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  • Other Names: 儺戲 (nuó xì / nagi)
  • Chinese: 儺 (nuó)
  • Japanese: 追儺 (tsuina)

The Nuo ritual is an ancient Chinese ritual of exorcism and purification, supposedly dating back to the Xia Dynasty. It later came to be practiced in Japan, and had some influence on the development of Noh theatre and other Japanese performing arts.


The Nuo ritual is believed to have originated as early as the Xia (c. 2200-1750 BCE) or Shang Dynasties (c. 1750-1100 BCE), but is mentioned in the Analects of Confucius, and in the Book of Rites, and so is known to go back at least to some time before the time of Confucius himself (c. 552-479 BCE). In Confucius' time in the Zhou Dynasty, the Nuo was performed most prominently and most officially on three occasions each year. The State Nuo would be performed in the third month of the lunar calendar, in spring, and involved "the people of the state perform[ing] the Rites of Exorcism, and at each of the nine gates sacrificial animals [would be] torn apart and offerings made [to drive off evil emanations], in order to complete the ethers of spring."[1] This State Nuo was associated with the king and the royal princes. The second form of Nuo, the King's Nuo (or, the Nuo of the Son of Heaven), was performed by the King during the second month of autumn, and was more exclusively associated with, or "owned by"[2] the King. It was performed, similarly, in order to ward off pestilence and to "assure the proper circulation of the autumnal ethers."[3] The third form was the Grand Nuo, performed throughout the country, and participated in by people from all classes and hierarchical statuses. The Grand Nuo involved the use of an earthen ox which would carry away the cold of winter, alongside the typical aspects of exorcism and purification.

In that ancient period, the ritual was led by an exorcist called Fang Xiang Shi; the meaning of this term is debated and remains unclear. In the Han Dynasty, the Grand Nuo came to be performed at the end of the lunar year, and the Fang Xiang Shi was joined by 120 young palace eunuchs (age 10-12), who wore black tunics and red scarves. Carrying hand-drums, they performed a ritual calling on twelve animal spirits to drive pestilence out of the Palace, and to devour evil spirits, demons and ghosts as they were driven out. The young boys danced the roles of the animal creatures, and passed torches used in the rites to horsemen who drowned the torches in the river.

In the Sui and Tang Dynasties, the twelve animal spirits were replaced with twelve officials in red robes and carrying leather whips. It was during this time that the Nuo rite became prominently performed in the Japanese Court, as well as in the royal court of Koryo Dynasty Korea.[4]

During the Song Dynasty, Nuo began to merge with other musical and performance forms, including sanyue, zájù (雜劇), and nánxì (南戲), becoming somewhat secularized and dramatized (i.e. becoming more a theater form and less a religious ritual form), coming to be known alternatively as nuóxì (儺戲). The Fang Xiang Shi was replaced by Zhong Kui or one of a number of similar supernatural figures from folk religion, as were the twelve animal spirits.

The practice of the Nuo ritual at Court was ended in the Yuan Dynasty, as the Mongol rulers instead made use of exorcism rituals from Tibetan Buddhism. As a result, though efforts were made to restore the Nuo ritual in the Ming and Qing Courts, it never really came back in force; Nuo rituals continued to be performed in the countryside, however, melding with various local and regional art forms and developing into folk theatre forms still active today.

The Nuo Rite in Japan

The Nuo rite first became prominently practiced in Japan, and began to be performed in the Japanese Imperial Court, Buddhist temples, and Shinto shrines, during the Tang Dynasty. It is mentioned as taking place in 705 in the Kuji kongen, and in 706 in the Shoku Nihongi. The rite may have been introduced to Japan much earlier, however, possibly even being introduced alongside wet-rice agriculture, iron, and bronze in the Yayoi period.

In the rite's early 8th century form, Fang Xiang Shi (J: Hôshôshi) was portrayed as a demon (an oni), with a four-eyed mask with golden eyes,[5], and red robes, carrying a shield and spear, and accompanied by twenty young men in dark blue robes. An early Heian period source by Fujiwara no Fuyutsugu (the Dairishiki, "Rites of the Imperial Palace") reports that the tsuina, or tsuina shiki (tsuina rite) as it is called in Japan, was performed on the last day of the lunar year, and was led by a Yin-Yang master. The central figure continued to be Hôsôshi, however. After the Yin-Yang master led an incantation, the figure portraying Hôsôshi, along with his attendants, began murmuring "na, na, na" (the Japanese pronunciation of nuo), while Hôsôshi struck his shield with his spear repeatedly. The group then moved to the four gates of the palace, driving ghosts and demons out in the four directions, and finally, accompanied by court officials beating drums, chased the ghosts & demons further into the countryside.

The tsuina rite was later adopted by Buddhist temples, and incorporated into their new year's rituals, known as shushôe (修正会) and shunigatsue (修二月会). By the 11th century, these shushôe came to incorporate both tsuina and sarugaku, marking the beginning of connections between the Chinese Nuo rite (as performed in Japan) and the artform which would later develop into Noh theatre.


  • Min Tian, "Chinese Nuo and Japanese Noh – Nuo’s Role in the Origination and Formation of Noh," Comparative Drama 37:3/4 (2003-04), 343-360.
  1. Min, 344.
  2. Min, 345.
  3. Min, 344-345.
  4. Min, 359n38.
  5. Golden eyes remain a common marker for demons and gods in Noh masks.