Masked drama-dance traditions of Central Asia reached Japan during the Asuka period (592-710)

Gigaku Mask of Konron (Gigakumen Konron) (Source: Yomiuri Shimbun)

Gigaku Mask of Konron (Gigakumen Konron) (Source: Yomiuri Shimbun)

Gigaku, a form of drama-dance performance is said to arrived from China during the Asuka period (592-710). It was performed in Japan at Buddhist services at temples and to entertain foreign missions. The Mask of Konron, the photo above of a half-man, half-beast, is believed to have been used in the Consecration Ceremony of the Great Buddha at Todaiji temple in Nara nearly 1,300 years ago (source: Oct 29, 2014 Yomiuri Shimbun’s “Deep cultural significance behind warm charm of squirrel-eared Konron”). The Konron mask is one of rare 250 ancient masks preserved by the Buddhist monasteries in Japan, and is from among the Shosoin Treasures in Nara.

The Smithsonian Museum has a rather informative writeup called “Nara Gate” that suggests to us that gigaku performances were probably rather lively and occasionally shocking or raunchy theatrical performances (not unlike the early Roman and Shakespearean plays) that evolved into the more sombre institutionalized and politically-correct court performances of gagaku:

“When Todaiji’s Great Buddha was dedicated in 752, sixty masked gigaku performers and drummers were part of the celebration. The masked dance form gigaku had traveled northward from India through the western regions of China and eventually to Japan. The masks, each over a foot tall, portrayed lively, often outlandish characters from China, Central Asia, and Iran, as well as Japan. Gigaku masks were often used in Buddhist ceremonies. Large masks were popular in Central Asia and China before they came to Japan and were likely used to teach about Buddhism.

After the capital moved to Kyoto, the court became increasingly refined, and the gigaku dances were criticized for their informality. Another dance form, bugaku, that told more courtly stories and used smaller masks eventually became the dance form of the imperial house. Later, even smaller masks were used in Japanese Noh dramas that are still performed today. These forms are strictly Japanese, and, unlike gigaku, do not incorporate as characters the many foreigners who traveled along the Silk Road to Japan.

The Shosoin, the treasure house of the Todaiji Temple, holds one of the best collections of 8th-century gigaku masks in the world. Most of the masks are made of paulownia wood, and it is rare to find such well-preserved wooden objects.”

The origin of the gigaku masked drama-dance tradition is believed to be ultimately Central Asia, the stories performed involve a Persian king, the King of Wu and the mythical bird of India, the Garuda. It is said to have been introduced via China and Korea (source: above article “Nara Gate”, as well as from Yoshida Minosuke, bunraku puppeteer).

Mannojo Nomura revived the ancient tradition of gigaku masked performance in Japan. During research across the Silk Road, Mr. Nomura discovered the connections between the gigaku masks of Japan and other large-mask traditions in China, Tibet, and India. Based on this research he has organized a troupe, Ethnos, whose dancers come from several countries and in gigaku masks perform dance dramas drawn from Japanese tradition.  Many 8th-century gigaku masks in Japanese collections have features of characters from China, India, and Iran. Mannojo Nomura has recreated some of these masks for his dance troupe.

According to the following excerpt from the Asian Traditional Theatre & Dance website’s “Gigaku, Buddhist Mask Theatre” article, the dance was introduced via a Korean actor in 612:

“Gigaku was a form of Buddhist processional dance drama, which reached Japan in the 7th century from Central Asia through Korea and China. Gigaku blended religious themes with comedy, and even burlesque scenes, while the performances took place in temple courtyards. Its performance tradition died out in the Heian period (794–1192). Wooden gigaku masks are now valued as high-quality artefacts, preserved in temple treasuries and museums.

The History

It is assumed that gigaku originated in India, from where Buddhism spread to Central Asia and from there, via the so-called Northern Silk Road, further to China, Korea and Japan. The Silk Road was a network of caravan routes, which for thousands of years connected the Mediterranean world with India, Central Asia and East Asia.

Before the Muslim invasions in Central Asia there flourished numerous prosperous Buddhist centres, with which China, Korea and Japan had close contacts. Central Asian Buddhism and arts deeply influenced the culture of East Asia.

