Colors & Meanings of Opera Masks

by Rae Williams
An example of the famously dramatic costumes and masks of Chinese opera

An example of the famously dramatic costumes and masks of Chinese opera

K-King Photography Media Co. Ltd/Lifesize/Getty Images

The wearing of dramatic costumes and brightly painted masks has been an integral part of Chinese opera since ancient times. Scholars of Chinese culture have found records of actors wearing masks as long ago as the Chou dynasty, which began in 1122 B.C. The elaborately decorated masks use color to represent character traits and personalities, which can be confusing to those unfamiliar with this style of opera.

Red and Purple

The hero in Chinese opera often wears a red or reddish-purple mask, and members of the nobility often wear purple. Red symbolizes positive traits, particularly loyalty, courage and faithfulness. Purple symbolizes uprightness, sophistication and a sense of justice. The most well known red-masked hero is General Guan Yu, who lived in China during the period of Three Kingdoms from 220 to 280 B.C. He was famous for his unwavering allegiance to the emperor Liu Bei.

Black and Blue

Masks with a black base can either symbolize impartiality, honesty and selflessness, or fierceness and temerity. For example, the character General Zhang Fei wears a black mask to symbolize his temerity, while the character Bao Gong, a legendarily fearless and impartial judge also wears black. A brave, fierce and stubborn character wears a blue mask like that of Shan Xiongxin, who famously fought almost single-handedly against that Tang Dynasty after all his allies defected to the other side.

Green and Yellow

Green and yellow carry very negative meanings in Chinese opera. Green symbolizes bravery, but also brutality, impulsiveness, despotism and vehemence. A bandit or brigand, such as Hsu Shi-ying, the "Green-faced Tiger," might wear a green mask. Yellow masks symbolize brutality and insidiousness and so worn by nefarious characters. However, yellow also symbolizes corruption and greed or ambition when worn by noble characters or those in positions of power.

White

A white opera mask can have various meanings depending on the context given by the character who wears it. It can simply signify an old or white-haired character or a Buddhist monk. It can also represent someone who is sinister, treacherous and crafty. Villains often wear white masks as they also symbolize cold-bloodedness. A variation of the white mask is the petty painted mask, which only covers a small portion of the actor's face. Painted in white and black it represents ambiguous intentions. The character who wears it appears somewhat detached from the action and may be sly and secretive, yet humorous and witty at the same time.

Photo Credits

  • K-King Photography Media Co. Ltd/Lifesize/Getty Images