The Secret of Chinese Face Mask Changing

December 12, 2009 Updated: September 29, 2015

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He Hongqing is China's fastest performer of face mask changing, a dazzling display of gesture and trickery that forms an important part of traditional Sichuan Opera.

The 45-year-old artist makes all of the silk face masks, which he switches at mind-boggling speeds in his popular performances.

He usually wears ten layers of masks, and pulls them off at lightning speed, one by one, during the show.

The techniques behind face changing are considered one of China's national treasures, and in the past were only passed on within families.

He admitted using a form of trigger within his costume to control the masks, but refused to give away any more tricks of the trade.

[He Honqqing, Opera Performer]:
"The triggers for the masks can be hidden anywhere on the costume – from the head dress down to the boots. You could say anywhere is possible."

Face changing began 300 years ago, long after the original Sichuan opera – a traditional Chinese opera originating in China's southwestern Sichuan province.

Swapping the brightly colored masks is used to reflect changes in a character's mood, He explained.

One performance at a Chengdu teahouse was well received by the audience.

[Darren Yao, Spectator]:
"I adjusted the shutter to a two-hundredth of a second, but I still couldn't see any clues. It really is amazing. Plus the decoration of the masks is just so uniquely Chinese."

While audiences are invited to enjoy the performance, He and others are doing everything they can to keep the secrets behind their masks secret.