Bian lian (Biàn Liǎn, simplified Chinese:变脸) is the art of face-changing. Performers wear bright, dramatic costumes that include vividly colored masks and move to quick, rhythmic music. As they move, the performers’ faces change with almost instantaneous speed, going from one mask to next.
The art of Bian lian originates in Sichuan, in Western China where it is one of the most well-known subgenres of Sichuan opera. The face changing is done so during a performance for many reasons, sometimes to indicate a change of emotion of the character fear, anger, love etc; sometimes the face change indicates context as well- Sichuan opera has minimal sets and props,- so context is set through the characters’ actions and appearances.
The subject matter of Sichuan opera is wildly varied. Different performances bring out the different strengths of both the opera itself and of the Bian lian. Observers may see the Nightmare of Shi Haiyu, which is partly a love story and partly a ghost story- as you can imagine the face changing will reflect fear and love. opera-goers might also see the Golden Snake’s Wild Dance, or the Cuckoo Song, which will have more of a musical and hu-morous focus.
Many observers of Bian lian liken it less to an operatic performance and more to magic. The speed and number of face changes, coupled with the usually inspire awe and wonder both in Chinese opera goers who are familiar with the cultural context and with observers unfamilier with Chinese history or folklore. Bian lian is undoubtedly the most mysterious art of the Sichuan opera.
How does it work?
Only the masters really know. The secrets of the Bian lian is carefully guarded and is truly known to very few, primarily those in Sichuan Opera, who pass the tradition on from generation to generation. Many have speculated that there is a system of wires inside the opera garments that can be manipulated via special actions the artist does as he/she moves on the stage.
Regardless, the artistry and workmanship required to put a huge amount of different masks that look different but all have the same shape; the changing mechanism; and subterfuge/misdirection the artist employs are all impressive works to behold.
There are ultimately 2 types of face changing with 3 changing methods:
Big and Small
- Big face changing is changing the entire face and is the most impressive form of Bian lian.
- Small face changing is the art of changing an aspect of the face- the beard, the eyebrows, etc. Small changing is used to express different moods an opera character might have.
- Plastering is the technique of spreading concealed paint or make-up on the mask .
- Powdering involves blowing into a hidden bod of colored powder onto the face to change its color.
- Pulling is the most difficult, complicated, and impressive. It is done by changing the actual face mask almost instantly and without the performer touching the mask itself. Pulling is impressive because the performer can switch between a huge number of masks in a short time. The performer must prepare many masks beforehand, and employ quick, seemingly unrelated movements to operate the mechanisms to pull the masks.
An evolving art
Sichuan Opera is an ever-changing art. As it continues to evolve and innovate with technology, so does Bian lian. By the early 1900s, artists could switch up to 3 masks each performance, using dried and painted pig bladders as masks. Another evolution of the 1990s was women practicing Bian lian.
In 1998 the most famous Bian lian master Peng started training 8 women as his pupils. By the 1990s, artists could employ up to 4 masks, and by 2000 the number had risen to 8. Nowadays, using silk masks and modern technology artists can change between 18 and 20 different masks.
A highly-guarded secret
Despite it’s prominence as a Chinese art form for the last 300 years, little is known of the specific mechanisms of Bian lian. Artists pull wires or threads that somehow activate a spring/tension-loaded device that switches the masks. The wires are pulled discreetly though body twitches and quick movements.
A 1986 leak of Bian lian’s secrets when a Sichuan Opera troupe visited Japan resulted in the secret getting out, and now Bian lian can be found in several different nations. However, none of the artists of other nations can switch as many faces or as quickly as the Chinese masters can. To this day, there are only about 200 Bian Lian masters in China.
What else does Sichuan Opera have to offer?
