Chinese Faces

Here’s a somewhat controversial question: Can you tell someone’s “race” by looking at their facial structure? That is to say could you tell the difference between, for example, a native Japanese / Korean / Chinese person just by looking at their face?


  1. A local geographic or global human population distinguished as a distinct group by genetically transmitted physical characteristics.
  2. A group of people united or classified together on the basis of common history, nationality, or geographic distribution.

This is a question which I’ve found occasionally comes up in conversation with both Asian and non-Asian friends and I’ve never heard a definitive answer. To the latter group Asians generally tend to “look the same” (which will undoubtedly get you in trouble) while for the former it’s less clear cut ~ some people claim they can while others say it’s impossible, with strong opinions in both directions.

I scratched my head about this for a while thinking that logically if a group of people come from the same hereditary genetic pool, based in a semi-enclosed geographical location with a shared heritage of thousands of years, then surely wouldn’t they end up with some similar physical characteristics which would be reliably identifiable, at least for a high percentage of the population?

As per the example here’s a rather un-scientific theory based on morphological observation:


Photo by aelena

Japanese people tend to have a longer / oval facial structure with lower cheekbones, wider / larger eyes and more pronounced noses.


Photo by Byoung Wook

Korean people tend to have flatter faces with higher / squarer cheek bones and smaller eyes with single eyelids (opposed to double).


Photo by Steve Webel

Chinese people tend to have rounder faces than both Korean and Japanese people. China is a huge multi-ethnic country unlike Korea and Japan (which are more ethnically homogeneous) making it much harder to differentiate or generalize.

Although I’ve found the above a fairly reliable definition trying to guess based on facial structure alone seems to be pretty hit-and-miss in reality. The success rate greatly increases when you included other observable indicators such as name, language, behavior, and fashion.

According to more scientific studies both East Asians and Caucasians are more easily identifiable by facial features than others and the graphic above shows the composite ‘average’ face of women around the world. I think my descriptions above hold-up pretty well based on this.

Failing all that you could just ask which is probably a safer bet than trying to guess and risk upsetting anyone!


  1. Asian Trolley Dolly says:

    I work in a prominent Asian airline that employs natives of all three of these nationalities.. we operate flights to all 3 countries regularly.. and I can tell you that it’s completely futile to guess where these girls are from just by their facial structures and features. Japanese girls don’t necessarily have the smallest faces or put on the most make-up.. you’d be hard-pressed to find Chinese girls with round faces; you’d probably spot those in equal proportion on both Chinese and Japanese routes.. and the Korean girls, geez it’s hard to figure out what they originally looked like but the ones who sport squarer/stronger jaws usually turn out to be Korean.

    As for me.. I’ve had Japanese passengers ask my supervisor if I was Japanese because they didn’t believe I wasn’t, Chinese passengers frequently give me looks of disbelief when I can’t speak their language, and Koreans too – although they usually seem less offended at the thought that I’m not Korean after all.

    Heck even back in my home country, no one ever guesses I’m local. I just have to be.. Korean.. or Japanese, or half-Japanese.. or Eurasian. Or something. And you folks on the other side wonder why you’re having such a hard time figuring out where we’re from. 🙂 We laugh about it all the time!

    Having said that.. the main difference is definitely in grooming, followed by how these girls carry themselves.. the rest is pure perception, man. Def not a subject worth sweating over.

    • K says:

      6 years later… Thanks for your positivity! So refreshing. One of my friends is from Taiwan, another is male and Malaysian. Both have square faces, small eyes, big lips and similar eyebrow shapes. ? I’m German, Scottish, French & Native American. Tall, wide hips, straight blonde hair, large blue eyes, oval face, high cheeks, flat-ish brows, small upper lip… If I’m such a mix, isnt the world? I just wish we could all stop worrying so much about race.

      • A. says:

        I’m in a similar situation as you: German, Polish, Native American, French. And I have to say I agree! Let’s stop worrying so much about race. Race is superfluous. Ethnicity is interesting. But people are people. The only “race” that really matters, in the end, in the human race.

