The Chinese mask is an art form with a variety of purposes, spanning antiquity and into modern day. Because of the rich history and impressive design and decoration of these masks, many historical and contemporary masks are considered fine works of art. Understanding the uses and history of these masks, helps to understand the art involved in their creation.
Chinese masks were a frequent part of rituals and ceremonies during antiquity. These masks, called Shigong masks after the name of the spiritual leaders who wore them, were used to pray for happiness and well-being. During these ceremonies, the Shigong would hold a sword or ceremonial object and his prayers would be accompanied by a drum or other musical instrument. Many religions throughout China used ceremonial dance masks, including Buddhism, Taoism and other indigenous religions. These masks were created and painted to look like large face masks. Some of the surfaces of the masks were painted bright red or black. Makers could then attach hair to form a period or a head of hair.
Mask use in ceremonial dances evolved to the use of masks during operas and other stage performances. These masks would be made to resemble the faces of various characters in the production, including spiritual beings, warriors and wise men. Because opera masks passed down through generations through the performers, many of the masks used in contemporary Chinese operas have a rich, long history. Styles and materials for manufacture vary according to the culture who used them. For instance, Tuija people performed Nuotang opera during the spring festival and used very lifelike wooden masks.
Wedding and Funeral Masks
Masks were often worn or displayed during important rites in Chinese culture, including weddings and funerals. For example, the Zhuang and Yao people would hang a mask of Sanyuan, their main god, in a conspicuous place during most rites. The Yi and Hani people would wear bamboo masks during weddings, which were supposed to drive away evil spirits present at the union of two people. Additionally, the Yi people used masks to perform the lion dance during funerals, which required two people to move a large lion mask and costume to the beat of gongs and symbols.
Chinese masks are common wear for festivals and other entertainment performances. The masks worn for entertainment usually transform the wearer into characters or animals, such as tigers or lions, or historical characters, such as warriors and farmers from the period of time following the Han Dynasty. Masks were also worn for sacrificial purposes by the Yi, Tibetan and Tu. For instance, during New Year celebrations, the Yi would wear masks of tigers or leopards and perform a ritual dance after sacrificing an ox. These sacrifices were to pray for good fortune and celebrate ancestors.
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