The mask art is a long standing and well established cultural phenomenon in the world. It is a unique art field taking shape in the early stage of human civilization. It is a historical and cultural heritage spanning all historical stages from the primitive to the modern society. It is also a peculiar symbol of a compound culture, and a mysterious symbolic culture, leaving profound impacts on human mentality at different historical stages.
Masks could be traced back to the totem stage of the primitive society in China, as shown in ancient Chinese records, literary and historical materials, and data explored by scholars in studying traditional cultures across the country in recent years.
Totem worship reflects religious psychology of the primitive era, for the purpose of seeking fortunes and getting rid of catastrophe. Constrained by their intelligence, the primitive was unable to understand all natural phenomena in the universe. They held everything on earth had souls, and misfortunes were the results of haunts and plagues of evil spirits. Subsequently, people began to worship certain natural objects closely associated to their lives out of instinctive desires for survival. Such worships gradually evolved into an emblem and totem symbol of the clan.
Primitive people would hold worship ceremonies in time for wars, hunting, farming and the reproduction of mankind. They would dance, sing and pray for auspiciousness. They would largely wear beast heads, wrap around beast skins, and play in the shape of the totem to please the totem deity. Such face-painting totem dances were main channels for the primitive people to worship heaven, earth and their forefathers, educate their offspring, and release restrained emotions. Masks were bred and fashioned exactly in these totem dances brimming with primitive witcheries. In the earliest hunting period, people survived through capturing animals. In their minds, animals were both necessities for survival and deities for worship. They believed wearing beast heads would surely enable them to win supernatural abilities. They held such beast heads would translate people into inhumans (animals). This led to the birth of earliest forms of masks.
Tibetan masks were cultivated in the Tibetan Buddhist cultures. They are largely separated into the Qiang Mu masks and Tibetan Drama masks. Tibetan masks are mainly found in Tibet, Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan, where Tibetan people live in compact communities. Tibetan masks apply symbolic colors and all sorts of decoration measures to express Qiang Mu and Tibetan Drama roles, identities, social positions, and characters, showing rich Tibetan cultural features. Tibetan masks refer to the masks worn in the performances of dancing to gods in Tibetan Buddhism rites and the masks for Tibetan drama. They have gradually developed into its own system on the basis of integrating the Tibetan local cultures and introduced Buddhism cultures. Therefore, Tibetan masks boast centuries-old history.
In the course of witnessing Buddhism to enter the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau and integrate with the primitive Ben religion of the Tibetans, Qiang Mu was sanctioned by long-standing customs to be a large-scale mask-based god dance, held respectively in January, April, June and September in Tibetan calendar, and a most popular folk custom activity in the Tibetan area. Tibetan drama masks were rooted in Qiang Mu, while absorbing and integrating the Tibetan folk dance, storytelling and religious cultures.
As a result, Tibetan drama masks show unique styles, looking vivid, peculiar and inspiring. They have become main symbols of diversified schools of Tibetan drama. In the course of inheritance over the generations, Tibetan masks have been enriched and improved by Tibetan Buddhism monks and folk artists. They are processed in more exquisite manners. They are introduced to neighboring provinces along with the boom of the Tibetan culture. In particular, the Tibetan masks in Qinghai province are most directly influenced by Tibet, showing rich Tibetan religious and regional cultural features in their styles and models. They have become crucial components of the Chinese mask system.
In history, Qinghai was a place witnessing many nationalities to emerge and expand, including the age-old Qiang ethnic group, and the Hun and Xianbei ethnic groups in later days. It has experienced the rise and fall of these civilizations. Since the Yuan Dynasty, Qinghai embraced fusion of cultures from various ethnic groups, including the Han, Tibetan, Tu and Hui nationalities. In the end, Tibetan culture became one of the dominating cultures on the plateau. Qinghai masks are best represented by the varied and colorful Tibetan masks. Just like all other masks in the country and the world at large, Qinghai masks appeared first as a witchery symbol. In subsequence, they are closely associated with primitive religions. To date, most masks are impressed people with the images of heavenly and earthly gods, reflecting people’s reverence and worship, and a pious religious fervor.
The most representative of Qinghai masks are masks worn for Qiang Mu, a spell dance in Tibetan Buddhism temples, and masks in a few Tibetan drama in temples. Masks also appear, though less frequently, in Tibetan folk sacrificial offerings. The spell dances in grand Tibetan Buddhism gatherings are known as Qiang Mu. The masks worn in Qiang Mu are seen as a form of spell utensils. Such a mask culture of religious feature and folk custom sentiments shows distinct artistic moulds and individualities. Tibetan masks have always taken on solemn religious missions in the historical progress of the Tibetan culture. They take it its duty to incarnate Tibetan Buddhism and develop into a major bridge for Buddhists to assiduously pursue their spiritual world.
Origin of Qinghai Tibetan masks
There are a number of interpretations in documents on the beginning of the masks used in the spell dances of Tibetan Buddhism ceremonies.
1. In the 8th century when Trisong Detsen ruled the Tubo Kingdom, the Samye Temple was built, which invited Padmasambhava, an eminent monk from India. He organized spell ceremonies to exorcise devils and reward gods according to the Tantra of Sākyamuni Buddha. He opened light for the Samye Temple and danced beast-imitating dances with masks.
2. As recorded in the Padmasambhava biography, sutra translators translated the Works of Maitraye at the Samye Temple. The eminent monk held the translated sutra and walked around the administration hall for three circles. Afterwards, the monks lined up to dance with masks and drums. This was the ceremony of “lighting up” translated sutras. The heritage has passed down to the present, and it explains the origin of god dance in Tibetan temples.
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