By Jenifer Chiodo
One night while in Baoding, I was drawing a portrait of my Chinese friend Jing. Jing is a slim 19-years-old young woman with fair skin, long black hair and high cheekbones. To me she epitomized a beautiful Asian girl. I especially liked her high cheekbones and told her so.
“Oh no,” Zhang said, covering her face momentarily in embarrassment.
Why the embarrassment, I asked, truly puzzled.
“In China, high cheekbones are considered bad,” explained Zhang. “They mean I will bring harm to my husband.”
This was the third time in one week that I had heard a Chinese girl tie a superstition or a story to a diminutive physical feature.
How different than in America. Sure, we Americans are as superstitious as the Chinese. But how our superstitions differ. No American would favor a hotel room with the number eight, although many of us refuse to stay on the 13th floor. And research has shown that Americans place great importance on physical appearance. Attractive men and women tend to earn higher paying jobs and hold public office. But we Americans still tend to attribute success in love and the workplace to skill and family connections.
In China, though, your fate is written in the face. And appearance is but one example of how the Chinese – even the most successful and well-educated – read their fate in everything around them – from the arrangement of the furniture in their houses to the number on their hotel room doors.
Zhang’s disapproval of my compliment is a case in point. Even though she is a well-educated young woman from Beijing, she still harbors ancient beliefs about her physical features foretelling her personality and fate.
Moments after bemoaning her high cheekbones, Zhang dismissed her own fears as mere superstition – like an American who says she doesn’t believe in silly superstitions but still won’t walk under any ladder.
I found Zhang was representative among the Chinese students I met at Hebei University in Baoding during a study abroad trip this past June. While these young women follow modern fashion, they still can’t let go of ancient traditions in how they see themselves and others. They cling to these superstitions while dismissing them at the same time. To the Chinese, the body – especially the face – a is like a fortune cookie.
Take Zhang, for example. In her high cheekbones she read the superstition of Kefu. In Chinese, the term means “harm to husband”. It is also used as an adjective to describe a female face. Says Zhang:
“Some people say, ‘She Kefu. This girl has a Kefu looking face’ as a girl walks by.”
The body features can foretell good fortune as well as bad. A Heibei student who wanted to called Amy (most Chinese adopt English names when talking to Americans) read my personality in a small freckle on my inner forearm. “It means you are still searching for a lover,” said Amy.
I must have looked perplexed, for Amy explained the Chinese superstition at length in broken English:
“There is a belief that holds when one dies, one crosses a bridge in the afterlife. When one crosses that bridge, another spirit hands you a bowl of soup. Once one drinks the soup, she forget all and continues into the afterlife. If one does not want to forget his or her lover, the spirit will place a freckle on the inner arm, reminding one that they are searching for a lover from a past life.”
But no sooner had Amy explained this superstition than she dismissed it. “I have the same freckle,” Amy said, “and I have a boyfriend. I don’t believe in that stuff. Its just a really beautiful story.”
Amy then pointed to a freckle on her own neck and said it meant she would attract mean people. Of course, she chuckled, such beliefs were a fallacy.
Officially, China is athiest. Mao detested all religions. Yet China today remains rich in many different beliefs: Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Islam and Christianity. And each has its own folklore and superstitions. People tend to pick and choose from among these what they want to believe, often combing different folklore from different beliefs. “We choose to believe the good ones, not the bad ones,” Amy said.
For example, Amy explained: “Sometimes, if we get a boyfriend, his grandparents might not like us if our faces have certain features. Luckily, my boyfriend’s parents and grandparents have never said anything.”
The day after I finished her portrait, Zhang tried reassured herself that kefu was superstition and nothing more. She showed me a picture of the famous Chinese talk show host, Ma Sanli. “This man has both fan ears, and a very thin face,” she said. “These features are both believed to be bad luck, but it is not true because he has proven to live a very colorful good life. If he can do that, so can anybody.”