Sichuanese opera (Chinese: 川劇; Sichuanese Pinyin: Cuan1ju4; pinyin: Chuānjù) is a type of Chinese opera originating in China’s Sichuan province around 1700. Today’s Sichuan opera is a relatively recent synthesis of 5 historic melodic styles. Regionally Chengdu remains to be the main home of Sichuanese opera, while other influential locales include Chongqing, Guizhou, Yunnan, Hubei and Taiwan.
Initially there were 5 distinct opera styles. The history of each style varies greatly.
At least one of the Chinese operatic styles began as early as the Three Kingdoms period with some form of Canjun opera. During the Tang dynasty, a band of five came about in Chengdu. In the Song dynasty, the opera developed into zaju. In the Ming dynasty, artists performed the skill in Jinling (modern-day Nanjing). During the reign of Yongzheng and Qianlong emperor in the Qing dynasty, in the Huabu areas, Kunqu, Yiyang, Bangzi and Pihuang melody merged with local languages, folk customs, ditties, yang-kos and Lantern theatre (Dengdiao) in Sichuan.
During the early 20th century, a revival movement began to reform the art. The best known reformer was Kang Zhilin, who led the Sanqinq (Three Celebrations) Company. This company was one of the most notable opera troupes, established in 1912, and combined the 5 styles into a single opera on the same stage. Each style retained its own music. One of the classic skills devised by Kang Zhilin included a high kick that leaves a “third eye” in the middle of the forehead. This has remained one of Sichuanese opera’s trademark moves.
During the Cultural Revolution, the art form suffered somewhat. But it continued to flourish afterwards, especially since the 1978 Chinese economic reform.
Overall the art form is well known for its singing, which is less constrained than that of the more popular Beijing opera form. Sichuan opera is more like a play than other forms of Chinese opera, and the acting is highly polished. The music accompanying Sichuanese opera utilizes a small gong and an instrument called a Muqin, which is similar to the Erhu.
The traditional formula is quite systematic with a combination of stunts like face-changing, tihuiyan, sword-hiding, fire-spitting and beard-changing with the plot and different characters.
Huqing voice (鬍/胡)
Dengdiao / Dengxi / Lantern theatre (燈/灯)
Depending on the style, face paint is also limited compared to other related forms. Jing characters do not appear, and the only painted face characters are those with a small white patch in the middle of the face, which indicates a slightly evil character. The face paint colors are traditionally limited to black, red, white and grey.
Bian Lian (simplified Chinese: 变脸; traditional Chinese: 變臉; pinyin: Biàn Liǎn; literally “Face-Changing”) is an ancient Chinese dramatic art that is part of the more general Sichuan opera. Performers wear brightly colored costumes and move to quick, dramatic music. They also wear vividly colored masks, typically depicting well known characters from the opera, which they change from one face to another almost instantaneously with the swipe of a fan, a movement of the head, or wave of the hand.
Face-changing, or “biàn liǎn” in Chinese, is an important sub-genre of Chinese Sichuan opera. The secret for how to accomplish it has been passed down from one generation to the next within families. Traditionally only males were permitted to learn Bian Lian, the theory being that women do not stay within the family and would marry out, increasing the risk the secret would be passed to another family. Controversially, a Malaysian Chinese woman named Candy Chong has become a popular performer after learning Bian Lian from her father. Another female performer is Du Li Min, who teaches a workshop in Kuala Lumpur with her Husband Bian Jiang.
In a 2006 interview, Sichuan Opera performer Wang Daozheng said the secret of Bian Lian leaked out during the 1986 visit of a Sichuan Opera troupe to Japan. Wang laments the leak of this Chinese traditional secret performance art and is concerned that non-Chinese performers in Japan, Singapore, South Korea and other countries are not well-trained. Wang argues that Bian Lian is one of the traditional arts protected by Chinese secrecy laws but officials of the Ministry of Culture of the People’s Republic of China have stated that this is not true.
In 2003, Hong Kong pop star Andy Lau allegedly offered to pay Bian Lian master Peng Denghuai 3,000,000 yuan (ca. US$360,000) in order to learn the techniques. Although Lau did learn the techniques from Peng, both deny any money changed hands. Knowing the secret does not make it easy and thus far, Andy Lau has only learned how the masks are changed so quickly, but has not yet mastered the technique.
Historically, Bian Lian had rarely been seen outside of China because non-Chinese were not permitted to learn the art form, but since the mid-2000s it has been performed occasionally in international mass media and at Chinese themed events. Juliana Chen performed on The World’s Greatest Magic television special with a brief black-light performance of Bian Lian. Michael Stroud, (as The Magique Bazaar) performed Bian Lian on America’s Got Talent. Bian Lian was also featured on Penn & Teller’s Magic and Mystery Tour. In San Francisco, Bian Lian was featured at the China Town Autumn Moon Festival 2010-2012 and at the Miss National Asia 2011 and 2012 beauty pageants.
Since the cultural basis of the opera are not well known outside of China, international performers have been making efforts to inform and increase the entertainment value for Westerners.