I wish to state for the record that I can’t stand Chinese opera of any description – Beijing, Shanghai, Cantonese etc – they all sound horrific to me. It isn’t that I dislike atonal singing or playing. I happily listen to all sorts of music which makes my friends’ ears bleed and has them screaming for mercy, but Chinese opera – no thanks.
However, I do like the masks. Here is part of my collection of Beijing opera mask bottle openers.
Almost twenty years ago, I lived in western Hunan in an area where the population was mostly ethnic minorities, particularly Miao and Tujia people. There, I first came across one somewhat unusual form of Chinese opera. Nuo opera was once popular across China, but was suppressed by the communists in the early years and through the cultural revolution. Today, it remains popular among many of the minority groups in Guangxi, Guizhou, Hunan and Yunnan.
Nuo opera or nuo drama (傩戏) derives from a traditional Chinese animist religion also called ‘nuo’. Nuo (傩) means ‘exorcism’ and the religion mainly comprises of maintaining harmony by driving out evil spirits. Over time, the original religious rituals gradually became more a form of entertainment.
Part of the tradition is that the operas are performed by men only (as was traditional Beijing opera and, for that matter, Shakespearean theatre) and the costumes and masks are used to depict a fearsome aspect to drive away the bad spirits. The ‘music’ is enough to drive me away!
So, today I was strolling past Liuzhou museum, on my way home, when I spotted this.
I immediately recognised it for what it is – a nuo opera mask, so I investigated further. It transpires that the museum is holding an exhibition of nuo opera masks starting tomorrow (26th April) and running to May 25th. The event takes place in the temporary exhibitions hall on the first (ground) floor. Admission is free. Take some earplugs just in case.
The museum, situated on Liuzhou People’s Square, is open daily except Mondays. 09:00 until 16:00.