Traditionally, Sichuan Opera is frequently listened to while the opera-goer eats Sichuan hot pot. If the hot pot isn’t spicy enough, you can also usually see fire breathing practiced at a Sichuan opera show as well. Lantern theater, clowns, acrobatics, shadow shows, and more are part of the spectacle. But the Chinese tradition is to say one “listens” to Sichuan Opera, listeners can hear 5 different forms of Chinese opera at a Sichuan show, ranging from many different locations in China, and different parts of Chinese history.
Where can I see Bian Lian?
You can find Bian lian where you can find Sichuan opera...so that begs the question, where can you find Sichuan opera? Well, Sichuan province is the obvious answer, and the following is a list of the best places to see it in Sichuan and Chengdu city, the capital of the province.
Be ready for more than face changing at a Sichuan opera performance. You will see acting and singing (of course, it is opera), shadow play, marionette puppets, fire-spitting, and sword-hiding (secreting away swords within the performers garments and producing them in grand flourishing stunts).
Shufeng Opera House
- Address in Chinese: 成都市青羊区琴台路23号市文化公园内
- Address in English: Chengdu Qintai Lu #23
- Hours: Multiple performances every evening starting at 8 pm
- Website: Shufeng Yayun (Chinese)
- Tickets: around 150 CNY
- How to get there: Take the metro line 2 or a bus to the Tonghuimen Metro Station (通惠门站). Go northwest on Tonghuimen Road, take the first left onto Qintai Road. Continue walking Southwest on Qintai Road for 5-10 minutes (you may take longer to see the sights on Qintai old street) and Sufeng Opera House will be on your left.
The Shufeng Opera House is most likely the most famous Sichuan opera house in the world, and it’s one of the top spots for Chengdu tourism. Typically a single show will feature multiple separate performances that each have a different focus and are likely to impress.
Expect to see acrobatics, live music, ornate costumes, and more. The opera stage and seats are in an outdoor courtyard area.
Shufeng is easy to find, located on Qintai street in western Chengdu, with a well-lit exterior. Tickets start at about 150 yuan depending on high or low tourist season, and for an extra fee you can get a massage or traditional ear cleaning. Additionally, your hotel or hostel in Sichuan might have a special offer enabling you to see a show for less or get extra service for the standard price.
Shunxing Old Teahouse: Cuisine and Culture
- Address in Chinese: 顺兴老茶馆
- Address in English: 258 Shawan Road, Jinniu District, Chengdu
- Hours: daily 11 am–9 pm
- Tickets: around 110 CNY
- How to get there: Take the metro line 1 to Chengdu North Railway Metro Station(火车北站). Walk west on 2nd ring road for about 2.5 kilometers, then go left (south) on Shawan road. Continue south on Shawan road for about half a kilometer, and Shunxing Old Teahouse will be on your left- big exhibition center. You can also take buses 113, 101, 32, 3, 56A, 83 or 93 to International Conference and Exhibition Center.
An elegant and famous old teahouse, Shunxing will offer you a true cultural experience. The Shunxing Old Teahouse is a little harder to find than the Shufeng Opera house, as it is located on the 3rd floor of the Shawan International Conference and Exhibition Center. Shunxing Teahouse is regarded for both its delicious hot pot and the great show.
- Address in Chinese: 锦江剧场
- Address in English: No.54 Huaxing Street
- Hours: 20:00-21:30 (1 performance daily)
- How to get there: Take the metro line 2 to Chunxi Road Station (春熙路站) and walk northeast on Hongxing Road 2nd Section for about 400 meters and take a left on Zongfu Road. Continue northwest on Zongfu road for about 200 meters and then take a right on Fuxing Street. Continue about 150 meters northeast on Fuxing St. until you take left on Huaxing East Street. Continue Northwest on Huaxing E. St. for 70 meters or so, and Jinjiang theater should be on your right.
Located exactly in the city center, Jinjiang Theater opposite Chunxi Road, right beside the Wangfujing Department Store. Here you can see a typical Sichuan Opera variety of shows: fire-spitting, oil-lamp rolling, hand shadows, Chinese traditional dance and instruments, and of course Bian lian. Come early and have some free tea.
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