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, it is.
A Chinese masquerade that runs from painted monkey mayhem on the stage to smokin’ hot political smog outrage on the streets… Face masks and Chinese culture are are inextricably linked.
The question beckons… How exactly have these facial accessories evolved to become an expression of fashion and art? Temper Magazine’s Emily Aspinall goes on the prowl!
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, turning masks from a semi-permanent flu preventer into a fixed facial accessory worn on a daily basis — without question. Most notably, 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.” Temper duly thanks 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 masks which symbolize, for me 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 colour coded to symbolise their personality. For example, a black mask would mean the character is neutral and indicate 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.
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 colour 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 young Chinese generation, 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 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 if this is the younger Chinese generation longing and lusting to flaunt foreign designer brands in a more obvious place than the foot.
Models for the QIAODAN Yin Peng sportswear collection in 2014 paraded down the catwalk wearing high-end smog masks, the latest in environmental fashion statements. Topical art at its best.
The Topical Meets The Environmental
China’s smog also inspired masks at Beijing fashion week, as they slowly seep into high culture. Models for the QIAODAN Yin Peng sportswear collection in 2014 paraded down the catwalk wearing high-end smog masks, aka the latest in environmental fashion statements. The collection was released just two weeks after the runners in the Beijing marathon had to don masks to cope with the unbearable smog, making worldwide headlines. Topical fashion at its best.
The futuristic masks acted as a less than subtle reminder to Beijing dwellers of increasing pollution levels. Besides, the collection made me question… Is it actually possible to make smog look sexy? Not in my book. Nonetheless, the futuristic masks, robotic in their colour and shape are a nonetheless troubling reminder of the environmental hazard lingering around China.
Extending through fashion, and now art as well, one thing is for sure, there is no lack of environmental problems in the East to inspire the Chinese art scene.
A Matter Of Health… And Taoism
Wu Di, 41, left his job in order to become an environmentally engaged artist. He pictures a young girl outside the famous Temple of Heaven, wearing 445 white masks. This is arguably his most prevailing shot. As the masks form a giant and disturbing trunk, his enigmatic 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 – the year Zhongnanhai (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.
Di’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.
Lest we forget traditional Chinese medicine, in which breathing is an essential element to overall good health. “Qi”, a central concept in cosmology, translates to “air” and Chinese doctors say that when our body does not contain sufficient 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.
China seems to be winning its war on pollution now as the government crackdown on the use of fossil fuel has blue skies spreading across Beijing once again. Nevertheless, embodied in Chinese culture, the masks show no sign of going anywhere, be it for health or fashionable reasons.
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 stretching all the way from Europe to the U.S.
Written by Emily Aspinall for Temper Magazine
Edited by Elsbeth van Paridon
Images: Courtesy of China Culture Tour
Copyright@Temper Magazine 2018. All rights reserved
As a freelance journalist, she specializes in Chinese society and fashion, her fascination surrounding the East grew since living and working in a rural ex-fishing village on the outskirts of Shanghai.
Aspinall aims to capture a sense of the colourful and dynamic contemporary China, which continues to revolutionise and evolve.
Aspinall holds an English Literature degree from Sheffield University. She explored the literary canon, starting with old English and ending with the contemporary period, her area of speciality and research is post-war British social realism. While studying, she also on gained experience at the BBC, local publishing houses and copy edited the student newspaper.
Since moving to China, she has written regularly for Temper Magazine,The Shanghaiist and her personal blog. Her interests include gender fluidity, the modern representation of women, sustainability and the underground scene in China.