Yangxi: Also Known as Face-Shell Opera

Yangxi: Also Known as Face-Shell Opera

Yangxi, also known as Face-Shell Opera, is widely popular in the Youyang County areas of Xiaohe, Dingshi, Lixi, Tonggu, and Tongxi. The Face-Shell Opera troupes in Xiaohe Town’s Xinglong Village and Tonggu Township’s Cheba Village remain renowned.

With the national launch of the "National Intangible Cultural Heritage Representative Works Application Project," Youyang Autonomous County's unique mask Yangxi has been selected as a key candidate.

 

Region

Youyang Yangxi, a unique art form, has deep roots and wide influence in the Tujia and Miao Autonomous County of Youyang, Chongqing City. Also known as Mask Yangxi or Face-Shell Opera, it is beloved by locals. This distinctive theater can often be enjoyed in Xiaohe Town, Dingshi Town, Lixi Town, as well as Tonggu, Tongxi Village, and Cheba Village.

Legend has it that the origins of Youyang Yangxi might be in Taopo Village of Xiaohe Town and Cheba Village of Tongxi. The cultural richness of these places has provided fertile ground for the development of Yangxi. As an authentic Tujia opera, Youyang Yangxi carries deep ethnic cultural traditions, tracing its history back to the ancient “Yanghua Liu” performances, an even more primitive theatrical form. Through continuous refinement and innovation by artists and folk performers over generations, Youyang Yangxi evolved into a local theater genre with complete roles and unique performance styles, including sheng, dan, jing, mo, and chou characters.

In Yangxi performances, the craftsmanship is meticulous, with relatively few martial elements. It focuses more on civil plays, family dramas, and tragedies, making the plots filled with life-like atmosphere. The audience can almost immerse themselves, feeling the joy, anger, sorrow, and happiness of the characters. This performance style not only allows viewers to appreciate the beauty of art but also provokes deep reflections on life, family, and society. 

The singing style of Yangxi is also a significant part of its artistic charm. It consists of two main parts: the main tune and minor tune, with a total of 17 different aria types. Each aria is distinctive, featuring both high-pitched and stirring melodies and low and melodious tunes, providing a rich auditory experience for the audience.

It's worth noting that this precious cultural heritage of Youyang Yangxi has received official recognition and protection. Not only has it been listed in the intangible cultural heritage of Chongqing City, but it is also actively applying for national intangible cultural heritage protection. This recognition affirms the artistic value of Youyang Yangxi and promotes the inheritance and development of traditional Tujia culture. Through these efforts, we hope that Youyang Yangxi can continue to be passed down and showcase its unique artistic charm to broader audiences.

 

Historical Origins

The name "Yangxi" has two interpretations. One suggests that it is named because people in the Yangchun area often performed it. Another theory contrasts it with Nuo opera, which is meant to entertain gods and is called “Yinxi,” where as Yangxi is more focused on entertaining people, hence the name “Yangxi.”

Speaking of Yangxi, Youyang's mask Yangxi has profound historical roots, with its history tracing back to the Shang Dynasty, over 3000 years ago. This art form originated from the Tujia people's Nuo sacrifices, a primitive totem worship meant to drive away evil spirits. During these rituals, people would wear special wooden masks, transforming into ghosts and gods, singing and dancing, thus also being called "Wooden Face Opera" or "Ghost Face Shell Opera."

Among many Yangxi troupes, the Taopo Village Yangxi troupe is particularly famous, being the most popular among Youyang’s 48 Yangxi troupes. This troupe comprises sixteen members of varied ages, from seventy or eighty-year-old veteran artists to middle-aged mainstays in their fifties and sixties, and even younger generations in their thirties and forties. Despite their differing ages, they all strive together to inherit this ancient art.

The troupe’s leader and altar master is the octogenarian Ren Longzhang. He is not only the soul of this troupe but also an important representative of Yangxi inheritance. Under his leadership, the Taopo Village Yangxi troupe has continued to grow, bringing endless joy to villagers and injecting new vitality into this intangible cultural heritage.

Yangxi, an ancient and mysterious art form, continues to shine brightly in the torrent of history, thanks to inheritors like Ren Longzhang and the Taopo Village Yangxi troupe.

