Chinese Masks and Color Meanings

The origins of Chinese masks are rooted in ancient religious shamanism. Over the centuries and many generations, artists refined the use of colors on Chinese masks. Today, color continues to be used to indicate emotions or give clues about the identity of a character.

Types of Chinese Masks
There are several types of Chinese masks: dancer's masks, masks for festive occasions, masks for newborns, masks designed to keep homes safe and theatrical masks. When used on the stage, masks help viewers determine, at a glance, the attributes of a theatrical character. Masks are usually made from wood. However, Chinese opera masks, possibly the style that is best known in the west, are actually painted on actors' faces.

Chinese Masks and Color Meanings
Many colors are used in any given Chinese mask, but the dominant colors impart specific characteristics.

  • Red used on masks indicates a positive character. Red can also mean prosperity, loyalty, courage and heroism. Red shows intelligence and bravery.
  • Purple is sometimes used as a substitute for red. In its own right, purple can represent justice and sophistication.
  • Black means that the character is neutral. Black also indicates impartiality and integrity.
  • Blue faces are also an indication of neutrality. In addition, blue can show stubbornness, astuteness and fierceness.
  • Green shows that the character is violent, impulsive and lacks restraint.
  • Yellow tells the audience that the character is cruel. Yellow can also mean evil, hypocritical, ambitious or sly.
  • White faces indicate that the character is evil and hypocritical.
  • Gold and silver show the audience that the character is a god or a demon. The character also may be a ghost or a spirit. Gold and silver symbolize mystery.
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