Bianlian or face changing Chinese opera performer in makeup and decorative hat

Bian Lian: The Magical Art of Chinese "Face Changing"

The Chinese dramatic art of bian lian gives the term “two-faced” a whole new meaning. Translated literally as “changing face,” it’s a unique aspect of Sichuan opera, which originated around 1700, in which the performers, quick as lightning, change their masks multiple times.


Here are eight more magical tidbits about this amazing art form.

There are three main methods to the madness

Performers have a few ways they can change their faces.

Blowing dust. Performers might use dust or powder to obscure the face so the mask can be changed. The dust or powder might be hidden in the hand or in a small can on the floor of the stage.

Face dragging. Greasepaint might be hidden in the sideburns or eyebrows, then dragged across the face to change the appearance or expression.

Pulling down masks. The most complex of the methods. Using dance movements as a distraction, the mask is quickly whisked away while another is pulled down from the top of the head by a series of silk threads attached to different parts of the costume.

How the switching of masks is done was top secret

In the past, techniques were passed down only to generations within the same family. Now it seems anyone can learn by attending the Sichuan Opera School (although we imagine students are sworn to secrecy). In addition, women were forbidden from learning with the thought that they would marry and leave their families, and, presumably, immediately start blabbing. Thankfully this has changed as well.

A celebrity was once accused of leaking its techniques

It’s said that legendary Hong Kong actor and singer Andy Lau was so enamored with bian lian, he enrolled in Sichuan opera school back in 2000. A few years later, he was accused of revealing the art form’s secrets during his many international travels. However, his name was cleared when his teacher, Peng Denghui, spoke on his behalf, saying, “Lau would never divulge the stunt to foreigners without my approval because we have signed a contract."

Performers can change up to 10 masks in less than 20 seconds

That’s less than 2 seconds per mask!

Performers make their own masks

Not only do they have to change them quickly, performers make their own masks as well.

China’s fastest face-changer learned his skills in just two years

Call him a natural: deemed China’s fastest face-changer, performer He Hongqing learned the bian lian technique in only two years, swapping out up to 10 layers of masks at a time. (Meanwhile, Andy Lau, after studying for six years, could only do six.)

It was the subject of a popular Chinese film

In the King of the Masks (called simply Bian Lian in Chinese), an aging performer takes on what he thinks is an orphan boy to pass on his mask-changing skills  only to find the boy is a girl. Hijinks, drama, and many tears ensue.

Only around 200 people in China practice the art

We hope those numbers increase as bian lian becomes more well-known throughout the world with performances on shows like The World’s Greatest Magic and America’s Got Talent.

Want a little face changer of your very own? Check out this little guy. You can also learn more about opera from Beijing.

[Image: "Bianlian" by Yongxinge, CC BY-SA 3.0]

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