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The Meaning of Chinese Opera Face Painting

Updated on June 14, 2012

The colour of every painted face of Chinese drama, together with stage costumes, has a special meaning, and suits to the character.

White expressing slyness

A traitor who injures others or commits an evil crafty means never changes colour on the face on account of his slyness.

Red — expressing faithfulness

When an honest man sometimes commits an evil or tells a lie he turns red on the face. At the time of the Three Kingdom period the Chinese God of War was painted red on the face and was deeply devoted to his country and his sworn brothers.

Green — expressing robbers

The robbers live among the forests in the mountains, so we call them "Robbers of the Green Forest."

Blue & Purple — expressing fierceness

The mormo, ghost, brave robber or the general of the native savages all paint in blue and purple colours.

Black — expressing upright and straightforwardness

At the time of the Sung dynasty the prime minister, Pao Wên Chen, was a man of black face and he was very straight. Once he killed his nephew because the latter had done something out of law; so the Chinese fable says "The iron faced man is a man of integrity and straightforwardness."

Yellow — expressing braveness and strength

This colour is not often used on the Chinese stage.

Mixed Colours — Sometimes there are several colours painted on the face which is called "The Hua Luang" or the face of mixed colours. Generally on such faces some pictures are sketched, for instance, if a man can swim the waves of the water are painted on his face; the God of the tire has fire flames painted on his face; a man who mimics a monkey has the picture of a monkey painted on his face; one who mimics a tiger has the form of a tiger painted on his face, etc.

Besides this if a man whose face is purple or red by nature, as in the ease of King Sun Ch'uan of Wu at the time of the Three Kingdom Period, or the Emperor Chao K'uang Yin of Sung dynasty, his face is of course painted purple or red colours.

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