      • Samuel James says:

        I worry about it because I’m an artist and it’s pretty much my job to make things look accurate to the geography or culture — especially in period pieces. Otherwise, I’d end up drawing a bunch of clones of my Scotch-German self, and that gets monotonous fast. Studying the nuances and differences is a good way of noticing the details, and in the process, making your articulation thereof more profound. Everything is good with diversity thrown in, but if I’m gonna’ draw another ethnicity, I’m gonna’ do my homework and make sure I get it right — or else risk the piece going very “black-face” very fast, which is something I avoid. So knowing exactly HOW there are differences is vital to giving them proper respect and acknowledgment. Essentially, this graph is the Anti-“They’re all the Same to me”-Graph that visually demonstrates how stupid it is to over-generalize.

  2. raishawn says:

    I hate it when people say that ‘they all look the same!’ talking about ANY race, I personally think we are all unique no matter what our race looks like!!!

    • Bradley Cook says:

      I agree that the statement “they all look the same” sounds somewhat racist and seems to be a dismissal of individuality, but I think most people are just saying in a badly worded way, for example, all Asians look Asian. I don’t think they mean they can’t tell one Asian from another; they just identify (in this example) an Asian as Asian. Maybe a better choice of words is needed. I think race is beautiful. People should take pride in wearing their history and culture in their physical features. It’s an amazing thing that has been passed down from generation to generation and it should be cherished as something special.

    • MDE427 says:

      That is a fine sentiment, and as a philosophy, sure ….. but you cannot deny that it is very difficult to determine where someone is from by looks alone because so many of us are so similar. Asians all have a similar look, whether Chinese, Korean, Japanese, etc. Same with Caucasian people. You have a very large mixture of countries and cultures with white people too …. you might be English, French, German, Russian, American, Canadian, Eastern European, and even Spanish, Italian or Greek, depending on complection. Same when it comes to your basic hispanic look, or someone who might be black. There is such a variety of possibilities. But what I find odd, and it could just be my perception, but Asian people seem so much more offended if somebody gets their nationality wrong …. being upset about the whole ‘we all look alike’ thing.

      Sure, individually we all have our own specific looks/features. But, at a macro level, we are all divided into about 4 or maybe 5 categories, with several subcategories from there.

  3. Random says:

    I’m 100% Chinese but people often mistaken me as Japanese and even Malaysian, so I don’t really think you can actually tell whether someone is Chinese, Korean etc.
    by just looking at their facial structure.
    Therefore its best to just listen to what language they’re speaking (it works easier than the facial observation)

  4. ivan says:

    i am 50% indonesian, 25% dutch 12,5 spanish 12,5 chinese. i have been mistaken for being a native american, nepalese, malayian, singapore, japanese and some more. when i travel i allways able blend” in with the crowd.

  5. Nicole says:

    I feel as though the hardest nationalities to place in distinct ethnic facial feature would be those in south and Central America. Unlike many countries with a slavery history or countries that have allowed refugees during times of war, they manage to have distinct groups of people. But in Brazil, panama, and the Dominican Republic, there are no racial demographic annuities. Like how we have “black/african American, black non-hispanic, hispanic, white, Asian/pacific islander”. Brazil has a huge population of people with a Japanese background, of course african (typically west and south west), the native/indigenous Brazilian population, and of course Portuguese. These people have largely managed to blend and it is very common to find someone of multiple racial and ethnic backgrounds living in brazil. Panama and the Dominican Republic are the same way minus the large influence of Asian immigrants.

    • Rubio says:

      I’ve been married with a girl from the Dominican Republic and been there some time. I’ve learned the following for generations they keep mixing. My ex wife’s grandpa told her (she is a dark skinned Dominican) she needs a white or lighter man (I’m pure European so white enough 😉 ) but her lighter sister should get a darker skinned husband. Result is that I met her nice and husband they had one child who was darker then them.

  6. Christina says:

    My father has been mapping our ancestry for quite a few years now, based only on verbal family history, stating that we were Polish-German-Hungarian . However, a conversation with my maternal grandmother about five years ago revealed that she had an uncle who emmigrated from Russia (Russian-Jew) to Poland with his family. After doing a little research of the origin of surnames it turns out that my great-grandparent’s last names (the same with the exception of “i” vs. “e” on the end) originated in Russia (which explained why my dad hit a dead-end in Poland). Suddenly it made sense…from my great-grandmother, grandmother, mother, me and my daughter (VERY strong maternal genes!)…I had never found “us” in the Polish faces on my father’s side. This facial chart was one of many sites I used to show my father the difference in characteristics…and the bad news that he had to start all over again!

