Beijing Opera set
Paige Pulaski
Kumadori makeup
Japanese Kabuki theatre and Chinese Beijing
Opera are traditional theatre forms that place
faith in the power of facial expression to portray
dramatic characters and theatrical stories. In
most cases, both forms of theatre have forgone
masks in lieu of thick facial makeup. There are
several similarities and differences in color and
its meaning, placement of lines on the face,
and types of characters that the makeup
Japanese Kabuki theatre
has become modernized in
some ways, such as the
shortened length of
performances for today’s
on-the-go audience, but the
makeup tradition has mostly
remained the same. The
makeup is used to indicate
age, gender, class, fate,
mood, personality, and
sometimes species of each
character. Characters can
be classified by the color of
the base, the placement of
lines on the face, and the
colors used to accent
Kumadori makeup
Kabuki actors arrive at the theatre
no later than thirty minutes before
the show begins and check in by
sticking a peg in the chakutoban. As
the actors enter the gakuya, or
dressing room, each actor goes
through a series of steps to apply
their own makeup. The process is
very ritualistic and helps the actor
tap in to the psyche and body of the
character they are portraying. The
first part of the ritual is to place a
silk cap on the head, called a
habutae, to keep the hair of the
actor down underneath the wig.
Next, oils and waxes are applied to
the face to help hold the makeup to
the skin.
Female makeup
The actor then applies a base, depending on the type of character that they are
playing. The white base is signatory of leading, higher class characters. Onnagata
are male actors who specialize in playing female roles. Female characters in Kabuki
theatre are usually represented by actors with bright white faces, accented with red
highlights on the eyes and soft pink shading on the cheeks. Those men playing
females extend the white base down the back so that all exposed skin would be
cohesively presentational. White represents purity. In the eighth century, the white
base, called oshiroi, was ordinarily created from chestnuts or glutinous rice. The
lower class characters in Kabuki, such as merchants and farmers, are distinguished
by their more naturalistic flesh colors or sometimes tan or darker colors since the
supporting characters were known to work outside. Villains are delineated by the
color red, which is reminiscent of alcoholism and boisterousness.
Next, actors apply lines atop the
base. The Kabuki makeup is waterbased, which yields the most
effective results for color
brightness and is applied with a
board brush called an ita-hake. The
ita-hake is a few inches wide, but is
very thin, like a board. Almost all
characters use the color black to
line the eyes and paint the lips for
definition. The actors then use
sponges to blend the bright colors
in to the white base. Men then
apply the black paint to their lips to
show the mouth curving downward
while women character’s mouths
are painted to look smaller.
Ita-hake brushes for sale
Kumadori makeup
An aragoto hero, which
translates to “rough” or
“violent business”, is the
style of acting that uses
kumadori makeup “which
involves the painting on the
face of bold lines of
principally red or blue in a
way somewhat reminiscent
of Peking Opera” and is
influenced by Buddhist
statue facial expressions
and Noh masks. This type of
facial makeup is thought to
have been created by
Ichikawa Danjuro I.
Each color is representative of a different virtue or type of character. The color of the
lines used in kumadori makeup signify emotion or other character traits. Dark red
represents ire, passion, or cruelty. Dark blue usually indicates melancholy or
depression. Other colors that are infused with meaning are pink which represents
youth or joy, pale blue or green which represent calmness, purple which represents
royalty or nobility, brown which represents greed or selfishness, and black which
represents paranoia or fear. Red lines on a white base prove strength; blue lines on a
white base flag the character as a ghost; brown lines on a white base mark the
character as a type of creature as in the Kabuki play Tsuchi Gumo where the earth
spider character is painted on his face and body with brown lines.
Tsuchi Gumo
During the Edo period, four classes of
characters were determined and are as
follows: samurai, farmer, craftsman,
and merchant. Tachi-yaku is the leading
man type or “man of virtue”. Villains
are titled kataki-yaku and dokegata are
comedians, while hando are comic
villains. Leading male characters
generally paint their faces with
exaggerated eyebrows that move
upwards toward the temples. Contour
lines follow along the cheek bones and
out from the eyes. These lines give the
character a powerful presence that
commands attention and respect.
