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Cultural Heritage / Trip Ideas

Kunqu & Pingtan: Intangible cultural heritages in Suzhou

By Minjun Xu

August 24

Kunqu Opera and Pingtan are two historic performance arts native to Suzhou.

Kunqu Opera and Pingtan are two historic performance arts native to Suzhou.

Kunqu Opera (昆曲) is believed to be the origin of all the other Chinese opera styles, and Pingtan (评弹) is a subgenre of Shuochang (说唱), a kind of live folk ballad that mixes singing and storytelling. With their deep ties to the local culture, they offer an unparalleled glimpse into Suzhou’s history.

1. Kunqu Opera昆曲

[Image Credit: Jiankang]
[Image Credit: Jiankang]
Kunqu Opera, first called “Kunshan Qiang” (昆山腔), originated in Kunshan County in Suzhou during the late Yuan and early Ming dynasties. It is one of the oldest styles of traditional Chinese opera, and is considered a priceless part of Han culture. In 2001, Kunqu Opera was listed as a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity by UNESCO.

 [Image Credit: Xinlin]
[Image Credit: Xinlin]
Kunqu Opera combines literature, history, music, dancing, and even martial arts. Drums and hardwood clappers control the rhythm, accompanied by the bamboo flute and the three – stringed instrument.

[Image Credit: Suping]
[Image Credit: Suping]
Peony Pavilion (牡丹亭) is the best known opera from this tradition. Written by Tang Xianzu during the Ming Dynasty, it tells the love story of Du Liniang, a young, upper class lady and Liu Mengmei, a one-time poor intellectual. Peony Pavilion is so popular that all Kunqu troupes include it in their repertoire.

Best places to appreciate Kunqu Opera:

The Museum of Chinese Kunqu Opera 中国昆曲博物馆

The Museum of Chinese Kunqu Opera boasts the largest collection of Kunqu transcripts and rare antiques in China, as well as thousands of documents related to Kunqu. The museum holds special performances every Sunday afternoon at 2:00 p.m.

Entry: 20-30 yuan/person

Opening hours: 08:00 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.


Shantang Kunqu Theater 山塘昆曲馆

Shantang Kunqu Theater in Shantang Scenic Area is the only theater that holds all-day traditional Kunqu highlights. Designed and furnished in imperial style, you can sit back and pretend to be an ancient Chinese scholar-official while enjoying the opera.

Entry: 40 yuan/person

Opening hours: 10:00 a.m. – 08:00. p.m.

2. Pingtan 评弹

[Image Credit: Jiankang]
[Image Credit: Jiankang]
Pingtan is an oral performance art that originated in Suzhou during the Ming Dynasty. It has a musical and a storytelling component, Tanci (弹词) and Pinghua (评话) respectively, and  is performed in the Suzhou dialect. Tanci, which combines prose narration with lyric singing accompanied by the Pipa or the three – stringed instrument, can be performed solo, in duet or as a trio. Pinghua is usually performed by one storyteller without singing. Unlike Kunqu Opera, which has experienced a big rise and fall, Pingtan has enjoyed great popularity in the regions south of the Yangtze River for more than 400 years. It is inscribed in China’s first National Intangible Cultural Heritage List.

[Image Credit: Jiankang]
[Image Credit: Jiankang]
Best places to appreciate Pingtan:

Suzhou Pingtan Museum 苏州评弹博物馆

With tens of thousands of rare documents about Pingtan, Suzhou Pingtan Musuem is the one of the best places to gain a comprehensive understanding of the art form. Apart from text materials, the museum reproduces historic Pingtan performances on screen.

Entry: 5 yuan/person

Opening hours: 09:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.


Guangyu Pingtan Society 光裕书厅

Guangyu Pingtan Society, founded in the Qing Dynasty as the first Pingtan society, is renowned for its once performance for Emperor Qianlong (乾隆皇帝).

Entry: 4 yuan/person (afternoon)

Opening hours: 1:30 p.m. – 3:30 p.m.

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