The Ancient Art of Face Reading
Is the State of Your Health — and Your Inner Self — Written all Over Your Face?
I've had my house feng shui'd until the chi flowed smoothly, my chronic knee pain needled away with acupuncture, and my mornings graced with regular tai chi practice. You might say that ancient Asian wisdom has not been lost on me. So when I heard that traditional Chinese face reading gives insight into character, personality, health, wealth and social standing, I was definitely game.
Face reading (also called mien shiang or mien xiang and pronounced myen-shung) originated in China almost 3,000 years ago among Taoist monks, the healers of the day. While practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine have kept the art alive by incorporating face reading into their diagnostic process, there are now stirrings of interest in the West.
"All things Asian - from kung fu to feng shui - have become more popular since acupuncture arrived here in the '70's," says Patrician McCarthy, who trained in the face reading arts with Chinese teachers before founding the Mien Shiang Institute in Santa Monica, Calif. The Internet boasts dozens of Web sites devoted to face reading, and many books have been published on the topic. Meanwhile, lawyers consult face readers when picking juries, and some human-resources personnel refer to face reading principles during interviews with job applicants.
What's in a Face?
Each facial feature corresponds to an organ network in the body. The feature's size, shape, coloring and placement is thought to reveal information about one's health as well as certain character traits. Face readers look at lines, scars and moles, and the difference between the left side of the face(your inner self) and the right side ( the self you show the world) to piece together a holistic mind/body picture.
McCarthy, who teaches mien shiang at Yo San University of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Los Angeles and has lectured to medical students at UCLA, agreed to do a personality-only, just-for-fun reading on me from a photo. (Like most trained practitioners, she only does more serious health readings in person.)
"You're very self-critical," McCarthy says, pointing out the peaks in the middle of my eyebrows and my slightly pronounced and short brow bone, which dips down at the ends. The fact that the tip of my nose is strong and rounded tells her I appreciate the finer things in life without being snobbish. My high and well-defined cheekbones indicate an ability to lead by example, while my numerous freckles advertise scattered emotions. My jaw line is stronger than my chin, so tells me that I'm determined without being stubborn; however, since my coloring is lighter above the jaw and deepens at my cheeks, my determination tends to wax and wane.
My verdict? McCarthy scored on all counts.
The personality traits revealed in a face reading aren't meant to be thought of as positive or negative. "Each tendency is both a gift and a challenge," says McCarthy. "Anger, for example, creates healthy boundaries. People who have a lot of anger also have a lot of passion. They make wonderful leaders. People whose natural gift is fear, on the other hand, examine things carefully and are known for their wisdom."
Although face reading is routinely taught in China, it is rarely included in TCM schools in the U.S. because there aren't masters here to teach it, says Sam Liang, Ph.D., a licensed acupuncture practitioner who was trained in face reading in his native Taiwan.
"In China, they say that good doctors will know 70 percent of a person's health problems just by looking at his face," says Liang, who uses face reading in his Lake Forest, Calif. practice to get an overall impression of a patient's physical and mental state. For instance, certain features may be suggestive of low blood pressure, so Liang will consider that impression along with the results of other TCM diagnostic tools, such as tongue and pulse diagnoses and an interview about symptoms.
Face readers often rely on broad characteristics that form the basis of Chinese medicine: wood, water, fire, earth and metal. Each element has its own physical attributes with its own personality and health traits, both strengths and weaknesses. Most people are a mixture of two elements, notes Liang, although one type may be more pronounced than the other.
The health challenges face readings indicate aren't considered absolute. "They are wonderful warning signs," McCarthy explains, "because if you know your tendency, you can adjust your lifestyle to take preventative measures."
To date, no scientifically controlled studies have been done to support face reading's claims. That's one reason why researchers specializing in facial expression are skeptical. "It seems unlikely that there's something to this," says Paul Ekman, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of California Medical School in San Francisco, and author of What the Face Reveals. "You can get a lot of information about personality from patterns of emotional expression, but there's no information to suggest static features tell you much." Ekman puts face reading in the same category as astrology: "The reason no one has studied it is that no one takes it seriously."
There is a notable exception. Several Western medical journals, including American Journal of Cardiology, have reported a high correlation between a diagonal earlobe crease and an increased risk of coronary artery disease in people under age 70. If a particular landmark on the ear is a health indicator, why not the cleft in a chin or the tilt of a brow, asks McCarthy.
If you decide to have a reading, keep in mind that all face readers are not created equal. It's smart to be wary of practitioners who charge high fees, who claim to be able to change fortunes or cure illnesses, or who know things that are too specific, such as "Your sister is a thief" or "You're going to have your appendix removed."
Face reading may not be making inroads in Western medical schools, but some members of the corporate world are already convinced. According to McCarthy who teaches workshops at Mattel, Nike and other companies, executives find the skill useful when interviewing job candidates or balancing work teams with employees who have complementary styles.
For example, "a metal person isn't that aggressive or assertive, so she might neglect to tell you about her achievements," McCarthy says. "An interviewer who suspects that can encourage her to talk more about herself. Otherwise, some really good people can slip away.
"I picked my assistant because she has these V-shaped, I'm-going-to-get-it-done-now eyebrows," says licensed acupuncturist Thea Elijah, who teaches facial diagnosis as head of the herbal studies department at the Academy for Five Elements Acupuncture in Hallandale, Fla. "I was right," she adds. "She's great - and efficient!"
Elijah says she turns to face reading in her personal life as well. If I have to ask someone, say a flight attendant, for help," she says, "I will choose one whose eyes are a little more wide set and whose nose is a little more wide than usual. These traits indicate someone who is more tolerant and broad-minded. Someone whose nose is narrow, high and pointy might just say, "Sorry, it can't be done."
Lawyers utilize face reading to pick juries, increase their proficiency at cross-examination and gain insight into judges' styles. "If a judge is an earth type who is nurturing," says McCarthy, "you don't want to bully the witnesses or be too aggressive with opposing council."
Since my reading, I've been working on being less self-critical and sustaining my determination (with the aid of my very determined, water faced significant other, Colby, who has plenty of opportunities to use his listening skills around me). Thanks to the fire McCarthy found in my face, I've redoubled my efforts to walk regularly and pass up french fries. As for my propensity for heartbreak, if Colby shows signs of bolting, I'm taking preventative measures and tweezing cowlicks right out of my brows.