Photographs by Zhang Bangren and Huang Yingguo
Nuo dance is not so simple to define. From an academic angle, Nuo dance refers to Nuo opera, which evolved from the Nuo sacrificial ceremony. The ancient ceremony, a brand of ancient Chinese sorcery culture, required actors hidden behind ferocious masks and unique costumes to dance, which was meant to ward off evil spirits and ghosts. Of course, words aren’t exactly ideal to describe the event, and luckily this particular ritual has been depicted in film. In 2005, the movie Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, directed by Zhang Yimou and starring legendary Japanese actor Ken Takakura, featured Nuo dance prominently.
Nuo dance’s origins lie in Jiangxi Province from the early Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD). Over its 2,000-year life, the opera has maintained continuous popularity in the region, especially in Nanfeng and Shangli counties. Nanfeng carefully preserves its Nuo tradition, aided by temples devoted to Nuo gods that date back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Nanfeng’s Nuo sacrificial ceremonies are performed by 150 different troupes composed of over 2,000 actors. Shiyou, one village in Nanfeng, has been protecting Nuo heritage for the past six centuries. Created by the Han ethnic group, Nuo dance has been performed in Shiyou for 16 days during every first lunar month for the past 600 years. In general, the 16-day event includes an inviting ceremony, dancing, ghost catching and fortune-telling.
Before the dawn of the first day of the Lunar New Year, strings of firecrackers explode in front of the temple to Nuo gods. Eight Nuo masters, donning ancient costumes, enter the temple one by one. They kowtow to masks hung on the wall as well as to the”prince”- a wooden puppet that symbolizes heaven. The eight masters are highly respected and addressed as”uncle” by locals. Selection of Nuo masters is strict. While many people in Shiyou are descended from the same ancestors and share the surname Wu, the eight masters are required to come from specific clans and adhere to a strict hierarchy. Only when one of the eight dies will a replacement be chosen. A replacement master must be jointly recommended by 36 respected clan leaders and come from a minor clan. During performance, the eight masters perform different tasks. For example, the fifth and sixth are responsible for carrying luggage, while removing masks from the wall is a privilege reserved only for the first and second. When the inviting ceremony begins, the temple becomes packed with people eager to offer incense. The first master prays for blessings, and takes down masks that had been untouched for a whole year.