Written by Juliette Qi
Evolution of Nuo Culture
Nuo can be considered as a Chinese ritual dating back to the earliest times, some dating back to the Neolithic period. This ceremony consists of various dances and processions for the gods, similar to the rites of exorcisms. In Chinese,”Nuo” means “expulsion of demons”. The character nuo(傩)refers to exorcism ceremonies performed by masked officiants. The ceremonies to which this term applies involve the expulsion of the used energies of the year and a purification to welcome the new energies. To justify this, most contributors use an etymological approach of looking for the oldest mention of character.
The Nuo culture, inscribed on the list of Chinese national cultural heritage, includes several genres, even though the one with the masks is one of the most important. We can also notice the existence of nuo altars, nuo rituals, nuo dances, nuo theater and even nuo customs. Later, the Nuo culture evolved and developed into an atypical art of Nuoxi, a popular show often to express wishes of prosperity and luck in various ceremonies.
Nuoxi: the Archaic Masked Theater
In ancient China, diseases or cataclysms were blamed on the presence of demons. It was therefore during the Nuo ceremonies and processions many masks were displayed, representing a whole pantheon of demons and gods. Thus, the accoutered villagers danced and tried to repel the evil forces and to attract the divine protection by using their thunderous masquerades. Several kinds of ceremonies exist and are devoted to the manufacture, use and protection of masks. Only men are allowed to make, use and protect Nuo masks. During ceremonies, men wearing a mask are considered possessed by a god or a divine spirit. During this period, they are forbidden to speak or move freely.
One can firstly note (a little bit too formal for a blog) through the Nuo masks the solicitation towards nature. Most of the divinations of the Nuo culture are thus representations of elements of nature. All actions seen and performed during rituals such as flattery, veneration and sacrifice are indeed a plea to nature. These ceremonies are not only the portrayal of the contradiction between man and nature. But we can also note the domination of man over the forces of nature. In those ancient times, these forces were seen as ugly, wicked, and weird creatures. By chasing them and beating them, men of that time thought that they could simultaneously drive out disease, death, and all other existences that clogged up human life. Finally, these rituals also represented human relationships as a whole. Through the Nuo ceremonies, we could promote the moral principles of a perfect education governing the human being.
Each scary and often grimacing mask corresponded to a specific god. Most of the time, these masks have jaws and eyes that are sometimes even articulated, which reinforces their terrifying effect. This effect is sought after because its purpose was originally to scare the demon Xiao Gui who was found responsible for diseases and calamities.
If the masks were originally bronze, the material used has evolved over time. Wood was used more and more. Although it is more fragile than bronze, it has the advantage of better weather resistance, especially when it is treated with paint or covered with plaster. According to ancient legends, in some areas travelers encountered Nuo temples every five kilometers. This testified to the importance of Nuo culture in ancient China.
In recent decades, Nuo masks and documents attesting to the existence of such masks have been unearthed throughout China. Additionally, the masks which have been passed down from generation to generation, now circulate among people or are collected by Nuo actors and artists.
The collectors’ taste for Chinese masks seems to have played a role in spreading the term “Nuo” throughout the world. Through its use, not only does the term become known and commonplace, but masks take on a broader meaning than mere mobile artefacts. Representing or substituting for complex theatrical forms, these masks are collected for both their ritual aspects and entertainment functions.
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