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Stage makeup in the beijing opera of china and the kabuki theatre of japan

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Paige pulaski

Beijing Opera set

Paige Pulaski

Kumadori makeup


Stage makeup in the beijing opera of china and the kabuki theatre of japan


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 signifies.


Kabuki 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 features.

Kabuki makeup


Kabuki makeup1

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.

Kabuki makeup


Kabuki makeup2

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. Onnagataare 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.

Kabuki makeup

Female makeup

Kabuki makeup3

Next, actors apply lines atop the base. The Kabuki makeup is water-based, 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.

Kabuki makeup

Ita-hake brushes for sale

Kabuki makeup4

An aragotohero, which translates to “rough” or “violent business”, is the style of acting that uses kumadorimakeup “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 DanjuroI.

Kabuki makeup


Kabuki makeup5

Each color is representative of a different virtue or type of character. The color of the lines used in kumadorimakeup 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 TsuchiGumo where the earth spider character is painted on his face and body with brown lines.

Kabuki makeup


Kabuki makeup6

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 FunaBenkei.

Kabuki makeup

The Ghost of Tomomori

Kabuki makeup7

However, not all male characters in the Kabuki theatre are harsh and powerful. The wagotostyle of acting is relatively realistic and lends itself to a different makeup style. Izaemon, a comic lover in the Kabuki play KuruwaBunsho, 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 clown-like.

Kabuki makeup

Kabuki makeup8

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.

Kabuki makeup

Silk cloth example

Kabuki videos

Female makeup application demonstration:

Male makeup application demonstration:

For fun:

Kabuki videos

Beijing opera makeup

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 makeup

Beijing Opera set

Beijing opera makeup1

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 XuYanzhao 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.

Beijing opera makeup

Entering the Palace Twice

Beijing opera makeup2

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 humbleness.

Beijing opera makeup

Ma Wu

Beijing opera makeup3

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 exaggerated.

Beijing opera makeup

Beijing Opera set

Beijing opera makeup4

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.

Beijing opera makeup

Mei Lanfang

Lanfang as Drunken Beauty

Beijing opera videos

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:

Beijing opera videos


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.


The famous heroine Mu Guiying in traditional Beijing opera

Female Kabuki makeup


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. <>

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. Print.

“Types of Facial Make-up in Beijing Opera.” Web. <>

“Types of Facial Makeup in Peking Opera.” Cultural China: Arts. Web. <>


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