Chinese Traditional Masks (Types – History – Meaning)

Chinese Traditional Masks

Today, Chinese masks are usually associated with Chinese New Year or Chinese opera. Those are the two most common occasions when we can see people wearing them. In the past, they had more functions – from scaring evil spirits to celebrating various events. If you were wondering what do all these masks actually mean, you will find the answer to that and many other questions here.

Chinese masks history

The first Chinese masks were made around 3.500 years ago. At the beginning, they were used in shamanism, for religious healing. With time, people started using them on various occasions. They were used for exorcism and during funeral rituals. People used masks to scare away ghosts and evil spirits. But they were also used to celebrate all major events in someone’s life, from the birth, to the wedding, and finally death. Masks have important role in Chinese history and they had big influence on culture and tradition.

Chinese masks meaning

As we have already mentioned, some masks were made to protect people from evil spirits. Their purpose was to scare evil spirits and to drive them away from people and their houses. The meaning of Chinese masks that were used during funerals was to scare away evil spirits and make sure that the soul will rest in peace. On the other hand, the meaning of masks used during celebrations was to wish luck and pray for happiness. When it comes to theater masks, every color had different meaning but we will explain that in more detail later on.

Types of Chinese masks

There are more ways to classify Chinese masks. We usually classify them according to the function for which they were used. They can also be classified according to the region where they were used because there are many ethnic and regional differences. Some of the most famous are exorcising masks, shamanic masks, Sorcerer’s mask, Tibetan mask, and theater masks. We will try to explain the differences among them.

Chinese exorcising masks

Chinese exorcising mask

Exorcising masks originate from the Central Plains of China. As the name says, they were initially used in exorcising rituals to drive away evil spirits. With time, they became popular in army because they were praising the success of military officers. Some ethnic groups combined exorcising masks with the totem worshiping. Exorcising masks are still popular among some ethnic minorities such as Miao, Dong, Yao, and others.

Chinese shamanic masks

shaman mask

Shamanic masks are ancient mask that originate from the north of China. They derive from the totem worshiping and the shamanic culture. Similar to exorcising masks, shamanic masks were used in exorcising and funerals. They just originate from a different region than exorcising masks. Shamanic masks were usually made in dark tones, to scare the ghosts. Today, they are used by some ethnic groups such as the Mongolian, Ewenki, and Man.

Chinese Tibetan mask

Tibetan Mask

Tibetan masks were usually made in the form of animal, human or demon. Every character had a unique personality and they used metaphors and symbols to represent character traits. They are colorful and very beautiful. It can be noted that they were carefully made, thinking about each detail. If you look Tibetan mask carefully, you will notice that they used many different materials, such as pearls and shells, to make details. Tibetan masks were usually worn during important celebrations and festivals. On ordinary days they were displayed in temples, so everybody could admire them.

Chinese theater masks

Chinese Opera Mask

For many people, the first association when someone mentions Chinese opera, are masks. That is normal because masks are important part of Chinese art, especially when it comes to theater, opera, and dance. Masks have been used through the history of Chinese theater and today they are very popular in ethnic operas. One very interesting detail is that every color symbolizes certain characteristic! It made everything easier for the audience who can know a character’s personality from the first moment they see what mask is he wearing.

  • Red mask indicates courage, heroism, bravery as well as loyalty.-
  • Yellow mask indicates that the character is evil and cruel.-
  • Interestingly, black indicates someone who is neutral.
  • Green mask is used for violent characters.
  • Golden and silver masks are reserved for supernatural creatures – gods and evil spirits.

Read more about Chinese Opera and Masks in our article: “Everything You Need to Know about Chinese Opera”Opens in new tab

Chinese Sorcerer’s masks

Chinese Sorcerer’s masks

Sorcerer’s masks were used in regions Yunnan and Guizhou. They were worn by groups of people during ceremonies that were held to welcome gods and good spirits. Sorcerer’s masks were said to bring positive energy and that’s why they were also used during organized prayers for better future. They were also present at funerals, and their purpose was to make sure that departing soul will have peace. They are also connected to the totemic worshipping. Today, they can be found in many ethnic groups such as Jinuo, Jingpo, Dai, Wa and others.

Chinese New Year masks

Chinese New Year masks

One of the most important celebrations in China is Chinese New Year! Celebration lasts for several days and it is a great opportunity to have fun but also to learn more about Chinese culture.

Chinese New Year masks are made on purpose for that date and they are used only during that time of the year. They are colorful and full of details. New Year masks symbolize happiness and prosperity.

There are many different New Year masks, but the most important is Dragon mask! Dragon is a symbol of fortune and wealth in Chinese culture, so it is clear why they pay special attention to this mask.

Dragon masks are red and they are more complex than other masks. They have rich decoration and details in gold and blue color. Sometimes, dragon mask is so big that several people have to carry it!

We mentioned only the most famous Chinese masks. There are many more! Every part of China has its own traditions so they made different masks. Those masks have influenced every aspect of Chinese culture and art. Chinese people are especially proud of their masks and they can not imagine New Year without traditional masks.

Click here to see some of our favorite Opera Masks.Opens in new tab.

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