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A Brief Introduction to Tibetan Masks

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The art of Tibetan masks forms an essential element of traditional Tibetan culture. The masks are famous for their unique style, diversity of shapes and characteristically simple, unsophisticated and primeval beauty. Tibetan masks are therefore an important area for research. This article intends to give a brief introduction to the masks in order to offer readers a basic overview of this art.

I. The Origin and Development of Masks

1. The Origin of Masks

A mask of the monk in 17th century

According to historical records, after the sixth century when the Tubo was a feudal kingdom based on slavery, Bonpo dances with totem animal masks and 〝the sound from hand drums〞were already performed and from these dances white goat masks are said to have originated. In the first half of the seventh century when Srong-btsan-sgam-po was in power, the Tibetan script and written laws were created and dances 〝with masks to act as lions, tigers, yaks and leopards〞appeared as a traditional program for grand ceremonies. These two examples illustrate that masks came into being as early as in the Tubo Kingdom.

In the reign of Khri-srong-lde-btsan, Tubo culture developed rapidly and extensively.

In 779, when the Grand Hall of the bSam-yas Monastery was completed, Khri-srong-Ide-btsan, Zhi-ba-vtsho (Santaraksita) and Guru Rin-po-che (Padmasambhava) held a consecration ceremony. The murals on the left and right walls vividly depict this grand occasion. On that day, the bustling bSam-yas Monastery was filled with a multitude of splendidly dressed people, dancing and singing.

According to the records of A Feast for Wise Men (Chos-vbyung-mkhas-pavi-dgav-ston), at the feast held on this ceremony, Khri-srong-Ide-btsan sat on a gold seat with his five consorts in full costume. Umbrellas, columns and banners almost blotted out the midday sun. The music from big cymbals was like bird's singing. All the young men and women wore beautiful clothes as they beat drums with yak tails while dancing and singing. Some of them wore masks and pretended to be young lions.

Elaborately costumed dances played games or walked around with drums in hand. During the period, a Tibetan white mask opera-popular in Lho-kha areas and Lhasa was performed and was the origin of all subsequent Tibetan operas. According to Tibetan manuscripts and the consensus of experts, the origin of Tibetan mask art is closely related to the creation of Tibetan primitive Bonism, laws and Tibetan script as well as to the bSam-yas Monastery, the first in the history of Tibet. The history of this art form can be traced back before the sixth century.

2、The Natural Conditions for the Formation of Masks and the Development of This Art.

A mask of the guardian deity

Apart from longstanding view that〝a red face is one of basic characteristics of Tibetans〞, a historical record says that〝(Tibetans) liked to paint their face red〝.[1] The troops of the Tubo Kingdom painted their faces with animal's blood in order to scare their enemies and boost their own morale.

This is the preliminary form of masks. According to archeological material and manuscripts, Tibetan's custom of painting the face with make-up can be traced back to the Neolithic Age or earlier. This customs is not only found in the Ka-rab Culture, but also and to a greater extent in the Ma Jia Yao, Ban Shan, and Ma Ya Cultures, all of which are in Gansu and Qinghai provinces and have development from the Miao Di Gou Culture.

For example, a colored pottery kettle in the shape of a naked human being was found at Liu Ping Tai in Liu Wan, Le Du of Qinghai Province and on the neck of the kettle is a face with a black line painted along either side of the nose and mouth. The second example is the tri-headed statues excavated from Guanghe in Gansu Province.

They have designs similar to the skin to cats, tigers or leopards painted on their faces, necks and shoulders. According to The Book of the Sui, in the Dongnü Tribe (the present Chab-mdo area), 〝…men and women painted their faces with colors, with were changed several time a day〞[2].

This demonstrates that when Tibet was a clan society, painting faces was quite important in Tibetan's daily life. When Princess Wen Cheng came to Tibet, she should not get used to this custom and "was disgusted with Tibetans' painted faces, so banned it in Tibet".[3] As the ancient custom of painting faces was banned, dances with marks, which had previously developed along with the former, had much more space to develop and so Tibetans focused their respect and love for traditional on the art of masks.

Therefore, we may conclude that the custom of painting faces in not only the origin of the mask art, but also tremendously promoted the latter's development during its longstanding use by Tibetans.

Tibetan have lived on hunting and grazing since ancient times and thus formed a close relationship with animals such as horses, yaks, sheep, tigers, lions and monkeys. Because of the influence of these animals over their lives and their love for them, it was natural for Tibetans to worship animal skeletons.

