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Exhibition of Asian Theatre Masks from the Museum’s Collection

Satoru Ishii
Research Associate, Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum

From June 7th (Fri.) to August 4th (Sun.), the Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum will hold the “Exhibition of Asian Theatre Masks from the Museum’s Collection.” The Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum was the first theatre museum to be established in Asia and has an expansive collection of masks from countries such as China, Korea, India and Indonesia etc. Many of the masks in our collection were actually used in performances. Each of the masked performances seen throughout Asia possesses an element which originates from its unique culture. At the same time, the overall expansion of masked theatre is thought to have been formed from large-scale interaction. Moreover, masked theatre is inseparable from religion and attracts attention as a key for unraveling the essence of Asian culture. Today, many researchers are working to clarify such aspects of masked performances. In this article, I would like to introduce some of the Asian masks in our museum’s collection. I hope that you will visit our museum and experience the spiritual power of Asia by viewing the actual masks.


Photograph 1: (China) Masks from duangong rites of Sichuan Province

In China, until the 1940s, it was universal to summon the gods and perform rites to purge bad luck and invite good luck. Such rites were performed on a variety of public and private occasions such as annual events, agriculture-related events, religious holidays, ceremonial functions and illness. In Sichuan Province, there was a ceremony known as “tiaoshen” or “tiaoduangong.” The ceremony was presided over by a “duangong,” who was a religious figure in the folk religion which was a mixture of Korean shamanism and Taoism. Our museum’s collection includes a series of works referred to as a “set of masks and marionettes from duangong rites in Sichuan Province, China.” Currently, this is basically the one and only collection both domestically or overseas which gives an overall perspective of duangong rites in Sichuan Province.

The duangong rites of Dujia duangong clan are also known as the “32 Rites of Heaven & 32 Rites on Earth.” These rites are distinct in that marionettes are used to depict the heavenly gods and masks are used to depict gods which have descended to earth. It is said that the number “32” comes from the origin of duangong rites to fulfill the 32 desires of the common people. Duangong rites and the marionettes and masks used in the rites were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and refusal of religion after the establishment of the new Chinese state. However, in 1996, our museum had the rare good fortune of receiving a single set of masks and marionettes which had been created by Du Nanlou, the last duangong of Sichuan Province, and had been used by the Dujia duangong clan.

Photograph 2: (China) Masks from dexì of Guizhou Province

Furthermore, masked theatre known as “dexì” exists in the Anshun region of Guizhou Province, an area in which civilian employees of the Ming Dynasty military had settled. Every year, these rites are performed by entire villages during the Chinese New Year and summer harvest. The rites are not very ritualistic and are referred to as “junnuo” due to the performance of long military legends which includes large amounts of dancing. Specific acts and characters have been conveyed through the passing of fathers to eldest sons. In 1999, our museum, invited a theatrical group from Anshun City, Guizhou Province to perform “Saneisen-Ryofu” (Three Kingdom Saga) and “Sankin-Sanpo” (Tang Dynasty Story) in Okuma Garden. Scenes from those performances are introduced at the current exhibition. Also, even outside of this exhibition period, film of the performances is available for viewing anytime in the Audio-Visual Corner of Building No. 6. Please visit the corner if you are interested.


Photograph 3: (Korea) Suyeong Yaryu masks

Our museum’s collection also features more than 100 Korean masks from genres including Sandae Nori, Byeolsandae Nori, Haeseo talchum, and Suyeong Yaryu. The majority of these masks were made in the 1930s and our collection is so complete that it is possible hold an actual performance using the masks. Normally, these types of masks are gathered in one place and burned as part of the ceremony. Even within Korea, it is extremely rare for a collection to contain masks which were actually used. For this reason, our museum’s complete set of masks is extremely precious.

From 1992, Korea’s National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage has conducted a research report on Korean cultural properties located overseas. According to this report, our museum’s collection is believed to have been actually used in Korea. Our collection is also generally preserved well despite being quite old. The design of these masks features a simple finishing, with paper used for the outer frame of the face. Also, material such as wood is cut and pasted to create unevenness in the nose area. It is thought that this simple design originated from the fate of these masks to be burned after only one use.


Photograph 4: (India) Purulia Chhau mask

Purulia Chhau dance is performed in the Purulia District of West Bengal, India. Instead of using language to tell a story or express a theme, this dance is unique in how it describes the content through the motions of dance. The dance is centered on dramatic battle. For example, within the acts of Purulia Chhau, a lion is mounted by Durga, a goddess who is widely revered in the Hindu religion. From her mount, she uses a spear of the god Shiva to stab the demon-king Mahishasura, who had taken the form of a giant buffalo.

Purulia Chhau is performed during the Chaitra Parva festival which is held in the blistering heat of April. Due to this timing, it is thought that the festival is closely related to rain-making rituals and advance blessing for crops. It is theorized that the name “Chhau” originated from a scream used to drive away evil spirits. Furthermore, the vigorous and powerful movement of the dance gives credence to the theory that Chhau was born from ancient traditional war dances. At our museum’s exhibition, visitors can enjoy film of Chhau dance inspired by intoxicating percussive music with a unique rhythm.

Exhibition Details

Exhibition of Asian Theatre Masks from the Museum’s Collection
Period: June 7th (Fri.) to August 4th (Sun.)
Venue: Waseda University Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum, Special Exhibition Room #1

This exhibition features displays which are easy to understand even for visitors with no prior knowledge of masked theatre in Asia. In addition to displaying as much of our museum’s extensive collection as space allows, the exhibition uses correlation charts for gods and people in order to explain traditional masked theatre in each region.

Photograph 5: Example of exhibition panel

Satoru Ishii
Research Associate, Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum

Completed the Master’s Program for Chinese language and culture at the Waseda University Graduate School of Letters, Arts and Sciences. Currently enrolled in the Doctoral Program for Chinese language and culture at the Waseda University Graduate School of Letters, Arts and Sciences. Became Research Associate in April 2012. His specialty is research on guqin (a string instrument) culture in early modern China.