The 'good cop, bad cop' imagery of Peking Opera

Zhang Ciyun
Red facial masks denote sympathetic characters; white make-up identifies villainous characters.
Zhang Ciyun

The celebrated Peking Opera has been an icon of traditional Chinese culture since the 18th century.

In addition to its loud music and piercing-pitched singers, the opera also features exaggerated facial make-up, employing colors and patterns to define the dispositions or social status of different characters.

Red stands for loyalty, white for treachery, purple for justice and sophistication, yellow for ferocity, blue and green for neutral characters, black for integrity and intrepidness, and gold and silver for gods and ghosts.

Over time, these designs have become so stereotyped that opera fans can ascertain at first glance each actor’s character from the facial make-up.

These theatrical features have appeared in more than half a dozen popular Chinese sayings and idioms.

One of them is yige chang honglian, yige chang bailian, or literally “one plays the red face, and the other plays the white face.”


yī gè chàng hóng liǎn, yī gè chàng bái liǎn

It means exactly the same as the English saying “good cop, bad cop.” The red face is the good cop; the white face is the bad cop.

Even parents dealing with children may adopt this dichotomy, with the mother playing the “red face,” or sympathetic parent, while the father plays the “white face,” or tough disciplinarian.

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