Moreover ancient Tibetan used animal skin and fur as charms and ornaments, as it shown by Tibetan murals. In addition, many Tibetans rock paintings depict the activities of hunting and grazing, in which people wear feathers on their heads and hang on ornaments on their bodies.

Some of the figures look like witches and some parts of the painting seem to be depicting a battle. Thus we may conclude that masks used in ancient times were probably made of animal skin and fur.

A mask of Devas of ling life

From a historical perspective, Bonism has had a strong influence over the art of masks. Ancient Tibetans created a splendid Bonpo culture in the reign of gNyav-khri-btsan-po. Bonpo rites include dances with masks of deer, yak and sheep heads, …and even today traces of Bonism can be found in the white mask dances of Tibetan operas.

After the sixth century, Bonpo totem animal mask dances were absorbed into Tibetan folk dance and thus a new acting form came into being; performing with white goat masks. At the completion ceremony in the eighth century, wearing yak, tiger and lion headed masks; Guru Rin-po-che (Padmasambhava) performed a dance.

This was a performance combining Buddhist doctrines, Bonpo prayer rites and folk dance.

In the 11th century, 〝a number of witches and 28 Zi Zai Nü (female dancers) wearing masks〞danced on the grand temple fair at Zhou (a place name) in Tibet.

In the 15th century, to raise money for building a bridge, an eminent monk named Thang-stong-rgyal-po (1385-1464) invited seven sisters from a family called sPas-sna in vPhyongs-rgyas-rdzong (Country) in Lho-kha region to form a singing and dancing group and give touring performances. Among the seven, two acted as hunters, two as princes and two as fairies while one struck cymbals. This was the basic structure of Tibetan Opera in its early stage.

Based on the white masks, Thang-stong-rgyal-po created blue masks which were more exquisite. The author of this article believes that Tibetans white masks were created in the sixth century while the blue appeared in the 15th century.

In the 17th century when the Fifth Dalai Lama was in power, the prosperity of Buddhism further promoted the development of this ancient art. During this period, the basic style of while masks (namely simple, unsophisticated and primeval beauty) was stabilize but the blue masks were still in a course of development and reform. Not until the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century did blue masks reach their mature form.

This development process was reflected in masks used in Byang-pa'rGyal-mkhar, Zhangs-pa and Skyou-mo-long theatrical troupes, which were established in the Thang-stong-rgyal-po's time, and in the 15th , 17th and 19th centuries respectively. In addition to white and blue ones, Tibetan operas also used many masks in the shape of animal, demon and Tantric Vajra deity in vChams (religious dances), and all these masks had rich religious connotations.

The development of Buddhism not only caused masks to be widely used in Tibetan life, but also diversified their forms. Historically, Tibetans adopted various materials and skills to produce masks besides constantly adding forms and ornaments to them. To the present day, Tibetan masks retain the primitive characteristics already noted and are still made of animal skin and fur, in accordance with Tibetans' natural environment.

To summarize, the development of Tibetan masks can be outlined as follows:

(1)Before the creation of masks, Tibetans painted their faces with animal blood, brownish red color and black ash, which had an effect similar to wearing masks.
(2)Influenced by the totem worship of primitive Bonism, Tibetans started to express themselves by wearing animal masks.
(3)After the creation of Tibetan Buddhism, Tibetans began to worship deities, and the image of deities started to be adopted into masks.
(4)The creation of operas promoted the development of masks, which had an innate decorative function.

Ⅱ、The Mask-making Process and Mask Classification

The art of Tibetan masks has attracted much attention in modern times, as its simple and crude beauty has demonstrated the particular characteristics of Tibetan regional culture.

1、The Mask-making Process and Choice of Materials

A mask of the local god of Nyangra village

Tibetan masks come into various types and most are made of cloth, gum and flour. According to production methods, they can be classified into two types: hard shapes and soft shaped.

Clay moulds are used to make hard-shaped masks. After the clay moulds are thoroughly air-dried,paste mixed with gum and flour is painted on their surface. Then the clay moulds are wrapped with a piece of clean cloth, on which a mixture of sawdust is painted with the mixture, they are placed aside until they are air-dried.

After the wrapped clay moulds are patted with a stick the masks made of cloth, gum and flour are basically finished. The last step is to decorate them with colored drawings and varnish them. After that the masks are brilliantly beautiful.

