Chinese opera has many regional styles. One of the oldest that still has a living heritage is kun opera (崑劇), which emerged during the Ming Dynasty (from the 14th century to the 17th century) in southeast China. In 2001, it was proclaimed by UNESCO, along with the Noh theater of Japan and Kutiyattam Sanskrit theater of Southern India, as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. This May, the main kun opera companies from China and the Lan Ting Kun Opera Troupe (蘭庭崑劇團) from Taiwan gathered in Beijing to celebrate not only the preservation of this unique art form, but its revival over the past decade.
Lan Ting was founded by Wang Chih-ping (王志萍) in 2005, and since its creation has been behind a number of highly influential productions of kun opera that have helped reinvigorate the art form and attract new, and more importantly, younger, audiences. These productions earned Lan Ting a place as the only kun troupe not from China to be invited to the 10th anniversary of the UNESCO listing.
In an interview with the Taipei Times last month, Wang said that Taiwan’s unique historical heritage was crucial to the preservation of kun opera and its revival.
The political turmoil of China during the second half of the 20th century saw the destruction of much kun heritage, which through an irony of history was preserved and maintained by scholars and artists who fled to Taiwan with the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government. Although kun opera is now very much back in favor in China, with a total of seven national troupes performing regularly, Wang says that Taiwan still has a great deal to contribute.
“In the realm of Chinese heritage, Taiwan has a long and rich cultural tradition and refined aesthetic sensibility,” she wrote in a statement for the 10th anniversary gathering. “It has a role to play in the preservation and expression of traditional Chinese culture. The development of kun opera in Taiwan dates back more than 60 years, and even in these difficult times [for the traditional arts], people in Taiwan continue to promote kun opera, and Taiwan has established itself as one of the best places in the Chinese-speaking world for the continued appreciation of this art form.”
According to Wang, the kun opera tradition in China has shifted from talented amateurs, whose skills and creativity were applauded in the salons of the literati, to professional performance groups that put a premium on the transmission of technical skills from master to student. This has given rise to a phrase often heard in kun opera circles these days that “China has the best performers, but Taiwan has the best audiences.”
“We have kept the tradition alive,” Wang said. “However small the scale, the transmission through members of the literati has continued unbroken, even when kun all but disappeared. It remained alive in musical salons and student associations. [Wang is a history major who came to kun opera as a university student.] This tradition is making itself heard once again [in China], but it is this living tradition in Taiwan that has been so critical to its preservation [over the past half century]. We can’t let China take all the credit [for the revival of kun opera].”
Wang also believes that this living literati tradition in Taiwan is an indispensable key to kun’s future. “After all, kun developed as a pastime of the literati. These people might not be able to perform, but they were active in shaping the way kun operas were performed. Some wrote lyrics and music, others simply provided an aesthetic sensibility as producers ... In China, things are different. It is the performers who take the lead. Their level of cultural sophistication is not at the same standard. They might be able to perform at a very high level of technical excellence, but sometimes a full understanding is missing. Their ability to manipulate the material is limited by their background [as performers]. It is here that Taiwan can make its contribution.”