The private garden in the Ming and Qing dynasties: a cultural space for Kun Opera

By By Wang Meishi / 08-01-2013 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)
Private Gardens were the luxury of officials, scholars or wealthy merchants in classical China, and they were usually named after the family name of their owners. Different from the royal gardens, they mainly reflected the aesthetic taste of their scholar and bureaucrat keepers. In the Ming and Qing dynasties, they were closely connected to private houses and were important entertainment venues entertainment for aristocratic families. The bulk of the private gardens still extant today are relics from these two dynasties.
The existent literature and research on private gardens has tended to focus on their more concrete qualities; the tangible facets by which they convey cultural heritage, such as in their construction techniques, have been well-documented, while researchers and scholars have neglected their intangible aspects as transmitters of cultural heritage. In fact, Ming and Qing private gardens are not only cultural landscapes of tangible heritage, but are also the cultural space of the Kun Opera, an intangible heritage.
During the two dynasties, it was a common practice for government officers and intellectuals to employ their own theatrical troupes. Kun Opera was often performed at grand banquets or recreational activities. In turn, these events became an important outlet for bureaucrats and intellectuals spiritual sustenance and artistic talent. For six centuries, Kun Opera and the private gardens symbiotically fostered each other and fused together into a joint tradition. The Ming and Qing dynasties were not only a pinnacle in the art of garden construction and landscape architecture, but also an apex for the art of Kun Opera. It was not mere a coincidence, but has profound historical and cultural reasons.  
The original form of the Kun Opera, the “Kunshan melody,” can be traced to Mount Morrison Grass Hall (Yushan Caotang), the private garden of Gu Ying(famed for his generosity and affection of arts) at Chuodun Hill in Kunshan City, Jiangsu Province during the late Yuan and early Ming. Gu often held music parties with scholars including Gu Jian, Yang Weizhen and Ni Yuanzhen, which fostered the transformation of folk opusculum into the Kunshan melody.
The ideal and enchanting milieu of private gardens played a key role in both the creation of Huan Sha Ji, the very first script of Kun Opera, and the Peach Blossom Fan, which is recognized as the epitome of Kun Opera. Liang Chenyu, the librettist of Huan Sha Ji, was born into an aristocratic family and channeled his inherited wealth into the construction of grand houses, ships and courtyards, attracting artistic talent from a broad radius. Liang’s spectacular events and gatherings were known far and wide, echoing the festivities at Gu’s Mount Morrison Grass Hall. Like Liang Chenyu, when Kong Shangren composed the Peach Blossom Fan, he also drew inspiration from salons held in the private gardens. Kong revised his manuscript during his residence in the Zao Garden in Taixing, Jiangsu Province.
As a comprehensive performance art, Kun Opera must be translated from the script to the stage. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, this was mainly realized through two types of performance in differing respective venues. The first were commercial performances by professional troupes, chiefly given stages near temples and theatrical buildings. The other were performances by the privately sponsored troupes for individual family’s entertainment; these were performed on in private halls and gardens.
Ever since its birth, Kun Opera can trace its footprints to private gardens. The private gardens in Ming and Qing witnessed the development of Kun Opera, but by the peak of its practice and influence, it was performed in almost all the entertainment places—from royal and private gardens to halls, temples and professional theatres. The private gardens also witnessed Kun Opera’s rise to elegance and popularity. As it was nurtured by men of letters, Kun Opera was characterized by its graceful, delicate and dreamy style from the very beginning. This style was particularly evident on stage by the end of Ming Dynasty and the early Qing Dynasty. 
On the other hand, it would be incorrect to imply that Kun Opera did not appeal to a more philistine class. Those living in the private gardens understood and incorporated the influence Kun Opera received when it spread beyond the gardens. Instead of discarding certain strains of vulgarity, they accepted them and expanded the theatrical scope of the opera by adapting to be inclusive of certain philistine sensibilities as well.
To better preserve Kun Opera, we should be cognizant of the role of private gardens as culture transmitters. Only when the tradition of Kun Opera is seen as intertwined and co-evolving with the cultural space of private gardens can we reveal a truer understanding of this unique, intangible cultural heritage and a more accurate historical message. This will enable today’s readers, listeners, tourists and audiences to better understand the cultural characteristics and spiritual essence of both Kun Opera and private gardens, and will help ensure Kun Opera’s protection and development.
The Chinese Version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 308. May 25.
Translated by Jiang Hong