About face in Sichuan Opera

About face in Sichuan Opera

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May Tse
Women are breaking into an age-old tradition that has long been dominated by men, writes Wong Yat-hei

Huang Li went to art school at the age of 13 to learn how to be a face-changing Sichuan Opera performer against the wishes of her parents. In their opinion, the prospects were grim in the ancient art - especially for a girl in an all-male tradition.

Now, after mastering 'face changing', her achievements have made her parents pound.

Bian lian - as face changing is known in Putonghua - is an important branch of traditional Sichuan Opera. It dates back to the Qing dynasty and involves performers rapidly peeling off masks and replacing them so quickly the audience barely notices the transition from one face to the next.

Like many traditional Chinese arts, the skills involved in face-changing only used to be passed on to men. But the Nanchong Song & Dance Troupe, a renowned Sichuan Opera group, has broken with tradition by bringing in female face-changing performers.

The troupe has performed for many Chinese leaders including Zhu De and Deng Xiaoping. It has also performed around the world in Holland, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany and Vietnam.

Huang, Lin Chunbi and Sun Aiqing are among the most talented female face-changing artists in the troupe. They gave spectacular performances while visiting Hong Kong during the National Day holiday at Landmark North in Sheung Shui.

Huang says she fell in love with face-changing when she was a little girl and became determined to learn the art like a man.

'Traditionally, valued artistic skills are not passed on to girls because they are not able to carry on the family name,' Huang says, adding she does not think this is right. 'When I was in art school, I went to my teacher and requested to learn face changing. I guess my determination persuaded him. It was not easy but in the end I got what I wanted.'

The dynamic action of face-changing has won it many fans, but performers keep the secrets of the tradition to themselves.

'Performers wear a mask to create a sense of mystery,' she says. 'It is important to keep the techniques a secret so as to keep the performance mysterious.'

Lin adds that performances by women are actually more impressive than those by men.

'Girls by nature have more flexible bodies, so when they move around on the stage it looks very agile and graceful,' she says.

But the young women all stress that the road to becoming an established face-changer is extremely tough. They started training in their early teens, and it usually takes around three years to learn the basics of Sichuan Opera before a student can move on to receive training as a face-changing performer.

'Many people would love to learn face-changing but few are able to withstand the three years of fundamental training,' says Lin.

Unlike many other performing arts, the life span of a face-changing performer can be extremely long. Veteran performers of up to 70 years of age can still dazzle audiences.

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