With the swipe of a fan, a turn of the head, a wave of the hand or a blink of the eyes, Sichuan Opera performers change masks instantaneously, seemingly by magic, sometimes in less than a second.
Wearing brightly colored costumes and heavy, colorful makeup, performers sing in a high pitch and move to quick, dramatic music, twirling, hopping, rolling, jumping and performing jaw-dropping stunts. As they move, they also change masks to reveal characters' changing emotions.
Face changing, or bian lian, is an ancient dramatic art that is a sub-genre of Sichuan Opera and probably its most famous aspect. Experts emphasize that it's only a tiny part of the whole.
It is extraordinarily difficult to master the art of face changing, which is usually accomplished by tearing away a single silk layer of painted mask for each face change. Sometimes a mask hidden in the headgear is pulled down. Other methods of changing appearance include smearing paint and blowing colored powder onto an oiled face.
A skilled performer can change faces many times, and nine changes is not uncommon. But knowing how it's done and being able to pull it off are two different things. It's protected as a kind of state secret.
"Sichuan Opera is a unique flower in the garden of Chinese operas," said Xiong Jian, the bian lian performer from the Sichuan Opera Troupe of Chengdu.
"In its costumes, gestures and vocals, it is quite similar to Peking Opera, but the biggest difference is that Sichuan Opera has more stunts, such as blowing fire, rolling lamps and the most famous aspect, face changing."
It is said that face changing was invented in ancient times to scare away wild animals with frightening masks. Sichuan artists borrowed this practice and integrated it into opera and considered a secret weapon.
The art of face changing has been passed down through families as a closely guarded secret. In 1987 the skills of face changing were listed as a "second-level state secret" by China's Ministry of Culture.
"We often perform on world tours and many foreign artists want to learn face changing. Making it a state secret is a way to protect the skills," Xiong said.
He explained there are three basic techniques: wiping or smearing the face with paint to create another face, blowing colored powder onto the face, and tearing off a mask face.