December 11, 2009 / 6:53 AM / 8 years ago

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

<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.Stringer</p>

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.

The art is considered one of China's national treasures, and in the past the techniques were closely guarded secrets that were only passed on within families. There are only around an estimated 200 people in China who still practice the art.

He became interested in face changing in his late 20s, and says he took just two years to master the skills.

He admitted that the he uses a sort of trigger within his costume to control the masks, but refused to give away any more tricks of the trade.

"The triggers for the masks can be hidden anywhere on the costume -- anywhere is possible," said He.

He performs regularly in his native Chengdu, Sichuan's teeming provincial capital, as well as at high-profile events such as China's annual Lunar New Year television gala.

And no matter how many times he does it, He's performances continue to beguile the crowds.

"I adjusted the shutter to a two-hundredth of a second, but I still couldn't see any clues," said Dareen Yao, a tourist from Hong Kong who was trying to unveil He's secrets during a recent performance using his camera.

"It really is amazing. I think Sichuan opera face changing is a wonderful example of Chinese culture," Yao added.

Editing by Miral Fahmy and Ben Blanchard

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