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Huili Welcomes a Renowned Kunqu Opera Expert

18 May 2021

One of our key missions at Huili School Shanghai is to instil in our pupils a profound sense of who they are and where they came from. There is perhaps no better way to consider this question than through the rich and enduring culture of China. And one of the most unique touchstones of Chinese culture is Kunqu opera. Known in China as the 'ancestor of 100 plays', this 600-year-old art form is a window into the unique aesthetics, attitudes, temperament and rich literary heritage of our country.


For the past three years, Huili has offered CCA courses in different styles of Chinese opera (Peking Opera-Kunqu Opera). Our instructor, Peng Yao, is an expert as well as an avid promoter of the art form. At university, she majored in Chinese opera performance and is a recipient of the China Theatre Association’s Little Plum Blossom Award along with several other accolades that recognise her talents as a teacher. To Peng Yao, teaching Chinese opera to children is a great way to immerse them in a living artefact of Chinese culture while helping them to cultivate real empathy.




As one of the first 'Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity' recognised by UNESCO, Kunqu carries weight both in China and abroad. We aim to send Huili pupils out into the world as cultural ambassadors of China. A deep understanding of our culture is, of course, essential to this mission. 


It is important that, as global citizens, they understand their heritage and be able to share it with the rest of the world. This will ultimately be a decisive factor in how they perceive and define themselves. From this perspective, the study of Kunqu goes far beyond understanding its outward forms, like vocal techniques, footwork and gestures. It is integral to understanding who they are as Chinese people.




Coinciding with the 20th anniversary of Kunqu Opera’s selection as one of the 'Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity', Huili was honoured to invite Kunqu opera performer and UNESCO Artist for Peace Mr Zhang Jun to Huili for a Kunqu opera cultural salon with parents, pupils and teachers. Meeting such an accomplished artist in person gave the Huili Community the opportunity to have a deeper understanding of the delicate art of Kunqu.


Charming, pure and elegant aesthetics


The hallmarks of Kunqu opera are its unique stage sets and theatrical costumes set to a stirring musical accompaniment. Peng Yao selected for our pupils excerpts from the classic play The Peony Pavilion. This gave our pupils the opportunity to fully experience the beauty of the colour and sounds of this immersive art form. The pupils then learned the basic performance techniques of Kunqu opera — the distinctively expressive movements of the hands, eyes and body. They also learned how to use the floating ‘water mill tune’ to convey atmosphere and emotion.   




Deep roots in Chinese literature and poetics


Text is at the core of Kunqu opera. The art form adheres to very strict melodies and rhythms that derive from Chinese poetics put to music. Kunqu is therefore an excellent doorway for our pupils to learn about the interplay of literature and opera.


During the salon, Peng Yao took excerpts from A Stroll in the Garden, a scene from The Peony Pavilion, as an example, "The colourful flowers bloomed all over the place in the past, but they have now fallen into the crumbling wells and dilapidated houses. How do I face this beautiful scenery and good time? In whose garden is this happiness happening?” By studying The Peony Pavilion, our pupils gained an indirect knowledge of this classic work of Chinese literature.




Mr Zhang Jun also shared with us his personal performance experiences. Take the Kunqu play A Moonlit Night on the Spring River as an example. This poem, praised as "the individual article overwhelming all across the Tang Dynasty", shows the characters' despair through musical intonation. Through the Kunqu opera performance experience, we can therefore gain an appreciation for how tone and rhythm can convey emotional content. Kunqu opera can also teach our pupils about history. Whether it is the story of the gifted scholar and the beautiful lady in A Stroll in the Garden or the metaphysical speculations put forth in A Moonlit Night on the Spring River, or, for that matter, the travails of a rural family in the Peach Blossom Fan, they are all our repositories of Chinese cultural memory throughout the ages.  


Cultural identity: future citizens with a sense of cultural belonging


At Huili, we aim to bring together the best of Eastern and Western education, but an education in Chinese culture and history is integral to our curriculum. This goes beyond the scope of teaching and learning. We want to equip Huili pupils with a cultural knowledge that they will never forget when they go out into the wider world. 




Kunqu opera is never far away from our pupils. Its beauty and expressiveness are reflected in our pupils' performances. More importantly, they will keep a piece of this wonderful Chinese performing art in their hearts.


During the salon, Mr Zhang Jun also underscored the significance of letting pupils truly appreciate the power of art in opera education. It is a skill not easily attained but deeply rewarding in so many ways once it is. It teaches our pupils Chinese history, literature, music and aesthetics. Going on stage and working with other pupils instils confidence and cultivates teamwork. These are valuable assets that will benefit them long after they leave Huili.




By joining us for this salon, Mr Zhang provided a unique artistic experience for Huili pupils. Every pupil who graduates from Huili will go on to become a messenger of Chinese culture. Only by immersing themselves in Chinese culture and art will they develop the solid foundations that will enable them to accomplish this objective. Mr Zhang left our pupils, parents and teachers with a powerful remark. "True heroism is to love life even after seeing life in its true features," he said. Art, is yet another way that we enable our pupils to examine life, and they are all the richer for it.


Written by Virginia

Content support courtesy of Ms. Serena