Magical Face Changes in Sichuan Opera

2009-06-25 19:53 BJT

The face changing, or "bian lian" in Chinese, is an important aspect of Chinese Sichuan opera. Performers wave their arms and twist their heads, and their painted masks change again and again and again.

Face changing began 300 years ago, during the reign of the Qing Dynasty Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795). At the beginning opera masters changed the color of their face during performances by blowing into a bowl of red, black or gold powder. The powder would adhere to their oiled skin quickly. In another method, actors would smear their faces with colored paste concealed in the palms of their hands.

The changing of types of lian pu (Chinese opera facial make-up) and colours reflect a character's mood: for instance, red represents anger and black represents extreme fury.

Face-changing was first used in a story about a hero who stole from the rich to help the poor. When he was caught by feudal officials, he changed his face to puzzle them and escaped as a result.

By the 1920s, opera masters began using layers of masks made of oiled paper or dried pig bladder. Skilled performers could peel off one mask after another in less than a second. Modern-day masters use full-face painted silk masks, which can be worn in layers of as many as twenty-four, and be pulled off one by one.

Recently, Hong Kong pop star Andy Lau learned this secret art from skilled masters by paying them about 3,000,000 yuan (360,000), much to the chagrin of other old experts. Andy Lau only learned how to do the trick, but has not yet mastered it. This secret has been passed down from one generation to the next within families. In fact only males are permitted to learn Bian Lian. The old way of thinking was that women do not stay within the family, and would marry out. And as such there was the risk the secret would be passed to another family. Therefore the art is technically forbidden to women. A Malaysian Chinese girl named Candy Chong has recently become a popular performer after learning it from her father. Bian Lian is rarely seen performed in the United States because foreigners are not permitted to the learn the art form. American Magician Dan chan is one of a handful of performers who perform Bian Lian in the United States.

During the weekend of Oct 6-7, 2007, performers from the Sichuan Opera appeared in Honolulu at the Splendor of China festival held at the Neal Blaisdell Center. There were performances by a master face changer. In later performances it was announced that only recently had women been allowed to learn the techniques and perform them publicly. Three such women performed several times over the course of the event.

Editor: Zhao Yanchen | Source: