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Tibetan Opera, Art of Masks

How many operas are performed with masks in the world today? How many of them are not confined to stages and can last from three to five days? Tibetan Opera (Lhama, or Ache Lhamo), a folk opera of the Tibetans, testifies to the profound Tibetan culture and bewilders outsiders by its spellbinding charm. It is a sparkling gem sprouting from the unforgiving Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau and serves as a defining culture symbol of the Tibetans.
tibetan opera
 Tibetan Opera,  UNESCO Intangible Heritage

Standing out as the most popular and distinguished minority opera, Tibetan Opera emerged during Ming dynasty, which is 400 years earlier than Beijing Opera. Together, they complement one another and rank as UNESCO World Intangible Heritage.
tibetan opera
Excepting for bringing the Tibetans together, Tibetan Opera also opens a window for us to peek into the most enlightened culture in the rooftop of this world.

Incredible it is, Tibetan Opera started from a most humbling background: during the Ming dynasty, Yarlung Zangbo River was not spanned by a single bridge and the Tibetans had to risk their lives to cross through this formidable barrier.

Thang Tong Gyalpo(1385-1464), a famous architecture and monk, determined to end this plight, forever. Underfunded coupled with the extremely harsh construction conditions challenged his ambition. At that time, this great dreamer was labeled as a crazy Lama. Despite of all odds, he accomplished 58 bridges, among which the Qushui Bridge, the last and most awesome one, was built when he turned 80 and passed away. The construction process involved numerous epic adventures and assorted ways of raising funds. Among which, the practice of recruiting seven beauties to sing and dance turned out to be most successful, which fostered Tibetan Opear unexpectedly.
tibetan opera tibetan opera
Thang Tong Gyalpo: the creator of Tibetan Opera
 White Mask: the Mask of Angels

Under his guide, the timeworn Tibetan Buddhism ritual dance gave birth to a new genre with enriched theme of Buddhism, folklore and myth and more expressive forms including singing, dancing, chanting, storytelling, acrobatics and martial art. One of the most striking features of Lhama, however, is that all the performers need wear colorful masks to differentiate characters. Classified by material, Lhamo masks fall into wooden, bronze, leather, fabric and paperboard ones. According to the figures, they split into  four kinds:

(1)Wenba Masks: Wenba means “fisherman” or “hunter”. Consisting of Blue Mask and White Mask, Wenba Mask is the most popular kind. Made of paperboards glued by multilayer gauze and are surfaced by blue ribbons, blue masks are exquisite and dramatic, which make good gifts. Emerged earlier than blues masks, white masks are made of goat furs and are primitive and mysterious.
tibetan operatibetan opera
Blue Mask: mask of heroesThe Mask of Witch

(2) Masks used during the show (repertoire mask)
White MaskTibetan OperaThe Mask of Angels: symbolizes pure, kind, gentle
 Beijing Opera          suspicious and cunning
Yellow MaskTibetan OperaThe Mask of Living Buddha (tulku) or senior-aged immortals. knowledgeable, virtuous and auspicious
 Beijing Opera          hot-tempered
Blue MaskTibetan OperaThe Mask of Heroes:  Upright and fearless
 Beijing Opera           Upright, rebellious and unrestrained
Green MaskTibetan OperaThe Mask of Queens.  Beautiful, elegant and competent
 Beijing Opera           brave but rash
Red MaskTibetan OperaThe Mask of Kings or Chancellors: powerful and upright, resourceful, brave
 Beijing Opera         loyal and upright Guan yu
Black MaskTibetan OperaThe Mask of Demons:  furious and destructive
 Beijing Opera         upright (such as the figure Bao Zhen)
 Semi-White Semi-black Mask Tibetan Opera The Mask of Witch: gossipy, evil and good at bringing conflictions between people
tibetan opera
The Mask of Demons
Notes: Villagers often wear hollowed white or yellow masks, which symbolize their simplicity and kindness; Evils and ghosts wear horrific masks to express oppression and terror
(3) Animal Masks:

Comparing to their counterpart applied amid ritual ceremonies, the secularized Tibetan Opera masks prototyped by legendary figures, spirits and animals are more akin to daily life.

They are often seen in the Garzê Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan during traditional performances such as Lion Dance and Yak Dance
tibetan opera
tibetan opera
 tibetan opera

(4) Tibetan Buddha Dance Masks: they are usually made of fabric and decorated with vivid and dramatic paintings.

Tibetan Opera is usually performed in open squares and in rare situations, on the stages. Shoton Festival, the most prominent Tibetan festival, will see grand Tibetan Opera staged in Drepung Monastery and Norbulingka (an UNESCO World Heritage Site and the summer palace for Dala Lamas since the 18th century) in the sixth Tibetan month each year. Different troupes, both professional and armature, will flood into this holy land to amuse Gods, Dalai Lamas, commoners and tourists. With Tibetan Opera show as a highlight, this festival is also named as Tibetan Opera Festival.
 tibetan opera
 tibetan opera
tibetan opera

Rather than paint their faces, all the performers wear basic make-up and put on colorful masks. It is not demanding on music instruments also, a drum and a cymbal will do. During the show, one actor will explain what is going on. Dialogues are very brief, and performers focus on chanting. There chanting tunes mainly consist of Jueren( merry long tune), Juelu(the melancholy tune) and Tangtong (the short narrative tune). Dance, acrobatics and Kung Fu are incorporated into the process to lend the most engaging atmosphere.

Depending on situations, Tibetan Opera can last from several hours to several days. It usually begins with a prelude called Wenbadun, during which two fully-equipped hunters will make a debut, dancing with masks and chanting to dispel evil forces and purify the stage. Then seven princes will show up with seven fairies. The princes will introduce the characters and plot, while the fairies will mesmerize the onlookers by elegant dance. Tibetan opera culminate in the body part and ends with a ritual dance of blessing. Through vibrant dance, captivating chanting and eye-dazzling masks, the audiences will be transported into the immemorial ancient time, an era of divinity and eternity. It is more than a pious bow to deities, but a warm embrace to life, beauty and vision.


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