As one of the major schools of opera in China, the Sichuan Opera has a long history. It originated about 400 years ago at the end of the Ming Dynasty and the beginning of the Qing Dynasty. At that time, there were several different forms of popular theatre in the Sichuan area which gradually developed and blended to emerge as the present Sichuan Opera. Today's Sichuan Opera is a modern synthesis of 5 historic melodic styles. Sichuan Opera is well-known in China, and it is characterized by solo singing, skillful acting, rich percussion and incredibly funny comedies. Performers wear brightly colored costumes and move to quick, dramatic music. They also wear vividly colored masks that they may change within a fraction of a second. The magic stunts such as quick face changes without makeup and the acrobatics such as jumping through burning hoops and hiding swords entertain and amuse audiences. The magical face changes are particularly famous.
Face changing, or "bian lian" in Chinese, began about 300 years ago during the reign of the Qing Dynasty Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795). It is an important aspect of Sichuan Opera, and the precise techniques that are used to change masks in modern Sichuan Opera is a closely guarded secret. The secrets have been passed down within theatre families from generation to generation. In contemporary opera, performers wave their arms and twist their heads, and their painted masks are changed again and again, much to the astonishment and amusement of the audience.
At the beginning, the color of performers' faces changed through the means of powder blown from bowls of colored powder. The powder would adhere to their oiled skin. Another method was to smear their faces with colored paste concealed in the palms of their hands. Red represented anger, and black represented extreme fury.
By 1920, performers were using layers of masks made of materials such as paper. Skilled performers peeled off one mask after another. Modern day performers use full-face painted silk masks, which can be worn in layers of as many as twenty-four. Skilled opera stars can change about 10 masks in 20 seconds. It is amazing to watch actors change their masks with a magical sweep of a hand or the turning of the head. It is difficult to see the masks being changed.