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Exorcising Ghosts Opera
by courtesy of Qiu Huanxing and Lu Zhongmin,
the authors of Folk Customs Of China



The colourful masks used in the exorcising opera.
I had heard a long time ago that Guizhou was the only place where an ancient opera of primitive culture, the exorcising ghosts opera (nuoxi), was still played. On my trip to Guizhou this time, I happened to see a few shows.

The performers were all farmers. The accompanying musical instruments included gongs, drums, and cymbals. With simple costumes and masks, they danced to the importance. Although this opera died out long ago in its birthplace, it still lives on in a border province hundreds of miles away.

The exorcising ghosts opera originated from a sacrificial ceremony for driving away evil and pestilence in ancient times. The unearthed objects from the Yin ruins in Henan Province showed the mask worn by the official of the exorcising ceremony. It province that this kind of ceremony was found in the Rites of Zhou, a book recording the system of the court of the Zhou Dynasty (c, 11th century-221B.C.). It reads, "With eyes shining like gold, bear paws over his palms and a red coat over his shoulders, a masked man waved a spear and a shield and led a hundred slaves to exorcise the pestilence...."

By the Han (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) and Tang (618-907) dynasties, the scale of the court exorcising ceremony grew even larger. "Masked Dance" and "Dance of Twelve Gods" appeared in the Han Dynasty. Folk exorcising dances became popular and more entertaining, with stories added to the rituals of offering sacrifices to the gods and exorcising ghosts.

During the Song Dynasty (960-1297), the plot of the story became more complicated and complete, and its masks more varied. Gradually, the ceremony developed into an opera.

By the 13th to 14th centuries, zaju, poetic dramas set to music, flourished in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). Instead of wearing masks, performers painted their faces with colourful paint and the exorcising opera was also replaced by different local operas. By the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the exorcising ghosts opera was introduced to China's southwest area by war refugees from the Central Plains. Later in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), soldiers stationed in the Guizhou border area also brought the opera there from the interior.

Now, the exorcising opera and many of its offshoots are still popular in Guizhou.


Wearing a mask, the actor enjoys the status of a god for the moment and can relish the fruits, wine and provisions proffered by the villagers.
However, the exorcising opera and sacrificial rite dance popular among the ethnic groups such as the Yi and Bouyei still remain at their early stage, similar to the sacrificial northeast Guizhou has reached the zenith of its development.

This opera is characterized by various masks made by local artists. In Guizhou, there are almost a thousand exorcising opera troupes and each one has some masks handed down from previous generations.

Looking at the masks, I could not but admire the ingenuity of those who carved them. By the hands of a skilled artisan, a piece of lifeless wood was transformed into an image full of artistic power. Ghost or human, every one of them looks unique and vivid. Further-more, the performers' exaggerated gestures and humorous lines also add dramatic effect to the masks. Though already different from their original form, these bold and vivid masks still capture attention with their artistic beauty.




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