Some books can take you by surprise, suddenly causing a shift in your perceptions. In Your Face: What’s Yours Saying About You? by Emisch Oghma is one such book. It’s a contemporary Western take on the ancient Chinese practice of Mien Shiang or face reading, designed to stimulate insight and just plain fun. Although traditionally it was used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) as a diagnostic tool for health, it has also long been allied to a system of reading personalities based on facial structure.
According to the Mien Shiang Institute website, it’s a Taoist practice that means face (mien) reading (shiang). “In just moments, you can determine anyone’s Five Element personality type—character, behavior, even health potential—by analyzing their face.” Prominent TCM instructor Patrician McCarthy has also written a book, The Face Reader, on the topic. The Five Elements devised by ancient Taoists were wood, fire, earth, metal and water, each metaphorically representing distinct personality types, with most personalities comprised of a blend of types. Although sympathetic to TCM, I find myself struggling with this notion, which in some respects seems similar to the now discredited 19th century theory of phrenology, the measurement of skull shapes for analyzing intelligence and criminality. There’s a risk here of succumbing to emotional reasoning or metaphorical literalism. However, Mien Shiang has a 3,000-year-old pedigree, lending it additional credibility.
Oghma skips the Five Elements, focusing instead on instructing readers how to recognize and read the features that compose a face. That alone is thought-provoking, since few of us consciously consider these various elements in our daily interactions. And given that he is not a TCM practitioner, he wisely sticks to using Mien Shiang as a means of prompting self-reflection in readers or helping them better understand other personality types. “This book will help you interpret a person’s character and emotional history—and life potential—simply by looking carefully at the shape, features and expressions of their face.”
I must confess I had an urge to jump up and go to a mirror as I was reading In Your Face, having never given much thought before to the various components of my face. Although I found it a little difficult to analyze what, for example, are truly “dragon eyes” or “peacock” or “tiger” eyes, with practice this likely would become more second nature. I have a harder time with categorical statements such as a person with “chicken eyes” having “ulterior motives in any encounters.” To his credit, Oghma provides a qualifying statement: “Please keep in mind that face reading is not an exact science, nor a guaranteed accurate revelation of past emotional experiences. It’s best not to be too serious about Siang Mien (sic)—have fun and laugh.”
But there’s a subtext to this story. Oghma is the victim of a brain injury sustained from a fall from a ladder in 2003. An artist and former gallery owner, the accident left him with the rare diagnosis of agnosia, the inability to recognize and identify objects or persons. Prior to this life-altering event, Oghma prided himself in never forgetting a face. “I could meet a hundred people at a show opening and would remember every one, no problem.” So the somewhat hidden story here is his gradual recovery from agnosia by learning and applying Mien Shiang. From that perspective this is a personal triumph for the author. “By being more observant, caring and interested in individual’s faces,” notes the About the Author section, “Emisch’s agnosia has steadily improved.” It’s also testament to our growing awareness and medical knowledge of the serious implications of head injuries, from something as simple as a soccer head-butt to a fall off a ladder. It’s about time we learned that if people were beaten about the head and face as they are routinely depicted in movies and TV, they’d risk—at best, permanent brain damage; at worst, death from cranial hemorrhaging.
The book is beautifully designed, featuring on the cover one of Oghma’s own mask creations laminated in gold foil, with good use of ‘white space’ on the pages, easily readable fonts, and a writing style that’s uncluttered, friendly and accessible. Whatever your views on Mien Shiang, this book will open up and possibly even change your perceptions, something few books can claim to do.
Full disclosure: I have personally known Emisch Oghma for about 20 years but am not profiting in any way from this review.