While the cultural meaning and symbolism of color in China are significantly influenced by the principles of Feng Shui, the masks of Chinese opera use color to offer a more significant point of view.

Elaborately decorated with color and patterns, masks have been an integral part of Chinese opera for over a thousand years. However, during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the colors began being used consistently to represent certain personality traits and human characteristics.

In Chinese opera, color takes the audience on a magical journey. It not only lights up the stage with an array of bright hues, but it also stirs up specific emotions and allows the viewer to feel and understand the story. Color connects the audience to each character's traits quickly. The audience often feels such an instant and intimate understanding that you might even say that the colors are the characters.

Red in Chinese opera, like in Feng Shui, carries a traditional, well-loved radiance. Red in an opera symbolizes positive traits such as intelligence, heroism, integrity, and loyalty.

When the art or costume director tires of red on stage, he or she can bring in the slightly less utilized color purple. Purple conveys the same positive perception as red but with the added attributes of respect, sophistication, nobleness, and a sense of justice.

When black is the foundation of a mask on stage, its meaning is neutral. A black face represents characteristics like impartiality with a hint of altruism.

Add in traditional bravery and a bit of stubbornness, and you have a character depicted by the color blue. In the opera, blue may represent a certain level of vigor coupled with audaciousness. The person wearing this mask might be a spirited young person who remains in love despite the consequences.

On the other hand, yellow without dispute portrays characteristics like treachery and ferociousness, and the character's overall performance is sly. The audience can rest assured that this mask represents the adversary to the red or blue-faced protagonist.

But how does yellow, which in Feng Shui represents imperial power and the desire for absolute rule over the earth, relate to this seemingly negative connotation in Chinese opera? The connection is that the pursuit of power can often bring forth negative traits like deceitfulness and unjust measures. In light of this, a noble character might be shown with yellow instead of purple, connecting their nobleness with the characteristics of a corrupted ruler.

Though monsters and gods are not always present in Chinese opera, when they are, they provide a sense of mysticism represented by metallic colors, silver, and gold. The absence of other colors on the masks of these feared but revered characters leads audience members, even those who don't understand Mandarin, to conclude that this character is unique and mysterious.

The 'petty' mask also lacks color. It is painted only in black and white and covers only half of the face of the actor wearing it, playing on the audience's imagery-inspired emotion.

Due to being only half hidden behind a mask, this character's presence is detached from the others on stage, thereby visually leading the audience to suspect ambiguous intentions. Because of this, the petty face can represent secrecy and mistrust while at the same time being allowed to win the audience's affection by conveying humor and wit.

In one popular opera, The Story of the White Rabbit, a penniless young man named Liu Zhiyuan raises himself out of poverty by becoming a soldier and then marries the very just noblewoman Li Sanniang, who does not let social class interfere with love despite the consequences.

In this story, the beautiful Li Sanniang is usually portrayed in purple, while her royal counterparts wear yellow. This signifies her fairness to people experiencing poverty as a counterpoint to the other nobles' attitudes of pity.

The soldier Liu may wear gray at the beginning of the opera to symbolize his poverty, but as the play progresses, he will most likely transition to wearing red. In the end, a white rabbit, representing purity, reconnects the now-ruler Liu with the family from which he came.

So, if you find yourself in a Peking opera, don't worry if you don't understand Mandarin; allow the colors to be your translator and guide you through the performance.

Feature Image Credit: d'n'c from Beijing [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Read Time: 3 min
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Kate Smith
Kate Smith is an optimistic, expressive, artist, designer, writer and color fanatic. With her warm and witty style, Kate teaches you to clearly see, understand and be inspired by color. Then she guides you step-by-step to develop your own unique color sense-ability and achieve results you never dreamed possible.
  • Isabella Chen says:

    I am a Chinese, I knew and I love our top art Chinese opera. Your article relates color to The Opera is fun, yeh, maybe we have more detail explanation, but your explanation is very interesting, especially the Rabbit Story. VERY GOOD!

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