Chinese opera face-changing: it's a kind of magic

Fri Dec 11, 2009 11:42am EST
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By Phyllis Xu and Maxim Duncan

CHENGDU, China (Reuters) - Chinese performer He Hongqing can change his facial expressions, and make up, on stage in a flash, but it's not due to skills learned at drama school.

The man deemed China's fastest "face changer" is a modern incarnation of an ancient, and fading, art form at the heart of traditional Sichuan Opera and where performers rely on silk masks to reflect their characters' mood changes.

Face changing, or "bian lian," traces its history back some 300 years, and is unique to the southwestern province of Sichuan.

While the color schemes and costumes look similar to better known Chinese opera schools, such as those in Beijing, what marks this form out is the changing of the often highly ornate masks in quick succession with the flash of a hand, or while turning.

The 45-year-old He makes all the brightly colored masks, which he switches at mind-boggling speed at popular performances, himself and usually wears 10 layers at one show.

The beauty of his art, He says, lies in its secrecy.

"What is amazing about face changing is its mystery. Through performance and movements, performers are in effect playing with magic. In fact, face changing is a kind of magic," said He.

He can slip off his masks within a fraction of a second, and has been deemed the fastest face changing artist in the country by state-run China Central Television.   Continued...

<p>A combination photo shows an actor performing face-changing with a Beijing Olympic mask (top) and a Chinese national flag mask during a Sichuan Opera show in Suining, Sichuan province July 7, 2008. REUTERS/Stringer</p>