Personality, presence, and “oriental beauty”—the Chinese language has many “polite” insults about a person’s appearance

International events like film festivals and fashion shows are good ways for Chinese actors and models to grab attention—the positive, and the not-so-positive. At New York Fashion Week in September, 19-year-old model Jia Chenyu became an overnight sensation on the Chinese internet for her resemblance to actor Lin Yongjian.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t meant to be a compliment: With small eyes and a high forehead, Jia’s looks fall opposite to mainstream Chinese beauty criteria. Rather than direct criticism, though, Jia’s haters used a positive sounding comparison—which didn’t blunt the impact, and just added to the sting.

The backhanded compliment is a time-honored Chinese tradition: According to a proverb about Zhuge Liang, whose wife is said to be plain-looking by most legends, the famous strategist was introduced to his future wife by her father, who said, “Her talents are a match for yours.” Next time you hear the following phrases from friends or coworkers, look again:

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author Tan Yunfei (谭云飞)

Tan Yunfei is the editorial director of The World of Chinese. She reports on Chinese language, food, traditions, and society. Having grown up in a rural community and mainly lived in the cities since college, she tries to explore and better understand China's evolving rural and urban life with all readers.

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