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Reviewed by:
  • Tansuo Mingdai Nanxi Sida Shengqiang Zhi Jincuned. by Heidi Yeung Kwai
  • Josh Stenberg
TANSUO MINGDAI NANXI SIDA SHENGQIANG ZHI JINCUN( Exploring the Present-Day Existence of the Four Great Melodies of Ming Dynasty Southern Drama). Edited by Heidi Yeung Kwai. Hong Kong: Cultural Presentations Section, Leisure and Cultural Services Department, 2014. 166 pp. Paper. By request at

Xiqu—that is, all forms of Chinese theatre that draw heavily on practices predating the importation of spoken theatre—continues in China to be worked on largely by scholars situated in Chinese departments and versed first and foremost in late imperial literature and philology. This can make for a relatively weak engagement with the contemporary stage, while scholars in contemporary spoken theatre are more directly involved in questions of the here and now. This in turn aggravates the reputation that xiquhas to endure—namely of being “traditional” and therefore “non-contemporary.” It also means that ethnographic approaches are relatively rare, and interaction with the Western theoretical apparatus is (some might say mercifully) uncommon. One effect is the reduction of much early xiqumusicology to a kind of compilation of dynastic references, while the actual historical performance of music remains close to wholly unknowable.

The strengths and weaknesses of xiqustudies are on full display in this volume, essentially the proceedings of a symposium held under the aegis of the 2013 Chinese Opera Festival in Hong Kong. Shengqiang, usually translated as “melodies,” refers here to the four systems of vocal music ( kunshan, haiyan, yiyang, and yuyao, each named after its place of origin) conventionally associated with Ming dynasty southern drama ( nanxi). These melodies are awkward, because there seems to be no convincing reason for these four particularly to be the touchstones. Only one of them—“ kunshanmelody”—has a relatively [End Page 226]uncontroversial relationship to a present-day form ( kunju/kunqu), even if much of the book involves various accounts of how the other melodies might have “survived.” In fact, it is largely when chuanqi(marvel plays)—long-form scripts written mostly for the kunqumelody after its reform in the second half of the sixteenth century—are the actual subject of research that the topic of melodies comes up at all, especially in English-language scholarship. Those, like myself, who suffer a guilty conscience about not quite grasping what is going on musically before that point will be comforted by reading this volume: Nobody is very sure.

What emerges from these six essays—an overview (by Cheng Pei-kai), an essay for each melody, and a final joint paper regarding a history of mixed-melody troupes (i.e., kunquand yiyangmelodies = kunyi) in Hebei—as well as the transcript of a roundtable discussion and other supplementary materials, is that we do not have enough sources. Early materials consist of brief, often dismissive, passages from longer works. The locus classicusfor the “four melodies” occurs in a work by Suzhou literatus Zhu Yunming (1460–1526) called Trifles, where he remarks that “in the last few decades, the so-called ‘southern drama’ has prospered, increasingly so. For this reason vocal music has become wildly disturbed … It is the foolish work of idiots, gratuitously changing [the music], preposterously calling it such things as yuyaomelody, haiyanmelody, yiyangmelody, kunshanmelody” (p. 141). Needless, to say, remarks such as these—and they are not unrepresentative—are not a lot on which to erect the origins of xiqu’s music history.

To take a concrete example of how these sources are applied, let us consider the account of the origins of the yiyangmelody. We read that the melody may be five hundred, six hundred, or seven hundred years old. The first number derives from Zhu’s mention in 1513; the second, from kunqusage Wei Liangfu’s mid-sixteenth-century claim that it originated in the early fifteenth century and that it was performed in Yunnan and Guizhou; and the third, from an account by Yao Hua (1876–1930), according to which yiyangmelody originated in the Yuan Dynasty, [1271–1368]. Translation: We know nothing certain of its origins. None of the three sources...


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