Mask History Asia


Japan masks date back to the Jomon period 10000 BCE to 300BCE. There are few mask artifacts during this time. The ones that have been found made of clay, unlike their European counterparts which were made of stone. Because of the time frame, it is difficult to discern the use of these masks, though ritual and ceremony were probably the main uses. The Yayoi period (300 BCE-300 AD) and Kofun (300 AD-552 AD) have yielded very few mask artifacts. One of the remnants of the Kofun period is made of wood and seems to be of a different make than the Jomon period masks. In order to fully get examples we must move forward to 7th century Japan.
At this time, masks were coming into use in drama and theatre in Japan. These masks, called “Gigaku”, are the oldest known masks in Japan. These masks are believed to possibly have their origins in Korea. Very few originals remain, and we know little about them. We do know these masks had the forms of animals, birds, demons and super-type humans. These masks were made of wood, and often had very dramatic looking faces. This theatre went through various incarnations, eventually evolving into Noh theatre, which is still performed in Japan and similar in other Asian countries. Noh, was introduced by Kannami Zeami in 1336. Noh theatre is a performing art that uses masks. Performances can take a full day. Noh, along with Kyogen (which is interspersed as a humorous interlude between Noh performances), Kabuki, or face painted theatre, and puppet theatre are the four main types of theatre in Japan. Noh and Kyogen are the only ones that use masks in this theatre. As we will find in greater detail in later chapters, men would play roles of men and women while wearing masks; this would become known eventually as the precursor to “dolling” in Kigurumi in Japan, a type of role play. That role play in turn would help inspire a different type of role play(or Cosplay) in North America and Europe; a type of cross-dressing role play also called “masking”. Over in Asia, coming into the 7th century, masks come into use in drama and theatre in Japan. These masks, called “Gigaku”, are the oldest known masks in Japan. These masks are believed to possibly have their origins in Korea, brought over by a person named Mimashi, who is said to have brought it originally from Wu, China. This theatre, accompanied by musical accompaniment would be mime or dance related, with little if any dialogue. We do know these masks had the forms of animals, birds, demons and super-type humans. These masks were made of wood, and often had very dramatic looking faces. Gigaku evolved into Bugaku, which flourished in Japan between the 9th and 12th centuries. The music, which was provided by a deeper orchestra, would be often be of a slower pace, and the masks, while stylized, were more often used to represent day to day life. The masks, called Bugaku, covered only the face, as opposed to Gigaku, which covered the whole head. The theatre evolved again into Noh theatre.
Noh Theatre is one of four types of theatre in Japan, along with Kyogen, or farce, Kabuki, which is performed with heavy face paint, and Puppet, which uses puppets. Only Noh and Kyogen theatre uses masks to tell in its story telling. Mask making and usage seems to become an integral part of the story telling, with over 80 “essential” masks, and over 200 total masks used. The use of these masks is not taken lightly. The masks are used as a way of describing different emotions, and are changed frequently during the performance. Only the main character, called the Shite, and his companions wore masks, smaller characters did not. Please note, my use of “his” is important; only men were allowed to perform theatre, similar to their European counterparts in the middle ages. Men would play men and women roles both. The women role playing, called “Dolling”, also carries over to modern day Kigirumi and Cosplay. The shite is very important. He will choose the primary mask before costuming is done, and the costuming will be made around that mask; the concept is that it is the interpretation of the character and how they look, not the showing of individuality, which is important. This is an interesting example of the mask creating the character, not just as a prop to help the actor .
An interesting aspect of masks takes place in Japan during the middle ages, or “Shogun Era”( 794 AD-1867 AD) The Shogun regimes reigned over the populace. The Shogun was essentially the military leader of the country, and held great power over the armies. The soldiers for the Shogun, called Samurai, at first were merely public servants. Over time, the Upper and Middle class warrior ranks would receive this description. It is in this unusual area we find masks. The Samurai would often ride into battle wearing a type of mask that was two-fold; it protected the face, and was made to intimidate the enemy. The masks, often as grimacing faces, were worn over the lower half of the face as a psychological edge against opponents. An ornate helmet covered the upper half of the head-giving an almost outer-worldly appearance; like some demon from the nether regions for the earth. The masks were made of leather or metal, and were often passed down from generation to generation. The masks protected the face and often neck as a metal bib would hang down over the chest. During this time Ninja would wear head coverings as well. Ninja were used for anything involving subterfuge; sabotage, assassination, and espionage. The ninja would wear a hood like a baklava today. Wearing dark colours, the ninja’s costume was that of blending into shadows. There must be made mention at this time of another type of mask that was used, in the religious realms. These were masks called the Gyodo. Unlike the Samurai and warfare, these were used exclusively for Buddhist ceremonies such as purifying a new temple or casting out evil forces. These masks were larger than the Japanese theatre ones, and portrayed deities, dragons, monsters and other larger than life characters.


In China, we can find masks dating back to the Neolithic period (10000 BCE-2000 BCE). While there are clay masks, interestingly there are also some examples of masks made from jade, an intriguing choice. Jade was fairly common in the region, and was used for masks as well as pottery and other day to day items. In the Shang Dynasty (2000 BCE-1000BCE) was China’s bronze age, and the masks were made of bronze. The masks are almost geometric in their style-triangles and rectangles give the masks a precise feel. These masks were used for ritual and ceremony it is believed. The Zhou(1600 BCE-256 BCE) dynasty would also carry these bronze masks with little change. During the Han Dynasty (200 BCE-220AD) we start to see more stylistic masks of tigers and other animals, with more flowing and detailed faces. These masks were also made of bronze. There would be divisive years from 220-600 AD, with no real dynasty being established until the short lived Sui Dynasty(500 AD-600 AD), it only lasted one hundred years. It wasn’t until the Tang Dynasty (618-906) that masks would make a dramatic leap forward in appearance and usage. Chinese Opera is starting to take stage. The use of face paint and masks is prevalent in Chinese Opera. What is interesting from a mask point of view is the symbolism of colours on the face; red represents bravery and loyalty, black is objectiveness,and yellow for sophistication. There are more colours representing attributes like being calm, impulsive or jealous. The characters are easily represented by these colours, and the audience at a glance knows what to expect from each. Performers to this day are referred to “Disciples of the Pear Garden”, and perform in over 300 types of Opera