Ghosts tend to have more lines on the
bottom of their face, moving from their
nose to chin to elongate and alienate
their presence, like the Ghost of
Tomomori from Funa Benkei.
The Ghost of Tomomori
However, not all male
characters in the Kabuki
theatre are harsh and
powerful. The wagoto style of
acting is relatively realistic
and lends itself to a different
makeup style. Izaemon, a
comic lover in the Kabuki
play Kuruwa Bunsho, has an
all-white face and thin,
defined eyebrows. The
overall look is almost foppish
and, instead of seeming
refined, the white face looks
effeminate, childish, and
Silk cloth example
In comparison, symmetrical kumadori paint is akin to the facial paint of the Beijing
Opera, but does more to enhance the expression of the actors, rather than whiting
out almost all of the actors’ natural facial features. However, like the Beijing Opera,
both theatres capitalize on the signature facial designs. The Beijing Opera has been
known to sell paraphernalia, such as fans and postcards, with the characters’ facial
designs printed on them. Tourists are attracted to Kabuki theatre because of the
spectacle and visual aesthetic. Because of this, a common souvenir is a silk cloth
that has been used to remove the actors’ facial makeup and depicts an imprint of
the characters’ features.
Female makeup application demonstration:
 Male makeup application demonstration:
 For fun:
The Beijing Opera also utilizes stage
makeup to communicate to the audience
the age, class, gender, personalities, and
fates of the characters in the plays. The
Beijing Opera receives state aid and is a
formal part of the Chinese government.
For instance, one of the largest
companies, the China Peking Opera
Company has the duty of preserving the
two hundred-year-old art form. The
National School of Peking Opera was
established in 1952 to train children from
the ages of ten to twenty to perform a
specific role or type of role that they will
be able to play for years. Like the Kabuki
theatre, tradition ties the actors and
audience together in a way of
understanding what types of characters
appear on stage through makeup design.
Beijing Opera set
Entering the Palace Twice
At the outset of this art form, only three
sharply contrasting colors – red, white,
and black – were used. Now, more
colors have been added and assigned
meaning, like the Kabuki theatre. Red
signifies loyalty or courage like the
character Guan Yu, the general of the
Three Kingdoms period. Characters
painted purple are just and solemn, like
Xu Yanzhao in Entering the Palace
Twice. Black signifies loyalty and
integrity, such as Judge Bao; however,
black can also determine a rough and
forthright character, such as Zhang Fei.
Watery white signifies evil and treachery
while oily white signifies power or
egotism. An example of the treacherous
and cunning white paint is the general
of the Three Kingdoms period, Cao Cao.
Blue symbolizes valor and problem-solving, but sometimes also indicates
bravery and pride such as Ma Wu in Go to The Imperial Palace. Green
signifies chivalry and gentlemanliness, yellow signifies brutality and cruelty,
dark red signifies strength and loyalty, gray signifies crotchetiness and
miserliness, and gold signifies godliness or supernaturalness. For example,
the color pink is places in the cheeks of the characters Meng Liang and Jiao
Zan in the beginning of a Yang Romance play which clues the audience in to
their youthfulness and cheerfulness. Later in the play, however, the same
two characters have removed the pinkness to depict the passage of time
and aging. In contrast, the color white in the Kabuki theatre is a tool used to
show purity or innocence while in the Beijing Opera white symbolizes
wickedness and viciousness while black is used to show equality and
Ma Wu
Unlike the makeup of the Kabuki theatre,
the Beijing Opera more elaborately
decorates the faces of their actors. Patterns
often reflect bat, swallow, or butterfly wings
upon the face. The Beijing Opera divides the
makeup designs in to specific types of
patterns based on where the patterns exist
on the face; painted faces include several
types: three-tile face, six-tenth face, crss
face, and white-powdered full face name a
few. Facial expressions of the actual actor
are exaggerated to match the demands of
the characters. For instance, an actor
playing an older character might have crow’s
feet painted next to their eyes. Since the
Beijing Opera has its roots in outdoor
performance, the makeup was designed to
amplify facial features to broad audiences.
