Bian Lian (lit. "Face-Changing") is an ancient Chinese dramatic art that is part of the more general Sichuan opera. Performers wear brightly colored costumes and move to quick, dramatic music. Their faces are vividly colored, for they are wearing masks. However, within seconds, these masks change, revealing a completely new and vibrant visage.
The face changing, or "Bian Lian" in Chinese, is an important intangible cultural aspect of Chinese Sichuan opera - few have been gifted with true talent and skill. They know how to change Sichuan opera masks in magically quick succession. As they flourish their arms and twist their heads, their painted masks change again and again and again.
Face changing began 300 years ago, during the reign of the Qing Dynasty Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795). At the beginning opera masters changed the color of their face during performances by blowing into a bowl of red, black or gold powder. The powder would adhere to their oiled skin quickly. In another method, actors would smear their faces with colored paste concealed in the palms of their hands.
The changing of types of “Lian Pu” (Chinese opera facial make-up) and colors reflect a character's mood - red representing anger and black extreme fury - just as in fairy tales.
Face-changing was first used in a story about a hero who stole from the rich to help the poor. When he was caught by feudal officials, he changed his face to puzzle them and escaped as a result.
By the 1920s, opera masters began using layers of masks made of oiled paper or dried pig bladder. The masters could peel one after another in the blink of an eye. At present the masters use the full face, painted silk mask. They can be worn in layers, as much as two-dozen thick, and be pulled off one by one.