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Bian Lian - Face-mask changing in Sichuan Opera
Sichuan Opera is a type of Chinese operas that has been around since 1700. It has stylized and refined movements, with exquisite and lively acting. Its series of stunts include the famous “face-changing” Bian Lian.
Face-changing in Sichuan Opera is a rare art heritage and considered a national treasure by many Chinese.
Dramatic art of face-changing
Bian Lian, a rapid mask-changing technique, is one of the most fascinating, artistic charms of Sichuan Opera. It is an ancient dramatic art form that takes many years to perfect. In Chinese opera, facial makeup is usually painted, but in Sichuan Opera, the performer can change his or her facial makeup in the snap of a finger right on stage.
By just waving their arms and twisting their heads, performers are able to change their painted masks repeatedly. Master Peng Denghuai, a famous Sichuan Opera maestro, can change 14 masks in 24 seconds and his feat was recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records.
As Bian Lian is a unique aspect of Sichuan Opera, this technique is considered a secret and has always been closely guarded within the family of the performer. A performer can only take in male apprentice only when he himself has become a master of the art. Traditionally, females are forbidden to learn this art as, according to Chinese culture, they marry out of the family and so increase the risk of leaking the secret to outsiders.
Leakage of Bian Lian secret performing technique
In 2006, Chinese press Xinhua reported that some artistes of the Sichuan Opera sold the trade secret to other parts of China and even overseas. In 2007, the Beijing Morning Post reported that this unique art secret was being sold for only 3,000 yuan (US$385) on a major auction website in China.
Considering Bian Lian a national treasure, Sichuan Opera maestros have called for better protection of the art as selling the secret on the Internet disrespects not only the face-changing art but also the Chinese cultural heritage. “The disclosure of the secrets of face-changing actually spoils the art”, said Ouyang Ronghua, the first to use face-changing in his performance.
Changing face of Bian Lian
This 300-year-old Chinese dramatic art has seen gradual changes in recent years.
The taboo of female practising mask-changing was broken in 1998 when Master Peng took in 8 girls as students.
Some years ago, Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau became a student of Master Peng but has yet to master the face-changing technique.
Nowadays, mask-changing artistes can be found even in Malaysia and Singapore. While in China it is still very strict about imparting mask-changing skill, it is different elsewhere. Bian Jiang, a mask-changing artistes from China, conducts mask-changing courses in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
According to a well-known Bian Lian master, many magicians are studying the act, hoping to discover the secret. Although similar expressions are displayed, their switching of faces is too slow. This is far from the performance of authentic Bian Lian masters. In China, there are only 200 certified Bian Lian artistes.
Chinese movie “The King of Masks”
Filmed in 1996, this is a Chinese movie about an aged street performer who is a master of the Sichuan Opera Bian Lian technique. The film has won numerous film festival awards around the world.
The movie is available in both DVD and VHS formats.