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From China to The Children’s Museum: The Secret Art of Mask Changing

By Joanna Winston; Actor Interpreter 

The Chinese Opera is one of the oldest forms of performance art found in our world today. Over the past 800 years, Chinese opera has evolved into many different regional varieties. This art form is as varied as it is numerous in its presentation. One of the most secretive and amazing shows is the Sichuan Opera practice of “Bian Lian” (变脸, biàn liǎn) or “mask changing.”

What exactly is Bian Lian? Bian Lian is an art in which the performer will wear brightly colored costumes & ornate opera-themed masks. These masks are the stars of the show, for a bian lian performer can switch between numerous masks in a fraction of a second. Performers might switch between 10-20 masks (or more!) in a single show!  How do they do it? The secret is considered a national treasure in China and historically it has been guarded very closely. 

Why does a mask changer change his face? One story claims that it began as a trick performed by actors who needed to switch between characters in a hurry,  leading to inventive ways of manipulating their makeup. Methods such as “blowing dust” to quickly change a character’s facial coloring with powder and “face dragging” where a performer smears grease paint at his temples to draw lines upon the face developed to change the appearance of the character in mere seconds. Over time these techniques combined with traditional movements of opera story characters to evolve into a bian lian performer’s movements today. 

Most bian lian performers wear masks of a traditional opera character called a “Jing.” The Jing’s emotion can be read through the colors on his face. For example, if a performer changes to a red Jing mask, he might take larger steps, swing his cape to and fro, and display martial arts & acrobatics. This is to give us as an audience the clues that he is now a heroic character—perhaps an immortal or a general. When the Jing’s face changes to the color black, his movements may soften and his walk may become more graceful. This is meant to tell us that he is now a kinder, gentler Jing character.

As we think about our characters in the West, we can see the same relationships in the colors of our favorite characters, too! From Spider-Man or Optimus Prime, reds can mean “heroic” as well! In the blink of an eye, we might witness a whole cast of characters from one single bian lian performer! So here we find an idea that developed centuries ago in China that families of all ages can appreciate and learn about right here in our own amazing museum.

If you want to witness the astounding art of Bian Lian, starting this July you may watch performances and learn more about this cultural wonder here at the world’s biggest and best children’s museum. Proudly, we can promise our guests that just like a bian lian performer’s masks, The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis is always changing. 

And since we can't wait to show you this extraordinary new program, Josh gave us a sneak peek in This Week's WOW! Don't miss it...

You can see live performances of Bian Lian by guest Sichuan Opera performer Master Du in the Take Me There: China gallery on weekends beginning in August!