A Guide to the Thousand Eyes of Asia

Raise of hands: Who's tired of their eyes being compared to almonds?

Words by Cyrena Lee

“Her eyes are just like yours! Almond shaped.”

This commentwhich I’ve heard countless times about my daughter, who was born last July with skin so pale like her father that the medical exam at the French hospital actually listed her skin color as pinkmakes me roll my dānyǎnpí, or single eyelid eyes, to no end.

My daughter is half-Chinese with shuāng yǎnpí, or double eyelids, and to my family members, her eyes look extremely Western. And yet most people trot out the trite phrase “almond eyes” to lump her eyes, which are more similar in color to mine than her father’s pale blue-green, into the vague descriptor that denotes a hint of exoticism.

In French, the term used to describe Asian eyes is bridé, which literally translates to slanted. When I ask a French person what their eyes are called, they shrug in response. Normal eyes? In the United States, the closest catch-all equivalent is slanted, or just Asian, to describe the eyes of any Asian person, as if we’re all exactly the same.

Most people blindly think that they see the world through one side of a binary: “Western” or “Eastern” eyes. Enter the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which proposes that the language we speak influences how we think and perceive reality. Herein lies the problem: there is a lack of vocabulary in most Indo-European languages to describe eye shapes, which is why most English speakers tend to automatically deploy the old dead white men’s fetishizing description of choice “almond-shaped” to describe every single Asian person’s eyes.

The latest “fox eyes” trend (achieved either by makeup or surgery) is also described to “elevate the outside corners of your eyes and draw them slightly outwards, creating almond-shaped eyes,” and some people have questioned this trend as cultural appropriation. There has been, of course, historical aesthetic pressure on the Asian diaspora for looking other than the stereotype of a blue-eyed, blonde-haired all-American. But in the grand scheme of things, Eastern ideals of facial beauty and structure have been around for much, much longer.

Chinese face reading, or mian xiang, is an art and philosophy that’s been in existence for nearly three millennia. Oppressive Western ideals of beauty have nothing on the power of mian xiang: it’s more than a fleeting beauty trend, it’s the study of corresponding psychological characteristics and fortunes to facial features. Sure, lip filler and Botox might make someone feel a bit younger, and walk with a bit more spring in their step. But did you know that according to the philosophy of Chinese face reading, if you change your face to have certain features you can literally change your fate in life?

The art of Chinese face reading is nuanced and intricate; each face shape, every curvature of the ear, the height of a nose bridge, the size of one’s mouth, and the direction in which the nostrils point all signify something, and features must be read holistically. Think of it as a physical manifestation of your birth chart in astrology. Eyes, specifically, are the window of one’s mind and are the most important feature in face reading. In mian xiang, there are no almond eyes. There are, however, fox eyesthough unlike the beauty trend, fox eyes according to Chinese face reading are turned downwards, not upwards, and are categorized as small, angular, and usually are found on people with a natural cunning and avaricenot what you might pick out of a catalog to emulate.

From dragon eyes to bear eyes to yin-yang eyes, there are a multitude of eye shapes in Chinese face reading. The next time you’re searching for a good way to describe someone’s eyes, perhaps look to use eye type descriptors according to mian xiangand at the same time, you might be able to get a closer look into the inner workings of their mind just by looking at their peepers. With the help of consulting third-generation face reader Henry B. Lin’s book What Your Face Reveals, which uses animals to categorize eye types, as well as master face reader Remee Gemo (former apprentice of leading authority Lillian Bridges), who uses the five elements to decipher eyes, here’s a handy overview of a few eye types, as seen on famous celebrities.

Michelle Yeoh: Dragon/Phoenix Eyes

Michelle Yeoh

Jeff Kravitz/Getty Images

According to Gemo, Yeoh has dreamy, big eyes (eye size is always determined in comparison to the rest of the face) that have a metallic energy. Bigger eyes indicate a sensitive person who is aware of their surroundings and holds a larger, world-view perspective, which falls in line with Yeoh dedicating her historic Oscar win to all “the little boys and girls who look like me.” To the young aspiring Oscar winners, if you have phoenix eyes like Michelle Yeoh (or the male counterpart, dragon), which are large, bright, with round double eye-lids and large pupils, it’s a good omen: owners of such eyes are kind, noble, and will enjoy wealth, fame, and power.

Tony Leung: Lion Eyes

Tony Leung

VCG/Getty Images

Leung is famous for his piercing eyes, which are most like lion eyes, which are imposing and long, with a stable and penetrating gaze. These types of eyes can make other people stop in their tracks, and show a presence of mind and courage, as well as a no-nonsense and hardworking attitude. Gemo categorizes Leung’s eyes as earthy, with supportive energy and notes that the angle on his right eye indicates an influential mother (coincidentally enough, his love of movies was born from accompanying his mom on her job as a film ticket seller in Hong Kong).

Park Myung-hoon: Yin-Yang Eyes

Park Myung-hoon

Han Myung-Gu/Getty Images

Yin-yang eyes are two eyes of different sizes, and indicate someone who is naturally smart and lucky in business, though their fortunes can turn easily. Myung-hoon has a direct, wood-type energy, per Gemo, and his eyes also protrude slightly out of the plane of his face, which means an extroverted person.