    • Miffy Seal says:

      Yes, family trees are useful if you can do a complete tracing of all your past family forefathers/foremothers. However, should any of your grandparents/grandmothers or great grandparents be adopted, the family tree investigation becomes useless. Thus, it’s better (and more economically cheaper) to get a DNA test (i.e., National Geographic Genome 2.0 project) because it saves time and vast resources. The key to find about your ancestral fore-bearers is to understand your genetic markers (Haplogroups) which can pinpoint and identify the geographical region your maternal and paternal ancestors came from.

  7. Jose says:

    I think people could have the ability to tell not only differences in ethnic characteristics, but also what someone is, etc. I, however think it’s even more possible if someone has an interest in ethnicities and culture, such as myself. Travel helps as well. And yes, while Asia is the most vast continent in ethnicities and countries, you can really tell the difference between French, German or English (though the last two share similarities due to the Germanic make-up of Anglo-Saxons), as someone had stated. In fact, Europe may be a smaller continent, but you could really tell which ethnicity someone is, if you just look. Europe has many cultures and ethnic characteristics. I think it’s more of regionalism rather than simply continental, because ethnic groups from a certain region, tend to have more similar ethnic characteristics (ie. Polynesia; Mediterranean) since nearness makes sense, but then it is possible for some further differences depending on a country’s history.

    • Ari says:

      I personally can’t tell the difference between a French German or English.

      I think it has more to do with what type of people you’re usually around and then you can eventually tell a difference by their ethnicities.

      I lived in an area with lots of Asians and can tell the difference between Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Thai, Cambodians and even the more south Asians vs central Asians.

      I think the only Europeans I can tell a difference from are the north from the south but even then it’s not always accurate

  8. nox_lumen says:

    Why is it so hard to tell ethnicity? People traveled more than you may think back in the day. By the 1200, vikings had gotten as far as Asia as well as over to “Vinland” aka Newfoundland and left settlements all over in between, one of the most famous being Normandy, a bribe from France to stop them from raiding the rest of the country. You also have in Europe the crusades, pilgrimages, and ever shifting borders, not only allowing the black plague to travel, but also genetics. Then there were the newbies, Jews, gypsies, and Moorish coming in from the middle east and Africa leaving marks both culturally and genetically through Europe and just when you think you know whats going on from them in the facial evolution of the continent, the Mongolian hoard got as far as parts of Russia, but the genetic markers hardly stopped spreading west. Add to that the “Black Brit”, a through back from the days of slave trading who’s ethnicity could come from anywhere on the African continent and periods where rape or dalliance with whoever the socially undesirable at the time were just not spoken of, and it gets hard for even Europeans to tell who came from where. And for that matter, how many times was Poland taken over BEFORE Hitler?

    Think it gets easier with Asia? Try again. Buddhism spread as effectively in the east as Christianity in the west, only traveling monks could have families too. Then just when the dust settles, Japan, Korea and China fight like sisters for so long it gets hard to track, one period trading fashion tips and gossiping over tea about the hottest new minstrel or the latest book being transcribed, the next, rounding up the troops for conquest of each other, taking slaves and concubines as they go. In more recent years they have come together on media projects like anime and dramas, meaning that in the middle of the ethically local cast are those who are ethnically from other countries but grew up speaking the language, and now you need a bio just to tell if you see the idealized local beauty or idealized neighbors.

    Lets also remember that Africa is an entire continent with it’s own war and trade and religion, some of it being imported from the east. If you start to look closer, there may be regional differences, but where did those faces start? And how much influence did they get from European colonization or eastern enlightenment? Without going there it’s harder for me to tell since they don’t seem to make as many films as Asia, but since they were part of the slave trade (willing or not) it could narrow down ancestry for some of the displaced Africans that now have been in other countries for so many generations they just consider themselves “African-“. Then again, maybe not.

    And then there is America, the great melting pot, and anybody can wed anybody. then the hippy free love movement set in and single mothers were no longer considered a dirty word.

    So, after millennial of trade, war, and religion, and travel, is there anyone who is purely on ethnicity or another?

