Peking Opera Masks

Rising to prominence towards the end of the 18th Century and enjoying its greatest popularity during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), the Peking Opera occupies a special place in Chinese culture. Considered a cultural treasure and a highly respected art form in China, it is characterised by a combination of music, singing, mime, acrobatics and dance.

The stage is usually very sparsely decorated, and few props are used. The focus of the audience rests almost entirely on the performers themselves. This is mainly due to the highly symbolic and stylised nature of the movements in the performance which are used to convey the meaning of the plot. As a result, the attire worn by performers is intricately decorated, often with bright, bold colours. These costumes are indicative of the importance, status, or profession of the character. The masks and make-up worn by a character form an equally significant part of the costume, and tell us what the disposition of that character is like.

While the various aspects of the Peking Opera are featured on modern Chinese collectible coins, opera masks are the sole focus of three sets issued between 2010 and 2012. These three sets display the heads of various Peking Opera characters in the colour of the metal of the coin, but the mask is colourised, exhibiting the delightfully elaborate design and vivid, striking colours of the masks. The coins issued in 2010 and 2011 are three-coin sets of two silver and one gold coin each. The 2012 set comprises five coins: three silver and two gold.

Masks painted with gold and silver show that the character is a god or spirit. Red paint is an indicator of bravery and loyalty; black is a symbol of either ferocity and boldness, or selflessness and impartiality; yellow embodies ferocity and ambition; purple shows a sophisticated and honest character; blue is a colour of shrewdness and steadfastness; white typically indicates a potent and evil character, embodying cunning and treachery; while green represents an impetuous and violent personality.