Li Zhiyuan
Assistant Professor of Art, Chinese National Academy of Arts

Beijing opera dates back over two hundred years to the Qing dynasty, although its roots can be traced back to the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE). While there are many aspects that make Beijing opera a unique cultural asset, the facial makeup used on performers is world renowned for its exquisiteness and mystique.

The exaggerated designs serve to symbolize any given character’s personality, role, and fate. Applying facial makeup involves three broad and loosely categorized steps. The initial step is a basic cleaning to prepare the face to accept the coloring pigments; this can be likened to an artist priming a canvas for his creative work.

The next stage in the process of makeup application is somewhat variable, depending on the needs of the opera and the character being made up, but it is essentially a matter of creating outlines on the face and applying pigments. During the outlining process and pigment application, the artist must consider several factors that will allow for a proper result.

For example, the sheng or main male roles in the opera are divided into subtypes, and their makeup is thus applied differently according to the subtype. The young male characters (xiaosheng) are beautified with smooth and even pigments to create a sense of beauty, and child characters have a single Spanish red dot between their eyebrows.

For a laosheng role, the actor will adorn his face with artificial whiskers to depict age and wisdom. On the other hand, the dan or female roles, which are also subdivided into various types, are generally made up to accentuate the actors’ beauty. This is the case for even the female warriors (daomadan) who are at once mighty yet beautiful.

For other characters such as the clown or comic figures (chou), the makeup artist will apply a single patch of white pigment that differs in shape and size to help distinguish one character from another and act as a visual cue to understanding the personality of the character.

It is also important to note that no matter who the character is, or the role being performed, there are conventions in color usage to help the audience identify the nature of the characters. For example, red makeup is representative of loyalty and bravery; yellow and white show duplicity; black indicates heroism and gallantry; and gold and silver are signs of mystery.

After the outlines are created and the appropriate pigment s are applied, there is a third and final step to the makeup application. The actors’ have their facial skin pulled back tightly to make the eyebrows and eyes appear sharper. The skin is held back by a flat black ribbon that is tied tightly around the back of the head. The women in the dan roles then don a peen jee, which are similar to artificial bangs that line the forehead and accentuate the beauty of the character.

With the makeup complete, the actors put on their elaborate costumes and headgear, which are equally as symbolic as the makeup on their faces. These costumes and accessories are meant to complement, not compete with the colors used in the facial makeup. When the actors go on stage in their full dress, they look out into the world as they embody the harmonious beauty of Chinese tradition in the form of facial makeup for the Beijing Opera.