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China Rescures 500-Year-Old Kunqu Opera

SHANGHAI, September 25-- Kunqu, a 500-year-old Chinese Opera is seeing a renaissance after it was listed as one of UNESCO's 19 masterpieces of "Verbal and Non-Material Heritage".

Since August, many Chinese cities including Beijing, Shanghai and Suzhou have held conferences and concerts celebrating the 80th anniversary of an Kunqu Opera Troupe.

The Chinese Ministry of Culture is also drafting a 10-year plan for the preservation and restoration of Kunqu Opera, making it the first theater art in China to enjoy special protection by the government.

Under the plan, China will step up collecting lists of Kunqu Opera plays, training new actors and actresses as well as setting up funds for the opera.

In 10 years, two training centers will appear in Beijing and Shanghai. A Kunqu art library will also be set up in three years.

In addition, ancient Kunqu theaters will also be protected.

Renowned Kunqu artists, who have witnessed the ups and downs of the great art, see the nomination by UNESCO as "the greatest ever chance" for the revival of Kunqu Opera.

"Kunqu is the mother of all Chinese operas," said Cai Zhenren, head of the Shanghai Kunqu Opera Troupe, "we have already lost two- thirds of the art. If we let go the last chance,we will feel guilty to our nation."

UNESCO launched the program to preserve basic elements of cultural diversity and announced the list in May. Chinese Kunqu Opera was nominated with unanimous approval by the 18-member international jury and was on top of the list.

Kunqu Opera, also known as "watermill song" because of its soft arias and the graceful movement of its performers, has been an elite opera since it was created in 16th century.

In its golden age, Kunqu was sung and loved by almost everyone in south China. In Suzhou City, Kunqu was performed almost every night in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The most shining Kunqu Opera plays are written by Tang Xianzu, who lived in 16th century and is now known as "China's Shakespeare ".

Although it is an ancient art form with rich artistic heritage which benefited and helped shape the well-known Peking Opera, Kunqu Opera has been suffering severe audience-decline for the past two centuries.

UNESCO's nomination is expected to put Kunqu Opera back on center stage. The organization urges countries with these diminishing art forms to draw up a 10-year plan for their rescue efforts.

This is the second time the Chinese government has come to its rescue.

In 1956, when not enough actors and actresses could be found to form a complete Kunqu Opera Troupe, late Chinese premier Zhou Enlai encouraged the Kunqu artists to write and stage a new play, which attracted new audiences to the opera.

However, with increasingly diversified choices of entertainment including foreign operas and pop concerts, Kunqu is becoming obsolete among Chinese audiences.

Though with a heavy doze of government support, the Kunqu Opera circle is determined to "preserve, inherit, innovate and develop" the art, though many problems still lie ahead.

"We have to tailor the opera to appeal to the tastes of modern Chinese, even though it is hard to innovate without destroying the fine and delicacy on which Kunqu Opera built its name," said Cai.

However, he quickly added: "Kunqu Opera must innovate if it is to live."

-- source: Xinhua News Agency

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