As commonplace as holding an umbrella in one of Shanghai’s typhoon-esque rain storms, pollution-preventing face masks are a frequent sight in every large metropolis in China. Time to take a moment to stop and think about masks throughout Chinese history and culture. How exactly have these facial accessories evolved to become an expression of social engagement, political protest… and art?
Marked Measures Or Masquerade?
A phenomenon long seen in East Asian countries, the wearing of surgical masks originated in 1918 Japan. A vast and fatal pandemic of influenza spread through the country, killing between 20 and 40 million people worldwide, making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history.
With that, the love affair with face masks sparked; covering the mouth became a preventive and essential measure carried out by fearful citizens around Asia. A few years later, in 1950s Japan, post-World War II industrialization saw a huge surge in air pollution, masquerade or not, turning masks from a semi-permanent flu-preventer into a fixed facial accessory worn on a daily basis — without question.
Most notably for us, this one moment in time is when China adopted the practice.
“Masks: A covering for all or part of the face, worn as a disguise, or to amuse or frighten others.” We duly thank The Oxford Dictionary
Masks, A China Daily Tradition
Masks, arguably somewhat of a fascination of the Chinese people, have gradually become engraved in Chinese daily life. They make up part of the rich cultural history of the country. When I first thought of masks and China, my mind skipped to the Beijing Opera (京剧 in Chinese) masks which symbolize, for those writing this at least, the quintessence of China. Beijing opera first took off in 1790, where the complex and intricate masks featured in the shows gained fascination worldwide.
Opera masks, the style most widely recognised in the West, are in fact painted onto the actors’ faces. The tradition of face-painting was prevalent among warrior tribes and, as with war paint, the spirit of each character’s mask in the opera is color-coded to symbolize their personality. For example, a black mask would mean the character is neutral and indicates impartiality and integrity.
On that note, we must not forget China’s more “festive” masks, used during national celebrations, chiefly the dragon masks — the iconic Chinese symbol of prosperity. Flaunted at Chinese New Year, the rich red colour symbolizes excitement for a new year and new beginnings.
It’s all-year-round masqué mayhem inside the Middle Kingdom.
Gone are the days of the plain white surgical masks; China now “happily” welcomes Thee to the dawn of haute couture smog filtering!
Masks, A Tale Of Contempo China
Moving forward into 21st century society, masks are more of a routine in large Chinese cities like Shanghai and Beijing. Pollution masks are no longer for health purposes, they have become an expression of feelings or mood – just like the ornate opera masks. So, as previously explained, each color used in the Beijing opera masks correlates to a mood. Similarly, now the same could be said for the contemporary Chinese audience, pollution masks are reaching into fashion subculture, with Lolita girls boasting pink masks, and heavy metal fans wearing black studded ones.
Just as the Beijing opera masks can hide the identity of the actors, so do the pollution masks. For the younger Chinese generations, the mask is like a social firewall, hiding the ‘self’, signalling a barrier to communication, just as sunglasses or headphones would. Certainly, riding the metro through Shanghai at rush hour the pollution masks worn indoors suggest more “don’t talk to me” than “I’m really worried about pollution on this train”.
In more recent years, masks have made movements in the fashion world. With the market for high end masks growing rapidly, Beijing-based designer Wang Zhijun in 2016 became an Instagram phenomenon creating smog-filtering masks from the entrails of trainers. His designs became a platform to highlight and discuss the issue of air pollution.
Yet, with one mask selling for as much as USD $700, we must ask ourselves: Is this about socially sustainable commitment or … Is this merely the younger Chinese generation longing and lusting to flaunt foreign designer brands in a more obvious place than the foot?
Fashion and art have become a political issue, with China’s artists freely expressing their anger towards the daily threat of pollution, finding inspiration in the environment and the “everydayness” of it all.
A Matter Of Health And Taoism
Lest we forget traditional Chinese medicine, in which “concentrated breathing” is an essential element to overall good health. “Qi” (汽 in Chinese), a central concept in cosmology, translates to “air| steam” and Chinese doctors say that when our body does not contain sufficient amounts of qi, disease will develop. With Taoism still relevant amongst today’s Chinese society, perhaps these traditional ways of thinking explain why the use of Chinese face masks is so widespread — as well as the drinking of hot water. (“你多喝点儿开水吧”: Seek and thou shalt find (the phrase).)
“Health”. Always an interesting and debate-sparking topic when it comes to China.
Wu Di (吴笛 in Chinese), 40, left his job in order to become an environmentally engaged artist. In his work, the man explores numerous techniques and supports. The highlight of his practice are his installations, his performances and his videos, a medium that has been growing in importance in China since the late 1990s.
Wu’s is a socially sustainable commitment. Pur urban sang.
The Proof Is In The Polluted Pudding
Wu in 2013 pictured a young girl outside the Temple of Heaven, showing off a “masked train” that consisted of 425 white masks. This is arguably his most prevailing shot. As the masks form a giant and disturbing trunk, his primary school model stands amid a city shrouded in smog.
The number of masks is calculated to be how many she will need between now and 2030 — aka the year Zhongnanhai (中南海 in Chinese; a term referring to both Beijing’s political core as well as the cigarette brand, how ironic) has set for air quality to meet international standards.
Wu went on to photograph the girl posing with heart-shaped balloons (one of which was the designated green factor) at various Beijing landmarks shrouded in smog, from the Sanlitun shopping area to the city’s Rem Koolhaas-designed CCTV Tower.
Wu’s art acts as a platform for the discussion of the use of pollution masks. Here, fashion and art become a political issue, with the country’s artists freely expressing their anger towards the daily threat of pollution, finding inspiration in the environment and the “everydayness” of it all.
China seems to be upping its stakes in the war the nation wages on pollution as the government crackdown on the use of fossil fuel since early 2018 has regular blue skies spreading across the mainland’s first-tier skylines once again.
Embodied in Chinese culture, the masks show no sign of going anywhere, be it for health or fashionable reasons.
And who knows… As pollution, sustainability and climate change are boiling hot topics (get it, get it?) amongst today’s global society, it might not be long before we see those lung-protecting thingamajigs swaying across runways and galleries stretching all the way from Europe to the U.S.
Written by Emily Aspinall and Elsbeth van Paridon
Featured image: Via China Culture Tour, 2019. All rights reserved
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Copyright@China Under The Radar, 2019. All rights reserved