Saturday, August 13, 2011

China & Venice - An Ancient Story - Kunqu Opera at the Goldoni Theater

Luo Chenxue
Image by Marco Secchi
(Venice, Italy) Kunqu opera originated in the Jiangsu Province of China, and dates back to the late Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) and the early Ming dynasty (1368-1644). The Mongolian Emperor Kublai Khan, the first non-Chinese emperor of China, founded the Yuan Dynasty in 1271 or 1279 -- the year differs depending upon the source; let's say it was 1271 to keep things tidy:).

That same year, Niccolò Polo and his brother, Maffeo, set off from Venice on their second voyage to meet the Great Khan, this time accompanied by Niccolò's son, Marco Polo.

Niccolò & Maffeo Polo with
Chinese Emperor Kublai Khan
About four years later, the now 21-year-old Venetian explorer Marco Polo met Kublai Khan for the first time, and charmed the great ruler. Per Emperor Khan's request, the Polo family had returned to the Great Khan's court with sacred oil from the Lamp of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, as well as letters from the new pope, Theobald Visconti aka Gregory X.

The Polo family had stopped off in Acre, which was then the capital of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and where Theobaldo Visconti was conveniently located, drumming up support for the Ninth Crusade, when the news came that he was now the Pope. So, the Pope himself, Gregory X, was actually in Jerusalem at the time the Polos came for the holy oil.

From Wikipedia:

Photo at Amazing Tourism
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, also called the Church of the Resurrection by Eastern Christians, is a church within the walled Old City of Jerusalem. The site is venerated as Golgotha[1] (the Hill of Calvary), where Jesus was crucified,[2] and is said to also contain the place where Jesus was buried (the sepulchre). The church has been an important Christian pilgrimage destination since at least the 4th century as the purported site of the resurrection of Jesus. Today it also serves as the headquarters of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, while control of the building is shared between several Christian churches and secular entities in complicated arrangements essentially unchanged for centuries. Today, the church is home to Eastern OrthodoxyOriental Orthodoxy and Roman CatholicismAnglican and Protestant Christians have no permanent presence in the church.

On their first visit to Kublai Khan's court back in 1266, Niccolò and Maffeo had been asked by the Emperor to be his Papal ambassadors. Kublai Khan -- who had converted to Tibetan Buddhism -- had requested that the pope, who was then the Frenchman Pope Clement IV, send him 100 Christians acquainted with the Seven Arts -- grammar, rhetoric, logic, geometry, arithmetic, music and astronomy -- and the holy oil.

Pope Clement IV died in 1268; it took almost three years of squabbling before the next pope, the Italian Gregory X was appointed.

(We can only imagine the scene: Wait a minute. Isn't Theobaldo Visconti already in Jerusalem? Let's make him the Pope! Then we've got our guy there, right on the scene. Then we send the Polo boys in Venice on a trip over the Silk Road; they stop off in Jerusalem; Visconti gives them some sacred oil from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for Kublai Khan; they zip over to China, and give it to the Emperor. Yeah! That works.)

While they were waiting for a new pope to pop up, the Polo brothers had returned to Venice where Niccolò met his teenage son, Marco, for the very first time.

On their return visit to Kubali Khan in 1271, the Polo brothers decided to bring the kid, Marco, with them. They stopped off in Acre in Palestine where the freshly-elected Pope Gregory X was attending to the Ninth Crusade. Pope Gregory did not provide the 100 Christians, but he did give the Polos the sacred lamp oil to present to Kublai Khan, and back to China they went. The Polos were not the first Europeans to visit the Far East, but because of Marco's book, II Millione, or The Travels of Marco Polo, they are the ones we remember best.

You can click HERE to watch a National Geographic video about Marco Polo's journey. If you do, you will see the handwriting of Christopher Columbus in the margins of his own copy of Marco Polo's book, which is said to have inspired Columbus on his own fateful journey.

Santa Sofia, Istanbul

That is a very simplified back story as to what was going on historically in the Western World, long before the United States came into existence, just before Kunqu Opera came on the scene in China in the latter part of the Yuan Dynasty.

During the Middle Ages, Constantinople, not Rome, was the capital of the Roman empire. Constantinople was the empirical capital of the Roman Empire (330-395), the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire (395-1204 and 1261-1453), the Latin Empire (1204-1261) and the Ottoman Empire (1453-1922). In other words, different empires conquered the same city and declared it the capital. At the time of the Polo family adventures, Constantinople had been embroiled in battles between different factions of the Eastern Roman Empire and the Latin Empire.

St. Mark's, Venice
The empires changed, but the geographical location of the city of Byzantium, next called Constantinople, now called Istanbul -- the largest city in Turkey -- remained the same. Venice herself has always felt the very strong influence of the Byzantine Empire, which is why the ancient buildings here, with an Eastern flavor, look different than the buildings you will find in the rest of Italy. Venice always preferred doing business with the East rather than crusading against it, and Marco Polo traveling the Silk Road from China to Venice conjures up exotic images -- an exchange of  knowledge, goods and culture between the East and the West. From Pankaj Mishra's 2004 article for Travel & Leisure, "West Meets East in Venice:"

...the city is where East and West met, mostly amicably, in both commerce and art, and where multiculturalism was an unselfconscious, everyday reality, embraced by almost all its inhabitants, rather than a political slogan of ethnic minorities. For the city's most resonant message today is surely this: that a civilization flourishes most when it is open to external influences, when it ceases to be a fortress and lets itself become a crossroads, a place of chance encounters and unexpected minglings.

