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Face-Changing in Sichuan: From Sons to Daughters

Here are our friends from SWUFE, with Jim and me in the middle, at the tea house dinner.

On our last night in Chengdu, our kind hosts took us to dinner at an ancient teahouse. Afterward, we moved into a large room set up as a theatre for a performance of Sichuan opera.  As we soon saw, Sichuan opera is very unlike the tragic majesty of Western opera, but is instead a comic and popular form, closer in spirit to operetta or even vaudeville.

The show opened with what could only be called a chorus line.  The girls were dressed in slinky white dresses with Chinese collars.  Their hair was pulled back in a sleek updo–they looked like a neat row of Anna Mae Wong clones and they were beautiful.  Moving into a gently flirtatious dance, they opened and closed their fans in time to the music.

Sichuan Chorus line

A more animated attitude commands attention from the audience.

One of the dancers was more engaged than the rest.  Her facial expressions and physical attitudes were saucy and seductive, though she must have been staring into darkness. The other girls were, if you will excuse the expression, only going through the motions. It is always dangerous, of course, to impose an interpretation from one culture onto another, but I was reminded of the research I did on the chorus girl phenomenon of the 20th century in America for Fresh Lipstick.  Young girls, bored in their rural hometowns, would run away with a traveling company, hoping to end up on a stage in New York, where they might charm a rich man looking for a party partner.  These men would pay for their apartments and pretty clothes, coming to visit them in the evenings and on weekends–but leaving their wives and children at home.  This was the beginning of a trend that was extremely threatening to upper and middle class women, creating a chasm that persisted throughout the century.  In any case, these chorus girl stories usually began with a girl who could charm from the chorus line, smiling and tilting her head in a way that made her seem distinctive even as she danced in a group of similar young women who were dressed all alike.  Watching this young woman in the Sichuan opera allowed me to experience, from a long distance in time and culture, how that happens.

This young woman is probably more interested in a modeling contract or a film role than a play pal, of course. Here we have one of the key differences between the gender economy of the modern world and that of traditional societies.  Arthur Marwick wrote in his History of Human Beauty that one reason modernity was a positive development for women was that, even if lower class or uneducated or without job skills, a pretty girl could sometimes make money off her looks without necessarily having to have sex.  Basically, they were able to sell their image and not their bodies.  Counterintuitive as it may seem to more conventional thinkers, his premise is quite true.  It has taken me twenty years to grasp the magnitude of that observation.

In another number, the chorus girls performed in a more traditional costume, this time reminding me much more of The Mikado‘s Three Little Maids.  Again, they were charming and playful and, again, the one young woman was more noticeable than the others, not for her dancing, but for her flirtatious expression.  They were all lovely.  Jim took some wonderful pictures, including one where a little girl watched, admiring, from the edge of the stage.

Three Little Maids in Chengdu

I found interesting, too, a dance that was done with see-through plastic umbrellas. I imagine paper parasols were originally used.  The umbrella (and perhaps before that, a parasol) was being used much like a fan, as a device for flirtation.  The modern prop works just as well, since it is not about the materials, after all, but what you do with them.  But it reminded me of several scenes from The Source where a cellphone suddenly appears amidst a heated argument over gender roles, creating a striking contrast between the traditions of the past and the props of the present.

The young women in Sichuan opera perform a flirtatious dance with modern plastic umbrellas.

There was also an act that appeared to be HoneymoonersSichuan style.  In this, a woman cajoles, coaxes, and tricks a man (her husband?) into a series of acrobatic stunts while maintaining a lighted candle on his head.  It was quite an impressive display of acrobatics, I must say, and the audience found it very funny.

Sichuan sitcom?

Of course, the whole evening builds up to the big draw of Sichuan opera, which is the traditional “face-changing” performance.  Four elaborately costumed men came onto the stage, each wearing brightly painted traditional masks.  As they whirled and gestured around the stage, they would periodically pass a hand over their faces and–behold!–a different face would appear where there was another before.  The audience loved the trick, though I expect they had seen it many times, while it was our first experience.

The same performer changes the mask several times during the performance, as if by magic. A sweep of the arm and suddenly a different pattern and color appear.

And here she is at last, the girl behind the mask!

At the opera’s end, the face-changers all took off their masks, so you could see their real faces.  The surprise was that one of them was a young girl.  My hosts were astounded.  Apparently, face-changing is traditionally done only by men.  As a secret skill, it has been passed from father to son, but not to daughters.

Many things are changing in China, as around the world.  Some of the changes are difficult for everyone.  Some, like this one, are simply light-hearted surprises that remind you to laugh and to hope.