You might be fascinated by the exquisite patterns on the clay masks used in Peking Opera, but have you ever thought about how much effort craftspeople put into creating the items? Despite the fact men have created most of the masks during the past two centuries, a woman, Tong Xiufen, has become a master of the craft. Tong, a native of Beijing, is a State-level inheritor of the craft. Under her influence, both Lin Song, her husband, and Lin Hongkui, her son, have become experts in the art form. The "family of art" has created numerous superb works of art.
If you visit Tong's studio, in Beijing Xicheng Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection Center, the colorful clay masks (used in Peking Opera), displayed on the walls will surely catch your eyes. Tong and her employees created the masks based on photos of masks used by well-known Peking Opera performers.
In 1976, Tong was employed, as a craftswoman, by Beijing Mental Crafts Plant. Every day during a break, she watched a man paint opera masks near the plant.
One day, Tong chatted with the man, and she painted a few strokes with his paintbrush. She learned the man, Tang Jingyue, was a master of the craft of creating the masks. Within a short time, Tong began studying the craft-making skills under Tang.
Tang told Tong the craft dates back more than a century. He also taught Tong how to make fingernail-sized opera masks, and then asked her to create larger masks.
Tong has been creating opera masks for more than 40 years, during which she has won many prizes for her works.
In 1997, several of her opera masks were displayed during the art festival to promote Sino-French cultural exchanges. Many visitors, from different parts of theworld, marveled at the unique beauty of the works.
During the Beijing Olympics (from August 8-24, 2008), Tong's family, as a designated art family, was visited by countless reporters, athletes and tourists from different countries. Through the exquisite masks, created by Tong's family, the foreigners got a glimpse into the unique charm of traditional Chinese culture.
Some foreigners took delight in learning how to paint opera masks from Tong, and some asked her to apply the masks to their faces.
The mask of Sun Wukong (also known as the Monkey King, the mythological figure who is a main character in Journey to the West, composed by Wu Cheng'en during the Ming Dynasty [1368-1644], widely considered one of China's four classic novels) was most popular among the foreigners. Why? The mask's red heart-shaped pattern, decorated with gold, made them look lively and smart.
In 2009, China added the craft of creating clay facial masks, used in Peking Opera, to the list of the country's items of intangible cultural heritage. Also that year, China's Ministry of Culture designated Tong a State-level inheritor of the craft.
Since Tong retired from the center, several years ago, she has invested more time and energy into creating opera masks.
"My family takes delight in working together to create the masks. My husband makes the earthen base, I paint the mask and our son places the item on the base," says Tong.
|Tong Xiufen and Lin Hongkui, her son|
Influenced by his mother, Lin Hongkui developed an interest in creating opera masks as a child. He began studying the craft-making skills under Tong in 2009. He is a district-level inheritor of the craft.
"To learn how to create the masks, one must withstand loneliness and resist the temptation to live a materialistic life; after all, it will take many years to become a master of the art form. I'm pleased that my son not only works hard to inherit my craft, but he also puts much effort into innovating the technical skills used to create the crafts," says Tong.
To promote the art, Tong and Lin Hongkui during the past few years have taught primary school students (in different parts of the country) the skills needed to create the masks.
Tong and Lin Hongkui often participate in cultural activities in other countries. "I hope, through our efforts, more people around the world will 'fall in love' with the craft," says Tong.
|The mask of Shan Xiongxin, played by Jin Shaoshan, a famous Beijing Opera performer|
|The mask of Sun Wukong, played by Li Wanchun, a famous Beijing Opera performer|
|The mask of Lian Po, a military general of the Zhao state in the Warring States period of Chinese history|
(Source: Women of China English Monthly January 2018 Issues)