Thailand is a country of many faces and many visions. As homogenous as Thai culture seems to foreign visitors and even to many Thais for that matter, there is a broad array of cultures in the kingdom which derive in large part from the influence of Chinese culture. The most dramatic appearance of this influence came in the early 15th century during the voyages of the Chinese Admiral, Zheng He, one of the greatest explorers and cultural ambassadors in history. During a 27-year period, Zheng He consummated seven voyages from the coast of China down through Southeast Asia to India, the Middle East and Africa almost a century before Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama. He commanded what was probably the largest armada ever created with ships so large that by comparison, all of the ships of Columbus and da Gama combined could have been stored on a single deck of a single vessel in his treasure fleet. A devout Muslim, Zheng had an encyclopedic interest in other cultures that bred tolerance. He wrote of the "transforming power of virtue," and of the need to "treat distant people with kindness."
When Zheng's expeditions were stopped by the political intrigues in the Chinese court, it "changed history, stopped short what might have been a very different future for Asia and the world," says Liu Ying-Sheng of Nanjiing University, a leading Zheng He scholar. The void left by China's withdrawal from foreigh engagement, he points out, was filled within the next few decades by European imperialism─and Zheng's sophisticated combination of peacekeeping, trade, and diplomacy yielded to crude military conquest.
But not so in Thailand (or Siam as it was called then). The impact of Zheng's visits to the Siamese capital of Ayuthaya and the subsequent influence of Chinese trade and cultural exchange was protected from European incursions by the far-sighted and clever use of diplomacy.
During the reign of King Narai the Great, who ruled the Ayuthaya empire, a Chinese performance played in the French embassy─L'abbé de Choisy followed a French diplomat, Monsieur Chevalier de Chaumont (1685-1686), who came as an emissary from the French monarch, Louis XIV. He called that performance "Commedie a la Chinoife une Tradgedie a la Chinoife." Monsieur De La Loubere, another French diplomat, called it a "Chinefe Comedy." That performance was Chinese Opera.
Chinese Opera is based on tales of heroes and the supernatural. The form of Chinese Opera known as Beijing Opera is the most familiar in the West. Also known as Peking Opera, it has thrived for over 200 years and is regarded as one of the highest expressions of Chinese culture. To some, it is the most refined form of Opera in the world. Although it is called Beijing Opera, its origins were not in Beijing but in the provinces of Anhui and Hubei. It was originally performed for the royal family and was introduced to the public later. There are thousands of Opera pieces covering the entire history and literature of China.
In 16th century, there were many well-known Chinese performance groups in Northern China. By the 18th century many new groups of Chinese opera appeared in Beijing. At the celebration of the Qianlong Emperor of the Qing dynasty (1736 -1796), new singing techniques were used that remained until the end of Qing dynasty.
Chinese Opera has many different characteristics in singing styles, song arrangements, and stage presentation. In Beijing opera, traditional Chinese string and percussion instruments provide a strong rhythmic accompaniment to the acting. The acting is based on illusion: gestures, footwork, and other body movements express such actions as riding a horse, rowing a boat, or opening a door. Spoken dialogue is divided into recitative and Beijing slang speech, the former employed by serious characters and the latter by young females and clowns. Character roles are strictly defined. Elaborate make-up designs help to define the characters.
The traditional repertoire of Beijing opera includes more than 1,000 works, mostly taken from historical novels about political and military struggles. Today, the stories often deal with heroes of the communist revolution or with great historical events of the recent past.
In the southern part of China, performances are taken from folk tales called Kunqu. Many actors participate in the performance. The style of Chinese Opera which was brought to Thailand is similar to Kunqu Opera.
Kunqu is China's oldest and one of its most influential theatrical traditions. A Kunqu play usually consists of more than 24 scenes, accompanied by arias, with a complex plot and subplots involving both human and mystical elements. The performance usually features 12 actors who employ gestures, pantomime, mock combat and acrobatics, as well as stylized dancing and singing. A small ensemble of wind and string instruments, and drums accompany the singing and the stage action.
Kunqu has a much older tradition than Beijing Opera. It is held in great esteem and is regarded as the sister opera of Beijing Opera. Kunqu was shown to the royal and wealthy families only. Its music is much softer and quite similar from play to play. The dialogue is more poetic and refined. Most of the stories in Kunqu are romantic. It is rare to have any military roles or acrobatic actions in a play. Many famous Beijing Opera players were also great performers of Kunqu Opera. It was common to see a joint performance in Beijing Opera or Kunqu Opera which involved actors and actresses from both companies.
The dancing and movement of a role is gentle and closely connected with the player's singing. The musical instruments used for Kunqu are different from Beijing Opera, carefully matching the poetry style of the play. Flute is used as the main accompanying instrument rather than strings. Other instruments include bamboo-pipes and specialized percussion.
As the oldest form of Chinese folk opera with a history of 600 years, Kunqu Opera was honored by UNESCO as one of 19 outstanding cultural forms of expression from different regions of the world in 2001. Kunqu is the only Chinese art form listed and is now part of the common cultural heritage of the world.
Nowadays, Thailand has the largest Chinese population in Southeast Asia. Assimilation of the various Chinese communities was a continuing process as Chinese were encouraged to become Thai citizens