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The Unique Creation of Opera Characters

Putting on Makeup - an Artistic Crystallization of old Traditions

Before the emergence of proper theaters, Chinese performers mainly adopted the following two methods of makeup: Masks and facial painting.

The mask makeup originated from the ritual song and dance performances of primitive society. The Nuo dance was closely related to the development of Chinese theater. Performers of the Nuo dance wore masks to disguise themselves as gods, ghosts, historical and traditional figures, and weird birds and beasts to worship the deities and their ancestors, and drive out evil monsters and inauspicious objects. (Fig.7-7)

The drawback with a mask is that it has only one fixed facial expression, which hampers the actors' efforts to express themselves. Chinese theater made full use of varieties of masks and other means of projecting character images. (Fig.7-8)

The frequent change of masks is a special technique, known as "changing faces." This technique is used in many operas, especially Chuanju Opera. In the early days, actors had to leave the stage to change masks. But later, they learned how to do it on-stage without the audience noticing the operation. Facial makeup, too, can be cleverly done on- stage in the same way.

Opera facial painting falls into the following categories: Decorative makeup (decorated faces), personality makeup (facial designs), mood makeup (changing facial designs), and pictographic makeup (animal- like facial designs).

Decorative makeup refers to the facial decorations of sheng and dan actors, also known as sumian or Jingmian (elegant or clean faces). Their decorated faces are quite different from those of the jing and chou roles.

In the early days, sheng actors and dan actresses put on light makeup, because they performed under natural light. At the end of the Qing Dynasty, stage lighting was used, and actors and actresses had to put on heavy makeup by using greasepaint rather than fine powder. Though the sheng and dan performers do not have facial designs, their makeup is full of decorative interest. The pianzi (decorative hair on the forehead and temples) for the dan actress helps accentuate the facial outline and beautify the face. If an actress has a short and broad face, the pianzi can be pushed a little forward to make the face more slender Conversely, it can be pulled back a little to add broadness. Depending on the sex, age, personality and social status of each character, the sheng and dan performers use different colors and have different ways of painting their faces. (Fig.7-9)

Personality makeup refers to facial designs for jing and chou roles. Facial designs were developed on the basis of the facial painting of the Tang and Song dynasties, with the characteristics of folk arts popular in the Qing Dynasty added. In the early days, most facial designs were crude and simple, with great importance attached to the eyes and eyebrows. In the early years of the Qing Dynasty, there appeared a wide variety of facial designs. For instance, the facial designs of Peking Opera, which drew on the experience of the Anhui, Han, Kunqu and Qinqiang operas, have always formed a complete system. (Fig.7-10)

The facial designs for the jing roles in the Qing Dynasty were made by painting, powdering and coloring in the basic forms of Zhenglian (keeping the basic face pattern), sankuaiwalian(three-section face) and suilian(fragmentary face). These types were as widely used to represent generals, officials, heroes, gods and ghosts.

Red, yellow, white, black, purple, green and silver were the main colors used for facial designs to represent different characters. For instance, red stood for loyal, courageous and upright people; white for sinister and cunning officials; and golden and silvery colors for gods and ghosts.

The chou actors can be recognized by the patch of white in various shapes (cube-, date pit- or bat-shaped) painted around the eyes and nose. Sometimes these patches are outlined in black, hence the term xiaohualian (partly painted face). The chou roles fall into the following two categories: wenchou (civilian) and wuchou (military).

Rankou (artificial beard or whiskers worn by opera actors) are made of yak hair or human hair. The murals of the Yuan Dynasty found in the Prince Mingying Hall, Shanxi Province, show that rankou were similar to real beards and whiskers in ancient times. Later, copper wires were used to hook the rankou from behind the ears; consequently, various exaggerated and decorative rankou appeared. These changes enabled the actors to improve their arts of expression of feelings and personality Hence the formation of "rankou techniques." In general rankou comes in three different colors (black, gray and white ) representing characters of different ages. A small number of weird or violent figures, such as demons and spirits, wear red, purple or blue beards or whiskers. (Fig- 7-11)

Lavish Costumes

The costumes used in Chinese operas became more and more elaborate with the passage of time and the constant increase in the variety of repertoires. Historical costumes gradually blended with song- and-dance costumes; colors, styles and patterns were made richer in accordance with the requirements for stage performances. As each dynasty in Chinese history had its own unique costume, the number of different costumes is too great for performers to master. Hence anachronisms are allowable. Artists and costume designers and makers worked together to create costumes which would not be unwieldy on the stage and would be acceptable no matter when or where the action was supposed to take place. The stage images of some well-known historical figures, such as Guan Yu, Zhang Fei and Zhuge Liang, were already fixed in the Ming Dynasty.

Audiences can distinguish a character's sex and status at first glance, by the type of headdress, robes, shoes and accessories associated with the role.

Headdress Designated by the general term kuitou opera headdress comprises such items as crown, helmet, hat and scarf. Crowns are for the emperor and nobles; military people wear marshals, helmets; ordinary folks wear soft scarves or straw hats. Some headgear, such as crowns, are rigid, while others are soft.

Costume There are 20 major kinds of costumes, including the ceremonial robe, or mang the informal robe, or pei; and the armor, or kao, for soldiers. Ten colors are used, half of which are the five primary colors (or shangwuse), namely, red, green, yellow, white and black, in contrast to the other group of pink, blue, purple, pale-brown and pale- blue, all of which are labeled secondary colors (xiawuse). In the early days, opera costumes were mainly made of wool or coarse cloth; later, satin, crepe and silk were used, decorated with various meticulously embroidered patterns. The making of opera costumes is a special and unique stage craft. The costume box first appeared in the Ming Dynasty, and was greatly improved in the Qing Dynasty. (Fig.7-12)

Opera shoes A wide variety of shoes and boots are used in opera performance, mainly platform boots (houdixue),tiger-headed boots (hutouxue), thin-soled combat footwear made of black satin (kuaixue), fish-head pugilist's shoes, laced boxer's shoes, etc.

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