The mask's teeth are made with pearls and shells. Though some masks are completed by painting in color directly onto clay moulds, the products are usually of flow quality and limited in number. Hard-shaped masks are generally used in vChams (religious dances) in monasteries, so the construction procedures are strictly stipulated.

Large monasteries put more stress on the selection of materials, the production process and religious practice related to the use of masks. By contrast, mask produced in smaller institutions are usually simpler and cruder.

Almost all Tibetan monasteries have special monk craftsmen to make masks, who basically have a good command of the whole production process.

Soft-shaped masks are further divided into hard quality and soft quality.

Hard quality masks use wood or paperboard as roughcast and then cloth and animal skin are stuck on. Originally the soft quality was only made of animal skin and fur but now it is made of various materials, including animal skin, cloth, paper and silk.

The production method of some soft-shaped masks it very simple, merely cutting out holes are eyes and mouths, thereby producing a strong romantic touch.

This kind of masks is mostly seen in folk operas, singing and dancing performances as well as story telling and ballad singing. They are simple and unsophisticated with a strong influence of Tibetan folk art and characteristics of the primitive art of masks.

2、Mask Classification

Tibetan masks can be classified into religious type and folk type in terms of their functions.

Religious masks are generally used in religious dance festivals, but they vary in different monasteries. This type usually includes three dimensional or semi-three-dimensional hard-shaped masks made from roughcasts. They are regarded as a form of sculpture.

As Buddhist believers think that religious masks symbolize gods and spirits, they especially emphasize solemnity and constancy in the making of masks.

This strict standard has resulted in the artistic form of religious masks becoming fixed. Religious masks are only used in 〝vChams〞 performances, held once a year, but at other times they are hung and enshrined in monasteries, with the masks of a protective deity in the central position. Some masks in some particular monasteries have even become their treasures.

This type of folk art has diversified forms used in folk singing and dancing performances, operas as well as story telling and ballad singing activities.

For example, white masks, blue masks and yellow masks in Tibetan operas and masks for drum dances and yak masks in singing and dancing performances. This sort of mask emphasizes the entertainment function and therefore is production is free from design restrictions.

The folk type is an important component of the art of Tibetan masks. It has absorbed the essence of Tibetan customs and expresses the thoughts and character of the Tibetan people.

Tibetan masks can be classified into three types in terms of subject:

1)Demon masks: mainly in form of a nine-head demon, mountain god, sea god, dragon god and demons. 2)Animal masks: mainly in the form of yaks, horses, rabbits, snakes, monkeys, lions, tigers, wolves, dogs, leopards, elephants, hawks, deer and foxes.

3)Human figure masks: mainly in form of witches, spell chanters, hermits, female demons, herdsmen, long-lived old men, characters in Tibetan operas (for example Ha-shang).

III.Functions of Masks' and the Connotations of Their Colors.

A mask of the Shitavana in the 17th century

In performance, masks are mainly used to express characters' happiness, anger, grief and joy and demonstrate the true, the good, the beautiful and the ugly.

In their longstanding struggles with nature, Tibetans have developed their own meanings for red, yellow, green, blue and white.

For example, as Tibet is largely snow-covered, white is the characteristic color of the plateau and symbolizes purity and mildness.

It is an auspicious color. In the early days the natural colors of animal skin and fur, including white, black, yellow, blue, and mixed colors, decorated masks. This is the earliest color form used in Tibetan masks. With the development of Tibetan society, colors have become the symbols of people's pursuit of happiness.

Most Tibetan masks are plain and their colors have special meanings and connotations, which greatly helps enrich and depict the traits of various characters in performances.

Yellow masks represent profound knowledge and far-sightedness. Both mGon-po and Blo-gros in gZugs-kyi-nyi-ma and Chos-rgyal-nor-bzang (two of eight major Tibetan operas) wear yellow masks.

Red masks represent bravery, intelligence, and the ability to use strategy to conquer or advise others. Both sGra-chen, a hero in sNang-sa-vod-vbum (one of eight major Tibetan operas), and Go-cha, a character in don-yod-don-grub (one of the major Tibetan operas) wear red masks.

Green masks represent merit, virtue, achievements intelligence and kindness. Myang-tsha-gsal-sgron'sNang-sa-vod-vbum's mother in sNang-sa-vod-vbum and Dung-can-ma, Pad-ma's mother in Pad-ma-vod-vbar, are kind characters wearing green masks.

Black and white masks represent saying yes and meaning no, or being changeable and unreliable. Gyan-de-bzang-mo, a witch making a false charge against gzugs-kyi-nyi-ma in gZugs-kyi-nyi-ma, wears a black and white mask.

