Suzhou (Sukun) Kunqu Company Archive (China)


A review of the Suzhou (Sukun) Kunqu Company Archive in Suzhou, China.

My dissertation research is on the artistic creation and concepts of beauty in Kunqu, a classical Chinese theatre form that originated in the Ming Dynasty and achieved national dominance for two centuries in the late Ming and early Qing dynasties. The form has a rich history and continues to be active on the contemporary Chinese stage. The major part of my research consists of analyzing the major Kunqu productions in mainland China since the UNESCO Proclamation in 2001, in which Kunqu was designated as a “masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity.” I conducted field research in China between 2013 and 2014 at the archive of Suzhou Kunqu Company (hereafter Sukun), an important research database.

Sukun is one of the seven professional Kunqu companies in mainland China. People in Sukun often refer to their company as being the “little brother” among the professional Kunqu companies. Their self-deference, however, is more out of modesty than reality. Compared to the city-based Shanghai Kunqu Company, or the Northern Kunju Theatre Company, which is resident in Beijing, or the Kunqu Theater Company of the Jiangsu Performing Arts Group, located in Nanjing, Sukun certainly has its limitations in the amount of funding it has received, the funding sources available to it, the amount of support it receives from the government, and the access it has to a large population for potential audiences. However, Sukun enjoys a unique significance in the development of Kunqu. It is imbued with a sense of history. Sukun was founded in the very birthplace of Kunqu: The character “Kun” in Kunqu refers to Kunshan County of Suzhou, where Kunqu originated in the sixteenth century and soon became the dominant theatre form nationwide for over two centuries during the late Ming and early Qing dynasties. Sukun also reflects the spirit of times: When Kunqu’s popularity severely dropped, it was also the city of Suzhou that made the first efforts to revitalize Kunqu in the 1920s with the founding of the Institute for the Preservation and Transmission of Kunju (Suzhou Kunju chuan xi suo). Graduates from the Suzhou Institute later became master performers, who brought about another ten-year revival of Kunqu after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, in 1949, with their 1956 performance of Fifteen Strings of Cash (Shiwuguan). Since 2000, Sukun has contributed again to the arrival of another decade of Kunqu revival by its hosting of the biennial Suzhou Kunju Art Festival, and, more importantly, with its cooperation with Bai Xianyong and his team in jointly mounting the “Young Lover’s Version” of The Peony Pavilion and The Jade Hairpin, which greatly popularized Kunqu in China and abroad.

Sukun’s archive offers a fine collection of resources for research on this rich performing arts history. Soon after Sukun was re-established in 1978—all Kunqu companies having been disbanded during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976)—a Reference Room (ziliaoshi) was set up to serve as an archive. Today, the Reference Room is located on the second floor of the main building of the Sukun Company. The interior space is divided into two halves by two rows of file cabinets standing back to back like a wall in the middle of the office. The front half serves as a normal business area, while the latter half conceals the most important section of the archive – the digital collection. Like office staff in other departments in Sukun, the four staff members of the Reference Room are versatile and capable of whatever tasks are needed – from serving as musicians in the full-scale ensemble, to cameramen at the company’s performances, and from photographers and reporters for Sukun-related events, to digital editors of self-made audio-visual records. They also perform well as  the secretariat of the company in drafting official reports and preparing administrative documents. Their primary job, however, is to maintain and build the archive for Sukun.

The archive’s holdings are divided into two types: The first consists of traditional resources, such as play scripts, music scores, audio-visual materials (including videotapes, CDs, and VCDs for full-play productions and highlighted excerpts known as zhezixi), and publications on Kunqu and Chinese theatre. Despite the limited storage space, the number of collections in each format is vast – except for the books and journals which come in dozens, all other materials are in the hundreds, and even in the thousands for the CDs and VCDs. The play scripts and music scores are arranged in alphabetical order from A to Z, and scripts and scores under the same letter are placed on the top and bottom shelves in the same cabinets. However, the classification system is unique to Sukun, for the letters do not match the initials of the titles in pinyin or Chinese romanization, and the scripts and scores in the same group don’t necessarily correspond to each other. The videotapes, mainly from the 1980s and 1990s, are sorted by Arabic numerals. The CDs and VCDs are placed together without labels or marks, probably due to their narrow spines. Fortunately, one does not have to go through numerous titles to search for any specific copy. There is a complete catalog in the Reference Room’s computer system for all the traditional collections, which includes information such as the serial number, content, era, number of copies and the storage specifics. It is just a click away from locating a certain title.

The digital collections are the second type of resources in the Sukun archive. They are being systematically constructed on the basis of Sukun’s key perspectives, as follows:

1. The significance of Suzhou in Kunqu of the early twentieth-century. The materials, centered on the Institute for the Preservation and Transmission of Kunju, include introductions in text form, images of the Institute, interviews of the Institute’s graduates (known as chuanzibei, ‘the chuan generation’), biographies and autobiographies on the chuanzibei, and records of events to celebrate the founding of the Institute.

2. The significance of Sukun in modern Kunqu history, including materials on the growth of the company, its personnel, and its artistic creations in productions.

3. The recent development of Kunqu. Sukun’s digital collection contains a special section on “Exchanges between fellow Kunqu companies,” which is a mechanism through which the seven Kunqu companies share with each other the records of their productions.

I would like to draw interested researchers’ attention to one feature of Sukun’s digital archive: instead of arranging the collections in the usual chronological order, the archive builders organize materials by grouping them into “special topics,” which are usually the title of a certain play. For example, under “The Peony Pavilion,” one will not only find the production of the “Young Lovers’ Edition” that Sukun is most well-known for since its debut in 2004, but will also see other versions of the same play arranged chronologically, including the “Imperial Granary Version” by Beijing Polo Culture Company in 2006 and the Sino-Japanese joint production starring the great Kabuki onnagata master Bando Tamasaburo V in 2007. For each production, the collection includes audio-visual records of performances, news coverage, scholarly publications, and even online posts by Kunqu fans and general audience. In other words, when you access a “special topic” in the Sukun digital archive, you have acquired substantial resources for a comparative study on that topic, thanks to the archive builders’ thoughtful organization.

Sukun is more easily accessible after their relocation. As long as one gets off the High Speed Train at the Suzhou Raiway Station, and goes down the bridge across the moat, Sukun is only minutes’ walk away to the south. The people at the Reference Room are kind, frank, patient and helpful. All that would be needed for a pass to both Sukun and its archives is merely an introductory remark from the company leaders, who are always welcoming and supporting Kunqu scholars and students, as their primary goal is to preserve the art of Kunqu and to promote its continued development.

PhD Candidate in Asian Theatre
Department of Theatre and Dance
University of Hawaii at Manoa

Image: A scene from The Peony Pavilion, Wikimedia Commons.

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