    • Leslie Schwartz says:

      This is way too simplistic an analysis. All of the major groups you mention were affected by population migrations in every direction you can imagine for milenia prior to all of the history you mention. In particular, climate change affected populations in the ten to twelve thousand year boundary creating new population groups which led to all that came later.

      To understand population dynamics you have to look at the evolution of haplotypes in populations, how and where they originated and spread, then then evolved again to the successor types.

      That is real human population history including introgressions, divergent population events, and the like.

      Far different than what you can guess about by looking at physical – phenotypes appearances.

  9. Ken Mitchell says:

    Regardless of any ethnic differences, perceived or otherwise. I find all of the average faces very pretty. My personal observation is that people of mixed ethnic parentage can be strikingly good looking. Perhaps this is evidence of evolution by natural selection!

  10. Debora Weksler says:

    I agree with nox_lumen. Over the centuries there has been a lot of mixing going on but there were longer consistent periods of cultural constraints of who married whom and these cultural constraints also maintain certain features over time. I think the mistake is to ask people what country they are from rather than their ethnicity or last name. We could probably be able to tell more who is a Han or a Wang or and Ito or a Mitsubishi and why better. People married within or outside their tribes or classes for generations and the once every 10-100 years there would be wars that mixed things up.

    Christina, I am also of Russian-Jewish origin. My father’s last name is German but spelt in a Ukrainian way. My Mom’s name sounds Polish but her family, as well as my father’s and mother’s family came from what my great-great-great grandparents called “Russia”. A lot of people think we look Irish. LOL. We are most-likely a mixture of Ukrainian-Polish-German Jews. Borders changed frequently and Jews were often expelled or fleeing persecution.

  11. Mary K. says:

    I am part Chinese, Thai, American, Ukrainian, German, and Irish but I look a lot like my mom which is Thai and Chinese. People always asks me if I am Veitnamiese but how is Thai and Veitnamiese alike? Some people also asked me if I was Taiwanese or even Chinese. I am just wondering if Asians are so a like that even my friends can’t tell the difference? In school my classmates always ask me if I can speak Chinese but I just always wondered why they thought that I van speak it?

    I think that if you are a mix then it would be harder for others to guess what nationality you are because you might look like someone else in your family who looks like a different nationality. For an example my grandfather on my moms side was Chinese so my eyes look kind of Chinese and maybe a little bit Thai, my face is a bit round like my mom(Thai, Chinese), it also looks a little bit long like my dad(American, German, Ukrainian, Irish) well just not too long, I have a flat nose like my aunt (Thai + Chinese) My cousin is like me, her mom is Thai but her dad is like my dad because they are brothers but she looks like her mom but my friends say that she looks Mexican.

    As you can see we all can look different even if your nationality might be different. We all are the same in some ways.

    Can someone also answer my questions above please?? Thanks

    • Adrian says:

      Mary, my father is Thai-Chinese. I grew up in a Hispanic community and was always considered Asian by eveyone even though unlike your cousin who just looks Mexican I am from my mother with some Spanish. I’ve been confused as Pacific Islander when I was in high school to more recently Italian and Greek!

  12. Seb k says:

    Iam quite a mixture ! Iam 1 quarter Mexican and three quarters german. If I were to follow back far into my family history there would be a small bit of French and Algerian. I also happen to have three passports: which are USA, German, and Australian !

  13. Lareth says:

    Many people here forget that this is a statistical average. Of course individuals can and will look far different from the average of many peoples, immigration is a reality.

    But I can definitely say, that on average, these are actually very accurate. A Polish woman recognized my friend as being Polish just by her looks, and I have on a few occasions recognized my countrymen and women when I’ve been abroad, and also, I can sometimes recognize people from different countries I’ve visited and lived in. Sometimes you can’t tell, but there is a lot of truth in this, and there’s nothing wrong with that, and I don’t quite see how this can be such a controversial subject.

    Check for example the Swedish and Finnish appearances. They appearances are very similar, in real life, and in these photos.

    Some of these traits have travelled far and wide around the globe for hundreds of years. One interesting fact was, when they found an african tribe, that had a large variety of appearances that can be seen all around the world, having the researchers think they might have found one of the cradles of humanity in that tribe.

