Masks in Chinese Culture

Masks in Chinese culture are part and parcel of the world culture of masks. Masks first appeared in China during the Shang and Zhou some 3,500 years ago as a major element in Chinese shamanism.

The worshipping of the god which drives away pestilence, the exorcising dances and operas, and many of the Shamanist rituals, cannot do without masks, Even today, masks are still being worn during religious rituals, weddings and funerals among nearly 40 ethnic peoples who inhabit some 20 provinces and autonomous regions. Masks are, indeed, vehicles of a wealth of historical and cultural information.

Chinese masks are generally made of wood, and worn either on one's face of head. Through colourfully painted images of people, ghosts, demons and celestial animals, they are purported to convey certain meanings. The Chinese masks fall into the following categories.

Exorcising Dancers' Masks. These masks, used at religious sacrigicial ceremonies among certain minority peoples, are designed to dispel ghosts and pestilence and ask gods for blessings.

Masks for Festive Occasions. Such masks are worn by people when they join exorcising dancers during festivals or memorial services. The purpose of such masks is to pray for long life and rich harvests and keep evil spirits at bay. In many places such gatherings have become a marry-making activity.

Masks for New Born Babies. These masks are used when members of society attend ceremonies marking the birth of a baby.

Masks for Keeping Houses Safe. These masks are developed on the basis of those worn by exorcising dancers and hung on important positions of a house to scare away evil spirits.

Masks for Theatrical Performances. In the theatre of many ethnic minorities, masks are an important means to portray the images and personality of the characters. Because of this they are of high cultural and artistic value.