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The Magic Cafe Forum Index » » Food for thought » » The Art of Face Changing (0 Likes) Printer Friendly Version

Alan Wheeler
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My imagination has been captured by the traditional Chinese artists who can quickly change their wildly painted faces--three, nine, or even 20 times in one performance. Since coming to China in 1998, I have heard many stories about this secret art, and I enjoyed seeing it depicted in the Chinese movie The King of Masks. Knowing that I would be leaving China soon, as a final make-up assignment for missed quizzes or classes, I asked some of my last students in China to research and write short essays on the ancient Chinese art of "Bian Lian" or Face Changing. The following information has been compiled from the students' papers.

First, most of the students reported that Bian Lian is a romantic performance art associated with the traditional Chinese opera of Sichuan Province. As the performers gracefully raise their hands, flourish their arms, or turn thier heads, their brightly painted faces or masks transform again and again. The various designs of the face paint or masks are used in the opera to depict special characters such as gods, spirits, monsters, or heroes and even the inner state and emotions of the human characters. For example, red could signify anger, black could mean deep bitterness or sometimes righteosness, white could suggest cunning or insidious acts, and green could depict fear or desperation. A change of face would signify a change of feelings or heart.

It is said that people first used this art as a survival technique, as the ancestors painted images and designs on thier faces in order to frighten away wild animals. Only later was it adopted as a dramatic art on stage. My students also wrote about an ancient legend of a Chinese hero who stole from the rich to give to the poor. In the stories, whenever the hero was caught by feudal officials, he changed his face to puzzle them and escape.

In the early years of Chinese opera, the actors went backsatge to change their faces; as time went by, however, higher skills were required for the actors. The fine skills and secret art passed down only from father to son or master to appretintice caused the art to grow in attraction and mystery. Though its origins might be traced back to the Ming dynasty, Face Changing, as it is known today, probably began 300 years ago during the Qing dynasty. The secret of Bian Lian has been passed down from one generation to the next within families, with only males permitted to learn it for fear that woman who married into another family would let the secret out. The movie The King of Masks tells the story of an old master who finally teaches a girl his craft after an experience that changes their fate.

There are two main kinds of Bian Lian: the "little change" and the "big change." The little change involves a change of just part of the face, for example the beard or eyes. The big changes involve the transformation of the whole face. By the 1920s, opera masters began using layers of oiled paper or dried pig bladder. Skilled performers could peel off one mak after another in less than a second. Modern-day masters use full-face painted silk masks also worn in layers that can be pulled off one by one. In ancient times, the face was only changed once or twice. In 1994, performers were changing up to four faces in a show. By 1998, the number of changes had risen to eight. Today the number has increased still further to 18 or 20--even involving faces on the back of the head. In one picutre that a student submitted with her report, a modern-day mask can be seen depicting the Amazing Spider Man from Marvel Comics!

Three main methods or skills have been used in the art of face changing: plastering, powdering, and pulling. Plastering involves spreading concealed paste or make-up across the face. In the art of powdering, the master blows into a hidden box of colored powder to cover the face with a new color. Pulling masks is by far the most complicated and fascinating skill: the master prepares and layers stacks of masks in advance, each mask having a string or thread which is attached to the waist. The consumate skill is the changing of three masks within one second, without a flaw or trace.

Although traditionally only men have performed the art, a Chinese girl named Candy Chong has learned the art from her father and is now famous for her performances. Wang Daozheng, the 68 year-old man called the "King of Bian Lian," said that when he performed in Japan in 1987, a Japanese actor wanted to buy the secret. Although the actor offered 50 thousand dollars, Wang refused to teach the secret art. Two years later, Wang returned to Japan and was disappointed to find many Japanese artists performing Bian Lian.

The unique skill of face changing is the only art to be ranked as a "level two" national secret of China. My students, even now in 2010, believe that the art of face changing is an important "inheritance" or heritage of Chinese culture. Many of them say that the people using the art to make money are disclosing state secrets and doing harm to a precious national treasure that should be preserved as a traditional Chinese art and as a piece of the ancient history and culture they are so proud of.
Word Crimes
--Alan Wheeler
English Instructor
and Performing Magician
Jesus vs. the Occult
Pakar Ilusi
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It's great.

Quite a few Chinese Magicians here in Malaysia do it.

Not so "State Secret" here though... And they call it "Chinese Mask Changing" here...

Smile
"Dreams aren't a matter of Chance but a matter of Choice." -DC-
Lawrence O
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Very interesting. You just taught us (or at least me)something about the traditions of our Chinese brothers and sisters which confirms that, irrespective of the culture, magic like the theater or the opera is about communicating to share emotions. I find this way of the Chinese fascinating and realize that Arturo Brachetti, who is somehow leading this art in the occidental world, uses (not only) comparable methods.
Magic is the art of proving impossible things in parallel dimensions that can't be reached
Stonewick
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Fascinating! I "You Tubed" the subject (face changing) and found some examples.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ep3jRiISTO0

I was amazed to see just elaborate the "masks" are and how instantaneously they change. Very cool stuff.
Thanks for the post Alan.
Chris.
The.Amazing.Boy
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I loved this movie, this is a very fine art ! thanks for this superb post full of info
Be Cool Smile
mumford
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When I think of the art of face changing I think of Lon Chaney Jr.
jazzy snazzy
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Here is Jeff Mc Bride's version...
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sPehP5ZPPms&feature=fvw
"The secret of life is to look good from a distance."
-Charles Schulz
wally
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I have a mask changing dvd explanation.
KerryJK
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Quote:
The unique skill of face changing is the only art to be ranked as a "level two" national secret of China. My students, even now in 2010, believe that the art of face changing is an important "inheritance" or heritage of Chinese culture. Many of them say that the people using the art to make money are disclosing state secrets and doing harm to a precious national treasure that should be preserved as a traditional Chinese art and as a piece of the ancient history and culture they are so proud of.


This raises an interesting ethical point, of how much we as magicians should respect cultural subtleties in our quest for neat effects. Traditionally, entertainment in general and magic in particular has been spectacularly bad at this, with nothing being too sacred to exploit in any way seen fit, however tasteless. Already in this thread we see how an ancient, skilled tradition taking a lifetime to master and handed down through generations of some of the most dedicated artists on earth is reduced to a "mask changing dvd explanation".

On the other hand, is it unrealistic to believe that anything can be kept under wraps indefinitely? Aside from it only taking one person to sing like a canary for the right price, even if denied the original secrets magicians are perfectly capable (and willing) of devising their own methods to realise a desired effect, it's pretty much what we do (witness the various attempts to present the Indian Rope Trick over the years). In the words of Dr. John, "If I don't do it, somebody else will".
Donal Chayce
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Alan, thank you for sharing what you learned from your students--a more informative post!
The MacGician ®
***********

The fates lead him who will...him who won't, they drag.
-Seneca
Alan Wheeler
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Athens, Georgia USA
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I'm just worried my students copied their papers off the internet.
Word Crimes
--Alan Wheeler
English Instructor
and Performing Magician
Jesus vs. the Occult
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