The art of facial makeups in Chinese operas boasts a long history. In ancient China, there was a form of dance called nuo which was performed at ritual ceremonies to frighten off the ghosts and evil souls and to relieve people of epidemics. Masks were used by performers when they danced. In some areas the nuo ritual ceremonies were later transformed into theatrical performances. Another example of using masks was that of Prince Lanling of the Northern Qi Period (550-577 A. D. ) . It is said that Prince Lanling excelled in martial arts but was too handsome to terrorize the enemy. So he al ways wore a ferocious-looking mask in battles in order to overwhelm the enemy. This story was later brought onto the stage in the Southern and Northern Dynasties as well as in the Sui and Tang dynasties (420-907 A. D. ) . The masks used by the performers at the ritual ceremonies and in the performing art undoubtedly had a bearing on the origination of the facial makeups. In the Tang Dynasty(618-907 A.D. ) , masks continued to be applied in low comedy, and at the same time artists started to dye their faces in portrayal of super-human beings. In the Ming Dynasty(1318-1644 A.D.) , division of roles among actors became more classified on the basis of the Yuan Dynasty (1271- 1368 A.D.) operas and the facial makeups were gradually standardized. In the Qing Dynasty(1644-1911 A.D. ) , with the springing up of Beijing Opera, the art of facial makeups was increasingly perfected. And toward the end of the Qing Dynasty, the facial makeups for different categories of characters became finalized.
Facial makeups are a special art in Chinese operas which distinctly show the appearances of different roles as well as their dispositions and moral qualities by means of artistic exaggeration combined with truthful portrayal and symbolism. Facial makeups also serve to express praise or condemnation toward the characters.
In some local operas, facial makeups are applied to all the different roles while in Beijing Opera, the most representative of Chinese operas, facial makeups are limited only to the roles of jing and chou. A chou is characterized by his white-painted nose which gives a comic effect and there are relatively few facial makeup patterns for a chou role. There are a large variety of facial makeup patterns for jing in Beijing Opera, namely, "whole face", "three-tile face", "quartered face", "six-division face", "tiny-flowered face" , "lopsided face" , etc.
beijing operaDifferent colours such as red, yellow, blue, white, black, purple, green, gold and silver are used for facial makeups. The main colour in a facial makeup symbolizes the disposition of the character. Red indicates devotion, courage and uprightness. Yellow signifies fierceness, ambition and cool-headedness. Blue represents staunchness, fierceness and astuteness. White suggests sinisterness, treacherousness, suspiciousness and craftiness. Black symbolizes roughness and fierceness. Purple stands for uprightness, sophistication and cool-headedness. Gold and silver colours are usually used for gods and spirits.
Facial makeups are not only a special art in Chinese operas, but also an art of ornamental design, and have become a new variety in Chinese painting.