Chinese Opera Mask Colors and Their Symbolic Meanings

Illustration of Chinese opera mask colors with different styles of masks

Opera has a strange place in the modern world. Operatic performances and their various accoutrements are usually positioned at the very top of artistic works. Saying that people perceive opera to be artistically intimidating would be an understatement. The average person usually thinks that getting into opera is tantamount to taking up rocket science or surgery as a hobby. This is even more common with opera from regions with complex histories. Chinese opera in particular is intimidating on any number of different levels.

However, opera stops being intimidating soon after people start to really delve into it. Humanity really doesn’t change all that much over time or place of birth. The situations, stories and even colorful artistic flourishes of opera tend to have a universal appeal. Understanding opera is more a matter of getting the right cultural translation in place to better leverage older forms of art into a modern context. For example, Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen” seems intimidating to most people at first glance.

The entire operatic performance can be a seventeen hour study of convoluted mythology. However, many people were introduced to the opera through works created for a younger audience. Opera is far less intimidating when Bugs Bunny conveys the Ring Cycle as a cartoon in “What’s Opera, Doc?”. Almost sixty years since the cartoon aired, a huge percentage of the English speaking world can hum pieces from the cartoon. And that cartoon music isn’t just similar to pieces from Der Ring des Nibelungen. The songs from the cartoon are just the operatic pieces with different lyrics. Yes, it’s true. Appreciating opera really isn’t that different from appreciating a cartoon.

Different Masks for Different Times and Places

Four traditional wooden Chinese masks hanging next to each other

Having a cartoon act as an introduction might not seem feasible for something like Chinese opera. After all, Chinese opera is more obscure to the English speaking public. And what’s more, there’s the language barrier to contend with. However, China cracked that particular problem with a longstanding tradition of meaningfully designed masks.

China’s mask tradition began around 3,500 years ago. In ancient China these masks were used for spiritual purposes. Over time masks would become an important part of Chinese culture and tradition. Stylized masks were often used to depict figures who carried notable characteristics. These entities could range from the heroic to the utterly malevolent. The masks instantly conveyed the emotion of larger than life figures. And larger than life figures are exactly what opera tends to focus on.

The fact that colorful and skillfully created masks made their way into Chinese opera seems inevitable given their shared subject matter. What’s more, the masks make use of color to convey a lot of their intended meaning. By the time of the Qing Dynasty, around 1644 to 1911, masks and their specific colors had become well established in Chinese opera.

This makes what might first seem like an intimidating subject surprisingly easy to get into. All we really need to do is look at some of the basic meaning conveyed by mask color in Chinese opera to understand some basics of a character’s motivation. Between that and tone of voice, stance and similar indicators, it’s often quite easy to get a rough idea of an opera’s story without even speaking the language.

Chinese Opera Mask Color Meanings

Red Is Usually a Central Color in China

Red Chinese opera mask on colored wall

When looking at colors in China, it’s always good to start with red. Red can mean different things in different contexts. For example, people in China might associate red with fire, good fortune or bravery. However, no matter what the association, there will generally be one thread found linking all of these ideas together. Red usually implies something positive within most contexts in Chinese media.

In a thematic sense this positive association means that red usually implies a heroic protagonist. Of course it can turn up on secondary, tertiary or other characters as well. But in general red indicates someone doing the right thing for the right reasons.

Black Has an Unexpected Implication

Black Chinese opera mask in focus near stand with different patterns

In Westerns the antagonist is typically dressed in black. This tradition of associating black clothing with villainy is well established in the English speaking world. We see it when looking into the past of the Old West and in sci-fi epics like Star Wars. It’s important to keep in mind that China has a different relationship with the color black.

Black does have some negative implications in China. For example black is commonly associated with the Chinese mafia. However, in general China interprets black in a broader sense. The color black in Chinese opera usually implies a decisive or impartial nature.

White Is Seen Very Differently in China Than in the West

White Chinese opera mask in hands of woman

White has a different meaning in China as well. In the West white typically denotes purity. Someone adorned in white is usually going to function as the hero, or at least inspirational figure, of a story. But in China white is usually associated with death or mourning.

White opera masks will therefore announce negative traits. A character with a white mask is typically highly malevolent. They’ll usually function in a way which harms the story’s protagonist. And there’s a high chance that a white masked character will function as the main villain of the opera’s story.

Green Conveys Something Less Predictable

Traditional green Chinese opera mask sitting on a stick

Green coloration on a mask usually suggests some less positive traits as well. However, this is usually more in the form of chaotic behavior or effects than it is outright malevolence. A green masked character’s actions are often somewhat analogous to a trickster figure in Western media. We can quickly return to the earlier topic of operatic cartoons for a good example. Bugs Bunny is the type of personality who would be portrayed with a green mask.

The Elegance of a Pink Mask

Pink Chinese opera mask close up

The West typically associates the color pink with femininity. But in Chinese opera it will instead symbolize elegance and dignified standards or behavior. A character of high social standing or refined sensibilities might don a mask with pink coloration.

Someone Feeling Blue May Be Looking Into the Future

Blue Chinese opera mask isolated on white background

In the West, someone who’s feeling blue is sad. But Chinese opera has a very different interpretation of the color. Blue on a Chinese opera mask doesn’t suggest someone morosely looking inward. Instead, the person may well be gazing out into the future.

Blue often suggests someone with psychic or prophetic abilities. But whether or not that’s the case the character will usually be courageous. Whether their insight comes from a courageous character or psychic prowess a blue mask indicates someone to trust.

Yellow Is Anything but Mellow

Yellow Chinese opera mask placed in front of a window

In the West yellow usually indicates cowardice. People might say that a character is yellow to suggest that they’re going to run from a fight. Chinese opera doesn’t hold yellow in the highest regard either. A character with a yellow mask will typically be devious, calculating and cunning. Characters with yellow masks are usually quite ambitious as well.

It’s easy to see how these types of characters could be at odds with a red protagonist. But at the same time these traits can be used for good as well. This means that yellow characters could be working for good or evil depending on the particular production. In general this work will be done through intense planning rather than direct confrontations.

Understanding Opera Through the Universal Language of Art

Chinese opera fight between the Monkey King and Princess Iron Fan in colorful costumes

With all this in mind we can start to see something truly remarkable. Chinese opera can seem like an intimidating subject at first glance. People often assume that they’ll have to spend years learning a different language just to understand its basics. But so far we’ve seen that color can convey a lot of a character’s role and personality.

Music, body language and tone will also help English speakers understand the production. In the end, opera (Chinese or otherwise) puts heavy emphasis on the universal language of art. Not all fans of Wagner speak German. And in a similar way we don’t have to speak Mandarin to enjoy Chinese opera.