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Magical Face Change in Sichuan Opera

An Introduction to Magical Face Change in Sichuan Opera

As one of the major opera in China, the Sichuan Opera has a long history.It has been widely loved as a form of traditional folk art by people from the southwestern provinces of China including Sichuan, Guizhou and Yunnan.

As an important part of the Sichuan culture, Sichuan Opera originated and was developed initially in the city of Chengdu. It nowadays is the capital of the province and is well known as the Hometown of Operas. As early as in the Tang Dynasty (618AD-907AD), there was a popular saying that goes;”Sichuan Opera was the No. 1 opera under heaven". During the reign of Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty (1644AD-1911AD), the local people developed the Sichuan Opera based on the local Chedeng Opera, which was one of the local folk art forms and was usually performed by several people who rapped stories while dancing and singing. At the same time, different styles of vocal cavities from provinces of Jiangsu, Jiangxi, Anhui, Hubei, Shanxi and Gansu were absorbed into the Chedeng Opera. It was finally developed into the famous Sichuan Opera.

Sichuan Opera is well-known in China, and features vivid, humorous narration, singing, and acrobatics. It also boasts a system of stylized movements and its acting is both exquisite and lively. Sichuan Opera performances are always full of wit, humor, lively dialogues, and pronounced local flavors. To portray special characters, the opera incorporates a series of stunts, including the famous "face-changing." In Chinese opera, facial makeup is usually painted, but in Sichuan Opera, the performer can change his or her facial makeup in the snap of a finger right on stage.

Most Sichuan Opera repertoires are adapted from the Chinese classical novels, mythologies, legends, and folk tales. Statistics show that the total number of Sichuan Opera plays exceeds 2,000.

Face Changes
Face changing is the essence and 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. Face changing is a kind of stunt which involves the on-stage change of mask or facial makeup, via masks or facial painting, without the audience noticing. It is amazing that, with a magical sweep of a hand, the actors can change their masks successively in an incredibly short time.

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.

Face changes first appeared three hundred years ago. Initially the opera masters changed their face during a performance by blowing into a bowl of red, black or gold powder, which immediately stuck to their oiled skinny. By the 1920s, actors began to use layers of masks made of oiled paper. During the performance, actors would peel off one after another in a very short time. Now, the master use painted silk masks, which can be worn in layers. No matter how closely you watch, you don't see the mask being changed.

Generally speaking, there are three kinds of techniques of face-changing, including wiping the face, blowing the face and pulling the face. In addition, there is sometimes the skill of changing the color of face by breathing.

The first is the Wiping Mask. 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 skill of 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.

In a word, the skill of face changing is very unique and amazing in the arts of Sichuan Opera and it has be widely used as a source of reference by many other forms of operas both in China and the rest of the world.

Where to see Sichuan Opera?
When you travel in Chengdu you can see the Sichuan Opera at night to have a interesting nightlife. The performance of Sichuan Opera could be found almost in all the big and small tea houses in the city of Chengdu, Sichuan Province, of which the most famous tea houses include the Shunxing Old Teahouse at No.258 Shawan Road, Qingyang Taoist Temple at the inner part of the fist ring road, and Shufengyajun Teahouse on Qintai Road, Chengdu City.

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