Modifying Tradition: Tian-Ming Wu’s King of Masks

220px-KingofmasksWe all have traditions. Sometimes the reason traditions fail to thrive is because we don’t allow them to change.

Tian-Ming Wu’s film King of Masks takes us to the China of the 1930s, where we meet an aged street performer, Wang Bianlian. He is a master at the art of bian lian, mask changing, in which silk masks are removed at dazzling speeds to reveal changes in mood or character. The mechanism and techniques behind this art are secret, passed on only to male heirs. Much to his anguish, Wang has no son. After turning down a serious job offer from a star performer of the Sichuan Opera, Wang decides to buy a child. He finds a feisty young thing who takes to him immediately and proves to be a hard worker. At last his dreams are coming true and he will be able to pass his skills to the young boy. But fate plays one more trick: the boy, affectionately named Doggie (a term of endearment in China), is really a girl in disguise. Surely he cannot pass his skills on to a girl, considered a liability by society! How desperate will Wang need to become before he will consider doing so?

Video via sonico67 on Youtube. This is a beautiful film which asks some deep questions about tradition and reveals the paradoxical need for change in order to keep it alive. The portrayal of women, or perhaps the lack of it, is shocking. The Sichuan Opera of the 1930s doesn’t employ women. Wang’s friend at the opera is a famous female impersonator, a man playing women’s roles, sighed after by generals. The stigma against women and against them having any sort of work outside of the home is so great that Wang would almost let his art die before teaching Doggie. Almost.

Here is a stunning excerpt from a more recent Sichuan Opera performance featuring mask changing. Note that one of the performers is female.

Video via blur Wu on Youtube.

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