Hong Kong entertainment star Andy Lau recently brought the traditional face-changing performance of Sichuan Opera into the limelight by persuading one of the three face-changing masters in China, Peng Denghuai, to accept him as an apprentice.
Insiders said Lau offered 3 million yuan (US$360,000) as a gift at his first meeting with Peng.
Peng had almost accepted Lau's petition when the Central Government sent him instructions saying he should not pass the unique skill down to Lau.
Wang Zhe, 22, who is a face-changing performer for the Yuyuan Stage in Shanghai, said a Shanghai celebrity promised to give him 120,000 yuan (US$14,500) in exchange for teaching the skill, but he had refused the offer.
"Financial lures are the biggest menace to this national treasure that was first recognized by Premier Zhou Enlai," Wang said. "Another is copying by non-professional performers, who are only seeking to make money."
As a national treasure, the secret skills of face-changing cannot be revealed just to anyone.
Today, approximately 100 people in the country have inherited authentic skills, with certificates issued by an institute of the Sichuan Opera in that province.
However, some Sichuan cuisine restaurants in Shanghai claim they had invited face-changing performers to their eateries in order to attract more diners.
"Many magicians are studying the act, hoping to discover the secret. They might make similar expressions, but they remain far removed from authentic performers. They switch faces too slowly," Wang said.
He learnt face-changing from Zhou Zhongchun, one of the master gurus of the trade, when he was 16.
He was originally employed by the Dalian TV Station but he decided to perform in Shanghai because he wanted to "let foreigners appreciate this art on the Yuyuan Stage, where most of the audience come from other countries."
Yet doubts and criticism have arisen concerning excessive exposure, due to worries the plethora of performance of the traditional art could betray its secrets.
Wang did not think that was a serious worry, but he was unsure whether all 100 skilled face-changers would be able to resist the temptation of big money.
"Traditional operas are sagging and greater popularity among both domestic and foreign people is necessary," Wang said. "But I would never perform in a restaurant or at some opening ceremony of a company."
Zhang Jun, a local Kunju Opera actor, said it was not wrong for arts to carry and create commercial benefits, but that didn't mean they could be displayed for any purpose.
"We must let more people know and love them, then they won't be lost because they would become more and more popular," Zhang said. "Like David Copperfield, who has held numerous shows around the world, while remaining a first-class magician who completely mystifies his audiences."
Wang agreed with Zhang's comments: "I have practised the art for six years and I still have lots to learn. Those who steal the skills will never be as good as an authentic performer."
A changing art
Face-changing first appeared in Sichuan Opera during the reign of the Qing Dynasty Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795).
The changing of types of lianpu (Chinese opera facial make-up) and colours reflect a character's mood - red representing anger and black extreme fury - just as in fairy tales.
Face-changing was first used in a story about a hero who stole from the rich to help the poor. When he was caught by feudal officials, he changed his face to puzzle them and escaped as a result.
In the very beginning, this art was far simpler than it is today.
Performers put oil on their faces and applied colourful powder from a container placed in a hidden corner on the stage.
When they blew onto the powder, it would be absorbed onto the face.
But in spite of these professional performances, no one knew how the artists were able to blow the powder in order to make the facial makeup so accurate in no more than a few seconds.
Another method involved hiding the coloured powder on the performer's palms. They would then mop it up onto their faces with oil.
These two techniques are seldom used these days, but Wang refused to reveal the method that has replaced them.
In ancient times, performers could change between only a few faces.
In 1994, performers could change between four faces in a show. By 1998, the number of faces had risen to eight. Today the number has increased still further, to 18, even including faces on the back of the head.
From costumes to make-up, the performers have to make everything themselves. They usually have their own compartment backstage.
"My master Zhou takes his own sewing machine wherever he goes, even abroad," Wang said.
As tradition goes, the art can only be passed down to boys.
Wang's master has two daughters but he was not willing to teach them.
"My master told it is only when I think I have become a master of this art in turn that I am entitled to take an apprentice. Passing it on for money is not acceptable," Wang said.
(Shanghai Star September 28, 2003)