The face changing, or "bian lian" in , is an important intangible cultural aspect of Chinese Sichuan opera - few have been gifted with true talent and skill. They know how to change Sichuan opera masks in magically quick succession. As they flourish their arms and twist their heads, their painted masks change again and again and again.
Face changing began 300 years ago, during the reign of the Qing Dynasty Emperor . At the beginning opera masters changed the color of their face during performances by blowing into a bowl of red, black or gold powder. The powder would adhere to their oiled skin quickly. In another method, actors would smear their faces with colored paste concealed in the palms of their hands.
The changing of types of lianpu and colours reflect a character's mood - red representing anger and black extreme fury - just as in fairy tales.
Face-changing was first used in a story about a hero who stole from the rich to help the poor. When he was caught by feudal officials, he changed his face to puzzle them and escaped as a result.
By the 1920s, opera masters began using layers of masks made of oiled paper or dried pig bladder. The masters could peel one after another in the blink of an eye. At present the masters use the full face, painted silk mask. They can be worn in layers, as much as two-dozen thick, and be pulled off one by one.
Recently, Hong Kong pop star Andy Lau learned this secret art from skilled masters by paying them about 3,000,000 yuan , much to the chagrin of other old experts. Andy Lau only learnt how to do the trick, but has not yet mastered it. Although the art is technically forbidden to women, a Malaysian Chinese girl named Candy Chong has recently become a popular performer after learning it from her father.
During the weekend of Oct 6-7, 2007, performers from the Sichuan Opera appeared in Honolulu at the Splendor of China festival held at the Neal Blaisdell Center. There were performances by a master face changer. In later performances it was announced that only recently had women been allowed to learn the techniques and perform them publicly. Three such women performed several times over the course of the event.