Centuries later, Carlo Goldoni (1707-1793) was one of Venice's most famous playwrights. I thought it was fitting that the Jiangsu Province Kunqu Opera House performed at the theater in Venice named after him, since, in a way, the Chinese production numbers reminded me of a Goldoni play. Kunqu is one of the most ancient forms of opera in China, with a history of more than six hundred years. As in the Commedia dell'arte, there are stock characters: martial, clown, old man, old woman young female lead, young male lead, painted face, etc.

From Wintergreen Kunqu Society:

Luo Chenxue & makeup artist
Image by Marco Secchi
Kunqu (pronounced kwin chu) is one of the oldest and most refined styles of traditional Chinese theatre performed today. It is a synthesis of drama, opera, ballet, poetry recital, and musical recital, which also draws on earlier forms of Chinese theatrical performances such as mime, farce, acrobatics, ballad recital, and medley, some of which go back to the third century B.C. or even earlier. In a Kunqu performance, recitative is interspersed with arias sung to traditional melodies, called qu-pai. Each word or phrase is also expressed by a stylized movement or gesture that is essentially part of a dance, with strict rules of style and execution much like classical ballet. Even casual gestures must be precisely executed and timed to coordinate with the music and percussion. The refinement of the movement is further enhanced with stylized costumes that also serve as simple props.

The first piece, "Descending the Mountain" from the opera, "Ocean of Sin," was surprisingly bawdy and poignant, much like Goldoni's plays. A Buddhist monk, Ben Wu (played by Li Hongliang), whose name translates to "Matter-is-Nothing," escapes from his monastery. He runs into a Buddhist nun, Se Kong (played by Luo Chenxue), who name translates to "Desires-are-Empty" and who, in turn, has escaped from her nunnery. Both of them are tired of living a life governed by religious dogma, but fib to each other about why they are outside their convents -- Ben Wu says he is getting food for his sick master, and Se Kong says she is going to visit her sick mother. They fall head over heels in love, and, looking forward to finally experiencing physical pleasure, they confess the truth, and decide to get married to make it legit. A runaway monk and nun getting married so they can have sex reminded me of Giacomo Casanova's (1725-1798) antics back in the Venice of the 18th century, about the same time that Goldoni was writing his plays.

Cao Zhiwei
Image by Marco Secchi
My favorite piece was "The Monastery Gate" from the opera, "Cat o' Nine Tails." Cao Zhiwei, who specializes in the painted face role,  played the part of Lu Zhishen, a monk who can no longer stand being abstinent. He gets roaring drunk and decides to take advantage of his inebriated state by performing Buddhist acrobatic feats. Cao Zhiwei managed to twist his body into impossible positions, all the while balancing on one leg. As you can see by the image that the photographer Marco Secchi has so graciously provided, Cao Zhiwei was perfectly centered for what seemed like an interminable amount of time.

The bambo flute, drums and twangy Asian musical instruments sounded spicy and melodic, and the audience seemed fascinated by the exotic mix. Again, from Wintergreen Kunqu Society:

Each Kunqu performance is accompanied by a small instrumental ensemble, generally consisting of between 6 to 10 musicians. This ensemble is divided into two sections, named wen-chang, the section composed of wind and string instruments, and wu-chang, the percussion section. The primary function of wen-chang is to accompany singing, led by the dizi, a horizontal bamboo flute. Depending on the play, it might also include a San-hsian (a three-stringed lute), erhu (a two-stringed fiddle), zheng (a bamboo wind organ or Pan's pipe), and zither, The Wu-chang  section consists of a Chinese xiqudrum,  ban (wooden clappers), xiaoluo (small gong), daluo (big gong), and naobo (cymbals). It is led by a drummer who performs with a small drum and a pair of wooden clappers to set the pace of the play, while the gongs and cymbals are used to punctuate the action and emotion. The drummer is also the conductor of the orchestra. 

Kunqu Opera was a welcome treat for Venice, a cultural exchange between East and West of highest order.

Ciao from Venice,
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog

You can find more of Marco Secchi's images at


  1. Kunqu opera originated in the Jiangsu Province of China, and dates back to the late Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) and the early Ming dynasty (1368-1644). The Mongolian Emperor Kublai Khan, the first non-Chinese emperor of China, founded the Yuan Dynasty in 1271 or 1279 -- the year differs depending upon the source; let's say it was 1271 to keep things tidy:). That same year, Niccolò Polo and his brother, Maffeo, set off from Venice on their second voyage to meet the Great Khan, this time accompanied by Niccolò's son, Marco Polo.

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