I recently attended a business banquet in China hosted by a municipal government. When I was introduced to the local mayor as regional head of a global investment bank, he shook my hand and said: “Wow, you are so handsome! Why are you working for a bank? You should go to Hollywood.” I was so embarrassed in front of my staff that I didn’t know what to say. Was he making fun of me? (Western male reader, Hong Kong)
Mei responds: If this ever happens to you, don’t worry, he is not making fun of you but trying to break the ice by complimenting your looks. This is a relatively recent social phenomenon: by calling somebody (who is remotely decent looking) “beautiful” or “handsome” the Chinese try to gain a good impression and make quick acquaintances with strangers.
Traditionally, the Chinese believe a person’s looks convey his or her personality and fortune. For example, people with big ear-lobes are considered lucky and benevolent (think Buddha). For centuries men who married women with sharp cheek-bones were thought to have shorter lifespans as the bones were reckoned to resemble knives (today’s super models would have found it tougher to find husbands in imperial China). Women with big feet were also considered unattractive as a large shoe-size conveyed a lack of social status and crudeness (in comparison bound feet were revered as beautiful).
However, during Mao Zedong’s revolutionary era, not only were bound feet and fortune-telling swept away as feudalistic traditions, but beauty and grooming also became taboo as they were considered bourgeois and went against the puritanical revolutionary spirit.
But in the wake of Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening up policies (which began over 30 years ago) the Chinese have not only abandoned the orthodox Communist values, but also have been over-compensating by emphasising people’s looks and attire – hence the explosion of vanity products and luxury consumption in recent years (as this publication has reported extensively in it pages).
These days, people are not only commenting on people’s looks at home or in the workplace, but also becoming obsessed with it. In fact, I just found a brand new Chinese word that was recently coined to describe a person’s degree of prettiness – Yan Zhi, which literally means “face value”.
Complimenting people’s looks has also become a preferred way to break the ice in social circles, especially with strangers (the assumption being that all people like to be considered good-looking and are thus flattered). Actually, when President Xi Jinping visited a community centre in Wuhan in 2013, he shook hands with a young woman there and said: “How are you, beauty?” This caused an internet sensation as most Chinese netizens were raving about how down-to-earth Xi was compared with his predecessors: “He sounded like a normal person!”
Therefore, if in the future you are greeted by Chinese as Shuai Ge, literally “handsome brother”, don’t feel embarrassed. And for those of you who do resemble Charlize Theron or David Beckham, you’re in luck: good looks go a long way in China these days!
A native Chinese who grew up in northeastern China, Mei attended an elite university in Beijing in the late 1980s and graduate school in the US in the early 1990s. Over two decades she has worked in the US, Hong Kong and mainland China, both in the media and with two major global investment banks, where she has honed her bicultural perspectives. If you’d like to ask Mei a question email the editor: [email protected]
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