Tibetan opera–intangible heritage

藏戏  Tibetan opera

Inscribed in 2009 on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

Tibetan opera, the most popular traditional opera of minority ethnic groups in China, is a comprehensive art combining folk song, dance, storytelling, chant, acrobatics and religious performance. Most popular in the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau in western China, the performance begins with a prayer ceremony, including the cleansing of the stage by hunters and blessings by the elder, and concludes with another blessing. The heart of the opera is a drama narrated by a single speaker and enacted by performers supported by groups of singers, dancers and acrobats. Actors wear traditional masks of a variety of shapes and colours that contrast with their simple makeup. Performances may take place in public squares or temples (or, today, on stage), with the centre of the space marked by a tree placed on the ground, wrapped in colourful paper and surrounded by purified water and theatrical props. Rooted in Buddhist teachings, the stories told in Tibetan opera recount the triumph of good and the punishment of evil and therefore serve a social teaching function for the community. This multifaceted representative of Tibetan art and cultural heritage also acts as a bridge among Tibetans in different parts of the country, promoting ethnic unity and pride.

Zang opera is called “Ajilamu” or simply called “Lamu” in Tibetan which means “sister fairy maiden”. It is a kind of public square opera, which has play, vocal music, separate roles, accompanying band and special masks and clothes, and its main form is song and dance. According to legend, at the beginning of the 15th century, it was created by monk Tangdongjiebu of the Gelu Denomination for the purpose of collecting alms to construct a chain bridge over the Yarlung Zangbo River. It was popular in the 17th century. Materials of the plays are mostly drawn from folk stories. The performing process is divided into three parts: Wenkedun (rite of coming on the stage), Xiong (main part), and Zhaxi (rite of wishes at the end of the performance). The time is different for different plays: short ones last several hours while long ones are performed for 2 to 3 days.

The main school of Zang opera are: white nuo (means “exorcise” and is a provincial opera featuring masked dancing) school, blue nuo school, Jiangga’er school, Xiangba school, Juemulong school, etc. The Juemulong School is the most famous among them. Though it was the last school that came into being, because it brought forth many new ideas on such aspects as vocal music, dance, trick and comedy performance, it surpassed the old-timers as the latecomer. Local Zang opera teams of the Juemulong school spread all over Tibet, Ganzi in Sichuan, and over India, Bhutan, etc. Its performing forms include dance, speaking, chanting, fixed vocal music, etc. The plays of Zang opera are very rich, and the eight great Zang opera plays are the most famous ones, such as “Langsaweiba”, etc. Drum and cymbals are the only accompanying instruments for traditional Zang opera, and actors wear masks when they perform. Dark red mask stands for king, light red mask stands for ministers, yellow stands for Living Buddha, blue stands for hunter, green stands for female, white stands for ordinary male, black stands for negative character, and mask with half white and half black stands for double-dealer. Since the 17th century, twelve famous opera troupes of the whole Tibetan region gather in Lhasa in July every year, and perform for Dalai, officials, monks and ordinary people. So Xuedun Festival is also called “Zang Opera Festival”.