Object: Mask

i-0581c

I-0581c
Opera Mask
Chinese
Unknown date, likely 20th century
Materials: Paper Mache and Paint

Sun Wukong at the Beijing opera "Journey to the West." Photo by d'n'c, via Wikimedia Commons.

Sun Wukong at the Beijing opera “Journey to the West.” Photo by
d’n’c, via Wikimedia Commons.

This mask represents a character named Sun Wukong (孫悟空), or the Monkey King, who appears in Chinese folklore and plays a large role in the 16th century classic Chinese novel Xiyou ji, or Journey to the West. In the mythology of Sun Wukong, he was born from a stone egg on top of the Mountain of Flower and Fruit, when the wind blew on the stone egg it turned into the monkey. The Monkey King gained immortality and supernatural powers but rebelled against heaven when the gods excluded him from a royal banquet. He stole Xi Wangmu’s peaches of immortality and Laozi’s pills of longevity, then destroyed many of heavens palaces. The Buddha captured the Monkey King and imprisoned him in a mountain for five hundred years. The Buddha released him in exchange for his aid protecting the famous monk Xuanzang in his pilgrimage to India to retrieve the Buddhist sutras.

The story of the Monkey king is an important myth in Chinese culture, and it continues to be a popular story in Chinese theater and cinema. Many Chinese operas use face paint rather than masks such as this one. In the Chinese Opera, colors have significant meanings and are used as a visual aid. Red is used to represent a positive character or to show courage, intelligence, or bravery, black is used as a neutral color, blue is used to show stubbornness and white is used as a negative color or to represent a sly or evil character. Gold and silver show characters such as gods, demons and spirits. While red is the predominant color in this specific mask, there are other depictions that have white as the main color, with red framing the eyes nose and mouth. The colors in different masks allow the viewer to better understand the character’s role in the narrative.

Many families enjoy visiting the Chinese Opera during the Chinese Lunar New Year. Each year is represented in the Chinese zodiac by an animal and last year, 2016, was the year of the monkey. To celebrate the year of the monkey many may have used a mask similar to this one in the festivities. The Chinese Lunar New Year celebration is a centuries old tradition that lands on the first new moon of the year, in 2017 that was January 28th. The celebration traditionally honors deities and ancestors and it is also a time to gather with family, cleanse homes to rid ill-will and welcome good fortune and prosperity for the rest of the year.

One of the first Asian groups that immigrated to Texas were the Chinese in 1870 who were employed to work on the Texas railroads. In the following six decades, because of the Chinese exclusion law, the only Chinese that entered Texas were called “Pershing Chinese” because of their aid to John J. Pershing‘s troops against the paramilitary forces of Mexican insurgent Francisco “Pancho” Villa. They were allowed to settle in San Antonio, where even in a hostile environment the culture remained. After the exclusion act was repealed, Chinese immigration resumed and continued through the decades allowing the Chinese population in the United States (and Texas) to grow.  Every year San Antonio celebrates our Asian cultures at the annual Asian Festival, held this coming weekend. Get your tickets HERE. [Sara Countryman, edited by Kathryn S. McCloud]

Additional Resources:

Briscoe, Edward Eugene. Pershing’s Chinese Refugees: An Odyssey of the Southwest. San Antonio: St. Mary’s University, 1947.

Rhoads, Edward J.M. “CHINESE.” Handbook of Texas Online, Texas State Historical Association, 12 June 2010

Shahar, Meir. “The Lingyin Si Monkey Disciples and The Origins of Sun Wukong.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 52.1 (1992): 193-224.

Wu, Cheng’en, and Anthony C. Yu. The Journey to the West. Vol. 1. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1980.

Wu, Annie. “Chinese New Year Celebrations (2016) — What Chinese Do.” ChinaHighlights, 21 July 2016

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