Bian Lian: a unique art of Sichuan Opera

By / 08-02-2013 / (
A performer playing Bian Lian      
Popular in Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou and Hubei provinces, Sichuan Opera is the most influential form of opera in Southwest China. It is a microcosm of the evolution of vocal operas in China since the late Ming and early Qing dynasties. Sichuan opera has been listed on China’s register of national intangible heritage.
Unique to Sichuan Opera is Bian Lian, or “face-changing”, which is regarded as an essential component of the performer’s skill. Dating from the 1920s, Bian Lian is the special art of shaping various characters—a romantic technique by which the performer reveals their inner thoughts and emotions.
It is considered an “instant art”, as performers simulate instantaneous changes in countenance through the raise of a hand, a flip of a sleeve or a swing of the head. A talented performer is typically able to cycle through a dozen different face paintings in the span of ten to twenty seconds. Different face paintings indicate different manners, feelings and thoughts. They are switched to reveal abrupt changes in feeling or psyche, such as panic, despair, anger and insidiousness, to achieve the artistic effect of “appearance changing with the mind.”
It is said that tradition traces its roots back to an ancient practice of applying makeup to affect various expression in order to scare off predatory animals. Later on, Sichuan opera stylized these face paintings and adapted them for stage performance.
There are three basic methods of face-changing: face-dragging, blowing dust and pulling-down masks. Outside of these, harnessing the strength of qigong to change the pallor of one’s face is a more unusual method of Bian Lian. It is heard that Peng Sihong, a legendary performer of Sichuan Opera, used qigong to change his face from red to white and vice-versa when performing the part of Zhu Geliang in the popular story Empty City Strategy. In “face-dragging”, a performer drags greasepaint from small reserves hidden on the face. Changing faces by “blowing-dust” uses powder, often stored in a cosmetic box placed in a discreet location on stage—performers often fall down in the course of acting and take the opportunity to blow the powder on their faces. “Pulling-down masks” is comparatively complicated: while dancing, performers pull down masks that are bound together by silk threads. Executing this gracefully requires quick, sharp action in order to have the best effect.
Embedded in this unique art form are the painstaking efforts of mastery that have been passed down from generation to generation. During the early days of New China, Bian Lian was admired as the quintessence of national culture. In 1987, it was classified as a second tier national secret—the only Opera technique to have ever been classified.
Bian Lian has, unfortunately, been deeply impacted by the tide of a commodity-driven economy. Addressing the media, the famous master of Sichuan Opera Peng Denghuai lamented, “I feel very upset. Bian Lian is a quintessential element of Chinese culture; it’s not a form of magic. Marketing it as such online-selling is a very irresponsible behavior. It is disrespectful to Bian Lian art.” Peng’s disappointment arises from his deep appreciation of Bian Lian and Sichuan Opera’s inseparability. A mere face-changing has no artistic merit, he said. The so-called Bian Lian circulating in public and even abroad is just a low-level show entirely for commercial purposes.
This type of adulteration does not necessarily mean Bian Lian is not able to maintain its cultural and artistic integrity outside of its natural cultural habitat. In 2009, Chinese and foreign actors performed onstage together at the Second China (Chengdu) International Intangible Cultural Heritage Festival in Chengdu. This joint performance was the first of its kind in a UN sponsored festival, and it also marked the art of Bian Lian’s entrance onto the world stage.
Edited and translated by Feng Daimei