Written by Juliette Qi
Due to their shapes and bright colors, the Chinese masks of Peking Opera are remarkable and the visual effect that they provide is particularly striking. The appearance of Peking Opera in China dates back to the end of the 18th century and was a mixture of dances, acrobatics and music featuring Chinese historical stories and folklores. Initially, the actors wore real masks which were later replaced by a kind of makeup specifically designed for each character. The innumerable combinations of colored lines add intensity to each character’s expression and produce a strong aesthetic effect at the same time.
Colors and the Expression of Personalities
For Chinese classical opera, each color used on a mask contributes effectively to express the character’s personality:
- The red mask symbolizes loyalty, courage, bravery, sincerity and righteousness.
- The black mask symbolizes firmness and honesty, or temerity.
The white mask symbolizes mistrust and cunning.
The yellow mask symbolizes ferocity and ambition.
The green mask symbolizes bravery, brutality, despotism, vehemence and irascibility.
The blue mask symbolizes ferocity and cunning.
The purple mask characterizes righteousness and sophistication.
Nowadays various reproductions of these Chinese operatic masks, which can be worn for parties and theatrical performances or which can be hung on the wall as decoration, are sold commercially. A 3D mask with its decorative elements placed under glass or framed can become an original and beautiful decorative object. There are also Chinese paper cuttings, which is a popular Chinese traditional art depicting characters from Chinese Peking Opera.
The Makeup of the Four Roles
Peking opera always has four fixed main roles whatever the play performing. These roles are:
- The Sheng生 (man) who represents the young or old man, which can be distinguished from their beard.
The Dan 旦(woman) who has six types of roles, ranging from the virtuous girl to the old woman.
The Jing 净(painted face) who is a character often wearing a mask and who has the most assertive personality. He most often represents a god, a general or a mandarin.
The Chou 丑(clown) who is a comic figure, a jester, who wears a white makeup stain on his face.
The make-up of the Peking Opera is extremely artistic and takes great skill to achieve it. Like calligraphy and Chinese painting, the brush must be handled with force and precision. The application of colors requires the harmony of strong hues and light hues. When drawing the lines on a mask, fine brushes are used with great attention. Only then does the makeup attract attention from the audience and really come alive.
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