Facial Make-up in Peking Opera


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The origin of facial make-up used in Peking Opera can be traced back to the Southern and Northern Dynasties Period, more than 1,400 years ago, when leading actors used to wear masks. As the operatic arts developed, performers gradually took off their masks and painted colourful patterns on their faces instead so people could better see their facial expressions.

Facial make-up enables audiences to grasp the personality of a character portrayed and the character's social status at a glance.

Many societies in the world adopt colours associated with symbolic meanings. The same is true in China and in Peking Opera.

Peking Opera uses different colours in facial make-up to exaggerate or distort a performers' features, but originally, only three colours were used -- red, white and black - each with its own symbolic meaning. Red is the colour of loyalty, integrity and courage; black suggests a serious and taciturn disposition, including strength and roughness; white reveals a crafty and suspicious character. Later, other colours were gradually incorporated, such as purple -- a symbol of solemnity, serenity and a sense of justice; yellow, representing intelligence and calculation or bravery when used in warrior roles; blue shows uprightness and stubbornness; green indicates bravery and irascibility; and gold and silver are sometimes used on the faces of immortals, demons and monsters. Different colours can also distinguish nobility from the common folk, goodness from evil or loyalty from treachery.

Of the four roles of Peking Opera -- sheng, dan, jing and chou, only the jing and chou roles have elaborate facial make-up. There are relatively few make-up patterns for a chou role -- the most common being a white nose for comic relief. The make-up pattern of jing-role patterns are much more complicated and varied, such as the "whole-face," "three-tile face," "quartered face," "six-division face," "tiny-flowered face" and "lopsided face." Each pattern is rooted in his ability to reflect subtle and interesting changes in a human expression, and each pattern has its own symbolic meaning, as with Meng Liang, a warrior of the Song Dynasty. Red is the dominant colour of his facial make-up. On his forehead is the pattern of an inverted hulu (or gourd). This pattern represents a particular weapon called huohulu (or "gourd containing fire lighter") he uses.

Although facial make-up is extremely stylized in the colours and patterns used, no two painted faces are alike. For instance, there are more than 100 face-painting styles designed for Xiang Yu, the hero in Farewell My Concubine, and each one is very different.

we will focus on the various kinds of facial make-up and the different meanings that are conveyed with the various colours and designs.