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    Peking University, May 30, 2011: Students and teachers at Peking University are committed to keeping Kunqu Opera, one of the world's oldest and most refined art forms.


    Crowned as the mother to many forms of Chinese opera, Kunqu Opera has been refined by musicians and literati through hundreds of years until it is now considered one of the world's most precise art forms. However, like many old art forms, the opera style is being crowded out by modern artistic tastes. Experts and teachers have realized that the best way to preserve and promote Kunqu Opera is to rely on the vitality of youth and teach and perform it at colleges.


    Peking University launched its Kunqu Opera Inheritance Project in 2009, aiming to spread the word among students within five years through performances, lectures and workshops.


    The college also opened a now popular undergraduate course that invites academics to teach the history and aesthetics of the opera form and experienced performers to help students to appreciate the acting in an art form that originated in Kunshan, near Suzhou in east China's Jiangsu Province, 2,000 years ago and developed in the early Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).


    In April students at PKU put on a production of the classic opera, Peony Pavilion.


    Law student Yang Nannan during an audition for PKU's Peony Pavillion.


    Kunqu Opera appreciation, an optional class, attracts more than 300 students at PKU. Photos provided to China Daily


    The Peking University project's biggest achievement was its April 7 performance of the classic Peony Pavilion, which Pai Hsien-yung, a renowned Taiwan novelist dedicated to promoting Kunqu Opera around the world, praised as "as good as a professional performance."


    Yang Nannan '09, Master of Law '11, a 23-year-old student at the university from central China's Henan Province, was among eight lucky students chosen to perform the famous opera. Even luckier, the untrained Yang got the leading role of Du Liniang.


    Before the show, Yang had intensive training in acting, singing and the Suzhou dialect for more than a month from professional actors from Suzhou Kunqu Opera Theater.


    Yang's first encounter with Kunqu Opera came in 2006, when more than 2,000 students watched a version of Peony Pavilion, initiated by Pai and performed by actors and musicians under the age of 30. Yang immediately fell in love with it after finding the opera form matched her own understanding of Chinese literary style: abstract, elegant and poetically refined, especially when compared with the better known Peking Opera, which is more straightforward and fiercer in both singing and makeup.


    "It made me think that amid the wave of Western values, we should maintain our unique aesthetics," Yang said. "We should pursue a cultural identity that's typically our own."


    Such views among college students delighted Pai Hsien-yung, who insists that Kunqu Opera education should remain a part of college education.


    "I think in these young Chinese people's blood there is what is called 'the collective unconscious,'" Pai said during a public discussion in April with another supporter, Ye Lang, dean of the PKU Institute for Cultural Industries.


    "Now everybody wants to learn about their own culture to culturally identify themselves. Many young people don't know classical culture because they haven't had a chance to see it.


    "Sure, we should learn about the great achievements of Western culture, but how can you do that when you don't even know your own culture? There should be a Chinese renaissance in the 21st century. We must learn how to combine traditional Chinese culture with modern values and with its Western counterparts."



    Passing on tradition

    In 2001, when the United Nations produced its first list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, Kunqu Opera led the list of 19 cultural heritages.


    For Xiao Huaide at the university's institute for cultural industries, who produced the on-campus version of Peony Pavilion, the need to pass on the tradition of Kunqu Opera is based on its artistic value. As well as the refined literary nature of the scripts, the operas contain many art forms, including music, acting, and dance, performed at the highest artistic levels.


    With a responsibility to pass on such a profound art form, Ye Lang sees the promotion of Kunqu Opera at universities as a long-term project, particularly as a good education helps people to understand the finer points of the opera.


    "It is an undeniable responsibility of universities to pass on the traditional culture of a country, and this is widely accepted overseas," Ye said in a previous speech. "Kunqu Opera will try to attract more audiences outside campus, but college students will remain its core audience. We are fostering a new generation of audiences."


    In addition to the regular course and occasional performances, the university plans to create comprehensive digital archives of Kunqu Opera history by working with universities on the Chinese mainland, and in Hong Kong and Taiwan.


    Meanwhile, to push for wider acceptance of Kunqu among the general public, especially younger people, Xiao said they have been working on how to combine the art form with fashion to create products such as porcelain, colored glaze and silk scarves.


    "The inheritance project will go through three steps," Xiao said. "The first is to display the art form to let students learn about it. Then we need to pass on the form by encouraging more students to practice it. Finally, we will develop new products by combining the traditional culture with modern elements so we can reach a wider audience," Xiao said.


    Ye Lang recalled that writer Qian Zhongshu once noted that art and science were equally important subjects at colleges. "Beautiful things make people feel their lives are beautiful and cultivate in them gratitude that will inspire them to do something meaningful in return," Ye said. "So beautiful things cultivate a sense of responsibility."



    Extended Reading:

    Pai Hsien-yung: Lifelong pursuit of Kunqu Opera



    Reported by: Han Bingbin

    Edited by: Jacques

    Source: China Daily