Mask Changing, the Most Guarded Art

Bian Lian (literally meaning mask changing), is originally part of the Sichuan Opera, which is one of the China’s oldest local operas popular in Sichuan province. Bian Lian is considered as one of the most elusive performing arts. Only a few masters have grasped this skill. As they flourish their arms and twist their heads, their painted masks change again and again in magically quick succession.

Face-changing first appeared in Sichuan Opera during the reign of the Qing Dynasty Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795). The changing of types of lianpu (Chinese opera facial make-up) and colors reflect a character's mood - red representing anger and black extreme fury.. Face-changing 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.

In the very beginning, this art was far simpler than it is today. Performers put oil on their faces and applied colorful powder from a container placed in a hidden corner on the stage. When they blew onto the powder, it would be absorbed onto the face. But in spite of these professional performances, no one knew how the artists were able to blow the powder in order to make the facial makeup so accurate in no more than a few seconds. Another method involved hiding the colored powder on the performer's palms. They would then mop it up onto their faces with oil.

Until today, Bian Lian is still a closely guarded skill that is even considered by the Chinese government as a national secret. Even within an opera troupe, only the person specializing in the role of the mask changer would know the actual workings of the performance. The performance is achieved by quickly tearing off, rubbing, or blowing away a mask to reveal another. The artist prepares many special masks in advance made of gauze and elastic materials. After the masks are painted with different designs and assembled with a special transparent thread, they are pasted onto the performer's face. The special masks for Bian Lian must be made to fit the performer's face to ensure that they are pasted as close as possible to the skin. 

In ancient times, performers could change between only a few faces. In 1994, performers could change between four faces in a show. By 1998, the number of faces had risen to eight. Today the number has increased still further, to 18, even including faces on the back of the head.