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Nuo Opera, behind the masks


Originating in the Shang and Zhou dynasties (c. 16th century-256 BC) in China's Central Plain area, Nuo Opera was an old Chinese opera rooted in totem worship and drew references from Taoism.


In the ages when humans had little understanding of nature, Nuo was once the most powerful and respected ceremony for countering natural disasters, devils and diseases. Ceremonial prayers were petitions for good harvests, longevity and other blessings.


Nuo Operas are mainly based on historic and mythical stories, so that roles range from gods and ancient heroes to animal ghosts. The masks are the key of the Nuo culture. Every main figure has a unique mask. Without masks, the performers are humans; putting them on, the performers are spirits and gods. Nuo Operas are mainly played by men. However, there are also a few female roles and the feminine characteristics are indicated by the masks, vocals and gestures.


Passed down by family or by troupe, Nuo Opera was evolved over thousands of years and spread all over China and neighboring countries such as Japan and Vietnam. Integrating with local customs and developing diversified forms, it borrowed music and percussion accompaniment from other Chinese operas during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.


Three strict rules are followed by the troupe to this day. At first, a god-worshiping ceremony must be conducted before using any new stage; second, a wooden figure representing the originator of the opera must be carried along wherever the troupe performs; and last, no props are allowed to be touched by anyone outside the troupe, especially women.


Nowadays, thanks to the efforts of generations of inheritors of the art form, performances of the 3,000-year-old Nuo Opera are still staged in rural areas. However Nuo Opera's former glory can hardly be restored today. For example in Jiangxi, Nuo Opera has only survived in three counties. In Nanfeng, the more than 120 troupes of the opera's heyday have shrunk to half that number. Almost all of the antique masks within the county were destroyed in campaigns against superstition since 1949.


Generations of inheritors of the art form stresses, "the reason to preserve Nuo Opera is not to advocate superstition, but to preserve a living fossil from a cultural context. The heritage cannot possibly live for another 200 years if we let it be consumed by modern life and do nothing."

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