Bian Lian (simplified Chinese: 变脸; traditional Chinese: 變臉; pinyin: Biàn Liǎn; literally: "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. They also wear vividly colored masks, typically depicting well known characters from the opera, which they change from one face to another almost instantaneously with the swipe of a fan, a movement of the head, or wave of the hand.
Face-changing, or "biàn liǎn" in Chinese, is an important subgenre of Chinese Sichuan opera. The secret of the face change has been passed down from one generation to the next within families. Traditionally only males were permitted to learn Bian Lian, the theory being that women do not stay within the family and would marry out, increasing the risk the secret would be passed to another family. Controversially, a Malaysian Chinese woman named Candy Chong has become a popular performer after learning Bian Lian from her father. Another female performer is Du Li Min, who teaches a workshop in Kuala Lumpur with her Husband Bian Jiang.
In a 2006 interview, Sichuan Opera performer Wang Daozheng said the secret of Bian Lian leaked out during the 1986 visit of a Sichuan Opera troupe to Japan. Wang laments the leak of this Chinese traditional secret performance art and is concerned that non-Chinese performers in Japan, Singapore, South Korea and other countries are not well-trained. Wang argues that Bian Lian is one of the traditional arts protected by Chinese secrecy laws but officials of the Ministry of Culture of the People's Republic of China have stated that this is not true.
In 2003, Hong Kong pop star Andy Lau allegedly offered to pay Bian Lian master Peng Denghuai 3,000,000 yuan (ca. US$360,000) in order to learn the techniques. Although Lau did learn the techniques from Peng, both deny any money changed hands. Knowing the secret does not make it easy and thus far, Andy Lau has only learned how the masks are changed so quickly, but has not yet mastered the technique.
Historically, Bian Lian had rarely been seen outside of China because non-Chinese were not permitted to learn the art form, but since the mid-2000s it has been performed occasionally in international mass media and at Chinese themed events. Juliana Chen performed on The World's Greatest Magic television special with a brief black-light performance of Bian Lian. Michael Stroud, (as The Magique Bazaar) performed Bian Lian on America's Got Talent. Bian Lian was also featured on Penn & Teller's Magic and Mystery Tour. In San Francisco, Bian Lian was featured at the China Town Autumn Moon Festival 2010–2012 and at the Miss National Asia 2011 and 2012 beauty pageants. United Airlines presented Bian Lian to celebrate their inaugural flight to Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan province where Bian Lian originated. and Wild Aid presented it at their 2014 fundraising gala attended by many international celebrities.
Since the cultural basis of the opera are not well known outside of China, international performers have been making efforts to inform and increase the entertainment value for Westerners who do not know the context and meaning of the different faces.
Four ways of face-changing
Blowing Dust (simplified Chinese: 吹脸)
- The actor blows black dust hidden in his palm or close to his eyes, nose or mouth, so that it obscures his face.
Beard Manipulation (simplified Chinese: 髯口功夫)
- Beard colours can be changed while the beard is being manipulated, from black to grey and finally to white, expressing anger or excitement.
Pulling-downing Masks (simplified Chinese: 扯脸)
- The actor can pull down a mask which has previously been hidden on top of his head, changing his face to red, green, blue or black to express happiness, hate, anger or sadness, respectively.
Face-dragging (simplified Chinese: 抹脸)
- The actor drags greasepaint hidden in his sideburns or eyebrows across his face to change his appearance.
- Koay, Allan (19 January 2009). "Ancient art unmasked". The Star Malaysia. Retrieved 30 April 2013.
- Beautiful mask-changer, The Star Malaysia, 14 April 2007.
- People's Daily website (7 June 2006). "PRC Ministry of Culture Says Face-Changing was Not Certified as a Traditional Art Covered by the PRC Secrecy Law 文化部称川剧变脸未经保密法认定". Retrieved 20 April 2011.
- Lu Chang (25 September 2003). "Changing face of face-changing". Shanghai Star. China Daily. Archived from the original on 25 December 2010. Retrieved 8 February 2011.
- "Probably the world's only female face-changer". Unconventional World Records. Archived from the original on 26 March 2010. Retrieved 11 February 2010.
- The World's Greatest Magic (NBC),2008,
- America's Got Talent, June 2010
- Michael Stroud, September 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZNxsyla-tPI
- Sept 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aaS_XtWAF3Y
- Dan Chan Presents June 2014, http://www.frequentbusinesstraveler.com/2014/06/united-airlines-san-francisco-chengdu-inaugural-flight-review/
- Wild Aid Gala Bian Lian November 2014, http://bayareadinnershow.com/WildAidGala.pdf
- BBC article about face changing artist He Hongqing with good video showing the speed of the changing
- An example of a performer at work