 

Props

Taopo’s Yangxi is a traditional art form beloved by locals. The stage, also reverently known as the “White Horse Altar,” is set in the spacious hall of the altar master Ren Longzhang’s home. This sacred place enshrines a wooden mask of Guan Yu, as if this heroic historical figure continues to protect the theatrical tradition here.

Next to the stage, dozens of intricately crafted wooden masks are neatly arranged, representing various characters such as Sheng, Chancellor, Lao Sheng, Xiao Sheng, Dan, Rebel King, and several categories of deities and demons. These masks are not merely props but the culmination of craftsmen’s painstaking efforts. Each mask, often made from local woods like willow and poplar, displays a different character: the upright and kind expressions of deities, and the fierce, bizarre looks of other masks, with bulging eyes, grinning teeth, and raised eyebrows, giving a sense of mystery and rugged beauty.

In addition to masks, the stage area also holds various costumes and props. The costumes include splendid dragon robes, light gauze skirts, and exquisite dragon and phoenix shoes, each a handcrafted masterpiece sewn with great care. The props include seals, bands, master knives, and command tablets, each imbued with historical and cultural weight.

Here, each Yangxi performance is a tribute to traditional culture. Actors, dressed in splendid costumes and donning exquisite masks, wielding various props, perform touching stories on the stage, transporting the audience to a mysterious and enchanting theatrical world. These precious cultural heritages allow people to experience the unique charm of Taopo Yangxi and generate endless reverence for the profound traditional culture.

 

Performance

In the deep mountains of Western Hunan, there is an ancient and mysterious village. Here, the mountain people maintain a unique tradition: whenever there is a significant event like a wedding, funeral, or birthday in the village, they invite a troupe to their home to perform a grand Yangxi.

January is the most lively time in this village. From the second day of the lunar new year to the fifteenth, the troupe performs continuously in the headman’s hall, bringing endless joy and spiritual satisfaction to the villagers. Especially during the Spring Festival, villagers come in droves, bringing incense, money, good wine, and meat to the headman’s home, offering New Year’s greetings and making wishes to Guan Yu. They devoutly pray for peace, health, and happiness in the coming year. 

After some time, perhaps three or five months, or maybe a year or so, when the villagers’ wishes are fulfilled, they invite the troupe again to their home, performing for three consecutive days. This is what the villagers call “fulfilling the vow.” This custom has been passed down for over 3000 years, making mask Yangxi deeply rooted in the hearts of the local people. To them, it is not just entertainment but also a belief and spiritual sustenance.

When the troupe performs at the villagers’ homes, the pay is not generous. Each member receives a daily wage of 30 yuan, including food and lodging. However, this does not diminish the enthusiasm and dedication of the troupe members. They know they carry the villagers’ aspirations for a better life.

A performance lasts for three days, and along with offerings of wine, meat, incense, and candles for Guan Yu, it costs about two to three thousand yuan. For the villagers, this is a significant expense. Thus, inviting the troupe to perform is considered a major event in the village, a symbol of respectability, and a source of spiritual comfort.

Whenever the troupe’s gongs and drums sound, the entire village is immersed in a joyful and harmonious atmosphere. The villagers gather to watch the splendid performance, sharing in the joy and blessings. This is a part of their life, a valuable cultural heritage passed down through generations.

 

Vocal Style

When performing Yangxi, the troupe first enters the house to set up the altar, welcoming Guan Yu into the home and placing his wooden mask at the center of the hall. A middle-aged man from the village, after washing his hands, offers incense, pours wine, and burns paper, placing three bowls of rice, three cups of wine, and three pairs of chopsticks before Guan Yu’s mask. The performance then begins, with the altar master wearing a headdress, a ritual robe, a skirt, a sash over the left shoulder, and a divine whip on the right back. Holding a bullhorn in the left hand and a master knife in the right, the altar master performs rituals, showcasing a rough and bold dance style.

