A Chinese opera unfolds upon a single stage in front of a live audience. Although special visual effects, such as backgrounds, props and lighting, can help to express the setting and mood of a scene, they fall short of creating a sense of reality. Rather than attempting to approximate reality, however, Chinese opera has evolved into a stylized, abstract art form, much like ballet or modern dance. A minimum of props and effects are used - instead, a large array of symbols is employed to enable the audience to clue in on the action. The most striking symbol is the face paint featured by Ching characters.

The face of a Ching character will reveal his personality, typical behavior patterns, outstanding physical characteristics, and even sometimes details about his eventual death - if one knows how to read the symbols. For example, a villain is depicted with a white, bloodless face to symbolize his cold-blooded nature. A hero often has an illustration of his favorite weapon inscribed upon his forehead, or a bat motif, a traditional Chinese symbol of good fortune, may appear upon his cheeks.

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