Black masks represent ferociousness and cruelty. rKang-mgyogs-dbang-chen, a minister in Pad-ma-vod-vbar, conspires with his king and forces Nor-bu-bzang-bo to search for treasure in the Eight Oceans while they borrow a vicious dragon to kill him. All the evil characters in the opera wear black masks.

Purple masks represent jealousy and hatred. A female devil named Ha-shang in vGro-ba-bzang-mo wears a purple mask. After her plan to kill vGro-ba-bzang-mo fails, she puts her king, named Kav-la-dbang-bo, in an underground prison.

She orders a butcher, a fisherman and a hunter successively to assassinate the prince and princess, who are vGro-ba-bzang-mo's son aged three and daughter aged six. Finally, a prince named Kun-tu-legs-pa kills her.

White masks represent peace and auspiciousness. All the characters wearing white masks in gZugs-kyi-nyi-ma, Pad-ma-vod-vbar and vGro-ba-bzang-mo are kind, friendly, and gentle.

Blue masks represent fearlessness and heroism in Tibetan operas. All the characters symbolizing justice wear blue masks.

A mask of Jangsen guaxdian deity

Masks are a major artistic element of Tibetan vChams and operas. They have preserved the strong influence of totem worship from primitive Bonism.

For example, vChams and the yak god in Tibetan operas are Bonpo deities conquered by Guru Rin-po-che (Padma-sambhava). Other Bonpo deities in vChams include lions, phoenixes, eagles, sheep, dragons, deer, and tigers.

vChams in the form of primitive operas included many personal Tantric deities (Spiritual Protectors), for example, a Tantric Vajra Deity named the Great Dignity and Virtue, He-ru-ka, the Bull-headed Protector, the Goddess of Fortune, and the Great Black Deva. Among them, the Bull-headed Protector (lord of the Hell) has three forms:

⑴ the Red Lord of Death who has dignity of body;
⑵ the Red Lord of Life who has dignity of languages;
⑶ the Red Lord of Nine-head Death who has dignity of thought.

In performances, these characters wear red of blue masks. Generally speaking, the Lord of the Hell wears a bull-head mask, with a flame-shaped horn and has three angry popped eyes, plus a rope and a stabber decorated with a human skull in his hands. His whole image is awe-inspiring and terrifying. Tantric vajra-deities and Goddesses of Fortune wear blue masks who come on stage accompanied by two goddesses; one wearing a dragon-headed mask and the other a lion-headed mask.

In brief, different masks have different functions and their colors have different symbolic meanings. These are two of the main characteristics of Tibetan masks in performance.

IV.The Artistic Characteristic of Masks

Tibetan masks are characterized by their unique and diverse forms and are deeply loved by Tibetans. Their artistic characteristics are as follows.

1、Natural Construction

Masks are made of materials closely related to Tibetan life. As Tibetans mainly live on grazing and hunting, animals have played an important role in their lives.

They have worshiped yaks, sheep, lions and tigers, and used animal images to express their thoughts since the birth of totem worship in primitive Bonism. Accordingly, masks were made of animal skin and fur.

With the development of the Tibetan society, Tibetan lift has constantly diversified and now masks are made from a wider range of materials. However, animal skins and fur still predominate. As they are produced locally, they are cheaper. In addition, masks made of animal skin and furs demonstrate a peculiar unsophisticated beauty.

2、The Expression of Different Characters in Masks

The art of Tibetan has the function of expressing Tibetans' aesthetic perspective. They reflect Tibetans' happiness, anger, grief, joy, and express truth, kindness, beauty and ugliness in their lives. In addition, the various colors of masks have different symbolic meanings.

All of this evident in the use of masks in vChams and opera performances. Since witchcraft began to be practiced in Tibet, colors and totems have become the basic ways of symbolizing Tibetans' pursuit of hope and their ability to overcome disasters. People naturally feel happiness, anger, grief and joy, and there exists truth, kindness, beauty and ugliness in daily life.

In addition, the relationship between people is complicated. The art of Tibetan masks can properly and fully express all these facets of the Tibetan people.

For example, white masks represent mildness, kindness and benevolence; yellow masks represent boundless beneficence and profound knowledge; red masks suggest splendid achievements. Different colored masks symbolize different meanings and their use has strengthened the impact of characters in operas and enhances and audience enjoyment of performances.

