Chinese art of face changing, bian lian, is a real life Snapchat filter but way cooler

The face swap function has got nothing on this hundreds-year-old practice

Veronica Lin |

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Michael Stroud in a magical mood.

You’ve probably used the face swap filter on Snapchat. It’s pretty cool. But what if you could change your face in real life? California-based magician Michael Stroud does exactly that.

Bian lian, also known as face changing, is a dramatic art from the Sichuan Opera. During live performances, face-changing masters change their masks in less than a second, without the audience noticing. Dubbed the “Face-Changing Sorcerer”, Stroud has been perfecting his face- changing skills for the past 13 years.

But no matter how hard you look, any connections between the Caucasian features of Michael Stroud and the ancient Chinese art of bian lian seem impossible to find.

As a matter of fact, he is a living example of an issue that has ignited an ongoing debate in mainland China – should the sleight of hand secrets of face changing be taught to foreigners? While there is no official ban on teaching bian lian to people outside the mainland, it has been difficult for outsiders to learn the closely guarded secrets.

But Stroud believes passing on the trade to outsiders is not only essential for bian lian’s survival, but also beneficial to the art form itself, as each artist can honour the art by elevating it with their own techniques.

Having studied magic for more than 30 years, Stroud was always looking to incorporate magic from other countries and cultures into his own tricks, and was always on the lookout for new challenges to take on – that is, until he found his favourite of them all – face changing.

“My jaw dropped and I immediately approached this art by learning it methodically with respect to honour the craft – not just copy but to elevate, modernise and westernise it,” says Stroud, who is fascinated by Chinese culture.

Not the many faced god, just the many faced magician.

Stroud was his own face-changing teacher in the beginning. “I was my own teacher first. I learned about it as much as I possibly could, and made my first face-changing costume for a magic contest all by myself,” says Stroud.

While face changing is traditionally performed during intervals and the focus is solely on the masks, Stroud has tried to diversify his face-changing act. For instance, instead of changing masks right away, Stroud incorporates the element of surprise into his show by teasing the audience with a scarf, or juggling balls to build up the anticipation.

Stroud has also developed techniques and methods that mean he can perform in extreme weather conditions, as well as do it blindfolded.

Stroud’s creative nature has certainly helped him to convince the face-changing masters to pass on the secrets to him. “I learned some things from each of the masters, and then I showed them my own original techniques in return,” says Stroud.

He believes another reason the Chinese masters were willing to teach him was because he made his intentions very clear and was genuinely passionate about the art.

“I was very forthright about what I was doing – I said I’m not here to steal the art, but to add to it,” says Stroud.

Through knowledge exchange activities and events, which are surprisingly common in the world of magic, Stroud gradually learned to perfect his craft.

But it’s not just about sharing with the magic community. Stroud wants to expose the American public to face changing, and hopefully teach them to appreciate China.

When his last mask vanishes, Stroud is met by a surprised audience.

“When they see that I’m Caucasian, they never say, ‘How dare you’. Their reaction is always, ‘I can’t believe this’,” says Stroud.

But it’s not easy to convince everyone to believe in magic.

“The younger generation don’t appreciate art the way I do, because they have a stronger sense of entitlement. They think all information should be free and accessible to everyone,” says Stroud. “But they have to understand that you can’t just buy it. It takes a lot of skill and years of hard work.” So much so that Stroud practised for four years before performing
in public.

With the tricks behind his magic remaining a closely guarded secret, the rest of us will just have to make do with the Snapchat filters.