At 5am on February 3, before the morning sun can reach the outlying village on Jiuhua Mountain in east China’s Anhui Province, seven men had already left their homes and quietly assembled at the Yao ancestral hall. They laid out offerings of rice, beans, apples and sugar; red candles were lit in the dim hall. Thus began the nuo ritual, which has been passed down for thousands of years in Meijie Town of Chizhou City.
Nuo (傩), a highly uncommon character in modern Chinese, refers to both a patterned step to ward off the devil and a petition for blessing from deities during the last month of China’s lunar calendar. This ritual is more than an authentic slice of history, dating all the way back to the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC) — it’s also one of the major religious practices of southeastern China.
The culture of nuo is practiced in over 70 countries and regions. During the previous Chinese New Year holiday, Chizhou held nuo celebrations — starting from the seventh day of the lunar new year to the Lantern Festival — in 10 communities with 21 villagers participating.
The whole celebration includes nuo rituals, theater and dance. In the mountainous area of Chizhou, nuo simply just refers to nuo theater.
“Come you all! Let’s celebrate!” cried Yao Jiawei, leader of the seven men and the only successor of Chizhou’s nuo culture.
Deities are invited to rest temporarily in their symbolic shrines. Masks are sacred items essential to nuo rituals. They are believed to be able to help humans bridge the gap with deities, as wearers themselves are thought to become deities.
Each nuo mask has a name, which represents a certain role and features legendary stories to tell of its origins. The masks can appear valiant and martial, stern and tough, or gentle and kind, and they come in various styles to represent different figures. For instance, since the valiant gods are meant to emit awe and dispel ghosts and devils, their masks usually have horns, buckteeth and a ferocious countenance.
The culture of nuo varies greatly from province to province, and Anhui is different with local clans responsible for rituals and performances, rather than specialized troupes as in other areas.
Since 1987 when nuo theater was revived, the rituals in Chizhou emerged as among the most well-preserved and largest-scale folk events of their kind in China.
During a ceremony to welcome the gods, a longting (a kind of shrine) with orderly placed masks is arranged to receive villagers’ offerings. The nuo ritual in Chizhou varies in each community in terms of offerings, petitions and festivities.
Though nuo mask carving was listed as part of China’s intangible cultural heritage in 2005, the challenges of passing down this traditional craft can well be imagined.
“My father dug out literally every line in his mind and passed them down. During the ‘cultural revolution’ (1966-76), traditional arts and folk beliefs were repudiated. Many old artists passed away before they could teach young people. My father visited each and every one of them in hope to preserve what they know,” Yao recalls.
How to best protect nuo culture has become a heated topic.
He Jianmin, director of Chizhou Bureau of Culture, Broadcasting, Television, Press & Publication, says that with urbanization and the change of time, the environment for nuo culture has worsened. But he believes that with migration on the rise in Chizhou, it will be refreshed through cultural exchanges among villages and communities.
“The nuo theater contains general knowledge about religion, society and ethnic groups in the early stages of human society. It provides an important reference in the study of music, dance and painting as well as other arts,” says Tuo Xiuming, a noted scholar and director of the China Southwest Nuo Culture Research Center.
In the eyes of scholars, the role of nuo has shifted from religion to entertainment in modern times.
“Formerly, the ritual gave expression to the uncertainties of primitive people toward an unknown world and universe, but nowadays the most fascinating part is the vivid nuo theater,” comments Tuo.
However, others have different views. “Nuo is highly relevant to our daily life. It provides us with ways of interpreting and understanding natural and social worlds,” says Li Dacheng, former director of Chizhou Culture Center. “Many middle-aged people who didn’t like or understand nuo culture when they were young are now fascinated with it. The cultural environment where nuo was first developed still exits.”