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Kunqu comes alive

By Chen Nan | China Daily | Updated: 2023-03-28 05:45

Editor's note: There are 43 items inscribed on UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage lists that not only bear witness to the past glories of Chinese civilization, but also continue to shine today. China Daily looks at the protection and inheritance of some of these cultural legacies. In this installment, we take a dramatic journey into the 600-year history of Kunqu Opera.

In 2001, when Kunqu Opera was listed as one of the masterpieces of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity by UNESCO, Yang Fengyi, artistic director and head of the Northern Kunqu Opera Theater, traveled with her performers to the UNESCO headquarters in Paris to witness the historic moment.

They demonstrated the ancient art form through a short performance. One of the actresses received a note from an audience member after the show, telling her how beautiful she was onstage and how beautiful Kunqu Opera was.

"It was a very meaningful gesture. Despite the language barrier and cultural differences, the audience appreciated the art form. Their feedback showed us that the art form, though about 600 years old, is still enjoyed by contemporary audiences," says Yang.

In 2008, UNESCO inscribed Kunqu Opera on the representative list of intangible cultural heritage of humanity.

One of the oldest traditional opera forms still performed in China, Kunqu Opera was born in the region of Kunshan in today's Suzhou, Jiangsu province. It has distinguished itself by the virtuosity of its rhythmic patterns and exerted a dominant influence on all the more recent forms of opera in China, such as Peking Opera.

Combining songs performed in the Suzhou dialect, graceful body movements, martial arts and dance, Kunqu Opera uses a seemingly endless variety of gestures to express specific emotions.

Like many traditional Chinese art forms, Kunqu Opera has faced competition from mass culture and a lack of interest among young people, but the recognition by UNESCO put Kunqu Opera in the international spotlight at the same time as it began to experience a domestic revival.

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