Bowen Yang: Large Upward Angling Eyes

Bowen Yang

Theo Wargo/Getty Images

The comedian has strong eyebrows, which indicate a joy and passion in his work, and his eyes, big for his face shape, angle upwards, which shows a happier nature, Gemo tells me. The inner canvas of his eyes come in tightly, which also indicates a person who has a way with wordswhich explains why the first-ever Asian SNL cast member and writer has repeatedly stolen the show with his witty one-liners. 

Jimmy O. Yang: Cow Eyes 

Jimmy O. Yang

Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/Getty Images

Cow eyes, which are found on gentle, steady, and trustworthy people that are patient and reliable. This type of eye, found on Yang, is graceful and beautifully curved, and the pupils are large with a stable gaze. Gemo notes that his wide-set eyes indicate a big picture person, and per Lin’s book Yang’s eyes indicate a person with endless energy, who can also easily forgive others and themselves, though can be prone to daydreaming.

Song Kang Ho: Water-Wood Eyes 

Song Kang Ho

Han Myung-Gu/Getty Images

Four-time winner of Gallup Korea’s Film Actor of the Year, Song Kang Ho has “crazy energy, a combination of water and wood,” Gemo says. Water eyes have a seductive energy, along with a wisdom others defer to, and wood eyes are commanding. Ho’s eyes also have old soul energy. His level-set eyesno angling upwards or downwardindicate a person that will stand up for justice, equality, and fairness. In the animal category, Ho has cat eyes, similar to the tiger but shorter, denoting a smaller ego and thus are less easily provoked.

Ashima Shiraishi: Earth-Fire Eyes

Ashima Shiraish

Lars Niki/Getty Images

Many celebrities known for their on-screen talents have similar eyes that draw attention, power, and fame, so it’s interesting to look at other high-achievers in other realms. Take, for example, Japanese American rock climber Ashima Shiraishi, who has a combination of Earth and Fire eyes. As fate would have it, earth and fire make mountains, which she famously ascends at world-breaking levels ; she was the first female to climb a V15 at age 15. Wider-set eyes again indicate a big picture type person, and the upward angling of her eyes denotes bright positivity. Her eyes, according to Gemo, emanate a very direct energy, which shows someone who is capable of achieving whatever goal she sets her mind to.

Blake Abbie: Tiger Eyes

Blake Abbie

Jeenah Moon/Netflix

Tiger eyes are rectangular in shape and symbolize power, courage, wealth, vitality, and good luck. Those blessed with tiger eyes never conform to the status quo but rather lead, and throughout their lives, they don’t need to worry about making a living“money will come to them without their even seeking it,” says Lin, which makes these eyes a fitting match for the Bling Empire reality television star. Viewers of the show can determine for themselves: is Abbie restless, rebellious, and ego-driven? Gemo gave me an additional read of his massive eyebrows, which indicate a person who will continue ascending the ranks of success.

Anna May Wong & Teresa Teng: Sanpuku Eyes

The first Chinese American star of Hollywood, Anna May Wong, and Teresa Teng, Asia’s Eternal Queen of Pop, have similar dreamy, metallic eyes. Both women were pioneers in their fields, but they also have another common factor: sanpuku eyes, which is a Japanese term that means “three whites” and refers to when white space below or above the iris is showing. This can forecast an early or violent deathWong died from a heart attack at age 56, whereas Teng died on vacation in Thailand from an asthma attack at age 43. Fortunately, this type of eyes aren’t necessarily permanent: Gemo says they can indicate an imbalance in the body from being overworked or taking too many stimulants.

Other eyes to be wary of: snake eyes (small, blue, swollen with malicious intentions), pig eyes (dull and often with ulterior motives to take advantage of others) and close-set eyes, which can indicate narrow-mindedness or a dogmatic nature. For those considering plastic surgery, Gemo says that the result is all about the energy it gives you: if you feel better and more like yourself, then go for it. If you are considering changing the shape of your eyes to please others, advertising pressure, or to just fit in with a trend, then the results won’t necessarily make you happier or luckier. The downside of an increasingly homogenized beauty standard across the board may be an increasingly similar way to think and liveoften in superficial waters. 

When I point out to others that my daughter clearly has double eyelids whereas I do not, my interlocutor often pauses to take a closer look at my eyes, and then back to hers. I press them to really look, and when they do, their binary sight is broken, and a new possibility enters their consciousness. “Her eyes are a mix, somewhere between yours and her father,” they’ll concede. I look into my daughter’s round eyes with dark pupilscrane eyes, indicative of artistic tendencies and a thirst for truth. I see a flicker of hope there, that in the future, a diversity of eyes and perspectives will be celebrated. And that the world will see her as who she is, rather than assign her a category to fit into or label them as a fetish. 

Published on May 9, 2023

Words by Cyrena Lee

Cyrena Lee is a writer based in Paris. Her work has been published in Epiphany Magazine, Into the Void Magazine, Whetstone, and others. She has published a non-fiction book with Sterling Publishing, A Little Bit of Lucid Dreaming and has a forthcoming YA graphic novel from FSG.

Art by Ryan Quan

Ryan Quan is the Social Media Editor for JoySauce. This queer, half-Chinese, half-Filipino writer and graphic designer loves everything related to music, creative nonfiction, and art. Based in Brooklyn, he spends most of his time dancing to hyperpop and accidentally falling asleep on the subway. Follow him on Instagram at @ryanquans.