Face Changing

Editing: Jackson Harvey
Camera: David Barnes, Shiyu Wang, Abby Sternberg
Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
[Catalog No. CFV11262; © 2019 Smithsonian Institution]

Known in Chinese as bian lian, face changing is an important aspect of Chinese Sichuan opera. Faster than the eye can detect, the faces of opera performers may change multiple times during a performance. One technique allows the performer to whisk away one facemask while another is pulled down from the top of the head by a series of silk threads attached to different parts of the costume. The secrets of face changing have been passed down from generation to generation, but only some two hundred individuals have mastered the art. Traditionally restricted to males, the practice of bian lian is now being learned by women as well. Many of the facemasks depict well-known characters from Sichuan opera. The colors range from green and blue to red, yellow, brown, and gold; they depict emotions such as fear, tension, relaxation, slyness, desperation, and outrage. In this video from the 2014 Smithsonian Folklife Festival program, China: Tradition and the Art of Living, Hu Dongxiao from the Zhejiang Wu Opera Troupe displays seven different faces in sixty seconds.

Questions for Discussion

  • Describe the colors, shapes, and facial expressions that you saw on the masks in the performance. What changed about the masks throughout the performance?
  • What story was being told by this performance? What elements of the performance suggested a narrative?
  • In face changing performances, colors are often used to depict different emotions. Which colors typically stand for which emotions in American art, comics, or popular culture? Why do you think we have those associations between colors and emotions?