Face Changing, World Changing

‘Tis the season for hot pot, as I indulged in it again this past weekend. Every hot pot adventure is unique, especially depending on who’s doing the ordering. Last time, the star of the show was “hĕn là niúròu”, i.e.: demon beef. (The culinary odd ball was Spam.) This go-round, my favorite was a purple goop unrecognizable as the shrimp it claimed to be, but which became–through sorcery, I’m sure–absolutely delicious after a simmer in hot oil.

Even more unique was the particular hot pot venue we visited. First Lady Michelle Obama actually made a pit-stop here when she sojourned through China a few years back. The restaurant apparently found her visit a good advertising opportunity, as a full list of dishes ordered by the First Family was leaked. Talk about a lack of privacy!

So you won’t be served up discretion at this particular joint. But what you will get is a another don’t-leave-Sichuan-without-it treat: Face Changing.

Biàn liǎn (lit. “Changing Face”) is unique to Sichuan Opera, separating it from all other Chinese performance art. While performing a dance, the face changing actor dons a series of masks, moving from one to the next with a speed appreciable only via first-hand witness. Being the curious cat I am, I looked hard for the mechanism by which our face changer shifted between masks and still, I’m clueless. How can the eye catch something that occurs between seconds? I took a video of our face changing show, but it lacked a gigantic blue fan, so I’ll opt for this instead:


I’ll be honest: before I saw biàn liǎn last weekend, I knew nothing about face changing except that it’s considered a “must see”. But its uniquely brilliant theatricality intrigued me. So to Dr. Google I went.

Turns out the face changing I saw was curious in its blend of tradition and modernity, isolation and globalization.

Biàn liǎn is an art China’s been pretty protective of. In 1987, it was categorized as a “second tier national secret.” I don’t know exactly what that means, but it doesn’t take a sinologist to figure out the Chinese are holding the secret of face changing close to the vest.

In fact, even individual face changing families hoarded their particular biàn liǎn secrets from other families in the same biz. The mysterious methods of face changing were only ever passed from father to son. Girls who aimed to be face changers were out of luck, as it was assumed they’d marry into another family, thus becoming a secret-sharing liability.

And yet… our face changer was a woman. Gender-dynamics in China are endlessly fascinating (though that topic’s a series of blog posts all its own). So I was interested to see that at least in face changing, traditional gender restrictions appear to have fallen off a bit.

But I’m guessing–no offense, hot pot face changing–that the biàn liǎn I witnessed was not the most authentic. Why, you ask?

Well, it might’ve been the Spider-Man mask in the actor’s rotation. Or the Mickey Mouse one.

Traditionally, face changing showcases masks representative of characters from ancient Chinese literature. Masks can also be used to reflect the actors’s emotions, with the masks’ color communicating the face changer’s transitioning mood in a way that would do Romantic poets like Keats and Byron proud. (By the by, did you know that in Chinese color symbolism, red represents happiness and green anger?)

Mickey Mouse and Spider-Man have their place, sure. But I think only die-hard fans will argue for their being reflective of the deep artistic soul or ancient literature.

I’d be tempted to think the intrusion of American characters was for the sake of whatever Westerners managed to make their way into Southwest China. But the audience was packed with Chinese diners. In fact, my table of Westerners was such an oddity that some guests were filming us instead of the performance.

My hypothesis is this: Spider-Man’s surprise cameo is a mark of how global our world’s gone. The instant connectivity that lets me actually see my family via Skype, even when I’m literally around the world, is the same connectivity that makes American media accessible to practitioners of ancient Asian art. I’m not sure we can have one without the other.

Even if face changing is a second tier national secret.



One thought on “Face Changing, World Changing

  1. These are such beautiful photos.
    Changing a mask by a sharp, split second nod or with the instant flick of a fan seems like being
    a witness of the miraculous.


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