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Nuo Ritual: From Sacrifice to Entertainment

Wu Qianbi, a 42-year-old exorcist, performs the Nuo ritual, one type of the exorcising rituals in existence, as usual yearly in an outlying village of ethnic Tujia people at the base of Fanjing Mountain in southwest China's Guizhou Province.

A former "living god" in the eyes of villagers, Wu now cites his role merely as "a player who entertains" villagers.

"I still remember very well what my master told me that Nuo is to relieve pain for others," recalled Wu. "But now for me the most essential thing is whether or not I can bring joy to my village folks."

The Nuo ritual has been practiced in China thousands of years from the primitive times when early men performed sacrifices and conducted ceremonial services to pay tribute to ancestors, gods and goddesses while exorcising demons. It spread widely among people of various ethnicities in the Yangtze River valley, the Yellow River Valley and the secluded southwestern region.

Wu has been a "spiritual tutor", considered to wield magic power to disperse evil demons, spirits and pestilence, for 22 straight years. Besides training in ritual procedures and exorcism, Wu is adept in Nuo opera.

The whole ritual procedure includes inviting, welcoming, and thanking spirits. Following the solemn ritual, the Nuo opera will be performed to entertain the spirits.

Equipped with whips and face masks, performers dance to different mysterious tunes, with masks they wear painted in different colors -- black, white and red -- and bear varied countenances -- some look amiable and others ferocious and frightening.

But with the passage of time and increasing popularization of scientific knowledge, the primitive superstitious ritual has now been transformed into a theatrical performance for entertainment.

"Formerly, the ritual gives expression to the uncertainty of primitive people towards the unknown world and universe, but nowadays the most fascinating part is the vivid Nuo opera that follows," said Tuo Xiuming, a noted scholar and director of China Southwest Nuo Culture Research Center.

Guizhou Province is famous for the greatest varieties of Nuo opera. Wherever there is a Nuo opera performance in an outlying village, farmers in surrounding villages will trek dozens of kilometers of hillside path to watch. Though some elderly folks still have awe and reverence for the Nuo dancing "gods", fewer now are familiar with the content and expertise of the ritual.

But in the eyes of researchers, Nuo, which has a harmonizing force in village society, is gradually fading away.

"The pressing issue now is how to protect it from extinction," said Qu Liuyi, director of the China Nuo Opera Research Association.

"The opera contains general knowledge about religion, society and ethnic groups in the early stages of human society and provides an important reference value in the in-depth study of music, dance and painting as well as other arts."

Nuo culture studies have become a hot topic for academics. At a seminar held recently in Guizhou Province, more than 100 experts from China and abroad discussed protection efforts.

The Nuo culture has also attracts overseas viewers. A Nuo opera performed by artists from Guizhou was welcomed in France and Spainand exhibits of graceful Nuo masks made in Yunnan Province were popular with visitors in Japan.

But experts say there is much to be done.

Qu said the crux of matter is how to protect the original state of the opera, including the costumes, masks, and more importantly, the cultural environment where the opera developed.

Prof. Koichiro Inahata from prestigious Waseda University in Japan, acknowledged that some old Nuo ritual masks have been lost or sunk into oblivion in the long history.
(Xinhua News Agency November 27, 2003)

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