Chinese Urban Dictionary: Yanzhi

By Mia Li, October 26, 2016

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Yanzhi / Yánzhí /   颜值   n. the prettiness index, a numerical value for how attractive someone is

A. The new guy single handedly raised the average yanzhi of the office by 45 percent.

B. I know. He is so good-looking that he'd raise the yanzhi of any office by 45 percent. 

A. His salary is worth every penny. I'm pretty sure that's why he was hired.

B. He is the wisest investment this company has ever made in terms of return on capital.

A. No doubt.

When you’re good at math, things are much easier measured when in numbers. Why waste minutes describing the taste of a really good bottle of wine, for instance? In China, we simply say: “It was a 20,000-dollar bottle of wine” and the job is done, so everyone can get on with generating GDP. 

The same can apply to beauty. Shakespeare might compare a pretty face to a summer’s day or Romeo to a sweet rose, but some in China prefer a quantitative approach. Literally meaning ‘face number,’ yanzhi is a mark on the scale of how pleasing a face looks. When someone is good-looking, it’s said that his or her yanzhi is high. If someone has the kind of face that stops traffic, it’s said that his or her yanzhi is ‘off the chart.’ 

Another advantage of a quantitative approach is that s has mathematical continuity and can be added, multiplied or squared. Boy bands can be evaluated as the sum total of their individual members’ yanzhi. A university or a company can be described using the average yanzhi of all the students or employees there. Your yanzhi can be squared if you lose a lot of weight. The most attractive person within a group is called the ‘yanzhi pillar’ because the average yanzhi of the group would collapse like a tent in a storm if this person left. 

When appearances can be expressed as numbers, they join all the other statistics that can be reduced to in modern China: income, IQ, age, net worth, BMI, tier of home city, number of houses owned, Gaokao and TOEFL scores, and countless others. When populations become rows of data on a spreadsheet, it becomes easier to look for good employees or potential spouses. 

But like in any index, yanzhi can rise or drop like stock prices. It drops as you age, but can be boosted by makeup or plastic surgery. There is also, often, a direct correlation between your score and the balance of your bank account. And remember: things like taste in music, compassion, empathy and sense of humor cannot be qualified and therefore have no place in the spreadsheet.


By day, Mia Li is a news reporter in Beijing; at night, she tries to turn that news into standup comedy. 

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