Monday, 28 October 2019

Back Story | Bian Lian aka Face Changing Art Form

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
Beijing's Lao She Teahouse was established in 1988, and it was named after the well-known Chinese novelist Lao She and his drama “Teahouse”. While established relatively recently, it retains the charm and aesthetic of old Beijing teahouses; wooden windows, Chinese hardwood furniture, and overall decor.
It is here that visitors - mostly Chinese, although it welcomed Western notables-may also enjoy opera, acrobatics, dance, calligraphy, guzheng performances and other traditional art forms including Bian Lian.

According to Wikipedia, Bian Lian (變臉) 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.

Legend has it that people in Sichuan put on colorful masks to scare predators away in ancient times. Gradually, those masks became a tool of entertainment. They are designed to represent different emotions of characters on stage.

As much as 8 masks can be changed seamlessly by top performers, all in the blink of an eye. Much of the intrigue lies in how performers are able to switch masks so rapidly and with such accuracy.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
There are four different techniques in swapping the "faces". The first is Blowing Dust where the performer blows black dust hidden in his palm or close to his eyes, nose or mouth, so that it obscures his face. The second is Beard Manipulation, where the beard's color is changed while the beard is being manipulated, from black to grey and finally to white, expressing anger or excitement. The third is Pulling-down Masks -which is the one performed at the Lao She Teahouse- where the actor (in this female) pulls down a mask which has previously been hidden on top of his/her head, changing the face to red, green, blue or black to express happiness, hate, anger or sadness, respectively. The fourth is Face-dragging where the actor drags greasepaint hidden in his sideburns or eyebrows across his face to change his appearance.

Revealing her face. Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
It is assumed the mechanism of the face swap itself isn’t very complicated, with the masks pulled upwards over the head by some form of wire mechanism controlled by the movements of the head. As with magicians, hands are almost purely misdirection. However, it's impossible to detect the sleight of hand, and the technique is kept well secret by its practitioners.