In my school we are in the process of writing a new curriculum for our younger students and one of my roles has been to gather together materials for an online course to compliment and enrich the taught classroom practice. This week I have been working on a Mask unit and it suddenly struck me that there was one particular practice involving mask that would be perfect for that course and one that I have not explored here on Theatre Room.
Biàn Liǎn (变脸) or Face Changing has a long and traditional history in China, first appearing in Sichuan Opera during the Quing Dynasty, almost 300 years ago. Opera in China, it needs to be understood, takes many forms, depending on where it originated. Here in Hong Kong we have Cantonese Opera, as I have written about many times before. However, Sichuan Opera is a little different to most traditional forms. It tends to be more ‘play-like’ and less constrained, with more entertaining elements to enliven the performance. These included sword fighting, fire eating, beard-changing and Biàn Liǎn. Now if you live outside China it is unlikely that you will have ever seen Biàn Liǎn. It is a closely guarded art form and taught only be a few old masters, although it is seen more often today in other Asian countries. Before I go any further, have a look at this:
There a number of rumours surrounding Biàn Liǎn which I quite like. Firstly that the secret of Bian Lian leaked out during a 1986 visit of a Sichuan Opera troupe to Japan. Indeed, the Japanese are big fans of the face changer (and see the video below). Secondly, that Biàn Liǎn is one of the traditional arts protected by Chinese secrecy laws although officials of the Ministry of Culture of in China have stated that this is not true. Thirdly, Hong Kong Canto pop star Andy Lau offered to pay Bian Lian master Peng Denghuai 3,000,000 yuan (which is about US$360,000) to learn the techniques. Although Lau did learn the from Peng, both deny any money changed hands. If it did, Lau wasted his cash as he seems not yet to have mastered the art. All three of these rumours are touched upon in a South China Morning Post article from 2010, which you can download here The Secret Art. The SCMP also have a video interview with another Biàn Liǎn master, Wai Shui-kan which is worth a watch:
One more video, from NTDTV is another interesting source:
Although I have not had the pleasure of seeing a full Sichuan Opera, I did see a Biàn Liǎn performance in Nanjing a couple of years ago and it was breath-taking. A captivating, magical theatrical feast.