Behind the scenes: A look at the Sichuan art of face-changing

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A beguiling skill that developed out of Sichuan opera, face changing remains as much a secretive art as traditional magic. Douglas Parkes gets up close with master practitioner Zheng Shengling to discover more. Photography by Calvin Sit. Special thanks The Royal Garden Hotel Hong Kong

Shorn of his costume, Zheng Shengling is unassuming at first glance. In an ordinary blue shirt and plain trousers he looks like an everyman, the kind of person you’d never look at twice. Yet Zheng is a master of a spectacle dating back centuries, an increasingly rare skill known as bianlian, literally ‘face changing’. A skill that developed out of Sichuan opera, in his full operatic regalia, Zheng is fully transformed. In an imposing black costume and noir mask, he looks like an ancient Chinese Darth Vader or a Day of the Dead celebrant lost in the Middle Kingdom. Suddenly, in less than a second, with a wave of his hand – and a snap that cracks the air like a bed sheet yanked taut – Zheng’s face is metamorphosed from his villainous visage to one representing the Monkey King.

Incredible for its speed, an actual blink-and-you’ll-miss-it movement, Zheng describes the skill as ‘one of the unique secret arts’ of his education in Sichuan opera. Zheng himself is a hugely experienced practitioner who has performed the art for nearly 40 years. At the end of 1997 he was the first to bring the skill to America, and he has toured Canada, Europe, Russia, Korea and Japan. Career highlights include demonstrating his art before the King of Sudan, at the queen of Thailand’s 70th birthday celebrations and on a red carpet in Chengdu before a ‘previous French president’ who witnessed the performance with ‘a very shocked expression on his face’.

Describing how he began his career, Zheng recalls, “One day, the Sichuan Chuanju Opera School came to my middle school to recruit. My music teacher heard about it and immediately encouraged me to audition. There were many subjects and many examinations; we had to go over hurdle after hurdle. Out of several thousand candidates, they chose 60 and I was one of them.” Purportedly there are only around 100 individuals in China certified by a local Sichuan institute as possessing authentic skills. The art of face changing is one of the last abilities students learn during their opera training. Zheng studied for five years and had to master the basic foundations of that art, as well as martial arts, hand work, singing and performance. “Being a performing artist is not easy,” the Chongqing native states. “You have to master a lot of different skills and go through an all-encompassing training… We had to learn how to do somersaults, how to sing, how to dance. When taking on the challenge of mastering the art of face changing, you must learn all the [fundamentals] of Sichuan opera.”

Face changing is considered an unofficial national secret in China. Until recently, the guarded technique was passed down from generation to generation, and not taught to outsiders like Zheng. Such is the secrecy, Andy Lau Tak-wah allegedly paid bianlian master Peng Denghua RMB3 million to take him on as an apprentice. Even daughters were not permitted to learn the technique – an ‘unspoken rule’ according to Zheng, but one ‘never officially written in the books’ – since if they were to marry, they would marry outside the family and take the secret with them. Not everyone followed this practice and certain examples of female performers exist, but they remain controversial in conservative circles of the Chinese opera world. Malaysian model Candy Chong claims to have learned the art from her father in just two months, and a Sierra Leonean lady, identified only as ‘Maria’ by China’s CCTV channel, has stated she is the only black foreigner to be taught the skill. The debate about whether girls should be allowed to learn bianlian was encapsulated in the 1996 film The King of Masks. The movie’s plot centres around whether a childless face changer should teach his skills to the girl he mistakenly adopted, or let his art die.

Despite the mystique surrounding face changing, Zheng’s preparation is surprisingly brief, just 20 minutes for ‘changing clothes, fitting on masks’. When asked to divulge the origins of bianlian, Master Xi, as he’s referred to when performing at The Royal Garden Hotel, reveals, “Face changing didn’t exist in the beginning of Sichuan opera. It came about when previous performing artists used masks and colours to illustrate different emotions during a performance.” The ‘magic’ is believed to have first appeared in Sichuan opera during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor (1736-1795). Zheng reveals that one of the earliest known instances of face changing took place in the play Jiu Bian Hua Shen. “The main character [in the play] was a famous war hero on the run, who used face changing to escape his enemies. He disguised himself in many forms by changing his face. ‘Jiu bian hua’ means ‘nine changes’, so there were nine changes of facemask.” From there, innovative opera directors used different masks to help demonstrate different thoughts and feelings. “Changing a mask symbolised switching an emotion,” Zheng sums up.

Performer He Hongqing has been credited as China’s fastest face changer, supposedly capable of concealing 10 masks on his person and able to maintain his secrets even in the face of rapid fire shutter speeds. For his own repertoire, Zheng draws from a selection of 14 different masks. When we meet, he allows us a high level of freedom to photograph what we please of his pre show routine. Information about such seemingly magical practices is more readily available in the Information Age and much of the mystique has slipped from tricks that used to amaze. Yet perhaps because it is rare to see bianlian outside of mainland China, an aura of mystery still surrounds face changing. To protect that, at the critical moment of his preparation, when the masks are readied, Zheng withdraws from sight into privacy. Questioned how many masks there are in total, he responds, “Wow, there are a lot. In Chinese theatre, there are several thousand plays. Within those thousands of plays there are numerous characters each.” Discussing his own routine compared to the likes of He, Master Xi informs in his softly spoken Mandarin that, “You can use dozens of facemasks at a time if you choose to. It’s just that in typical performances I never use that many. Especially in plays with very complicated plotlines, I recommend not using that many masks lest it complicate things. When performing face changing, it is vital to be close, quick, precise and centered – short and simple.”

In centuries past, face changers’ techniques were much more simple than those employed today. In the art form’s earliest days performers would smear their face in oil and blow different coloured powders, concealed in their costume, on to their face to symbolise the desired emotion. Actors could repeat the process, adding layers of colour on top of one another, but were limited to just black, gold, white, and red. “The ancient ways of face changing are not as high-tech as the current methods,” confirms Zheng. “We currently use the method of pulling down masks. In the past they used to stretch pigs’ innards and draw on them characters’ faces, and they’d be glued on to actors’ faces. The performers would quickly turn away from the audience and remove each layer of mask. It’s very different compared to the way we face change now.”

For all of Zheng’s success and worldwide travels, a cloud hangs over face changing. The decreasing popularity of traditional styles of Chinese opera is a well-documented phenomenon, and some purists remain opposed to taking bianlian out of the theatre and to a wider public audience. One performer indignantly told China Daily, “I would never perform in a restaurant or at some opening ceremony of a company.” Others are more sanguine. Zhang Jun, a Kunqu opera performer, responded, “We must let more people know and love [our operas], then they won’t be lost because they would become more and more popular.” Personally, Zheng is upbeat regarding the future. “There are many youngsters who are still very much interested in the art form, and are constantly looking for new methods. I see a very bright future for face changing.” 

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