Bian Lian, the Chinese name for face changing, is a practice that dates back more than 300 years and developed in the province of Sichuan. The term refers to the practice of opera performers changing their masks so quickly that the audience can’t even see it take place. This is quite the feat as many of the masks are heavy and ornate.

Several theories exist as to how the practice of Bian Lian started. One popular theory states that the province of Sichuan had its own type of Robin Hood character who evaded trouble by constantly changing his mask. A second theory is much more practical. During the financially impoverished times of the Sung Dynasty, changing masks quickly saved the cost of purchasing multiple costumes to use for a single performance.

Some people refer to Bian Lian as magic because they can see the different masks without seeing the opera performer move his or her hands at all. The best performers take only a fraction of a second to switch from one mask to the next. They also don’t tell their secrets, which lends to the mystery of Bian Lian and keeps people coming back to the opera in Sichuan. The typical performer can change masks up to 20 times per show. Masks, along with brightly colored costumes, are what audience members seem to focus on the most.

Reasons Opera Performers Change Masks

Just as audiences haven’t quite figured out how performers change masks so quickly, they may not know why it happens in the first place. A popular theory is that changing masks allows opera performers to quickly switch characters without needing to put on different make-up for the role. Before Bian Lian became so popular, performers might change their facial coloring by blowing face powder. Another method involved smearing grease paint at the temples to draw lines that changed the appearance of the character.

The Jing Mask

Opera performers refer to the mask of a standard character as a jing. The idea is for the audience to determine the jing’s emotions by looking at the colors of his or her face. Wearing a red face, for example, could mean that the character is angry or about to take an assertive or heroic action. Black face paint could indicate a character in mourning. Since the performers are singing instead of speaking, possibly in a different language, it’s up to the audience members to study their faces to come up with their own conclusions about mood.

Only 200 Bian Lian Performers in the World

Training in the art of Bian Lian can take years, so it’s understandable that performers and teachers guard their secrets closely. This is especially important due to the highly competitive nature of the Sichuan Opera. Today, only about 200 people have mastered the art of Chinese face changing, most of who live and perform in Sichuan. However, residents of the United States can also see similar performances live. It’s sure to be an experience they won’t soon forget.