Brows are thickened, eyes are widened,
noses are manipulated by contour lines,
mouths are widened, and ears were also
Beijing Opera set
Mei Lanfang
Lanfang as Drunken Beauty
Different than the Kabuki theatre, the
Beijing opera specifically assigns a
unique makeup design to each
particular character in an opera. No
two designs are alike although they fit
in to general categories. In further
contrast, the Beijing Opera now allows
female dam performers, instead of only
allowing males to play both male and
female characters. However, the
makeup of the female character
remains the same whether male or
female actor underneath. Mei Lanfang,
the greatest Beijing Opera dam
performer of this century actually
served as a catalyst for Bertolt Brecht’s
Verfremdungseffekt because of the
hyper-awareness that the male actor
was famous for portraying women.
Children sing a song about identifying characters of the
Beijing Opera by their colors:
Example of Beijing Opera Performance:
The Drunken Concubine:
Game: Makeup Your Own Opera Star:
Beijing Opera Makeup App for iPhone:
The famous heroine Mu Guiying in traditional Beijing opera
Female Kabuki makeup
In conclusion, actors in the Kabuki theatre as well as in the Beijing Opera utilize makeup to
broadcast truths about their characters. There is tradition buried in the makeup designs of both
theatres that is used to communicate to local audiences who understand certain meanings
behind colors and who immediately recognize facial features as specific characters. Although
the Beijing Opera paints its actors with more colors in more intricate designs that are unique to
each individual character and Kabuki actors use stock makeup made up of only a few bold
colors, there are many similarities in the facial features that are exaggerated to show
expression. Both art forms are appreciated by tourists to a point where the theatres make
money from selling souvenir items with the facial makeup patterns printed on them. In
reflection with the Western World, stage makeup is ultimately used to portray ideas about
characters to the audiences and to amplify natural features so that they may be easily read
from a distance.
Brandon, James R.; William P. Malm, and Donald H. Shively. Studies
in Kabuki: Its Acting, Music, and Historical Context. Center for
Japanese Studies, The University of Michigan: University Press of
Hawaii, 1978. Print.
“A Brief Introduction to the Peking Opera.” Embassy of the People’s
Republic of China in the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal. Web.
“Discover Beijing Opera.” China Tour Guide. Web.
“Facial Makeup in Peking Opera.” China International Travel Service
Limited. Web. <http://www.cits.net/china-guide/chinatraditions/peking-opera-facial-makeup.html>
Gunji, Masakatsu. The Kabuki Guide. Tokyo: Kodansha International
Limited, 1987. Translation by Christopher Holmes. Print.
Howard, Roger. Contemporary Chinese Theatre. Hong Kong:
Heinemann Educational Books Limited, 1978. Print.
Japanese National Commission for Unesco. Theatre in Japan. Tokyo:
Ministry of Education, 1963. Print.
“Kabuki Makeup.” Fashion Encyclopedia: Early Cultures: Asia. Web.
“Kabuki Paint.” Edo Theater. Web.
“The Kabuki Story.” Fragrance Information. Web.
Li, Siu Leung. Cross-Dressing in Chinese Opera. Hong Kong: Hong Kong
University Press, 2003. Print.
Nakamura, Matazo. Kabuki Backstage, Onstage: An Actor’s Life. New York:
Kodansha International Limited, 1933. Translation by Mark Oshima, 1988.
“Types of Facial Make-up in Beijing Opera.” ChinaCulture.org. Web.
“Types of Facial Makeup in Peking Opera.” Cultural China: Arts. Web.
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