Masks of the minorities

By in Features

Editors note:The following article is by Pedro Ceinos Arcones, a Spanish writer, tour guide and independent researcher of ethnic minority issues in China. His main publications include "Shangri-la" (Madrid, 2006), an acclaimed travel description of the culture of southwest China's ethnic groups, "China's last but on one matriarchy: The Jino of Yunnan" (2013), and "Matriarchy in China" (2011). He reveals the mysteries behind the masks in two other books he has published, of which this article is an excerpt. His books are available online or at Mandarin Bookstore.

Masks through the millennia

Masks are one of the most universal cultural objects, being present in peoples and nations of the five continents. As one of their most archaic artistic and religious manifestations, masks have accompanied human beings for millennia. Wherever one looks, in primitive or elevated cultures, tribal peoples or great empires, masks are a global cultural phenomenon created by human ingenuity for a series of religious activities.

The most primitive masks possibly arose as a result of the magical practices that sought to dominate the forces of nature for the benefit of man, using animal masks to succeed in hunting, skulls of ancestors and totemic animals to feel their protective presence, and others of terrifying appearance to mark the territory of the most fearsome deities.

Masks have always fascinated human beings because of their ability to transform reality and provide a form to entities that do not have one.

A brief history of masks in China

Historical records and archaeological discoveries suggest that masks have been worn in China since ancient times. Allusions to the fact that during the coronation of King Shun the animals danced in a great feast, suggest that at that time totem masks were common, and that on certain occasions people wore the masks of their totems to identify with them. Especially interesting would be the use of animal masks during war, through which warriors hoped to acquire the courage, dexterity and agility of their totemic animals, and in hunting, trying to attract animals as their totem would.

The study of Chinese characters shows that the use of masks in religious ceremonies is also very old. Some of them suggest how such use was carried out, for example the character for demon () showed a masked person, suggesting that they were thus represented in numerous rituals. Particularly important in the religious context were the rituals of the expulsion of evil spirits, later known as "nuo" ceremonies, in which a multitude of characters represented the spirits to be expelled with masks.

Animal masks and other costumes were used by shamans and exorcists for transformation rituals and dances which in ancient times were an essential part of ancestor worship, expulsion of evil spirits, fertility rites, propitiation of gods and other festivities and ceremonies of the ritual year. Masks were also worn in battles (to impress and gather followers) and for hunting (as a disguise).

After the unification of China in 221 BCE, the most formal ceremonies for the expulsion of the spirits coexisted with other of lesser importance, which ended up becoming amusements for the court. The characters in these primitive dramas were usually the same venerated in the severe religious ceremonies, but the action took place in a secular environment, deprived of the dramatic atmosphere inherent to all dealings with spirits.

As the theme and variety of these theatrical performances expanded, human characters began to appear in them, perhaps by Buddhist influence, towards the fourth or fifth century of our era.

While authentic theatrical performances, conceived exclusively for the amusement of the audience, developed from these primitive ceremonies, their essence was maintained in certain rural communities, where, stripped of the sumptuousness inherent to imperial ceremonies, provided the common people with a means of contact with the deities upon which their well-being depended.

In the theatrical performances, these originally masked characters progressively replaced their masks with a facial paint that also identified them with the character to be represented, an art that culminated in the so-called masks of the Beijing opera.

The religious current is maintained in the "nuo" theatre, a theatre destined to exorcise evil spirits and attract the favour of gods and superior spirits. This performance is still very common throughout southern China.

The history of masks in China shows the close contact the Chinese people have had with their religion and spiritual life, and helps to understand some of the most impressive artistic creations have arisen in this country, such as the giant bronze masks of Sanxingdui or the refined masks of the Beijing Opera.

Masks in the Yunnan Nationalities Museum

As Yunnan province is home to the largest number of national minorities in China, including minorities from many different backgrounds, it is not surprising that the Yunnan Nationalities Museum's collection of masks is one of the richest and most varied of China.

Given the characteristics of their ethnic and regional cultures, the masks found in Yunnan are known for their variety of materials, distinctive appearance, exquisite workmanship and wide range of uses. Among the minorities living in Yunnan province, masks are used for rituals, rites of life, festival celebrations, dances and operas, and other folkloric events, as well as a tool to repel evil spirits and protect against them.

There are masks made of various materials, such as wood, ceramics, paper, cloth, pumpkins, rice straw, palm fiber and bamboo shoot husks, which require different carving skills, color painting, paper gluing and weaving. Masks can be hung in front of the face, placed over the head. fixed over the forehead, or held in the hand. Others are hang in the lintel of the house.

Masks date back to the ancient history of man and are an integral part of the human arts. They continue to play a role in the lives of Yunnan's ethnic minorities, and are deeply rooted in their social life and ideology.

See the masks

The Yunnan Nationalities Museum (云南民族博物馆) has one of the best and most varied collections of masks in China. It is located on the outskirts of Kunming and open every day. It has between 200 and 300 thematically arranged masks on display.

The collection of the Yunnan National Minorities Museum provides an overview of the variety and abundance of styles of masks made by the different ethnic groups of Yunnan.

All images: Pedro Ceinos Arcones.

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