Among the cultural expressions adopted from Central Asia was also a tradition of Buddhist mask processions, known in Japan as gigaku. In fact, most of the evidence of the tradition, in the form of wooden masks, can now be found in Japan. Due to the Japanese tradition of carefully preserving religious artefacts in monastery treasuries, there still exist as many as some 250 masks.

Besides the masks, there also exists textual evidence that throws light on gigaku’s history. According to this evidence, it was in the 7th century that gigaku was brought from Korea to Japan, although gigaku masks and costumes had already been known there. It is believed that gigaku was performed in Japan for the first time by a Korean actor in 612.

The dancer was invited to teach the art of gigaku to Japanese boys. Thus this tradition, which was widely practised in the Buddhist world, was also adapted to the Japanese context. It replaced earlier Buddhist types of performance and it flourished particularly in the 8th and the 9th centuries. Its popularity gradually diminished in the 10th to 12th centuries and soon the tradition completely died out.

The Mask System

Gigaku masks are classified as follows:

  1. Kojin, foreigners or “barbarians”
    This group includes masks representing members of various nations from the Silk Road regions, such as the Drunken Persian King.
  2. Gojin, people of the Wu kingdom
    This group includes the King and the Princess of Wu as well as Buddhist guardian spirits and several ordinary citizens, such as a wrestler, an old couple with children etc.
  3. Nankaijin, native of the Southern Sea
    The main character in this group is the Konron, or the demonic arch-villain, who represents greed and other “low” human qualities.
  4. Irui, various animal characters
    This group includes a lion, a protector of Buddhist doctrine and a bird related to the mythical bird of Hinduism, Garuda.
    The Performance
    According to textual sources the performance took place in a temple courtyard at which the masked actors and their accompanying musicians arrived in a solemn procession. The orchestra included two flautists, two cymbalists and twenty drummers.

The procession proceeded for a couple of times around the temple building and was led by a lion and its attendants, two dancers wearing children’s masks. They performed a dance in order to venerate the five cardinal points of the universe. Variants of the Lion Dance are still known in many parts of Asia today.

After the procession, the actual play, called Konron, began with the entrance of the King of Wu, after which a mythical bird performed its dance. The beautiful Princess of Wu was then introduced. She inspired the lustful demon Konron to perform his wild dance with a phallic staff in his hand. The demon kidnapped the princess. However, Kongo, the frightening, yet benevolent, guardian of the Buddhist doctrine arrived and was able to bin the phallic staff with ropes.

Three mime scenes followed the main play. The first one showed a poor, fallen monk, who is washing his baby son’s clothes. The second mime scene described a poor grandfather, who with his orphaned grandchildren is making offerings in a temple. The third scene elaborated the stock character of a Drunken Persian King. The whole programme ended with a joyous procession.”
Ultimate Central Asian roots of the tradition

The lion mask (shishimen) was an integral part of gigaku performances of the 8th century. Similar figures are still found in Southeast Asian dance in Bali, in Tibetan ritual, and in many Chinese and Vietnamese New Year celebrations. The lion mask and dance also remains an important heritage especially found in the northern areas of Korea, called the Bukcheong Saja-Nori lion dance. According to Korean historical sources, the lion sanye dance came from the West, India and Central Asia, thus corroborating the evidence from other sources.

The masked dance tradition in China has existed since the 3rd c. AD, according to ethnomusicologist Laurence Picken, the Chinese word for lion itself, shi (獅, written as 師 in the early periods), may have been derived from the Persian word šer, and lions were originally presented to the Han court by emissaries from Central Asia and the Parthian Empire. Detailed descriptions of Lion Dance appeared during the Tang Dynasty and it was already recognized by writers and poets then as a foreign dance, however, the practice of the Lion dance may have been recorded in China as early as the third century AD where “lion acts” were referred to by a Three Kingdoms scholar Meng Kang in a commentary on Hanshu. In the early periods it had association with Buddhism: it was recorded in a Northern Wei text, Description of Buddhist Temples in Luoyang that a parade for a statue of Buddha of the Changqiu Temple was led by a lion to drive away evil spirits.

 

Further resources:

Mask makers’ Web provides further resources for comparing the different mask traditions of Mongolia, India, Bali, China, the Silk Road, etc…

Bukcheong Saja-Nori lion dance http://www.accu.or.jp/ich/en/arts/A_KOR3.html

Wikipedia, “Lion Dance” http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lion_dance

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