On Physiognomy

From 장서각위키
Jump to: navigation, search


Primary Source Text

English Classical Chinese

One’s features change depending on one’s habits and one’s fortunes are shaped according to one’s features.

[It follows that] those who theorize about physiognomy and New Year’s divinations are deluded.

Looking at toddlers as they are crawling on the ground, we find them cute.

As they grow up, they come to move in different circles. As they move in different circles, their habits come to differ. As their habits differ, their features change accordingly.

Academicians look refined; merchants look grimy; shepherds look unkempt; gamblers and dicers look rowdy and cunning.

In general, one’s habits become more ingrained by the day, and so one’s character [also] changes by the day. What truly is within oneself will be manifested without. In this way, one’s features change.

Somebody may see this change in features and say, “His features are like this, so that is why his habits are like that.” Oh, how mistaken that is!

Now, those who habitually study achieve success in office. Those who habitually pursue profit achieve wealth. Those who habitually perform manual labor are finally debased. Those who habitually do evil deeds are finally destroyed.

Habits and achievements go hand in hand, and achievement and features change in tandem. Somebody may see this change in features and say, “His features are like this, so that is why his achievements are like that.” Oh, how foolish that is.

[Let us say] there is a boy with radiant eyes. His parents say, “This one can study.” So they buy him books and find him a teacher. The teacher says, “This one can be taught.” So he generously gives him brushes, ink, lead powder and wooden tablets.

The boy makes great effort and becomes ever more diligent. An official recommends him, saying, “This one should be employed.” The sovereign sees him, saying, “This one deserves special favor.” So he commends him, boasts of him, raises him up, and promotes him. Soon he is prime minister.

[Let us say] there is a boy with plump cheeks. His parents say, “This one can accrue wealth.” So they generously give him property. A wealthy man sees him and says, “This one should be hired.” So he generously provides him with assets.

The boy makes great effort and becomes ever more diligent. He does business everywhere he goes and amasses a fortune. He stores his goods in the marketplace [1] and is nominated to be its chief. He steadfastly proceeds and there are those who follow and support him. Soon he is an uncrowned lord.[2]

[Let us say] there is a boy with bushy eyebrows and a boy with flaring nostrils. Their cases are the complete opposite [of the previous ones] because their parents, teachers, and elders will not nurture and support them in the same way. How can they then become noble or wealthy?

In this way, one’s fortunes are shaped according to one’s features and one’s features are formed according to one’s fortunes. Somebody may see the form of one’s features and say, “His features are like this, so that is why his fortunes are like that.” Oh, how foolish that is.

In this world, surely there are those in possession of talent and virtue but who live in adversity and poverty, unaided [by their fellows], and they blame [all of this] on their features.

If there were somebody who could see past their features, and [instead] favor them, then they too could become prime ministers.

There are those who know clearly what is profitable and who can discern what is valuable, but who live out their lives in destitution, and they blame [all of this] on their features.

If there were somebody who could see past their features, and [instead] provide them with assets, then they too could become like Yi Dun.[3]

Needless to say, one’s position can alter one’s atmosphere and one’s upbringing can alter one’s body.[4] Wealth and nobility lead one’s ambition astray while worries and affliction sadden the heart.

There are those who flourish in the morning and wither in the evening. There are those who used to be thin and pallid but who are now well-fed and rosy-cheeked. How can one’s features ever be fixed?

Common people who put their trust in physiognomy lose their property; officials who put their trust in physiognomy lose their friends; the sovereign who puts his trust in physiognomy loses his ministers. Confucius said, “I used to judge people based on their appearances, yet I was wrong about Ziyu.” How wise was he!
















世固有懷才抱德, 阨窮而不見施者,咎於相。



有能舍其相而予之資, 則亦猗頓焉已矣。




Discussion Questions

  1. Does Chŏng Yak-yong think it is appropriate to judge others based on their appearance?
  2. In the end, what decides one's fortunes? Is it up to oneself or must one rely on the kindness of others?
  3. What examples are provided by Tasan in pointing out that physiognomy should not be the determining factor in one’s destiny? Why a merchant and a scholar, an official? Does this analysis cover all different types of people in Chosŏn society? Who is left out? Why?
  4. How does Tasan advance his argument? What might you tell about his thought process from the way he gathers and presents his evidence? How is it similar to or different from the way you might construct an argument?
  5. Chŏng Yak-yong argues that one's look would not determine his/her fate. According to the author, then what would be the deciding factor and how could we obtain it?
  6. Would you say that Chŏng Yak-yong is presenting a rational argument?
  7. What do you think is the reason for Chŏng Yak-yong to write this passage? Were there superstitious theories spreading around? How would his contemporary people take this passage?
  8. What does this document reflect about the tensions between scholarly ideals and social reality in Chosŏn society? What does it tell us about social realities of the time?
  9. How should we understand elite representations of society at the time?
  10. How does Confucianism factor into this composition?
  11. Does Tasan’s perspective represent a new type of philosophy? Is silhak (Practical Learning), with which Tasan is often affiliated with, an off-shoot of mainstream neo-Confucian thought or, as some scholars suggest, the harbinger of modern thought?

Further Readings


  1. See Mencius 孟子: “(it will cause) all the merchants, both travelling and stationary, to wish to store their goods in your Majesty's market-places” 商賈皆欲藏於王之市 translated by James Legge.
  2. Sufeng 素封 refers to a man who is as wealthy as a nobleman but who lacks a title. See Records of the Grand Historian 史記: “Now there is someone without rank or title, and without feudal income, but whose music is like theirs. We call him an uncrowned lord” 今有無秩祿之輩,爵邑之入,而樂與之比者,命曰素封。
  3. Yi Dun was a rich merchant in the Warring States period.
  4. See Mencius 孟子: “One's position alters the air, just as the nurture affects the body.” 居移氣,養移體. Translated by James Legge.