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Dan Make-up and Head- dressing Workshop


24 June 2012

UK Limkokwing University of  
Creative Technology

UK Research and Development Centre for Chinese Traditional Culture


London Jing Kun Opera Association

On 24/6/2012, the UK Research and Development Centre for Chinese Traditional Culture (UKCTC) and the London Jing Kun Opera Association (LJKOA) held a lecture-demonstration on ‘Dan Make-up and Head-dressing’ at the UK Limkokwing University of Creative Technology. The speaker and make-up artist was Kunqu opera practitioner, Li Huixin (Kathy Hall), from LJKOA. She created glamorous dan faces on voluntary ‘models’ from the audience. It was a visual feast and a most informative session.


Stylised make-up is an essential component of a Chinese opera performance. Together with acting, movement, music, singing and percussion,  the bold lines and colours of the ‘painted-faces’ (‘hualian’ ), as demonstrated in this session, contributes to the vibrancy of Chinese operatic conventions. All these elements help to establish the typical characteristics of the different roles: the loveliness and elegance of the Dan (the lady); the scholarliness of the dashing Xiao Sheng (the young man); the dignity and authority of the Lao Sheng (the older man); the brusque, larger–than-life image of the Hua Lian (the Painted-Face); the crisp precision of the Wu Sheng (military man) and Wu Dan (military lady); and the farce and humour of the Chou (clown).


Mrs Hall took the audience step-by-step through the make-up process with explanation as she worked on the faces. Dan make-up is the same for Peking Opera and Kunqu Opera. It entails many time-consuming, complicated and highly skilful steps: the application of the foundation colours, two shades of rouge, dusting of powder to ‘set’ the base colours, further application of rouge highlights, outlining and filling in of the eye-brows, the heavy and provocative outlines ab ove theeyes, and the shaping of the lips into a small and delicate pout.


After the above steps comes the even more time-consuming work of the particular hair-style known as the ‘Big Head Wrap’ (Bao Da Tou) which is the most complicated Dan ‘hair-do’. This involves pulling up the eyebrows and the upper corners of the brow muscles with cloth tabs (a process known as Lei Tou), fixing  seven prepared loops of hair on the forehead and two large pieces down the outer sides of the cheek bones (Tie Pian Zi), tying on the long ‘panel’ of ‘hair’ at the back (Xian Lian Zi), securing a horse-hair cap over all the above (Zhong Wang Zi),  placing the central hair-pin (Da Zan) on the back of the head and tying the hair ‘bun’ (Fa Dian) onto it, andtying on at least 2 layers of long, gauze-like black silk (Shui Sha) to form a smooth, round head shape, the surface to which numerous decorative, glittering hair-pins of all shapes and sizes are pinned. The final step is the pinning on of cloth flowers to frame the cheeks.


The whole process can take 2 to 3 hours for a meticulously finished look. There is a popular saying among opera professionals which goes: ‘Make up early: threefold glory; make up late: threefold panic’. That is why any self-respecting professional will always set aside plenty of time to get ready.


The traditional method of preparing the ‘glue’ for the affixing of the hair-loops and side pieces is worth mentioning. Dried elm bark is soaked in warm water in a small bowl,  covered and then let stand for a few minutes before the softened bark is gently squeezed to produce more and more sticky sap. The hair pieces are ‘massaged’ in the sap, then carefully combed out on a board and shaped into the right-sized loops and side pieces for the face. As this process is fairly lengthy, Mrs Hall has prepared hair pieces a few hours before the lecture-demonstration and carefully kept them moist in foil paper. The vegetable glue is completely harmless to the skin, and is indeed a most valuable legacy from generations of actors on the Chinese stage.


Mrs Sherry Kuei Shan, the Chair of the UKCTC, concluded the session by saying that the UKCTC would continue to give a platform to many aspects of traditional Chinese culture, showcasing them to the world.

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