The man bringing Kunqu opera to the world

The man bringing Kunqu opera to the world

UNESCO Artist for Peace Zhang Jun explains why he can rap and sing opera at the same time
Zhang Jun Kunqu opera
Shanghai Kunqu star Zhang Jun is a dedicated opera singer onstage and an electronic music lover in daily life.

“To give the past a better future” was a promise Kunqu opera singer Zhang Jun (张军) made while receiving the UNESCO Artist of Peace award in May, 2011.

Honored for his “long-term commitment to promoting intangible cultural heritage, especially Kunqu Opera,” Zhang is only the second Chinese, after actress Gong Li (巩俐) in 2001, to be awarded the title.

Through the efforts of this Shanghai-native, the ancient Chinese art form is making a powerful comeback in China as well as on the global stage.

A different opera singer

If the practitioner of a 600-year-old art form knows how to rap, this shows that he’s open-minded, confident and adaptable.— Tan Dun (谭盾), composer

Unlike other practitioners of traditional Chinese arts, Zhang Jun is very modern. He dresses fashionably, speaks fluent English and gets animated when he's excited.

He sings pop songs with Taiwan star Wang Lee Hom (王力宏) and raps on Chinese national television.

“I am ultimately a Kunqu person,” admits Zhang.

“No matter what kind of inspiration I get or which channels I get them from, they all lead me back to thinking about Kunqu opera.”

Tan Dun (谭盾), the composer who worked with Zhang on the latest edition of “Peony Pavilion,” (牡丹亭) once commented: “If the practitioner of a 600-year-old art form knows how to rap, this shows that he’s open-minded, confident and adaptable.”

“These attitudes will provide a solid platform on which eastern and western culture can meet and mix.” 

Zhang Jun Kunqu operaChina's Kunqu face on the global stage.

Mixing Kunqu with New Age

Zhang Jun’s acceptance performance for the UNESCO Artist for Peace award staggered most spectators.

The 37-year-old artist sang a chorus from “Peony Pavilion,” one of China’s most popular Kunqu titles. But instead of the full operatic performance, Zhang brushed up the tune with a New Age beat.

“The lyrics of the ‘Peony Pavilion’ have been around for 400 years, and its musical score for 300 years,” Zhang explains.

“I chose to perform it this way [with a New Age style] because I wanted to tell everyone that though the [opera] is old, it does not mean you can’t interpret it in a modern way.”

“Kunqu can be a very global and contemporary art form too,” Zhang adds after a brief pause.

Popularizing Kunqu in youth

Zhang Jun is the first Kunqu opera singer in China to focus on revitalizing the art form and promoting it to a younger generation.

He first started popularizing the opera in various Shanghai universities in 1998.

Many Shanghai youth were moved by the convention-defying love between Du Liniang (杜丽娘) and Liu Mengmei (柳梦梅) in “Peony Pavilion,” and have become hard-core fans of Kunqu ever since.

“I wanted the youth to feel that Kunqu opera is all around them, not just an ancient and lofty art performed only for dignitaries,” Zhang explains.

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This aim has driven much of Zhang’s commitment to reviving Kunqu over the past few years, and was also a key factor in his selection by UNESCO: keeping heritage relevant to current times is more important and more difficult than simply preserving it.

Zhang Jun Kunqu operaZhang without the mask.

“I don’t want stability”

Zhang Jun made the craziest but proudest decision of his life in 2009 -- a decision that many older Kunqu opera singers wouldn’t understand.

The young and aspiring performer resigned from his steady and promising job as deputy director of the Shanghai Kunqu Opera Troupe, and established Zhang Jun Kunqu Art Center (张军昆曲艺术中心) -- a company dedicated to creating and promoting a virtual version of “Peony Pavilion.”

Zhang considers the sense of stability heavy and binding. He wants to aim high while he is enthusiastic, young and able.

I wanted the youth to feel that Kunqu opera is all around them, not just an ancient and lofty art performed only for dignitaries.— Zhang Jun (张军), Kunqu opera singer and the UNESCO Artist of Peace

During the 2010 World Expo, he collaborated with Oscar-winning composer Tan Dun to take on an unprecedented challenge: staging the “Peony Pavilion” in a real garden. 

“We created something entirely new,” Zhang says, explaining it has been his dream to perform opera like this.

“The [Kezhi] garden provided a backdrop for the music, but at the same time the music provided a background for the garden.”

Zhang admits he’s busier, more tired and more overworked, but he is also much happier because the garden gave the performance a “fresh and dynamic” feel.

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As for his future, Zhang refers to a line from his acceptance speech of the Artist for Peace award.

“I hope to embrace the world through Kunqu opera, and I wish to collaborate with artists from different fields to protect and broaden the appeal of China and the world’s intangible cultural heritage.”

“Peony Pavilion” is being staged at Kezhi Garden (课植园) in Zhujiajiao every Saturday in September and October.

Peony Pavilion at Kezhi Garden, 6 p.m.–8:15 p.m., Kezhi Garden, 119 Xijing Jie, near Yongquan Bridge 西井街119号, 近涌泉桥, RMB 160-1500, ticketing hotline: +86 21 5403 7233, more info at, book ticket 

This article was translated by Debbie Yong.