Tuesday, April 19, 2016

[Virtual Museum] Masks and Tibetan culture

The Virtual Museum at the Department of Anthropology, CUHK, offers the public a digital exhibition of ethnographic collections and archaeological artifacts collected by the teachers and students of the Department over the last three decades. Theme of current exhibition is "Masks and Tibetan culture". To view more displayed exhibits, please visit the website of Virtual Museum.


Masks and Tibetan culture

Anthropologists have been interested in studying masks and their rich symbolic content in various cultures and contexts. Masks have been used to conceal, transform, and represent identities (Pollock 1995:584). They not only represent or originate from positive images, but also reveal what the community disapproves of (Lévi-Strauss 2013:6). The characters they represent, or even the colors they use, may reflect their belief and classification of sacredness and profanity.

Claude Lévi-Strauss, a notable French anthropologist, studied the masks of the Salish, Nootka, and Kwakiutl, and wrote the book The Way of the Masks. He believed that every type of mask is connected with its own myth, which provides an explanation on its origin and supernatural power, and assures its value in the ceremonial, economic and social aspect of the society (Lévi-Strauss 2013:14).

Take Tibetan masks as an example: Tibet has a great variety of masks, which can be divided into three major categories: masks for Chams (religious dances), hanging masks and masks for operas. The Tibetan masks used for Chams and operas are heavily colored by totemism, and the masks of a cow, tiger, dragon and phoenix are imitations of the scared figures of their religion (Huarui 1998:112). The “Tibetan Twelve Masks”, which can be found in Sichuan, China, are commonly used in a Tibetan dance called caogai wu. During important ceremonial events, the Tibetans will perform this dance and play drums and gongs. They will wear wooden masks representing various animals and characters. The dance performance can take place at various locations, for example, on the roads, by lakes, and at gathering places. There are as many as 40 ways to perform the dance. The dance with these twelve masks is a gesture of Tibetan people to pray for peace and stability. While dancing, they also sing the “Song of Liquor” as a toast to guests and to recall past times.

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