The art of ‘Bian Lian’
From the brightly coloured masks and costumes to the performer’s rapid movements set to dramatic music, it isn’t hard to see why the art of ‘Bian Lian’ is captivating.
On November 18th, local ‘Bian Lian’ performer Edmond Wong Yik Tze treated the audience to a small performance before he began his talk: ‘Bian Lian’, The Art of Mask Changing of Chinese community’.
A 300-year-old Chinese tradition, ‘Bian Lian’ is originally part of the Sichuan Opera.
With a different, brightly-coloured mask to depict different characters such as the general, or a monk in their performance, Edmond said that his favourite character was the Monkey God.
“That is because you have to act extremely funny along with adding some characteristics of a monkey so that the audience will recognise that is the character of Monkey God, or else it will be mistaken for other characters such as the general, a wise man, a lady or the emperor,” said Edmond.
“The Monkey God is a very different character as he acts in a certain way.”
Edmond started learning the art of ‘Bian Lian’ six years ago when he met Master Chew, a ‘Bian Lian’ master from China who came to Kuching to perform. Master Chew is descended from a line of ‘Bian Lian’ performers.
A wedding planner by profession, Edmond had been organising weddings and functions, including cultural weddings, when he met Master Chew perform.
As Edmond has always been intrigued by ancient Chinese culture and history, he was naturally fascinated by what he saw during Master Chew’s performance and asked whether he could learn from him.
“He said ‘No’ as I was not of Sichuan descent,” said Edmond. “At the end, we had a conversation which lasted for hours talking about tradition and art.”
Edmond had related that he once learnt how to perform in an opera from a master, a Master Chen from China, who taught him during his schooldays. It so happened that he was an acquaintance of Master Chew’s, and from there he decided to teach Edmond.
Edmond learned all he could from Master Chew during the remaining three days he had in Kuching.
A tradition passed down from generation to generation, it is traditionally exclusively handed down from father to son.
Since it is a closely guarded secret, only males learn ‘Bian Lian’ as women will marry out, thus increasing the risk of secrets being passed down to another family.
“So, for girls born in the opera family, they would instead sing or do the trapeze,” said Edmond.
The origin of face changing was said to have started with a story about a hero who stole from the rich to give to the poor. When he was caught by feudal officials, he changed his face to confuse them and managed to escape.
According to Edmond, however, ‘Bian Lian’ was used to depict the story of the white snake where face changing is used towards the end of the story where the performers perform ‘Bian Lian’ to depict six generals who are sent by a powerful monk to catch the white snake.
“A lot of people, while watching the Sichuan opera, had to wait until the end to see the mask changing and from there, people kept on coming in because of that,” explained Edmond, explaining that face changing was created to attract the crowds to watch an opera performance.
“Before that, nobody wanted to see the beginning part of the opera and so the only way to make them stay was to find a way to attract the crowd.”
Interestingly, there are differences between traditional and non traditional ‘Bian Lian’.
Traditional Bian Lian uses a face painting technique which may be in different colours such as black, red white, or blue. As the face paint is oily, the performers will blow powder onto their faces, thus changing the colours.
According to Edmond, another technique used in traditional ‘Bian Lian’ is peeling multiple layers of powder from the face, noting that it is an extremely difficult technique to learn.
“As the performer has to peel off many layers from his face, he has to know the thickness of each layer as they would not be similar to each other,” said Edmond.
For non traditional ‘Bian Lian’, instead of using paint, the performers use paper masks instead, but as paper is not reusable, fabric is preferred.
He also noted that the steps and hand movements also played a significant role in ‘Bian Lian’.
With multiple layers of masks worn on his face, Edmond said that one of the challenges of ‘Bian Lian’ was running out of breath. He had to learn how to control his breathing while executing big dramatic movements during his performance.
As of now, Edmond can change up to 15 masks while performing.
Edmond observed that there was a growing interest among the people in Sarawak as ‘Bian Lian’ can be performed during any occasion.
He noted that the style of his performance and those from China still retained the originality of the characters they were depicting, making ‘Bian Lian’ gain popularity and interest especially among the locals.
A 300-year-old tradition, ‘Bian Lian’ is still one of the most captivating and intriguing forms of dramatic art incorporating history and culture in a performance. As a history enthusiast, Edmond hopes to learn not only about Chinese culture but also other cultures as well.