It is Tibetans' love of nature and life as well as their pursuit of art that greatly helps develop masks' artistic effect in thoroughly expressing characters' traits. The instructive function of masks is different from any ordinary method as it is a way educating people through entertainment.

Apart from special monk craftsmen making masks in every monastery, there are few other such craftsmen and no fixed methods of construction of styles in the community.

Any ordinary person can make masks as they like for entertainment purpose, with their techniques can varying greatly from maker to maker. In order words, the biggest characteristic of the masks made by ordinary people is 〝being made freely〞and accordingly the masks have a series of features which are in agreement with Tibetan thinking simplicity, rawness, kindness and bravery.

3、The Rich Religious Spirit Reflected in Masks

Historically, the Tibetan people are Buddhists and religion has been one of the elements of their spiritual lives. As a result, traditional Tibetan art is closely related to religion that has a direct impact on traditional Tibetan culture, so the development of masks has of course been influenced by religion.

The appearance of masks made of animal skin and fur signifies the formation of Tibetan mask art. However, in the initial period, the development of masks was very slow and they were in primitive state for a long time. At the completion ceremony of the bSam-yas Monastery, Guru Rin-po-che wore masks while performing vChams, but the reason for his bus of masks was inspired by Bonpo mask dances.

When Bonism was popular in Tibet, human skulls and yaks were the main objects worshipped by Bonpo believers. Skulls were regarded as evil ghosts in Tibet and since Guru Rin-po-che vanquished them, their role in vChams has been as a kind deity. Yaks have become an emissary 〝vowing to protect Buddhist doctrines〞since they were vanquished.

The appearance of these animal masks in vChams indicated that totem dances with masks had existed in the period of Bonism. In addition, historical records prove that this type of dance was popular at that time. Masks were exploited to different degrees in different periods by Bonism after their creation and this also caused masks to have a considerable element of Bonpo.

In the reign of the Fifth Dalai Lama, the art of mask developed rapidly and ordinary people had a good opportunity to exchange skills of mask making. Since then, this art has gradually reached its maturity.

When religious masks exerted a strong and direct impact on fold masks, Tibetan operas, adopted hard-shaped and soft-shaped masks from religion, for example, masks in the form of animals, demons and Tantric deities.

Owing to their peculiarly expressive function and strong artistic effect, masks have been used to instruct people with the purpose of spreading Buddhist doctrines.

Buddhism not only exploit masks' but also believes that religious masks are objects attached to gods or deities, and that performers wearing masks are 〝persons being able to communicate with gods〞,

In this case, masks help to feel more solemnity and mystery in religion. In turn, this function furthers strengthens the religious aspect of masks.

However, the development of mask art is not completely controlled by religion. Though Tibetan masks have rich religious features, religious masks and folk masks have formed a relationship together over years.

In the long run of history, Buddhist art has provided a broad background for Tibetans' daily life, and their daily life in return demonstrates their religious and aesthetic experiences.

In these circumstances, art is often the carrier of religious ideology and the expressive outlet of the people's spirit. However, religious masks can't represent the whole of Tibetan mask art, and they are only one of its aspects.


Tibetan mask art is a symbol of the Tibetan people's intelligence and creativity, being widespread in society for many years and deeply beloved by the people. The masks are the combination of a mysterious order.

Their unique functions in performances and their peculiar style and shape have greatly influenced Tibetans' thinking and aesthetic awareness. As geographical conditions vary greatly in Tibet, the use of masks is different from place to place.

For example, in many places in Amdo region, only main characters wear masks while dancing in operas. Most of the other actors make up their faces with greasepaint only.

This is another feature of art of Tibetan masks. To summarize, unusual shapes, rich subjects, wide use and strong awareness of colors characterize Tibetan masks. They are a splendid artistic form in the ethnic art of China.


1、Zhang Ying,〝A Brief Introduction to Tibetan Masks〞in the research on Tibetan Art (Chinese version), the 2nd issue, 1990.

2、Blo-bzang-rdo-rje,〝The different Connotations of Masks in Tibetan Operas〞in Tibetan Study (Tibetan version), the 1st issued,1988.


  1. White Annals (Deb-ther-dkar-po), p31, written by dGe-vdun-chos-vphel, translated into Chinese by Fa Zun, printed by North-west Institute of Nationalities.
  2. History of the Sui, 83rd volume, the 48th biography, ® Kingdom in the Western Regions.
  3. Old History of the Tang. Tubo Kingdom


From China Tibetology (China Edition) No.4, 1998
Translated by Qin Lili