Face Mask Changing: Biàn Liǎn: 變臉

Posted by Charlie @ Discovering Mandarin Monday, 10 August 2009
變臉 (Biàn Liǎn)
literally: "Face-Changing"

Biàn Liǎn is cross between art, illusion and magic. The performers change masks and sometimes entire costumes in the blink of an eye. Face changing has been a part of Sichuan opera since the reign of the Qing Dynasty Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795)...

Face changing was first used in a story about a Robin-Hood styled hero who stole from the rich to help the poor. When feudal officials caught him, he changed his face to puzzle them and escaped as a result.

Performers wear brightly coloured costumes with vivid masks and move to quick, dramatic music. The more accomplished performers can change masks with their sleight of hand up to 60 times in a performance. By using methods of distraction, their glittery costumes and the dancing, they change their masks mysteriously and wow audiences. Biàn Liǎn is a secretive performing art and is only passed down from one generation to the next within families.

In fact, only males are permitted to learn Biàn Liǎn. The old way of thinking was that women do not stay within the family, and would marry out. As such, there was the risk the secret would be passed to another family. Therefore, the art is technically forbidden to women, although more recently a Malaysian Chinese girl named Candy Chong has recently become a popular performer after learning it from her father.

Biàn Liǎn is also not permitted to be learnt by foreigners, and is rarely seen outside of China. Modern times have seen Biàn Liǎn evolve. In the Qing Dynasty, they used to use red, black or gold powder to change the colour of their face by blowing into it.

Other methods included smearing coloured paste concealed in their hands over their faces. In the 1920s oiled paper or dried pig bladder were used to create masks. Skilled performers could peel off one mask after another in less than a second. Modern-day masters use full-face painted silk masks, which can be worn in layers of as many as twenty-four, and be pulled off one by one.

The performer pictured here is Wai Shui-kan (韋瑞群) and has perfected the art of Biàn Liǎn (face changing) over 20 years. Below is a video to show just how quick he can change.

here is another really quick clip of another performer;

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  1. Matthew Says:
  2. That was one of the more entertaining parts of watching the Sichuan opera. The performers really are quick.

    And I'm sure I've seen a foreigner on one of those CCTV talent shows doing this.

  3. I believe I saw whilst fishing around on Youtube, a couple of foriegn performers attempting it, but ard to tell their ethnicity whilst masked.

    I think the point is though, they aren't permitted to be taught it by one of the traditional families that are skiled in this art.

  4. Anonymous Says:
  5. A very interesting and unique part of the Sichuan heritages indeed!

    By the way, just want to recommend an old Chinese movie called Bian Lian (The King of Masks) which is one of my favourite Chinese movies. It is a touching story and shows the sad situations of girls and performers in the old day China.

    I suppose there are clips of that or even the entire film on Youtube.


  6. Oooh. That sounds really good.

    I will look out for it!!


  7. Wanchi,

    Just watched that film tonight. My goodness thank you for reccomending, it is a great film.

    Really heat warming story, and manages to play with your emotions. There are several parts which I really like in this film, but don't want to spoil it for anyone that hasn't seen it.

    The first part of 10 on Youtube is there. I will be buying it, when I find it as it is a really great film.
    Youtube King of Masks pt1


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