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English>>Life & Culture

Mysteries unmasked

By Zhang Zihan (Global Times)

10:29, August 20, 2012

One of the masks featuring God of the Mountain Pangu, who is said to have created the world. (GT/Zhang Zihan)

Masks are an ancient cultural symbol of mystery all around the world. Egypt, India and the Caribbean all have their own rituals of mask worship. China is among the few ancient civilizations that still has its own mask culture, among which the masks of Nuo opera in the country's southwest is perhaps most notable.

Yet not all Chinese know about Nuo opera, which aims to drive away evil spirits. For Beijingers, however, that could be about to change due to an exhibition boasting more than 400 delicate Nuo opera masks that was unveiled on August 15 at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA).

Jointly hosted by the Culture Palace of Nationalities, Guizhou National Culture Palace and the NCPA, "Soul and Verve of Nuo Opera" features precious relics of Nuo opera, including 420 masks and some 70 exquisite costumes collected from different ethnic minority communities. There's even an interactive section treating visitors to a live Nuo opera show.

Nuo opera, composed of singing and dancing, emerged during the Shang Dynasty (C.1600-1046BC) as a cultural tradition rooted in superstition. Especially popular among ethnic minorities including the Dong, Tujia, Yao and Miao, an old saying attributed to the latter people could indicate the appeal of Nuo opera: "A mask makes you God, but without a mask you're only human."

Du Hao from the Guizhou National Culture Palace noted different masks serve different purposes. "Animal masks usually symbolize physical power, while some gods bless people and others protect people from evil spirits," said Du, gesturing at an imposing 1-meter-long mask painted in red and black with horns and tusks.

"This is the God of Mountain - an incarnation of Pangu, the God who created the world. When someone is severely ill, he can help ward off evil and recover lost souls."

Nuo opera evolved over the centuries, with its religious influences being gradually being overshadowed by those from the royal palace. Finally, it became a form of entertainment and is today still beloved in Sichuan, Yunnan and Guizhou provinces.

Most exhibited masks are made of wood, but other materials include leather, paper and metal. Wooden masks tend to be more detailed, with those of other materials bearing greater abstract appeal.

All exhibited relics are from Southwest China, with different faces of gods the most common theme of Nuo masks. There are even legendary figures from ancient mythology depicted creating a cultural fusion, including idols from Tibetan Buddhism and gods and goddesses from Taoism.

Most visitors at the exhibition are being introduced to Nuo opera for the first time. Li Yun, a 22-year-old college student, described the exhibition as "interesting and educational."

"I think what's more important is the exhibition reveals part of our past, specifically how our ancestors lived, which can also help us better understand our present," Li said.

When: Until September 9

Where: NCPA, 2 Chang'an West Avenue, Xicheng district

Admission: 30 yuan

Contact: 6655-0000

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