Antique Yao Taoist Ceremonial Mask Painting


This antique painting was created in the Taoist tradition by the Yao hill tribe people. It is one of a pair acquired originating from the same village – both exceptional for their charm. The Yao, also known as the Mien, are a mountain-dwelling people whose origins can be traced back 2000 years to Southern China. From the 15th to 19th Century, the Yao migrated into Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and the highlands of Laos. The migration was influenced by the opium trade and as a result of revolts in Southern China during this period. The Yao practice a form of Taoism blended with spirit and ancestor worship.

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These two paintings were once worn as masks during sacred ceremonies, such as the ‘Hanging the Lanterns’ or kwa tang ceremony, where a village member under the age of 20 is introduced to the Taoist pantheon and assured entry into the realm of the ancestors. The masks display deities of the Yao pantheon who actually make their abode within the mask itself until they are invited to leave the aging mask during the “closing of the eyes ceremony”, after which it can be sold. The painter must work in an atmosphere of religious devotion and ceremonial purity and both he and recipient must remain celibate until the work is completed.

On the back of the masks are Chinese characters identifying the deity, the name of the artist and the hour that the gods entered the masks. They were worn on the forehead by the village shaman or priest, with the wearer becoming a medium for the deity. We were told that the two deities offered here are closely related in the pantheon and together make a very powerful couple. The Yao suggest that they be regarded as a portable temple and when hung on a wall in the home, this place is blessed and will attract positive universal energy.

They are painted on mulberry paper using natural pigments and have bamboo struts at each side of the painting. Considering that they are over 100 years old they are in very good condition. As a result of regular use in ceremonies over such a long time, creases, minor water damage and a very small hole in one of the paintings are visible. These rare and wonderful paintings have great character, which more recently completed Yao paintings seem to lack.


Image height: 25cm, 10 in
Image width: 18cm, 7 in
Period: Mid-late 19th Century

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