Unchanging face of Beijing opera

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 April, 2011, 12:00am


Leaning towards the mirror, Yang Chi outlines an elongated red 'W' in the centre of his broad forehead. The Beijing opera master puts down his paintbrush, sings a few raspy notes and gradually loses himself behind the white-powdered face of North Han Commander Zhang Ding-bian, with black-winged eyes and hooked brows.

Elaborate painted faces, called lianpu in the Beijing opera, are worth a million words. They capture the very essence of the character's personality, appearance and history.

Lianpu dates back more than 1,400 years, when leading actors used to wear masks. The props were discarded later because they failed to convey vivid emotions.

'Masks are dead, but lianpu have life,' explains Yang, who is from the Dalian Peking Opera Troupe. 'If the mask is painted angry, then the expression remains static throughout the show. You can see joy and anxiety through the way the muscles move on a painted face.'

Beijing opera has immortalised almost every figure in Chinese history into masks. There are about 1,000 traditional designs.

Only jing - also known as hualian - among the four major roles in the opera ensemble paint their faces. Jing are male characters portraying warriors, heroes, statesmen and adventurers.

Just by looking at the dominating colour on lianpu you can distinguish good and evil.

Red suggests an honest and loyal fellow, white represents a fearsome warlord and gold hints at a supernatural being. The fewer colours applied to a face, the simpler the personality.

However, characters are not always portrayed the same way as they are viewed today. They more often describe the image people had of the character in the past.

'Historians today may describe Cao Cao as a militarist and artist,' Yang says.

'But we [Beijing opera performers] dye his face white because people think he is a cruel and merciless villain.'

Lianpu do not only play with colours, but also special symbols or patterns. Yang gives a few examples: 'Warrior Dou Er-duen has his iconic weapon - tiger hook swords - drawn on his eyebrows, while Song dynasty Emperor Zhao Kuangyin features dragon eyebrows to tell the world he is the true king.'

Facial features sometimes govern the make-up - famous judge Bao Zheng's lianpu is all black, with a birthmark crescent on his forehead.

Characters from different age groups also have different make-up. The senior Commander Zhang Ding-bian has jowly cheeks, droopy eyebrows and a great white beard.

Painting each face mask usually takes from 40 to 60 minutes depending on the complexity. Performers do their own make-up because they know their faces the best.

'You are more familiar with your own bone structure and muscles,' Yang says. 'I draw Zhang Ding-bian's brows high and thick, but thinner people may need to exaggerate this.'

One thing that does not change in each play is the lianpu, no matter which opera troupe you are watching. 'All troupes adopt standardised lianpu passed down by tradition, so the audience will always recognise the characters. They can easily tell who are Cao Cao and General Zhang Fei,' Yang says.

Yang follows existing examples when he designs a painted face for a new character.

'I will consider whether he is good or evil, what his disposition is - ill-tempered, witty or cheery - and also his age,' Yang says.

'Painted faces in Chinese traditional opera are well-preserved cultural gems. They pave a well-established foundation for later generations.'