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China and Inner Asia
In Session: Performing Connoisseurship in Early Modern Chinese Drama
4: National Opera, Regional Flavour, and Memory: The “Tang-Shen Debate” Reconsidered
Thursday, March 25, 2021
8:30am – 10:00am EDT
The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hong Kong
Debates on the form of opera suitable for an elite, national audience go back to Zhou Deqing’s 周德清 (1277–1365) Zhongyuan yinyun 中原音韻 (Rhymes of the Central Plain), wherein a new pronunciation standard for a newly reunited empire was proposed. In the latter half of the sixteenth century, a new competition for the title of “official pronunciation opera” (guanqiang 官腔) began, as Southern singing styles rose in prominence, prompting elites to “reform” and promulgate local and non-dramatic singing arts like Zhejiang’s Haiyan 海鹽腔 and the Wu area’s Kunshan style 崑山腔.
The so-called “Tang-Shen debate” (湯沈之爭) is usually described as a disagreement over literary versus prosodic concerns, with Tang Xianzu 湯顯祖 (1550–1616) taken as representative of the “literary excellence camp,” and Shen Jing 沈璟 (1553–1610) and other Wu-area literati, defenders of musical orthodoxy. A related, modern controversy is whether Tang intended his plays to be performed in the new Kunshan style or one popular in his native Jiangxi. This paper argues that the “debate’s” primary concern was the form the new, Southern “official pronunciation opera” should take, with the resulting Kun opera style that comes down to us today being a mixture of elements these and other groups promoted, like the more songful Wu-area style, Haiyan’s more Mandarin-like pronunciation, and Yiyang opera’s 弋陽腔 more speech-like approach to vocal ornament, possibly influenced by traditions of religious chant.