During formal Yangxi plays, the troupe wears various character masks and performs to the accompaniment of gongs, drums, and suona, with singing and dialogue, solemn and humorous, blending literature and martial arts. Whether for birthdays, weddings, building houses, or fulfilling vows, performances are a must. “The troupe sings different arias and lyrics on different occasions: birthday celebrations feature ‘Great Filial Piety Opera,’ childbirth is celebrated with ‘Descendants Opera,’ and New Year’s is marked with ‘Play Opera’...” According to leaders from the Youyang County Culture and Tourism Bureau and the County Cultural Center, Yangxi is a native Tujia opera. Initially called “Yanghua Liu,” it evolved into a complete local theater genre with full roles, including sheng, dan, jing, chou, and mo.

Youyang Yangxi's vocal style, aria, performance forms, and style are unique, distinct from neighboring counties, maintaining its original simplicity and heritage. According to the "Youyang Direct Subordinate Prefecture General Gazetteer" from the Tongzhi period of the Qing Dynasty, Yangxi is described as: “Recovering from illness and fulfilling a vow, called Yangxi, often with more than ten people, complete with sheng, dan, jing, chou, robes, hats, crowns, and costumes, impersonating female dan, also appearing as disciples of the pear garden.”

Yangxi’s inheritance is often passed down through families, usually by oral teaching. Traditionally, performing Yangxi was a male activity, with sayings like “men dress like gods and beat drums to sing divine songs.” The most mysterious part of Yangxi is the “opening box” ceremony, an initial ritual led by a highly respected altar master (troupe leader). The ceremony involves carrying out a divine box, placing it on the altar, killing a chicken to honor the gods, lighting incense, and reading a long “opening box speech.” After the speech, the altar master opens the box, takes out flags, knives, and masks, and places the masks on the altar.

The altar master in Xinglong Village, named Wu Changfu, is an elderly Tujia man in his late seventies, well-versed in the history and performance of Yangxi. During performances, he not only sings and dances but also plays the drum. In the troupe members’ eyes, he is the soul of the Yangxi troupe. With the intense beating of drums, the Yangxi performance begins. Donning colorful costumes and masks, the performers’ ancient mask courtyard dance transports the audience to a distant, ancient time and space. Their movements are well-coordinated, and their weapon handling is agile. With the rhythm of the drums, the dance displays clear layers, clean transitions, and a strong sense of rhythm.

 

Repertoire

The main repertoire of Yangxi includes "Great Filial Piety," "Python," "En Brother," "Expedition to the East," "Expedition to the West," "Xue Gang Rebellion," "Tang King’s Hardship," and "Mu Guiying." The vocal styles include Sheng Tune, Chancellor Tune, Marshal Tune, and Xiaosheng Tune.

Many Yangxi movements are inspired by warfare. From a modern perspective, the dance movements are not expansive, and the steps are close, not as free-flowing as conventional dance, which highlights Yangxi’s rich symbolic characteristics. Xinglong Yangxi’s dance resonates with the soul, creating a dialogue with distant historical times, leaving a deep impression. 

Originally, Yangxi was a way for people to wish for good fortune in the coming year, and now it is also seen as a way to stay healthy and enjoy cultural life. It has self-entertainment value. Although Yangxi is a locally inherited culture, it now attracts many visitors and folk culture enthusiasts, making local villagers proud and encouraged.

 

Inheritance 

Currently, Yangxi faces a shortage of successors, with fewer folk theater troupes and reduced traditional drama performances. Youyang Yangxi is experiencing severe challenges in its transmission, with outstanding folk arts not being well inherited amidst rapid cultural changes.

To address this, cultural departments and local communities are making efforts to protect and promote Yangxi. By documenting performances, conducting training, and increasing awareness, they aim to ensure that this ancient art form continues to thrive and inspire future generations. Through these collective efforts, the rich heritage of Yangxi can be preserved and celebrated as a vital part of cultural history.

 

 

 

 

References

1.Detailed Introduction to Masked Yangxi**. Folk Customs Network. January 5, 2008 [Cited August 27, 2013]

2.Yangxi of Taopo, Youyang. Hualong Net. May 23, 2012 [Cited May 23, 2012]

3.Yangxi of Youyang: No Curtain, No End**. Xinhua Net. July 10, 2008 [Cited July 10, 2012]

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