Drama in China: The Painted Face….

This is Part VI of a series of articles that is part theater history, part personal retrospect, from a time long ago when I was known in medieval society as Lao Tao-sheng – “Old One, Born to Tell Tales.” My own story started with performances of Waley’s “Monkey” at medieval themed feasts, and culminated in a “One Monkey Show” – a solo presentation of the first seven stories from “The Journey to the West” over the course of seven hours, one August day circa 1983-85 (memory fails as to the exact date). A synopsis of my resume is included in Part I of this series. Text in bold indicate research notes that I applied to my performances. My personal comments are in italics where I need to differentiate them from my research.

You will recall from the previous segment that costume was specific to the character rather than the play. Makeup followed the same rules though face paint was used sparingly until the 15th century, at which point it became codified for the Peking (now Beijing) opera.

In the earliest periods, masks were used (possibly stemming from those worn by monks during religious rituals). Warrior-roles might have used wooden masks, beasts and demons might use paper ones. Masks were ‘in harmony’ with the whole character and helped define the actor’s role. Masks followed the same system of color symbolism as the costume, and always matched what the actor was wearing. Some masks emphasized features or expressions of a specific role, others transformed the actor’s face into a symbol, like a cloud to signify ‘the god of the clouds’, or a beast or demon.

Show at left is one of my earliest performances of the Monkey King. I was wearing mostly Tibetan clothing at the time, and a stylized mask instead of face paint.

Makeup was used sparingly in early medieval drama. (I assume that theater makeup evolved from the cosmetics used by women of the period, descriptions of which follow.) Face powder was made from chalk or ground rice (dating to 770-476 BCE) or lead. Rouge was made from extracting the juice from red and blue flowers and mixing it with rice powder (Shang Dynasty). Lips were colored with vermillion mixed with mineral wax and animal fat. Eyebrows were darkened with sticks of charcoal made from willow tree, or dai – a blue mineral that was ground to a powder and mixed with water.

During the T’ang Dynasty, the glittery mendhi-style accent in the middle of the forehead may have been a ‘huadian’ made from foil paper, fish scale or dragonfly wings.

Once face paint gained more common usage for Chinese theater (I believe closer to the 16th-17th centuries), it also became exaggerated and very stylized. Eyebrows were the first part of an actor’s face that were enhanced. Rising to a slant at the outer end gave the impression of firmness, courage and determination. Later on, face paint progressed to to use around the eyes, nostrils and the corners of the mouth.

  • Simple Face used one color predominated and only the eyebrows were augmented.
  • Old Face was painted in grey or a sickly pink, with only the eyebrows augmented, with the ends being drawn down at the temples.
  • Shattered Face was used to denote an evil man, bandit, traitor or someone who was injured. It consisted of colored curves, lines and spirals, with the nose or an eye distorted by an angle of painted lines.
  • Three Brick Mask was one of the oldest styles. A stripe was painted above the eyebrows and across the eyes to divide the face in half horizontally, and then another line was painted vertically down the nose and mouth. This style was made more complicated later by painting designs onto the plain colored backgrounds.
  • Scholars, ministers and young heroes had white faces with a touch of pink in the middle of the brow (which I think was an adaptation of women’s court makeup from the T’ang Dynasty).
  • Women’s roles used pale pink foundation, with peony pink on their cheeks and around their eyes, extending up to their brows. It was further stylized by high arched eyebrows and slanting corners to the eyes. (This style would become a favorite of mine for a few other ‘roles’.)

Color schemes

  • A white face with no other color could denote cruelty, or a dignified villain. A square or oblong painted in the center of the face denoted a comic who was cunning but not necessarily bad.
  • A solid black face could denote an evil person, or one who ruled by the iron law of state rather than by personal interest.
  • A combination of black and white denoted a warrior.
  • A red face denoted a hero, military commander, or other courageous man
  • Brown and purple were incorporated into the faces of educated officials and roles who possessed strength and courage but who could not always outwardly demonstrate it.
  • Blue could indicate a role that was uncultured, rough, or possibly cruel
  • Yellow or gold was often used to depict gods or supernatural characters
  • Green depicted devils and demons

I include beards here because I consider them part of makeup rather than costume. They hung on a wire supported by the actor’s ears and rested on the upper lip. They were never adhered to an actor’s face during the medieval period.

A waist-length beard was a sign of prosperity, wealth, courage and strength. Narrow whiskers hanging in three strands from both ears and the chin signified a married man. A thick, short beard indicated a rough, self-indulgent man.

Although I was presenting a 16th century text, I was doing so as a 13th century storyteller. I patterned my face paint after the Golden Monkey (Rhinopithecus roxellanae, shown below), with its blue face and long red hair, a now endangered species native to the mountain forests of Sichuan province, upon whom I surmised the fabled Monkey King might be based.

By this time in my storytelling career, I was gifted frequently with Monkey King and Chinese Opera related treasures. I even remember decorating a Christmas tree one year in miniature opera masks and trinkets of jade…

Resources I used in the writing of this chapter include:

  • The Classical Theatre of China by A.C. Scott, Greenwood Press Publishers, Westport, Connecticut, 1957
  • Chinese Theater by Kalvodova Si s-Vanis, Spring Books, London, 1957
  • China Daily, Cao Chen staff writer, April 21, 2018

There was on top of that very mountain an immortal stone, which measured thirty-six feet and five inches in height and twenty-four feet in circumference… Since the creation of the world, it had been nourished by the seeds of Heaven and Earth and by the essences of the sun and the moon, until, quickened by divine inspiration, it became pregnant and gave birth to a stone egg, which was transformed into a Stone Monkey…

Thanks for your note! As an anti-spam measure, comments are moderated and will appear once they are approved :)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: