Face-changing: A Kind of Magic


Face-changing, or “bianlian” in Chinese, is a stunt of performance in opera arts and is a romantic technique to reveal the innermost feelings of characters in the play. Not a few local operas have it, but it is most famous in Sichuan Opera. While the color schemes and costumes look similar to better known Chinese opera schools, such as Peking Opera, what marks this form out is the changing of the ornate masks in quick succession with a wave of a hand, or by turning around.

It was said in ancient times, when coming across a fierce animal, people used to draw different patterns on their faces to scare the animal away and keep themselves safe. Later on, such trick was applied to the stage performance of Sichuan Opera, and the unique art of face-changing has thus come into being. “Face-changing technique” was firstly used for characters like gods and spirits as early as in the Ming Dynasty.

Face-changing art could be divided to “major” and “minor”. In the major “Face-changing”, the entire face was changed by three, five or even nine types. In the minor “Face-changing”, only part of the face was changed.

The techniques adopted in Face-changing roughly fall into three categories: smearing, blowing and pulling.

Smearing is to smear the colored paints on certain part of face to turn the face to another color. The paints can be smeared either on the actor’s forehead and eyebrows to change the entire face or on his cheeks and nose to change the lower half of the face. The paints can be smeared only on a specific part to change that part.

Blowing can only apply to powders, like gold, black and silver powders, etc. A small bowel is placed on the stage with powder in it and during performance the actor would dance to throw his face close to the bowel and blow the powder, which will adhere to the actor’s oiled face quickly and change it to another color. The actor must pay attention to close his eyes, mouth and hold his breath when blowing.

Pulling is a relatively complicated way to change face, which requires to draw the facial mask on a piece of silk beforehand, cut them into the right size, tie a thin thread to each mask and stick them onto his face before the performance. The threads are fastened to somewhere hidden in his costumes. When performing, the artist would pull the mask off one after another under the cover of various dancing movements. Pulling is somewhat difficult. For one thing, the adhesive can not be used too much in case the mask can not be pulled or all the masks are pulled in one stroke; for another, the actor’s movement must be neat and fast and conduct a skillful performance to deceive the eyes of the audience.

Besides, it is said that performers sometimes change the color of face by breathing. However, nobody knows how the performers manage to change their facial make-ups so accurate and in such a short period of time. As a national treasure, the secret techniques of Face-changing are not allowed to be revealed to others. Nowadays only a few hundred people in China have inherited this authentic skill. Professional Face-changing performers can change about 10 masks in 20 seconds.

As a popular night entertainment in Chengdu, the performance of Sichuan Opera could easily be found at local tea houses in the city, and the Facing-changing section is no doubt the highlight the performance.

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