Reading the Face: Chinese Facial Diagnosis

Photo Credit @beautyspock on Instagram

Reading faces is a skill that is hardwired into us: from birth, we can distinguish emotions and danger by gazing into our caregivers’ eyes and reading what’s there. And it’s not just babies who do this; adults use the universal language of face reading every day. But, as Lillian Pearl Bridges, founder of The Lotus Institute and author of Face Reading in Chinese Medicine, laments, “most of us forget to trust this primal knowledge and instead rely on listening and analyzing what is being said rather than what is being expressed.” Could this be because of our fear of vulnerability?

When we go out into the world, we put on masks and armor: especially in New York City, it’s sometimes necessary to put on our tough, no-nonsense, dont-mess-with-me faces just to get through the day. But as much as we think that we’re masters at hiding our true feelings and vulnerabilities, our faces register everything; even beyond what we are thinking and feeling in that moment, they register past traumas and stresses. And in fact, it’s important to re-learn how to be sensitive to what others are expressing through their faces, and to allow ourselves to be vulnerable through our own faces; in this way, we can truly access what our bodies and minds need and start to heal–as well as communicate and empathize with others.

Chinese Face Reading has been around for thousands of years; in fact, it was one of the original tools of diagnosis in TCM. It is a useful mechanism for analyzing a person’s current emotions, as well as the type of past they have had. In terms of monitoring emotions, the light from the eyes, called Shen (spirit) in the ancient face reading tradition, is the clearest marker. But the lines and wrinkles that punctuate the face also tell a rich and layered story. Bridges explains it beautifully: “Wrinkles can be seen as the manuscript written on the skin that shows how any one individual has been expressing their life through the language of the face.”

There are several ways of mapping and reading the face. One way is to look at every feature on the face – including the ears – as corresponding to a decade of a person’s life after childhood. Below, I map what each feature represents:

Ears: the first seven years of life, including the in-utero experience

Hairline: adolescence

Forehead: the twenties

Eyebrows and Eyes: the thirties

Nose: the forties

Mouth: the fifties

Chin: the sixties

Jaw: the seventies

To figure out what lines and markings on each of these features convey, you need to consult the emotional map.

As you can see from the image above, each line connotes something different, whether it’s decades of pain, humor, or a hard-won transformation. I break down the meaning of a few types of lines below, but I encourage you to research more deeply! This is a great resource for you to get started.

Crow’s Feet: While many people (especially women) complain about having “crow’s feet,” they are actually joy lines and so indicate that one has smiled and laughed a lot throughout one’s life (and smiling has actually been linked to the release of endorphins, which lowers heart rate and blood pressure and also relieves pain)!

Purpose Lines: These are the lines that go from the nose to the mouth (as you can see in the map). According to Bridges, purpose lines are positive because “having them means you have a life of purpose. They are not expected to be strong until you reach mid life. So if you have them before that, consider yourself to be on track.”

Transformation Lines: Transformation lines are lines on the forehead that radiate up from the brow towards the hairline. These lines signal that you have gone through some kind of transformational event–the loss of a loved one, or a tough journey of self-discovery and self-actualization. They show that you have encountered some kind of trauma and come out the other side, with more wisdom, empathy and courage.

There are of course many more lines on the face – too many to list here! What I love about facial diagnosis is that, in contrast to the very American view of wrinkles as something to fear, hide, erase and be embarrassed about, this ancient Chinese system tells us that lines on the face mean you have lived a full life, rich with emotions and experiences that have left their mark on you. They are quite literally “life-lines.”

In my practice, facial diagnosis is extremely helpful for me because every feature of the face not only corresponds to a decade of one’s life; each one also corresponds to another part of the body. So, the purpose lines, for example, correspond to the colon. Bridges explains, “when the colon is stagnant, this area will be dark, with faint colors of purple to gray. If the colon is inflammatory, the area will be red and if the area is white, the colon is frozen.” Often the face exhibits symptoms and tells me something is imbalanced even before this information would be detectable in any traditional medical test. I can then prescribe a course of acupuncture and/or herbal remedies that can alleviate the qi blockage or imbalance in that particular area.

Image by: @jessica_johnston_tcm_doula

In the above image, you can see the organ systems mapped out on the face. Using the organ systems map and the emotional map for facial diagnosis is incredibly useful for treating patients and understanding their underlying emotional or physical imbalances.

I may not have convinced you to look into people’s eyes on the subway, or to confidently flaunt your crow’s feet, but perhaps now you can look in the mirror and know that those little grooves radiating out from the outer corner of your eye mean that you have experienced joy many times in your life, so many times that your face actually has a permanent smile on it. Perhaps you’ll look into the mirror and reflect on this and smile. And add another line.