Chinese Opera Mask

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.


Chinese Mask

Ground Opera

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.

Ground Opera

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. Ground Opera

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.

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Nuo Drama the Living fossil of Chinese Drama (II)

At one time, Nuo drama was very popular in every part of China. With social development, however, it faded out in most parts, remaining popular only in southwest China, in areas such as Guizhou, in eastern Yunnan, southern Sichuan and Chongqing, in southwestern Hubei and western Hunan, and in northern Guangxi.

Nuo Dramas vary considerably, from one area to another.


Guizhou Nuo Drama

Ground Opera

Guizhou is the center of Nuo Drama in southwestern China, while Dejiang in northeast and Anshun in southwest Guizhou province are centers for Nuo Drama.

In Tunbu around Anshun, Nuo Drama is the primary entertainment activity. Nuo Drama here is a branch of the ancient Military Nuo. Musical instruments include one gong and one drum. The drummer is very important during a performance. A patch of land serves as a stage. As a result, Nuo Drama is also called Dixi, meaning ground drama in Chinese.


Yunnan Nuo Drama


Ground Opera

Leopard Nuo Drama in Chuxiong, Yunnan province, differentiates itself by the fact that all dancers are painted with a leopard pattern on their nude bodies.

The ferocious and agile leopard is regarded as the most qualified to drive away devils. Leopards are played by twelve boys about 10 years old with the leopard pattern painted on their backs, hands, feet, and belly in black, white, red, and yellow colors. At the climax of the dance, leopards run after young girls watching the show until the girls take them home where snacks have been prepared. This devil-dispelling activity is performed in the rooms, kitchens and stalls of one family after another; the leopards dispel devils for all the villagers.


Nuo Drama in Other Places


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Nuo Drama is popular among many ethnic groups in Hunan where both facial painting and masks are used.

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Guichi Nuo Drama from Anhui province, is special because it is performed on a clan basis not by a troupe as in other places.

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“Seizing the Yellow Devil” is a Nuo dance drama from Wu’an County in Handan, Hebei Province. The people of Guyi village in Wu’an perform the dance drama during the Lantern Festival (the 15th day of the first lunar month each year).

Ground Opera Ground Opera

In addition, Nanpu Nuo Drama from Zhangzhou, Fujian province, and Nanfeng Nuo Drama from Nanfeng, Jiangxi province, are representative of local dramas.

Though much like the Japanese classical drama Noh, not enough importance is attached to Nuo Drama in China. It is still a folk art with a strong religious color. This, on one hand, preserves the authentic flavor of Nuo Drama, but on the other hand, Nuo Drama faces great difficulties in developing successors and in financing. Making Nuo Drama masks provides more income than does performing. Young people are no longer interested in the art; the youngest actors of Nuo Drama in many places are at least 40 years old.

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Nuo Drama the Living fossil of Chinese Drama (I)

Nuo, also called the Nuo sacrifice, or Nuo ceremony, was originally a type of sacrificial and magic ritual, which was held to expel evil spirits and pestilence during the last month of the Chinese lunar year. Later, Nuo evolved into a dance drama.



Ground Opera

Its name is derived from one such ritual, where people shouted “Nuo!, Nuo!”, to drive away the devil. The nuo ritual procedure includes inviting, welcoming, and thanking spirits. Following the solemn ritual, nuo drama is performed to entertain the spirits. Masked performers, with whips, dance to the sound of different, mysterious tunes — some wearing black, white, or red masks, each with expressions varying from the amiable, to the frightening, and ferocious. Ground Opera However, with the passing of time and increasing popularization of science, the primitive, superstitious ritual has now been transformed into a theatrical performance for entertainment purposes.




The Nuo ritual has been practiced in China for thousands of years, starting from primitive society, when early men performed sacrifices and conducted ceremonial services to pay tribute to ancestors, gods, and goddesses, while exorcising demons.

During ancient times, the nuo dance was originally performed to drive away evil spirits at sacrificial rituals. The ceremony was first recorded on bones and tortoise shells during the Shang Dynasty (16th-17th century BC), and flourished in the Zhou Dynasty (11th century-256BC). As the number of its participants increased from 100 to 1,000, the ceremony became more and more magnificent. At the same time as the grand nuo ceremony began to be held by the royal court, the folk nuo ceremony also began to appear in the countryside.

With the development of science and technology, the dance gradually declined, and in the Central Plains in the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River, it disappeared completely after the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Today, the dance can only be seen during the Spring Festival in remote mountainous areas, such as Guizhou, Hunan, Yunnan, Sichuan and Anhui provinces, inhabited mostly by minority ethnic groups.

The nuo dance gradually developed into a dance drama and became more of a recreation than a ritual during and after the Tang Dynasty (618-907). It is a masked drama enacted by a priest performing an exorcism, also known as “theater with a presentational aspect, a festival, and the idea of gatherings to establish ties and norms”. The rituals have been incorporated into people’s lives and are seen as commentaries on Chinese life.


Living Fossil of Chinese Drama


Nuo drama is the most direct and important expressive form of nuo culture. It covers primitive religion, folklore and art, and integrates literature, music, dance, drama, painting, calligraphy, sculpture, and paper-cut. The nuo drama has great artistic value and is called a living fossil of drama.

Nuo cultural studies have become a hot topic for academics. But experts say there is still much work to be done.

Qu Liuyi, director of the China Nuo Drama Research Association, said that the crux of the issue is how to protect the original state of the opera, including its costumes, masks, and, more importantly, the cultural environment where the opera developed.

Professor Koichiro Inahata from the prestigious Waseda University in Japan, acknowledged that some old nuo ritual masks have been lost or have sunk into oblivion over the long history.

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