The Ruffled Crow

Animation, Art, and Other Shiny Things

The Chinese Opera Mask

We have told stories since our species could walk and talk. Passing along history, personal or tribal exploits, cautionary tales to our young, the art and performance of the story is a bulging lobe of human racial memory.

Some of the earliest performances were pretty much debriefings from successful hunts and ceremonies honoring gods or scaring away spirits. Props in the form of totems and masks were often fairly specific in who or what they represented and, over time, were refined and stylized as the ritual and story spread through a culture.

And this is where our story begins…

The red mask is Zhao Kuangyin. I haven't been able to positively identify the other three.

Ancient China’s way of scaring off evil spirits, warding off disease, and petitioning for godly blessings involved a patterned step called Nuo that developed sometime between the 1000 and 200 BCE. Over centuries Nuo evolved into a dance and eventually reached the stage. Camphor and Willow wood masks were an integral part of Nuo ritual.

[An] example of using masks was that of Prince Lanling of the Northern Qi Period (550-577 A. D. ) . It is said that Prince Lanling excelled in martial arts but was too handsome to terrorize the enemy. So he always wore a ferocious-looking mask in battles in order to overwhelm the enemy. This story was later brought onto the stage in the Southern and Northern Dynasties as well as in the Sui and Tang dynasties (420-907 A. D. ) … In the Tang Dynasty(618-907 A.D. ) , masks continued to be applied in low comedy, and at the same time artists started to dye their faces in portrayal of super-human beings. In the Ming Dynasty(1318-1644 A.D.) , division of roles among actors became more classified on the basis of the Yuan Dynasty (1271- 1368 A.D.) operas and the facial makeups were gradually standardized.


The Yuan and Ming dynasties can thank the Song dynasty’s (960-1279) patronage of the arts that helped to form ritual dance into Nuo Drama that expressed a wide range of Chinese culture. Covering religion, folklore, art, and integrating literature, music, dance, drama, painting, calligraphy, sculpture, paper-cut, and flea circuses, it was a very inclusive form. (ok, maybe not flea circuses, but you never know. it was pretty comprehensive…)

Zhao Kuangyin - The founder and first Emporer of the Song Dynasty. He led a bloodless coup and laid the groundwork for what could be considered the golden age in Chinese culture.

The Song dynasty is actually kind of a two-parter; North (960-1127) and South (1127-1279), where the Southern is mainly a concession to the dynasty’s loss of control over the northern lands. Kublai Khan had his own issues at home with his brother trying to take over as Great Khan and, as sibling rivalries can go, Kublai took a break from conquering China to pop on by the homestead and tell brother Ariq “uh-uh” and give him a big ol’ noogie before returning to China to finish the job and found the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368).

Anyways, the Song was quite the golden age for China. Following the political cacaphony of the short lived Five Dynasties and 10 Kingdoms period (907-960) the Song was a time of huge strides in art, culture and technology. Gunpowder was developed, though it didn’t save them from the Mongols, and the compass came into use. Where the Tang (618-907) had introduced woodblock printing, it was further refined and movable type printing was developed. (Take that, Gutenberg!) Paper money made it’s debut, though more for reasons of a metal shortage exacerbated by a population boom that about doubled the country’s population, and a standing Navy was invested in. (A downside to that was, however, that a paranoia of military leaders carried over from the Tang and many high-ranking military folks were summarily executed because of it. The Tang Imperials had been rather absent leaders and ceded alot of power to local military leaders. The 5 dynasty/10 kingdom period makes more sense now, eh?)

Cao Cao - An unscrupulous villain of the Han dynasty (ca 200 ACE) whose botched exploits aided the fall of the Han. His son Cao Wei (or Cao Pei) founded the Wei dynasty, one of the short-lived Three Kingdoms

And the most insidious of weapons was further refined; the Civil Service Exam. Previously, as early as the 1st century, civil service exams were weighted heavily toward the aristocracy, but with cultural changes toward a beauracracy, a stabilizing influence during a population boom, more civil servants were needed and the new and improved exam allowed regular folks into government service.

Ok, that was one heck of a digression. Back to masks…

With the massive Imperial patronage to the arts of the Song and Yuan dynasties the face painting normally found in comedy began it’s refinement into complex patterns and colors to represent a character’s personality. By the Ming (14th century) use of masks became common to enable actors to easily change expressions or handle multiple roles and entering the Qing (17th century) designs and colors became further stylized and defined, at times into specific characters given the standardization of roles within opera itself.

The defined roles in Beijing Opera:

  • Sheng (生, Male role) is generally bearded, although there is a sub-role of the younger unbearded male.
  • Dan (旦, Female role) Until recently, played by a male.
  • Jing (净, Painted face male role) Antagonist
  • Chou (丑, Clown role) The foil for the lead character and considered the most important of the four. There is a saying “No Chou, no play.” Often quite athletic in performance.

Cai Shen (historically also called Zhao Xuan-tan), the god of prosperity. Note the gold symbol on the forehead.

It’s thought that Beijing (Peking) Opera began around 1800 and was considered “fully developed” by 1850 or so. As with most art forms, training schools opened that helped to further define and refine character and costume and students boarded at them while training. Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung are probably the two most well known products of the Peking Opera and they bring the energetic, martial style and rich humor of the Chou role to international audiences.

Color symbolism of masks:

  • purple – candor, loyalty, and uprightness
  • red – faithfulness, courage, and loyalty
  • black – honesty and firmness, or perhaps temerity
  • blue – stubbornness, valor, and intractability
  • green – brutality, despotism, and bravery, likewise irascibility and vehemence
  • yellow – insidiousness and brutality
  • white – various meanings such old or white-haired individual, or perhaps a cruel, crafty, or headstrong individual with authority.
  • silver and gold – spirits, such as gods, spirits, ghosts, and demons.

You’ll notice right away the incongruency with a westerner’s idea of anecdotal color symbolism. Us Americans can be so backwards – just look at what we did with the European concept of the Owl… (no, I refuse to digress on owls. Maybe later…)

For the sake of brevity I won’t go into detail of the styles of masks but refer you to a nice little resource page at that has links to several aspects of Beijing opera, including mask types. Butterfly, dragon, spider, sixth-tenths, symbolic, and three-tile are all mask styles that further define the character for the audience.

For the knowledgeable patron of the Chinese opera, the mask alone is enough to tell them the role, motivations, emotions, and very often, the specific character and story.

Hopefully this bit of an overview will help you appreciate the diversity and beauty of this ancient and significant art form as much as the writing of it has for me. Any questions, additional info, and pictures are very welcome!

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