Masks are an age-old cultural phenomenon shared by all ethnic groups of China. In awe of the unknown world, ancient people created numerous totems and divinities, praying to them for the power to overcome disasters and protect their life.
Masks served as a carrier of such wishes. They were given the functions of communicating with gods, bringing blessings, driving away ghosts and warding off diseases and lots of sacrificial rituals involving masks were regularly held.
China is a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural country with a time-honored history and masks are popular among all ethnic groups as a time-honored cultural phenomenon, forming many unique customs. According to their functions, Chinese masks can be divided into exorcising masks, Tibetan masks, sorcerers’ masks in Yunnan and Guizhou, Shamanic masks and dramatic masks etc.
Along with the development of the society, the ghost and god worshiping nature of the masks have been watered down and stress has been put on their artistic and entertainment qualities. A mask makes a collector’s item with high aesthetic values.
Nuo Drama Mask
In Nuo sacrifices, masks play a very important role. During the Shang and Zhou dynasties, when sacrifices were common, the leader of the ritual wore a golden mask with four eyes, to frighten away ghosts and devils. In Nuo drama performances, masks are the most important prop and are a major characteristic, distinguishing this drama from others.
Masks carved out of quality camphor or poplar or willow wood are the soul of Nuo Drama. These two kinds of wood are durable and easy to carve. Furthermore, folklore holds that they contain spirits. A mask also has religious implications; as the symbol and medium of a spirit, masks are governed by strict rules. The moment a dancer puts on his mask, he will not speak or act casually since putting on a mask means the spirit is on him already. People believe that after performance of a certain ceremony upon its completion, a mask becomes a living god. Nuo drama is the privilege of men, women are not allowed to touch a mask, much less put one on.
Nuo masks are the result of primitive religion and totem worship. From sun, to earth, to deity worship, nuo performances reveal the secrets of the evolution of ancient societies. Each nuo mask has a fixed name, represents a certain role, and has legendary stories to tell about its origins. In Guizhou, a province with the largest number of nuo drama repertoires, at least 24 masks are required to perform an entire nuo drama piece.
The masks can appear valiant and martial, stern and tough, or gentle and kind, and they come in various styles to represent different figures. For instance, since the responsibility of valiant gods is to emit awe, and to dispel ghosts and devils, their masks usually have horns and buckteeth, with a very ferocious countenance.
Nuo mask has shifted from primitive totem worship to aspiration for kindness and justice, vividly interpreting history. The mask has gradually come down from the high shrines, and entered the hearts of the people. It is not only the incarnation and a carrier of gods, but also a mirror that reflects the lives of Chinese ancestors. Thus, Nuo masks become popular. Studies show that the influence of the Nuo Drama mask extends to the facial painting of Beijing Opera and the face changes of Sichuan Opera.
by Xiao Xiao @ InteractChina.com
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