The Art of Face Changing
iPhoneOgraphy – 02 Feb 2016 (Day 33/366)
Bian Lian (simplified Chinese: 变脸; traditional Chinese: 變臉; pinyin: Biàn Liǎn; literally: “Face-Changing”) is an ancient Chinese dramatic art that is part of the more general Sichuan opera. Performers wear brightly colored costumes and move to quick, dramatic music. They also wear vividly colored masks, typically depicting well known characters from the opera, which they change from one face to another almost instantaneously with the swipe of a fan, a movement of the head, or wave of the hand.
Face-changing, or “biàn liǎn” in Chinese, is an important subgenre of Chinese Sichuan opera. Sichuan opera is one of the Han Chinese operas, popular in eastern and central Sichuan, Chongqing and Guizhou Province, Yunnan Province. Sichuan Opera masks are the important part of the Sichuan Opera performing, they are treasures that the ancient opera artists work together to create and pass down. The secret of the face change has been passed down from one generation to the next within families. Traditionally only males were permitted to learn Bian Lian, the theory being that women do not stay within the family and would marry out, increasing the risk the secret would be passed to another family.
Historically, Bian Lian had rarely been seen outside of China because non-Chinese were not permitted to learn the art form, but since the mid-2000s it has been performed occasionally in international mass media and at Chinese themed events. Juliana Chen performed on The World’s Greatest Magic television special with a brief black-light performance of Bian Lian. Michael Stroud, (as The Magique Bazaar) performed Bian Lian on America’s Got Talent. Bian Lian was also featured on Penn & Teller’s Magic and Mystery Tour. In San Francisco, Bian Lian was featured at the China Town Autumn Moon Festival 2010–2012 and at the Miss National Asia 2011 and 2012 beauty pageants. United Airlines presented Bian Lian to celebrate their inaugural flight to Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan province where Bian Lian originated and Wild Aid presented it at their 2014 fundraising gala attended by many international celebrities.
Since the cultural basis of the opera are not well known outside of China, international performers have been making efforts to inform and increase the entertainment value for Westerners who do not know the context and meaning of the different faces.