Behind the mask in China

Prepare to be scared.

Halloween is coming up and masks are popular again. The custom is said to have originated in the Celtic harvest festival, Samhain, but was absorbed into the Christian memorial for the dead on All Souls Day.  Hence the connection with ghosts.

In China they have a similar ‘Hungry Ghosts Festival’ in late summer.  To pacify the hungry spirits they leaving offerings of food outside their door or on hillsides. In Ireland the ‘trick or treaters’ are pro-active and collect on behalf of the ghosts.  There must be connection somewhere with the Mummers who dress up with masks and go around houses to beg or threaten people to give them a reward.

They are called ‘mummers’ even though the middle-English word ‘mum’ (as in, ‘mum’s the word’) means ‘silence’. Probably the performances originally were mimed.

Not so the mask-users in Beijing opera.

While (especially older) Chinese love their opera, most Westerners find it difficult. While colourful and loud, it can go on for hours. Locals don’t mind as the plot is based on legends they know by heart and they can drop in or out as they please.  There is a fair bit of miming and for the real fans the masks and costumes are as meaningful as numbered football jerseys. But the constant high-pitched singing is not likely to catch on here.

However, this Halloween try a Chinese Opera mask instead of the locally produced and give the people a real scare.  We belong to a wider world than we sometimes admit.

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