Magical Face Changes in Sichuan Opera
Sichuan Opera (Chuan Ju) originated at the end of the Ming (1368-1644) and the beginning of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). With immigrants flooding into Sichuan, different dramas were brought in to blend with the local dialect, customs, folk music and dances. Gradually, brisk humorous Sichuan Opera, reflecting Sichuan culture, came into being.
Face changing is the highlight of Sichuan Opera. It is said that ancient people painted their faces to drive away wild animals. Sichuan Opera absorbs this ancient skill and perfects it into an art.
Three Types of Face Changes
In the Wiping Mask routine the actor applies cosmetic paint in a certain position on his face. If the whole face is to be changed, the cosmetic paint is applied to the forehead or eyebrows; for changes on the lower half of the face, paint is applied to his cheeks or nose; or to other specific parts.
The Blowing Mask routine works with powder cosmetics, such as gold, silver, and ink powders. Sometimes a tiny box is placed on the stage; the actor draws near and blows at the box. The powder will puff up and stick to the face. Sometimes the powder is put in a cup. The secret to success in this act is to close the eyes and mouth and to hold the breath.
The Pulling Mask routine is the most complicated. Masks are painted on pieces of damask, well cut, hung with a silk thread, and the lightly pasted to the face one by one. The silk thread is fastened in an inconspicuous part of the costume. With a flick of his cloak the performer magically whisks away the masks one by one as the drama develops.
Face changing is a magical art. Actors change more than 10 masks in less than 20 seconds! By raising the hand, swinging a sleeve or tossing the head, an actor uses different masks to show different emotions, expressing invisible and intangible feelings through visible and tangible masks. From green to blue, red, yellow, brown, black, dark and gold, these masks show fear, tension, relaxation, slyness, desperation, outrage, and so on.
Sichuan Opera master Peng Denghuai changed 14 masks in 25 seconds, and reverted to four masks after revealing his true face. This was his latest Guinness World record, breaking his previous one. Hong Kong super star Andy Lau was said to respect Mr. Peng as teacher and mentor in this stunt.
Today hi-tech is used to enhance this traditional art. Lasers and twinkling lights add a touch of mystery. And modern faces like Zorro are invited to the stage.
Sichuan Opera, like hot-pot and other Sichuan cuisine winners, is exciting, rich and good-natured.