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600-year-old Kunqu Opera draws young devotees
By Li Anlan

Traditional Chinese opera has long been considered an artistic expression for older generations, something that young people seldom get involved with. But in the Gubei area of Changning District, all members of a Kunqu club are young, white-collar workers.


The club was founded in 2008 by Zhao Yunjian, a professional Kunqu artist dedicated to bringing more people to appreciate, learn and perform Kunqu.

“My encounter with Kunqu was by accident. My teacher thought Kunqu seemed right for me, and showed me a picture of performers in very beautiful costumes and said, ‘You can be this beautiful too,’” Zhao, a Shanghai native, recalled.

She started at the age of 11 with teacher Hu Baoli, and later studied with renowned Kunqu artist Zhang Xunpeng.

Kunqu is praised for its distinctive tunes, elegant acting and exceptional sophistication presented on stage.

What differentiates it from other forms of traditional Chinese opera is that its beauty is achieved by ultimate perfection.

“It has the highest precision. There are rules when it comes to whether you should take a step with either left of right foot, because if you do things at will, Kunqu loses its essence,” Zhao explained.

The Kunqu class now has 20 to 30 students practicing from the very basics, and when they complete their studies, they can perform independently on stage.

They start from the basic postures, walking, hand gestures, using the fan and how to use the voice properly, said Zhao.


The professional class costs 300 yuan (US$48) per session, and every student will be able to perform lead roles.

“Every month when I do lectures and seminars, I give the students the opportunity to present on stage, and it’s a responsibility to show the best, otherwise it’s disgracing the art,” Zhao said.

The reason for the public to get involved and learn Kunqu, she said, is for the aesthetics.

“From discovering the beauty to appreciating the beauty and eventually expressing beauty,” Zhao said.

The center moved to the Service Center of Gubei on 99 Fugui Road E. last September. In addition to regular Kunqu courses for serious students, there are also many lectures aimed at spreading the art.

“We do two lectures every month, and that benefits a few thousand people annually,” Zhao said.

She also compresses all elements of Kunqu — from stage performance to makeup to singing — into a “micro class” that provides a thorough and enjoyable experience for those who are interested.

“What I want to pass on is the spirit of Kunqu, and the ability to apply the perfections to attitudes of daily work and life,” Zhao said.


The center not only houses Zhao’s Kunqu workshop, but also serves as a base for the Confucius Institute. Guests from overseas come here to attend lectures, learning about Kunqu and other traditional Chinese culture heritages such as tea ceremony, qipao, guqin (a seven-stringed instrument) and others.

There’s also a summer school for foreign students to learn more about Chinese culture when they are learning the language.


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