WITH the swipe of a fan, a turn of the head, a wave of the hand or a blink of the eyes, Sichuan Opera performers change masks instantaneously, seemingly by magic, sometimes in less than a second.
Wearing brightly colored costumes and heavy, colorful makeup, performers sing in a high pitch and move to quick, dramatic music, twirling, hopping, rolling, jumping and performing jaw-dropping stunts. As they move, they also change masks to reveal characters’ changing emotions.
Face changing, or bian lian, is an ancient dramatic art that is a sub-genre of Sichuan Opera and probably its most famous aspect. Experts emphasize that it’s only a tiny part of the whole.
It is extraordinarily difficult to master the art of face changing, which is usually accomplished by tearing away a single silk layer of painted mask for each face change. Sometimes a mask hidden in the headgear is pulled down. Other methods of changing appearance include smearing paint and blowing colored powder onto an oiled face.
A skilled performer can change faces many times, and nine changes is not uncommon. But knowing how it’s done and being able to pull it off are two different things. It’s protected as a kind of state secret.
“Sichuan Opera is a unique flower in the garden of Chinese operas,” said Xiong Jian, the bian lian performer from the Sichuan Opera Troupe of Chengdu.
“In its costumes, gestures and vocals, it is quite similar to Peking Opera, but the biggest difference is that Sichuan Opera has more stunts, such as blowing fire, rolling lamps and the most famous aspect, face changing.”
It is said that face changing was invented in ancient times to scare away wild animals with frightening masks. Sichuan artists borrowed this practice and integrated it into opera and considered a secret weapon.
The art of face changing has been passed down through families as a closely guarded secret. In 1987 the skills of face changing were listed as a “second-level state secret” by China’s Ministry of Culture.
“We often perform on world tours and many foreign artists want to learn face changing. Making it a state secret is a way to protect the skills,” Xiong said.
He explained there are three basic techniques: wiping or smearing the face with paint to create another face, blowing colored powder onto the face, and tearing off a mask face.
To “wipe the face,” a performer applies grease paint in hidden spots near the face, such as sideburns. He then swiftly and naturally turns his face from the audience, or lifts a sleeve to obscure his face, and wipes on new paints to change the color of the face. New face colors indicate new emotions, as dictated by the plot. All or part of the face can be changed.
To “blow the face,” a performer in advance places a small box of colored powder on the stage in an inconspicuous spot. During the performance, he lies down or bends low, closes his eyes and blows the powder onto his oiled face where it adheres. He quickly closes his mouth and holds his breath.
The most complicated and visually entertaining is “tearing the face.” A number of painted silk masks are stuck in layers on the performer’s face. Each mask is linked with a thread hidden on the costume, such as the waistband.
As the story unfolds, the performer swiftly tears off masks to change faces one by one, expressing anger, fear, despair or happiness.
In the famous Sichuan Opera version of “Madam White Snake” (about the love between a mortal man and a snake sorceress), the actor playing the White Snake spirit changes faces eight times, alternately blue, red, white, black and other colors.
“It’s very demanding to tear the face. There can’t be too much adhesive in case the masks stick together and the hand movement must be quick and hidden,” Xiong said.
There’s legend about the late performer Peng Sihong, who was said to have used qi gong (breathing exercises to transfer body energy) to change his face color from red to white to green. He employed breathing techniques in the opera “Empty City” to express the horror and relief felt by strategist Zhuge Liang who created the ruse of an empty city to deceive enemies in the Three Kingdoms Period (AD 220-280).
Sichuan Opera, as a synthesis of five melodic styles, dates back more than 300 years but face changing was recognized as a dramatic skill in the 1900s during the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Master Keng Zhilin developed various techniques into a complete system. In one opera, “Guizheng Tower,” he played a fugitive who changed nine complicated faces as he evaded capture. In the 1950s, performer Sun Decai — using his memory and reinvention — established modern face changing.
“It was a huge improvement because Sun not only inherited the old skills but also opened a new era for the opera,” Xiong said. “It’s just like a magic trick. There is no need to know exactly how it works. Just enjoy it and don’t ruin the fun,” Xiong said.
Some people are a little too curious and focus too much on face changing, “which is just a tiny part of Sichuan Opera,” he said. “If the opera is a big sea, face changing is just a drop of water. I hope the audience can learn to appreciate the opera as a whole, not merely the trick.
“But I must admit that because of face changing, more people are getting to know Sichuan Opera and that’s a good thing.”
Sichuan Opera, a peal on the crown of various Chinese operas, absorbs the essence of almost each opera to grow into its own style with the musical instrument such as suona horn, huqin fiddle, bamboo flute, drums and gongs.
However this splendid art is faced with extinction. As many old performers passed away in recent years, Sichuan Opera is in the awkward situation of no successors.
To better preserve and promote Sichuan Opera, the local government has spared no efforts. The art form is taught to college students and school pupils of all ages.
In 2011, Chengdu Sichuan Opera Theater established the city’s first Sichuan Opera training center for children in the Chengdu Xiyi Road Primary School under the guidance of the famous performers Ma Li and Xiong Jian, aiming to foster interest in the opera and its artists among young people.
“It’s a wise move for the opera to find its way out. Children are easily attracted by its colorful costumes, exciting stunts and interesting plots,” said the Sichuan writer and playwright Wei Minglun.
Sichuan Opera has been added to student’s textbooks, music lessons and various school festivals and celebrations.
Today people can enjoy this unique art not only in local theaters but in the famous Yuelai Teahouse, the must-visit tourist attractions such as Kuanzhai Lane, as well as Jinli Old Street. The next step for Sichuan Opera is to trying to go from art to market.
In order to rescue and preserve the opera, the Institution of Sichuan Opera Research and Study and the Chengdu University are working together to launch the national project “Old Sichuan Opera Performers on Record.”
The old artists mostly aging over 80 years old are invited to perform in front of the camera, making the precious opera on record and passing down to the next generation.