Peking Opera Masks

Recently Brendan put up a post called Peking Opera Masks and the London Book Fair on the new “Beijing Avengers” group blog, It’s an insightful take on how contemporary Chinese literature is being represented (and not represented) abroad.

I especially enjoyed the explanation toward the end of his use of “Peking Opera masks”:


> A few years ago, a few other translators and I were talking with employees of a Chinese publishing house who said that they had some books that they wanted to translate into English — things that they said would show foreigners the real China. There was a brief and intense period of excitement, until the publishers said that these were coffee-table books about Peking Opera masks and different varieties of tea. Ever since then, I’ve used “Peking Opera masks” as mental shorthand for the Chinese habit of attempting to interest the world in aspects of itself that most Chinese people don’t give two-tenths of a rat’s ass about. (This same thing affects Chinese-language instruction, but I’ll save that rant for another post.)

Oh yes… you better believe that plenty of Chinese study materials out there are rife with Peking Opera maskery.

(Note: Just in case you have a burning desire to discuss Peking Opera masks in Chinese, these masks are usually referred to as 脸谱 or 京剧脸谱 in Mandarin.)


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. zhang jian Says: May 2, 2012 at 10:52 am

    Very true! Just like the enthralling CCTV English specials about some petroleum processing plant in Xinjiang.

  2. Maybe it’s one of those “I’m Chinese so that automatically makes me more knowledgeable about anything Chinese” things. I’ve found that people seem to like to teach me about Chinese subjects even if I know more about said subject. Perplexing and amusing.

  3. deepak Says: May 2, 2012 at 8:01 pm

    now we all wear maskss. our masks
    are what we wear to the world outside
    to hide the ‘not good enough’ person
    that is within

  4. This is so true, another example is the attempt to internationalise Maotai Baijiu!
    As an aside, the mathematician in me wonders why Brendan stated “two-tenths” not “one-fifth” of a rat’s ass.
    Maybe China’s custom of using tenths (such as 9折) is contagious!

    • Maybe China’s custom of using tenths (such as 9折) is contagious!

      Yyyyyyyyes. Yes. That was definitely it. It was my good Chinese, not my bad math. Definitely.

  5. For me that word was 花边 “macrame.”

  6. […] gotta say, I like the “Dark Theme” much better. The default theme is a bit of a “Peking Opera Mask” turnoff for me. I’m all for a modern China with modern […]

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