Masks from Around the World Part 2

Perhaps one of the richest histories of masks comes from the Chinese region. The ethnic diversity gave rise to a great diversity in mask making, and there wasn’t a single region that didn’t contribute in some way. It appears that the ancient Chinese had a mask for every occasion, as if any of life’s uncertainties could be mitigated as long as the appropriate mask was used.

The Chinese masks date back as far as 1500 B.C., and were initially used in mystical rituals at the time when shamanism was an important part of social life. They played a defensive role as a way of repelling evil in all of its abstract forms. Healings were ostensibly performed, which was not so different from exorcisms, since diseases were believed to be caused by evil spirits. Gradually masks made their way into other aspects of life, including celebratory, such the birth of a child or a wedding. The core purpose, however, remained the same – a preventative strike against the evil spirits who may be plotting to ruin a joyous moment.

Exorcising Masks

Being some of the earliest, the Chinese exorcising masks were used in sacrificial rituals against evil. The sacrifice lost its popularity but the exorcising mask continued its existence, expanding its application. In more secular circles of ancient China it became the almost universal symbol for the fighting of evil, whether supernatural or human, which lead to it being used in performances that praised military commanders for the vanquishing of foes that threatened the nation. The mystical significance was not lost, however, as some more remote tribes integrated the exorcising masks into their totem worshipping practices.

Shamanic Masks

Masks from Around the World

Shamanic masks are a variation of the exorcising masks, but which originated in the northern region of China. These masks, along with addressing the persistent evil spirits problem, were also designed to guide the souls of the recently deceased to peace. It was mainly funerary practices where the shamanic mask was worn. They are less elaborate than the exorcising masks, especially the ones used in performances, and were usually of a uniformly dark color.

Opera Masks

These are the most colorful and expressive Chinese masks out there, and which are manufactured in the greatest number in modern times. The opera masks had both the artistic and a utilitarian function. On the one hand they served as makeup for the actors. Instead of painting the face in bright colors, which might take a while and requires skill, the actors would wear masks that allowed audiences more ease in recognising characters. The content of the characters were also clearly depicted. Unlike the Greek masks that depict emotion, the Chinese opera masks used bright colors as a way of communicating the personalities and moral content of the characters on stage. Red meant courage; green indicated an inclination toward violence, black meant neutrality and sometimes integrity, yellow meant evil. The overwhelming majority of Chinese masks, regardless of purpose, were made of wood, with more high-end variations having leather and other animal by-products.


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