knowledge of the characters on the part of the audience. The scene performed today is a condensed version, focusing on Qin's night flight.
Qin Qiong ---Shan Xiaoming Wei Wentong ---Zhou Zhiyi
Four brigadiers ---JKG Ensemble

Additional photos below
Photos: 23, Displayed: 23


bilingual librettobilingual libretto
bilingual libretto

Here's an example of the PowerPoint librettos shown on both sides of the stage.
Wu Song fighting the tigerWu Song fighting the tiger
Wu Song fighting the tiger

After deciding to continue on despite the warnings, he does run into the man-eating tiger.
he has the tiger by the tailhe has the tiger by the tail
he has the tiger by the tail

The choreography for the killing of the tiger is wonderful. This actor is Shan Xiaoming, nationally famous.
the last scenethe last scene
the last scene

From Three Obstructions, from The Kylin Pavilion, here is an incredible costume.
this hatthis hat
this hat

Check out the hat on this costume.
director and Stenbergdirector and Stenberg
director and Stenberg

The director's name wasn't on the program I got, but he's obviously done a great job. Here he is with Josh Stenberg the Harvard prof who has done most of the translations.
hat and wig makerhat and wig maker
hat and wig maker

This man is the third generation in his family to be in the opera business making the hats and wigs.
pull it tightpull it tight
pull it tight

Here they show us how they put the headdresses on the actors. The scarf is pulled tight to pull the eyes up and back.
peepaw concertpeepaw concert
peepaw concert

While the actors changed costumes, we had a short recital by the peepaw (sp?)player in the orchestra. I like this music.

21st May 2007

Don and Jordan
My understanding is that Don and Jordan will be in China for about 10-14 days ... leaving May 24th ... are you aware of this? I told Don about you ... don't know if he remembers ... John
21st May 2007

Awesome Pictures
The descriptions and the pictures are absolutely enchanting. Thanks for sharing this experience!
21st May 2007

hi to the kids
Susie, "Hi" to The Kids. Have a great time while they're there ... and don't let 'em break anything.
26th May 2007

You are getting so much out of this trip. I imagine that doing the blog helps you really focus on everything really closely because you are planning to share it with us! I just returned from 10 days in England but the plays in London's West End don't have the flash of these opera pics!
26th May 2007

Awaiting next Journal Blog
Can't wait to hear all about the visit with Mike and Joey and April! What a time you must have had! love, nan
29th May 2007

You need a wider audience!
Your photos are astonishingly good for a live and dynamic performance! And the abundant information that accompanies them serves as an ideal introduction of kunqu to an American audience.
11th June 2007

Great photos
Sue! These are wonderful photos!!! I hope your sons and DIL remembered to bring you a salt shaker! ;) Mary
9th August 2015

Thanks so much for the info!
I went to a Kun Qu performance at Chao Tian Gong last night and it was really great. I was also very impressed by the theatrical performance. I just wanted to thank you for writing such a great post about it. Your blog actually has the most detailed information I could find on the subject. I don't think I would have gone or figured out the logistics without it. I hope you are enjoying your new adventure camping around the US:)
10th August 2015

Thank you, Stephanie
I loved the opera,but had many western friends who were lost. That blog has had a lot of hits. I'm glad I could help. I'm just coming home from a week in Maine,but not camping. We stayed in a VRBO rental. Vacation RentalByOwner. Acadia National Park is beautiful. Susan

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