Friday, April 16, 2010

Beijing Opera Masks and Face-Painting

One of the more striking aspects of the Beijing Opera is the Masks and Facial Make-up used to portray the various characters in a production. The use of symbolic colors, stylized lines, and fantastical facial exaggeration all serve the performance magic and grandeur. There is really nothing that compares to a skillful and artistic rendition of one of China's favorite stories from historical events and classical literature.

The current Beijing Opera originated from a combination of several sources. In 1790, the four great theatre groups from Anhui came to perform for the Royal Family. They used the traditional melodies and aria called Xi Pi. Around 1828, performers from Hubei joined them to form a combined troupe adding their own music called Er Huang. Thousands of pieces were performed regaling great tales of historic events and popular literature as well as their own versions of Western stories.

There have been scholarly discussions concerning the origins of Chinese theatrical mask wearing and face painting. A widely held theory is that face painting developed from the dances called " Lanlingwang (Prince Lanling)" from the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907).

Another possible origin of this practice is rooted in the ancient use of Masks and Make-up in religious ceremonies, particularly exorcisms. There are examples of artwork that show shamans and other actors with stylized painted faces. Upon closer examination, these look very much like the early used of face painting and mask wearing in the Chinese opera theatre.

There is an old saying from the Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties that was, "Shentou guimian", or "masks for Gods, make-up for ghosts." It meant that to play a god you must wear a mask, but to play a ghost all you needed was to slap some paint on your face. This followed the idea that gods were sacred and it would be sacrilegious, perhaps even dangerous, to portray them, whereas ghosts, the embodiment of disease, poverty and evil were not subject to such respect. Craftsmen who carved Deity masks believed that as soon as the eyes were carved out of a piece of art, it then became animated with the spirit of the gods.

Over time, actors began to think that it was less a sin to portray gods and spirits on the stage instead of in temples and palaces. They started to favor make-up over the stoic solid masks in performance. This allowed for more expression over the "dead face" of a mask to the "live face" of paints and dyes.

For the longest time, performers took great liberty in their choice of paint methods and colors. Later, during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) did there become some conventions and standards. An agency called Shengpingshu (Shengping Agency) was in charge of the affairs of opera performance. They established painting of more than 200 of the current operas with detailed instructions on the character make-up patterns. This became the official standard for face painting.

There are four basic categories of characters in the standard Beijing Opera.

Ø SHENG - Male roles

Ø DAN - Female Roles

Ø CHOU - Comedy roles

Ø JING - Painted face males

Jing, usually males, are the roles with facial painting representing warriors, heroes, statesmen, adventurers, and demons. Jing are found in three basic categories: Zhengjing, Fujing, and Wujing.

The JING roles are more known for courage and resourcefulness than for intelligence. Sometimes a High-ranking General or Warrior/General they usually have a swagger and great self-assurance. There are many common color schemes associated with Jing roles but some have more convention and are easily recognizable.

The compositions of face painting are classified into several patterns based on the belief that a person's face can reveal much about their personality. The overall designs of the face painting are given names like, "three-tiles face", "six-tenths face", "cross face", "slant face", "butterfly face" as well as many, many others.

The colors used on a Jing actors face have symbolic meaning.

Ø RED - Good character, heroic

Ø WHITE - Sneaky and treacherous

Ø GREEN - Rash, lacking self-control

Ø BLACK - Brusque character

Ø BLUE - Wild nature, a robber or thief

Ø GOLD/SILVER - Used only for Gods and Spirits

There are two main types of facial decorations in Chinese Opera: Masks and Facial Painting. Sometimes there are many changes of masks and make-up (even some without the audience's knowledge), this is called Changing Faces. It is a difficult technique that is only mastered after many years of serious and extensive training. This is sometimes used to display the feelings of a character or change the energy of the particular scene. Facial changes for sudden emotional changes are usually done in four ways:

Ø BLOWING DUST - The actor blows black dust concealed in his palm so that it blows back into his face.

Ø MANIPULATING BEARD - Beard colors can be changed while the beard is being moved from black to gray to white showing anger or excitement.

Ø PULLING DOWN MASKS - The actor can pull down a mask that has been sitting on top of his head to communicate a special emotional change.

Ø MOP - The actor mops out the greasepaint hidden in his sideburns or eyebrows to change his facial appearance.

The colorful and flamboyant Jing characters of Beijing Opera theatre with the Beijing Opera Mask as well as facial make-up are enduring part of this very exquisite and beautiful art form. Audiences around the world marvel at the technical virtuosity as well as the austerity of the productions in this symbolic Chinese cultural event.


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