In feudal China, women were forbidden to perform on stage. This resulted in male opera singers performing the female roles with Opera face painting.
By Lisa Reyes, Imperial Tours Marketing Associate
Don’t let portable electronics eat up that precious family time you fought so hard for. Following a custody arrangement, think outside the box when planning family travel. Not just the destination, but experiences that will connect you with your kids while transporting you to a different world. New experiences together mean more memories that form the glue of serious bonding that can ease the aftermath of a divorce. An iPad shouldn’t replace your ex on family trips, make every second count and generate the stories that will be shared at family gatherings for years to come.
One such story I have is when my mother and I visited China. Our commitment to staying off technology allowed us to have many unique bonding experiences that we will always remember, like the time we transformed ourselves into traditional Beijing opera costumes.
Opera Face Painting and Female Impersonators
In Chinese opera, there are twice as many female role types (or dan) as there is male. The term dan means “female impersonator”; however, this was not an early version of Ru Paul’s Drag Race. In the feudal society of old China, women were forbidden to perform on stage, let alone enter the theatre. This resulted in male opera singers performing the female roles in Beijing opera.
The process to apply the makeup is 3 hours. It begins with a heavy layer of white foundation and powder because the Chinese admired fair skin. This foundation is also applied to our hands. Rouge accents are applied on the cheeks and swept upwards, with the eyes themselves circled in rouge. Eyebrows and eyelids are lined and darkened, while lips are drawn small and round. In order to make the ends of our eyes tilt upwards, our hair was pulled back and fixed in place with adhesive tape, then covered in fake hair.
The hair application begins with elm tree shavings soaked in hot water. A gel is formed and used as an adhesive to apply the fake hair on the forehead and side of the face, giving the male actor a more feminine appearance. This was our least favorite part of the experience, as my Mom referred to the sideburns coated in gel as “slithery eels”.
Putting Beauty into Every Motion
We scanned the closet of elaborate layered gowns before deciding on our favorites. Were we ready for our private photo session? Not quite. A former star of the Beijing opera was on hand to demonstrate hand gestures and vivacious eye movements, characteristic of the dan role: expressing joy or excitement, identifying oneself, and expressing salutation. The highest aim of performers is to put beauty into every motion, so the eyes are used to conduct non-verbal communication. A shift of the eyes or a slight nod of the head conveys significant meaning. Even the manner in which a dan holds her hands represents the petals of an orchid flower. It’s a lot harder than it sounds.
The result was an amazing collection of portraits, saved on CD for us to always cherish. The reaction on people’s faces when they see our pictures is priceless (followed by “That’s really you?!?”). You don’t often get that kind of reaction from travel photos. It was probably the best souvenir we’ve ever brought back from our travels.
Is Beijing opera a dying Art in China?
Some say the Beijing opera is a dying art in China because it evolved into Revolutionary opera during the Cultural Revolution and most modern audiences don’t understand the historical contexts. You’d be surprised to learn the girl who applied my makeup was no more than 18 years old.
So there you have it: a travelogue of a mother and daughter bonding over dressing up like men who performed as women. Nothing appeals to your inner child like the lure of theatrical makeup and costumes.
A traveler from a very young age, Lisa designed her first itinerary for a class project at age 11. She began her career in travel in 1995 at the age of 20, inspired by various trips to Mexico, Hawaii, and Jamaica. Happy to share her enthusiasm, knowledge, and experience with others, she has traveled extensively throughout Europe, China, and most recently to Colombia. When not traveling, she indulges in her other passion as a mobile dj. She is currently a Marketing Associate with Imperial Tours, the leading luxury tour operator based in China offering customized private tours and scheduled escorted group departures that combine local expertise with the high levels of service and quality expected by sophisticated Western travelers.