    • Christian says:

      As I Swede, I can say there is no way I would get it wrong if I someone showed me school photos of a Swedish class and a Finnish class. Finns look distinctly different although there are obviously Finns who look a bit Swedish. A Norwegian class and a Swedish class would be a lot harder.

      • Dean says:

        I agree Finns look More like Uralic peoples.. many finns look like “North-asian” but with northern european coloring.

        Quite a few swedes could pass for finnish though. hardly any norwegian would pass for a finn.
        Swedes in skane look more danish than anything. Swedes in the North and East show more URalic/Baltic looks.

        Norwegians on the other hand look more “western” and they overlap with obviously icelanders and also “Western germanic” populations such as the dutch and Northern germans, who rarely could pass for baltic/uralic europeans, unlike many swedes, finns and even quite a few danes from the Islands

  14. Olen says:

    I am just the opposite of many posting here. I seem to be instantly recognizable in my Northern European genetic/ethnic background. All sides of my family for as far back as can be traced (c. 600 years) are all from the British Isles-England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. I am very white-skinned (nearly pink, in fact), have blond hair (what’s left of it), and blue-green eyes, and am fairly tall (6′ +/-) like most of my family. It seems kind of odd that none of my ancestors ever seems to have married outside of their own ethnic group. The only question I ever get asked about my ethnicity is, “Are you Scandinavian?” Understandable due to my name, complexion and blond hair.

  15. Finn says:

    What do Irish people look like?
    We humans have always traveled and then bred with the locals but there is certain differences that remain and some that mutate. Recently 7000 year old Hunter Gatherer bones found in Spain had genes for Blue Eyes and Black Hair (song:Galway Girl was my trigger) turns out before Christ the a Spanish King’s children outgrew his domain and he sent them looking for land – they found Ireland (the first Europeans) and conquered it – later the Vikings came (Red Hair) then the English (who were conquered by the Romans).

    • Niamh says:

      I am Irish with blue eyes and blond hair, so do my two brothers. My father had blonde hair and blue eyes so did my grandfather, My sister has blue eyes and what we call strawberry blonde hair, red hair and blonde hair mixed. My mother has green eyes and brown hair, my grand mother red hair. In Ireland we mostly have blue eyes and fair hair. But I have a friends who have brown eyes and blue eyes whose siblings have the opposite color but come from the same parents, its very strange.

  16. Monerah says:

    Like “Random” and “Ivan” said, yes I also believe that you have to look at the grooming, behaviour and ofcource language.

    I am myself 100% Afghan (n-east side, near China) But I heard all the nationalities you can imagine, like Indian, Turkish, Spanish, E-Asian (Japanese, Thai, Tibet, Chinese, Mongolian,..), Russian, Iraki, Irani, Libanese, Egyptian, Maroccan, Portuguees, Brazilian, venezuela, Peru, Mexican, Fins, Austrian, French, Italian, Albanian, Greek, Israili, Uzbek, Romanian, UAE… And im not kidding! These nationalities start speaking with me in their language like Thai or Romanian or Arabs but I didn’t understand anything and they couldn’t believe I’m not same origine as they are… I heard so many things, it even sounds funny. So you can’t see where I’m from, so you can’t always tell by facial looks where that person is from! But I know, we are all human :).

  17. Carly says:

    I am Indian but when I was younger (like two years old), my parents were asked if I was Chinese… I’m not sure why but I think it was because of my eyes. I don’t think you can tell what race people are just by looking at them in some cases.

  18. Nicanadian says:

    My parents are both from Central America, but from the family tree spanning several generations we know there is some Italian and a little Scottish in addition to the usual Spanish/Native American and a bit of African admixture common to the region.

    My family mostly has olive/light tan complexion with large medium/light brown eyes and thick eye brows and lashes as well as curly brown hair… we are often confused with Mediterranean or Arabic nationalities, often Spaniard/Portuguese/Italian as well as Persian/Egyptian for the most part.

    I know that Spain at one point was invaded/inhabited by North-African Moorish people (Berbers?) who intermixed with the native Iberian-European population, these ethnic groups also exerted influenced in other Mediterranean countries before the expedition to the Americas which is likely the source of phenotype similarities.

    • Nicanadian says:

      The surprising part is that my Dad is sometimes confused for Japanese/European and my sister for Filipino/European mix but there is no Asian background that we know of, except for the Native American influence.

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