Intriguing and colourful Chinese masks represent the long rich religious and cultural heritage of China. From the grotesque, fierce ones of Chinese Opera to the comical happy-go-lucky ones of Chinese New Year, these representations of the human spirit bring art and entertainment to the Chinese people and the world.
All ethnic groups in China had masks. Over 40,000 years ago, clay masks were originally used in shamanism for religious purposes. They sported fangs and large cavernous mouths and represented frightening monsters, spirits and demons from other worlds. These masks warded off evil spirits and protected the people by avoiding disasters, communicating with gods, blessing people, driving away ghosts and warding off disease. In some instances, devotees prayed to them and considered them totems that had power from supreme beings.
Chinese masks fall into specific categories. The exorcising mask, one of the oldest traditional ones, was first used in sacrificial rituals. It later became part of operas commemorating heroic military deeds and honoured officials, and finally it appeared in totem-worshipping rites and festivities. Tibetan operas include three types of masks. The first type resembled hunters and fisherman, the second humans, and the third animals. Sorcerers' masks from Yunnan, Huizhou and Guizot as well as shamanic ones from other regions were worn to welcome gods, pray for good fortune and to soothe the soul during funerals. Modern Chinese opera uses many of the masks that westerners recognise. Masks are an integral part of festive occasions, like Chinese New Year when Zodiac animal masks appear, and when dancers parade around wearing bright colourful face coverings. Masks can be considered protection, as when Chinese parents create masks for their newborns, and housewives hang appropriate masks in their homes.
Colours painted on the masks represent specific attributes and give the viewer immediate information concerning the character. Some of these colours include: red (loyalty, uprightness, devotion, courage and bravery, prosperity, heroism, and intelligence), black (roughness or fierceness, boldness, selflessness, impartiality and neutrality), yellow (cool-headedness, fierceness, ambition, cruelty and slyness), purple (uprightness, cool-headedness, sophistication, justice and a substitution for red), blue (staunchness, astuteness, fierceness, stubbornness and neutrality), white (evilness, suspiciousness, and treacherousness), and green (brutality and impulsiveness). Gold and silver symbolise mystery and may aid in portraying a demon, a god, a ghost or a spirit.
Although masks can be constructed out of just about anything, today most are made of wood or paper-mâché with cloth accessories, or are painted onto the person. Some of the oldest ones used stones, metal, cloth, leather, grass and paper.
Today, masks are primarily used as art and entertainment. In Chinese theatre, masks used on stage are integral parts of the mythological stories that are depicted. The gigantic dragon masks that lead Chinese New Year parades ward off evil spirits and bless the newly planted crops with rain. Masks worn by revellers during this festive time exhibit emotions such as happiness and enjoyment. At the close of Chinese New Year, during the lantern festival, the famous Lion Dance features a colourful lion mask that represents the guardian of the people.