The Horse ladle mask is a folk art form mainly prevailing in the Central Shaanxi Plain. It is also locally called horse ladle facial make-ups. The horse ladle facial make-ups used in Shehuo are a precious art form, demonstrating the unique artistic glamour of West China.
With a history more than 5000 years, Shehuo, originally a ceremony to honor gods and spirits from heaven and earth, gradually developed to a festive occasion to celebrate and pray for harvest. They prayed for harvest and affluence with their songs and dances from “She”, originally meaning the God of Earth, and “Huo”, literally meaning fire which ancient people believed to have the magic power of driving away the evil spirit.
Shehuo is now a mass entertainment activity for rural people of northern west of China to celebrate Chinese New Year. Besides, it is also the natural outpouring of enthusiasm and love for life as well as a demonstration of talents and vitality.
The players made up like wearing a mask on the face. Afterward, people used the woody ladle painted with Shehuo Mask, which is believed to have magic power in it, to feed horses and cattle to prevent murrain, or hung the ladle-shape mask on the wall in their house to impetrate safety, harmony, and happiness.
Horse Ladle Mask
Just as the name suggests, horse ladles are used to feed horses in these areas. The round ladles are used to hold water, while the rectangular ones are to hold grain.
By using various color, different style of masks exemplify different characters in an exaggerated way. Vivid mythic animal, monster, human and God characters emerge in manifold meticulous painted masks. The patterns painted on the ladles are ways of praying for the livestock’s safety and health, thus ensuring people a happy and harmonious life. People in the past used to hang the painted ladles in their houses to drive away the evil spirits, and to avoid sterility and other accidents. The tradition and influence left over from the Shang and Zhou dynasties (About 1600-221BC) can still be perceived from these painted ladles.
According to experts’ research, the colored drawings are similar to those on the bronze vessels of the Shang and Zhou times, and the image characterized by flowers, fish, insects, lucky birds and beasts is a trace of the totems, reproduction worship and gods adoration of ancient China, reflecting the cultural specificity of the totem epoch. People at the time believed that the wizards with painted faces were endowed with the magic power to talk to God. The tattoo and face painting traditions are the predecessors of facial make-ups.
Therefore, the horse ladle facial make-ups used in Shehuo in some way passed on the 5,000-year Chinese civilization by recording the ancient folk customs.
Besides its original purpose of warding off evil, the horse ladle masks hold high aesthetic values and are regarded as refined handicrafts favored by collectors.
Fine wood from phoenix tree, Chinese toon or peach tree is usually chosen as the material, from which horse ladles are delicately carved. Multi-layer patterns and the unique West China feature of using bright colors usually characterize the artworks. The steady style, uncouth sculpt, intense colors, simple yet delicate paintings, and bold, pure, fresh, free and exaggerated style can be found from all the original works, demonstrating the rich imagination and wisdom of the working people.
by Xiao Xiao @ InteractChina.com
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