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Tag: Face Changing

Bian Lian: the mask changing art of China’s Sichuan Opera

Since many people used to ask me about the colored masks hung up in my apartment, I decided to give a quick explanation of their meaning. Bian Lian, in simplified Chinese 变脸, literally means Face Changing. It is an ancient Chinese art specific to the Sichuan Opera, in which performers wear bright colored costumes and masks, and quickly change their masks in a fraction of a second. It is incredibly fast to the extent that viewers cannot see how they do it. Some performers rapidly change their costumes as well. Surprisingly enough it’s not a one time act, but performers do it again and again and again.

According to Wikipedia, Bian Lian began 300 years ago, during the reign of the Qing Dynasty Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795). The masks colors reflect a character’s mood such as red representing anger and black extreme fury. Bian Lian 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. Only a select number of masters know how to perform this art, and the secret is only passed down through families and from master to apprentice. Since its inception, the art was forbidden to women, but recently women had been allowed to learn the technique and perform them publicly.

The video below shows a performer frequently changing his mask:

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