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Bai Xianyong, Ye Lang: To a Renaissance of Kunqu

Peking University, Mar. 23, 2015: “Kunqu, as a form of art, is one of the aesthetic achievement in ancient times which exemplifies Chinese classical beauty,” said Bai Xianyong on March 23, 2015, in the Multifunctional Hall of Peking University Hall.


Bai, a scholar and writer, who is famous for his adaptation of the Peony Pavilion, as well as his work of fiction Taipei People, talked about his view on rejuvenating Kunqu and bringing new life to classical culture. This talk was filmed by China Central Television (CCTV) as a program of traditional Chinese culture. Professor Ye Lang of the Department of Philosophy at PKU was also invited to be on stage to share his views.



Bai began with his childhood memory of reading the Peony Pavilion in mainland China at nine years old,when his interest in Kunqu was first kindled. It was this interest, and later an obsession, that generated the subject matter of his major works and impelled him to preserve and promote Kunqu on the brink of its extinction. His adaptation of the Peony Pavilion—Young Lovers’ Edition was an attempt at reviving this art form, which blended traditional and modern elements together: the script was condensed, the lighting, costumes and choreography were refined, while the poetic text and basic tone of singing remained unchanged, still poetic, delicate, and graceful.


"We respect tradition, but we are not constrained by tradition; we adjust the work to modern times, but we are not enslaved by market in modern times.” To treat classical works with modesty was what Bai regarded as the rule for any adaptation of traditional work.


From its first show on April 29, 2004 in the National Theater in Taipei, the Peony Pavilion — Young Lovers’ Edition has been staged across mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, even to the US. Wherever it went, it amazed the audiences with the beauty in its form as well as in its content: the exquisite script, the graceful gesture, the erotic charm, the underlying cultural characteristic, etc. Prof. Ye said the concept of “love” and “beauty” were what related audiences all over the world. In addition, Ye acknowledged the significance of Bai’s adaptation. Beauty, which Hegel regards as “the sensuous appearance of the idea,” is sometimes historical. But by adaptation, classical beauty was combined with a dual sense of modernity, and finally became a shared value that belonged to our time. Ye pointed out that the balance between classical aesthetics and modern aesthetics required time and hard work to achieve, but it was also one of the most important parts in cultural development in any time and space.


Both Bai and Ye stressed the value of cultural heritages. Bai considered them as a sort of DNA, an innate feature running in our blood, the resonance of which transcended the bound of time, making generation after generation spellbound. And Ye, looking back to the poetry in Tang and Song dynasties, as well as famous classical works such as Dream of the Red Chamber, said these were what generations of Chinese identified themselves with, and constituted the core of the concept “China”—without which China is not China any more.


Bai and Ye expressed their wishes for a renaissance of Kunqu and other equivalent traditional art forms. They had seen the huge impact of Kunqu in college students through the tour of the Peony Pavilion — Young Lovers’ Edition to universities across China these years, including at PKU. Also, the course “Classical Kunqu Opera Appreciation” hosted by Bai and Ye at PKU had attracted a large number of students to get closer to this highbrow art. Bai and Ye considered education, especially that in college, as a crucial way of promoting Kunqu, and of enlightening students about traditional culture.


In the end, in their conversation with students, Bai and Ye also expressed that reading classics, both Chinese and abroad, should be the chief aim of college education. They told students to engage themselves in intensive reading, in order to understand the masterminds throughout history, and to get the wisdom of mankind.


Background information:

Kunqu originated in Ming Dynasty and is the oldest extant form of Chinese opera, which combines singing, dancing, gesture, and recitation. In 2001, UNESCO proclaimed Kunqua "Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity."


The Peony Pavilion is a play written by Tang Xianzu in Ming Dynasty, which celebrates love resisting social conventions.


Reported by: Wu Zhangxin’an

Edited by: Zhang Jiang