As one of the oldest theatrical genres, from the 17th to the 19th centuries, kunju developed its own sub-genres when travelling troupes performed in different areas. The map shows 8 professional kun theatre companies in different areas. They are: Shanghai Kunju Company, Zhejiang Provincial Kunju Company, Jiangsu Provincial Kunju Theatre, Suzhou Provincial Kunju Theatre, North Kunqu Theatre, Hunan Kunju Company, Yongjia Kunju Company and Kunshan Contemporary Kunju Theatre. They all share kunju’s generic features but each of them also contains its own regional characteristics.
Kunju, also known as kunqu (the kun sung-verse) or kunqiang (the kun music), is one of the oldest theatrical genres in the xiqu form. Indigenous Chinese theatre has never separated itself from song and dance, and therefore the word for music/ sung-verse is almost synonymous with theatre.
In 2001 kunju was listed as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.
Originally from the Kunshan area (currently part of Jiangsu province), kunju’s history could be traced back to the folk music of the thirteenth century. This genre employed wind instruments: the di (bamboo flute) and the xiao (also made of bamboo, but held vertically). Its nickname “water-polished music” indicated its delicate and tuneful quality and the meticulousness of its creators.
Kun music had formerly been created for reciting poems. Scholars believe it is Wei Liangfu (c. 1489-1566) who should take the credit of developing a subtler and quieter style of dramatic singing tune by absorbing musical elements from other areas into the existing kunqiang. Since Liang Chenyu (c. 1520–80) and Wei worked together and used the new style in Liang’s play Washing Silk (published in 1572), it quickly spread throughout China.
In the seventeenth and first half of the eighteenth centuries, the style was so popular that, according to one Qing scholar, “a five-year-old child [in its birthplace] could sing it”, while “many Beijing locals [including the Manchu people] imitated the Kunshan dialect” in order to learn the songs and to be fashionable (although the two areas were about 800 miles apart and both had their own distinguished dialects). Having dominated both private and open-air performances for more than a century, the kun theatre started losing its popularity to younger and more vigorous theatres.
Kunju is one of the few old genres that uses “melodic models” (or qupai) throughout a play. Those melodic models were originally folk songs or chanted poems, and thus the titles often presented the original content of the lyrics. Those melodies were so beautiful that after generations and generations they remained while the content changed. Thus, in today’s kunju, a title of the melodic model only indicates the melody itself without any connection with the lyrics. A melodic model is a fixed melody and prosodic pattern, and each pattern has a fixed number of lines, but these lines vary in length. In other words playwrights have strict prosodic rules to follow and have to think about both the meaning and the sound of the words that they choose to use.
When traditional Chinese theatre developed to the stage of kunju, all the aspects of the stage presentation, including the role types, songs, speech, music, costumes and others, became mature. Kunju is particularly famous for its beautiful combination of song and movement/ dance. It is believed that every word in a sentence in an aria is accompanied by dance. This explains why later and younger genres learnt from it. While some local genres simply kept the kun style in them (also see chuanju), in some areas kun transformed itself to suit the locals. As the map shows, there are now 8 kunju theatres/ companies in different areas in China, which all share certain general features of kun theatre but with its own alterations and characteristics.