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Disabled woman finds success on the stage

Sichuan Opera performer with Down syndrome wows audiences with mastery of famous face-changing technique

By Huang Zhiling and Peng Chao in Chengdu | China Daily | Updated: 2024-05-15 10:12

Yin Qiuhua performs face-changing stunts at a Sichuan Opera show. LIU YONGHONG/FOR CHINA DAILY

As the music begins, a Sichuan Opera performer steps onto the stage, walking, kicking and dancing in precise rhythm to the music while quickly changing face masks.

No one notices anything unusual until the last mask is removed, and the audience realizes that this performer is somewhat different.

Yin Qiuhua, the 19-year-old performer, was born with Down syndrome, a genetic disorder that is usually associated with a distinctive facial appearance, delayed physical growth and mild intellectual disability.

Since she was diagnosed with the disease at 6 months old, her mother, Zhao Haiying, has been seeking medical treatment for her and teaching her life skills.

"I can't take care of her for her entire life. My biggest wish was to find a suitable skill for her so she can earn her own living," said Zhao, who gave birth to Yin at age 38.

They tried almost every training course in Peng'an county in Nanchong city, Sichuan province, including violin and folk dance lessons. But Yin didn't do well in any of them.

"The problem was either my daughter simply couldn't understand what was being taught, the other children in the class had difficulty accepting her, or the teacher was unable to communicate with her," she said.

Things began to change in 2021, when Zhao met Lin Chun, a traditional Chinese opera teacher at the county's cultural center. Lin agreed to take Yin as an apprentice and teach her the face-changing art of Sichuan Opera.

Sichuan Opera, a tradition that is popular in Southwest China, was one of the first batch of arts designated as a national intangible cultural heritage. It is famous for its face-changing, fire-spitting and lamp-rolling techniques.

"Face-changing performers do not need to sing, and the mask used for face-changing can cover the facial features of Down syndrome. I felt this would give her a sense of security," Lin said.

The face-changing technique is difficult to learn for the average person, let alone for Yin, who can barely communicate with others through speech and has limited comprehension and learning abilities.

Lin had to demonstrate the movements over and over again, and correct Yin often.

"What other kids might learn in one minute might take her 10 minutes, or even a day or a week," Lin said.

During the first year, Yin practiced for up to eight hours a day. To encourage her and assist with her training, Zhao accompanied her every day.

At times, the grueling training made both Lin and Zhao want to give up. But Yin persevered, practicing tirelessly on her own to master moves. "The little expressions of triumph on her face every time she succeeded in learning something new got us through the toughest year," Lin said.

After about 18 months of training, Yin made her debut performance at an event in Nanchong. "The performance went very smoothly, and Qiuhua received a lot of applause. Her mother and I were overjoyed and moved to tears," Lin said.

Since then, Yin has continued her training while participating in an increasing number of performances.

"The stage and applause have made her more and more confident," Lin said.

Yin has mastered the fundamental techniques of face-changing and is capable of skillfully changing nine masks during a performance, including one huilian, or "back-to-face", which is the art of slipping a mask back on after revealing one's real face. She is now learning the more challenging fire-spitting technique.

Zhao believes face-changing has given her daughter a new lease on life. "She has become more spirited and cheerful, sometimes even giving me the illusion that she is just like any other child," she said.

With videos of Yin's face-changing performances going viral online recently, Lin has received invitations from many people in the entertainment industry offering Yin the chance to share her talent on bigger stages.

"We will cherish these good opportunities, but the prerequisite is that Qiuhua is in a good emotional and psychological state," Lin said. "We don't want to push her too hard."

While practicing face-changing, Yin is also receiving rehabilitation assistance with the help of the county's disabled persons' federation. She has also been admitted to a special education school in Nanchong, where she is studying modern housekeeping services and management.

Yin's success has inspired other families across the country who have children with Down syndrome. Many have contacted Zhao, hoping to learn from her and Yin's experiences.

"The most valuable advice I can give to parents is that they should not give up on their children. We should try our best to discover their shining points," Zhao said.

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