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Guizhou artisan strikes gold making faces

( China Daily )

Updated: 2018-01-18

Opera mask master carves brighter future for ancient craft

Nuo Opera, a ritual largely intended to ward off evil spirits, has transformed people's fortunes in Guizhou province. In rural Dejiang county, Wang Guohua teaches his apprentices how to carve ferocious Nuo masks.

"I wasn't respected by other villagers, as they didn't see carving masks as a decent job," the 52-year-old artisan said. "Now, it's big business."

The Nuo ritual has been practiced for thousands of years. Sacrifices and ceremonies pay tribute to ancestors, gods and goddesses while exorcising demons.

Over the ages it has spread among people of various ethnic groups along the Yangtze and Yellow river valleys and southwestern areas. Nuo rituals are widely performed during the Lunar New Year holiday.

Accompanied by drums and gongs, whip-bearing Nuo performers dance to mysterious tunes.

They wear colored masks - black, red and white - bearing varied expressions such as amiable, ferocious or fearful, and the ceremony has become more theatrical than spiritual in recent decades.

In Wang's workshop, wood, tools and masks of all kinds are strewed everywhere. Wang has been carving masks for 36 years and has created over 4,000.

Guizhou is famous for its variety of Nuo Opera styles. Whenever there is a performance in an outlying village, farmers trek dozens of kilometers along hillside paths to take it all in. Though some elderly fans are still in awe of the Nuo dancing gods, few today fully understand the ritual.

Serious business

Guizhou is at the front line of the government's poverty relief campaign, with more than 3.7 million people still living below the official poverty line. Many men have left home for urban areas to seek work, leaving the elderly, women and children behind.

When Wang started making masks, no one understood why he did not find a "decent job", not even his wife, Qin Zhichan.

"Rural people were supposed to work in the fields instead of doing business, and when I married into his family from the neighboring village, we had financial difficulties," Qin recalled. "I felt I could not depend on him, and we quarreled a lot."

The wheel of fortune did not turn in an auspicious direction for Wang until 2003, when an international seminar on Nuo culture was held in the county. Foreigners were instantly drawn to Wang's masks.

"I made 2,000 yuan ($300) with my masks at that time," Wang said. With the money, he bought a color TV. Suddenly, his wife and the other villagers started to take his business seriously.

With his amazing craftsmanship, business soared. In 2006, he was honored as "master of Nuo masks in Guizhou" and took his masks to exhibitions in France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Japan. In 2010, he registered a company and recruited apprentices.

The mask business easily lifted them out of poverty. Lyu Changhong, once a poor villager, was one of the first apprentices. In Wang's studio, he can make 200 yuan by carving a mask, 30 yuan for polishing a mask and 15 yuan for coloring. Lyu left poverty behind two years ago.

Facing the future

Over the past three years, Wang has made more than 2 million yuan and bought two cars, but he cares about more than just money. He has memorized more than 200 mask models and can create them on the spot. He has also made his own variations, reinventing the masks at will.

"He is always thinking about new, different masks," said Zhou Guozai, another of Wang's apprentices. "Making masks seems to be more important to him than eating."

Wang is picky about the materials he uses.

"We usually choose poplar trees from local mountains. They are not only delicate, but are also believed to have a deterrent effect on evil spirits," he said. "Making a mask is not easy. There are more than 20 steps, and everything is done by hand. Each stroke of the chisel is important."

In Wang's limited leisure time he enjoys going to a local school to teach pupils how to carve masks, to help pass on the practice. He also helped establish a gallery featuring ethnic handicrafts from Guizhou.

"We need to find a way to attract young talent to the craft," he said. "Only in this way can we guarantee the survival of the tradition."


Guizhou artisan strikes gold making faces

 Guizhou artisan strikes gold making faces

Residents of Lyujia village in Dejiang county, Guizhou province, rehearse a performance of Nuo Opera.Photos By Qiao Qiming / For China Daily

(China Daily 01/18/2018 page7)

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