Kunqu Opera is one of the oldest forms of opera still existing in China, with its origins dating back to the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368). It has distinguished itself by the virtuosity of its rhythmic patterns (changqiang) and has exerted a dominant influence on all the more recent forms of opera in China, including the Sichuan and Beijing operas.
Kunqu Opera, also called Kunshanqiang, is said to be the mother of all Chinese operas. Its beginnings can be traced to the late Yuan Dynasty, some 600 years ago, in the lower Yangtze Valley. Among the earliest genres of drama, the traditional performing art was named for its birthplace, Kunshan, near the city of Suzhou in today's Jiangsu Province of East China.
The development of Kunqu Opera music went through several stages. In the early days, the songs were composed of long and short lines. The singer sang solo, and the orchestra came in at the end of each line. In the course, only percussion instruments were used.
Kunqu Opera is acknowledged as an elegant opera in terms of music, recitation, and the performers' movement. It is foremost acclaimed as "watermill song" because of its soft arias and the graceful movement of its performers. Carrying forward the tradition of ancient poetry and common speech, the art is also of very high literary value.
Kunqu has its own distinctive tunes. The orchestra consists of traditional instruments including the dizi, a horizontal bamboo flute which plays the lead part; the xiao, a vertical bamboo flute; the sheng, a mouth organ; and the pipa, a plucked string instrument with a fretted finger board. Many Chinese local operas are greatly influenced by its tunes and acting style.
Today, Kunqu is performed professionally in seven Mainland Chinese cities: Beijing (Northern Kunqu Theatre), Shanghai (Shanghai Kunqu Theatre), Suzhou (Suzhou Kunqu Theatre), Nanjing (Jiangsu Province Kunqu Theatre), Chenzhou (Hunan Kunqu Theatre), Yongjia County/Wenzhou (Yongjia Kunqu Theatre) and Hangzhou (Zhejiang Province Kunqu Theatre), as well as in Taipei. Non-professional opera societies are active in many other cities in China and abroad, and opera companies occasionally tour.
Kunqu was listed as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2001. Its melody or tune is one of the Four Great Characteristic Melodies in Chinese opera.