Garden opera brings Suzhou tourists back in time

May 26, 2019 - 08:22

Suzhou is considered one of the most important cities in the Yangtze River Delta in Jiangsu Province, eastern China. Throughout this modern city, visitors can find traces of its ancient culture.



The Kunqu Opera Six Chapters of a Floating Life, performed in Canglang Pavilion, depicts life in Suzhou under the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). VNS Photo Lê Hương


by Lê Hương


SUZHOU Suzhou is considered one of the most important cities in the Yangtze River Delta in Jiangsu Province, eastern China. Throughout this modern city, visitors can find traces of its ancient culture. Historical documents show the ancient city of Suzhou was built in 514BC.

Its canals, stone bridges, temples and lustrous gardens have lured many tourists over the years.

Visitors to Suzhou are advised not to miss a unique traditional opera performed in an ancient garden. The garden version of a Kunqu Opera, titled Six Chapters of a Floating Life, is shown at Canglang Pavilion.

Kunqu Opera, also known as Kunju, Kunqiang or Kunshanqiang, is one of the oldest drama forms in China. It was created more than 600 years ago in the cities of Kunshan and Suzhou, Jiangsu Province. The art form was listed as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2001.

Watching the show, one feels transported into the centre of a legendary romantic story in feudal times.

On a cool evening, red lanterns illuminate the trees, flowers and ponds in the gardens of Canglang Pavilion. The pavilion itself has been recognised as the oldest among Suzhou’s existing gardens. It was built during the northern Song Dynasty and was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000.

Audiences may be surprised at first by the mysterious beauty of the gardens and the hospitality of the owners, who entertain guests with lemon juice, hot tea and snacks.

Then, the audience catches its first sight of artists in the roles of hero Shen Fu (1763-1825) and his wife Chen Yun on a boat far away. Melodious flute accompanies the actors as they draw nearer to the audience.

The artists walk over the stone bridge to Canglang Pavilion. Zhang Zhengyao plays the role of Shen Fu and Shen Guofang plays Chen Yun.

The performance is a joint effort of the local government and Yu Theatre Company, which is based in Nanjing and specialises in foreign dramas.



A host prepares drinks for audience members to enjoy before watching the show. VNS Photo Lê Hương


According to the organisers, the garden version of the opera not only preserves the classical style, but also is set on an authentic stage.


Shen Fu and his beloved wife Chen Yun used to live on the street near Canglang Pavilion.

The autobiographical writing of Suzhou native Shen Fu highlights his love, making the show different from the usual Chinese classics which mostly centre on the grandeur of royal families and heroic figures.

The show Six Chapters depicts a married couple, whose loving relationship stands out from the patriarchal norms of the time.

“As a character, Shen Fu has this boyish recklessness about him,” Kim Hunter Gordon, executive producer and translator of the play told China Daily in an interview. “The most interesting difference between him and other male characters on the traditional Chinese stage is that this is his own first-person narrative.”

The simple pictures of life in Suzhou are mingled with Shen and Chen’s affectionate relationship during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

New adaptation

“We have produced new background music and made necessary changes to the makeup and costumes to suit modern audiences,” Xiao Yan, show producer and founder of the Yu Theatre Company, told Việt Nam News.

“We also perform a short excerpt with English subtitles to foreign guests,” he said.

The theatre offers two shows per week. Each gathers an audience of fewer than 40.

“As the audience here sits just few metres from the artists, we just need a small audience to keep necessary quietness for the show,” he said.

Xiao said he hoped everyone could experience the beauty of Suzhou’s gardens and Suzhou opera through this play and feel the elegance and charm of the city’s lifestyle.

Six Chapters of a Floating Life is not only a play, but also an immersive experience in Suzhou gardens, integrating cultural and creative products to make the performance part of ‘garden life’, ‘art life’ and a one-stop viewing programme for the refined and elegant Suzhou lifestyle,” he said.

“This was the Suzhou lifestyle in literature a few centuries ago, but I’m sure many people want the same lifestyle today,” he said.

“The special thing about this production is that it’s set in the very garden next to which Shen Fu grew up and where he and his wife first set up their home,” said Gordon, the executive producer.

“In one episode in the book, Shen arranges for them to visit this very garden in private,” he said.

“While much of the layout, scale and architecture of the present garden has changed since then, the current pavilion is the same one that they visited.

“So by coming into the actual setting of their story, the audience is invited back in time into the book itself.”

Mongolian visitor Batchimeg Bataa was impressed by the show and said she had not seen a Chinese opera before.

“It was so interesting in the way it was interactive and performed in a garden,” she said. “I think, performing the opera in a world cultural heritage site keeps its uniqueness and makes it more valuable.”

“Also I’d like to note the nice melody of the performance and ability of the young artists,” she said. VNS