Stag Mask Portals

Cham Deer Chams Bon Influence Main

Biography of a Stag Mask

{a} Photo from the AMNH Collections Database China: Tibetan

Here is a deer mask.

It's come a long way--100 years and some 7,000 miles--from its birthplace in Tibet to its current residence in New York City. Even so, it was created for education and entertainment and it maintains this same purpose today, if in a different way. This biography begins to tell its story. Moving in reverse, it traces the mask's movement to the American Museum of Natural History from cultural Tibet.

As with the story of any object, the story of this particular mask stands as a point of intersection among countless other stories that crisscross time and space: monastic dance, the cataloging impulse, animal deities, religious conflict, art technology, ritual guises, and expeditions to Asia, to name a few. This preliminary project plucks a few of these strands and see which other strands they tug on.


Meet the Mask

The stag mask here is made of paper mache, with eyes of glass or possibly plastic. It is a mask meant to be worn over the entire head and measures approximately 18 inches long, 19 inches wide and 20 inches high, not including the antlers, which are about 18 inches long. Since it is made of paper mache, it is surprisingly light weig
{b} Click image to view larger
ht for its size. This is essential to its use, which is in vigorous, spinning dance. A red cloth collar is attached to the bottom of the mask in the front and back. The dancer would be able to see out of the open mouth, but the field of vision is quite limited .

The style of the mask is naturalistic, which contrasts with many other Tibetan monastic masks that look like animals. See, for example, the deer mask from Mongolia pictured on the right. (Click on the image for a larger photo) The third eye, the skull on the crown, and the gold flaming designs shaped like eyebrows and facial hair set this deer apart from earthly deer. The museum's stag mask also has flame-like gold designs emanating from the corners of its mouth (pictured at above) but they are much more subdued . The red band around the mouth suggests gums as if the lips are drawn back in an expression characteristic of some deities. However, the deer's teeth are small and relatively flat like an ordinary deer's and there is no tongue curling upward as there often is in wrathful figures, such as the pictured Mongolian deer mask. For these reasons, it is not possible to say with certainty what exactly the mask was made to be used for: opera or monastic dance. However, the expedition field notes place the mask among masks generally associated with monastic dance rather than opera and the museum has hung an almost identical mask in a monastic dance mask display, which I discuss below.

Deer_mask_side_view.jpgIts Life as an Artifact ~1908-2008

Examining the mask, we can find some marks of its incarnation as a museum artifact. One antler has an identification tag tied to it; the opposite ear has the catalog number written inside. This mask stays in storage in a cabinet with other duplicate masks and otherwise not-displayed Buddhist objects. A nearly identical stag mask is hung in the Tibetan exhibi
Click photo to enlarge
t on the museum floors, pictured below. It is displayed with a collection of similar monastic dance masks. There is also yet another much smaller deer with a different look. This other deer is so naturalistic, it seems possible that it was originally used in opera rather than monastic dance, although the museum's original catalog page (item 4426) indicates that it was "for devil worship".

Especially since we have come to the wall first to look at the deer heads, the wall has a strange resemblance to a collection of hunting trophies. In a sense it is a wall of trophies. Explorers set out to do scientific study of Asian peoples and brought back objects to display their findings. Tibetan monasteries also store the masks by hanging them, but the impression is quite different. See the chapel pictured below, from a monastery in or around the city of Gyantse in 2005.
Click the image for more shots of the same room.
The dim lighting and the clustering of the fierce faces creates a disconcerting atmosphere. The masks seem more to be faces--viewers, than decapitated heads--the viewed. With displays like these, it is easy to see how Western explorers in Tibet considered the masks part of devil worship. The poor camera focus may serve to exaggerate the grotesqueness of the scene--a case of literal blurring contributing to epistemological
{c} Berthold Laufer
blurring! Please click on the image for more shots of the same room to get a better sense of what they look like in person. Nonetheless, the masks are intended to be grotesque. Lozang Jamspal has said that "the gonkhang and the images of protector deities in it are purposely made to have a fearsome appearance to scare wicked people. This way many crimes are prevented simply by a person's fear of the protectors in the gonkhang," (LaRocca, 44).

As we look inside the museum's stag mask, we see evidence of its first collection and inscription in a catalog. Pasted near the bottom opening is label in Chinese characters indicating that the mask is a deer face (鹿面). This label matches the object's designation in the expedition field notes, which were made by Berthold Laufer, pictured above, right. Laufer, born and educated in Germany, joined the American Museum of Natural History in 1898 and spent the rest of his life based in the United States. From 1903 to 1923, he made several expeditions to China. The stag mask was likely collected in the 1908-1910 Blackstone Expedition (Latourette, 45). Though Laufer became most known for his expertise on Chinese civilization, he was quite knowledgeable about Tibetan civilization as well, since his doctoral thesis was in-depth analysis of a Tibetan document (Latourette, 43). A biographer writing about Laufer shortly
after his death in 1934 described Laufer's main concern and academic motivation in studying the people of the "Far East" as being, "these peoples before the destructive irruption of the Occident" (Latourette, 49). In this way, the museum's collection of artifacts is a preservation project. Perhaps the religious use of the object has not fallen away after all, but rather been redirected. Could we consider a natural history museum a kind of humanist temple?

Creation and Use in Tibet ca. 1900

{d} A cham performance in Seattle, 2005

Generally, masks are made by first making a mold out of clay that has been mixed with yak glue. Once the mold is properly designed to represent the desired figure it is left on the monastery roof to dry in the sun for several days. Once the mold is dry and ready, the artist then uses a paintbrush to apply strips of cloth covered in glue. As one layer dries, another is applied (Pearlman, 76). This mask has the special feature of eyes made from plastic or glass. They appear to be embedded in the "flesh" of the mask, as if applied between layers of cloth.

The features of the mask are refined using metal tools heated over a fire (Ricard, 57). When the entire cloth form is dry and thick, the artist breaks the clay mold and scrapes residual clay from the cloth. For the finest touches, a cotton-clay mixture may be used to add facial details. Again, the mask dries for a few days on the monastery roof and finally receives its paint and whatever ornaments are appropriate. Finally, to protect the mask, the artist applies a layer of shellac (Pearlman, 76).

Actually donning a cham mask can be a bit involved and require two people. Masks may have straps, ties and protective padding to cushion the dancer’s chin and neck. In the image of the mask at right, you can see the tie and some of the protective cloth. The mask of this biography, however, does not show signs of holes for ties (Ricard, 57).

We can understand more about the creation and early life of the stag mask by examining the tradition of monastic dance in Tibet and the instances in which deer characters appear within this tradition. For an examination of a clay mask possibly used in cham, see the "Giant of Great Strength".

Stag Mask Portals

Cham Deer Chams Bon Influence Main


LaRocca, Donald J. Warriors of the Himalayas: Rediscovering the Arms and Armor of Tibet. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.
La Tourette, K.S. Biographical Memoir of Berthold Laufer 1874-1934. Washington: The National Academy of Sciences, 1938.
Pearlman, Ellen. Tibetan Sacred Dance: a Journey into the Religious and Folk Traditions. Rochester, VT : Inner Traditions, 2002.
Ricard, Matthieu. Monk Dancers of Tibet. Trans. Charles Hastings. Boston: Shambala, 2003.

Image Credits

{a} Photo from
{b} Photo from
{c} Photo from
{d} Photo from