Every language has a corresponding set of words to describe people’s different body types and shapes. However, when foreigners describe body types in Chinese, there are a number of mistakes that are often made.
So, in addition to the simple adjectives 高 gāo (tall), 矮 ǎi (short), 胖 pàng (fat), and 瘦 shòu (thin), how else can you properly use Chinese words to describe people's body type?
First, let’s discuss the expressions in English. In English, you can simply describe a person's appearance as, "He is tall.” In Chinese, we can’t directly translate this sentence as 他是高 tā shì gāo, because 是 shì cannot be followed by an adjective alone. So instead we would say, 他很高 tā hěn gāo.
An adjective in Chinese is usually preceded by an adverb to modify the extent of the adjective. If you do not want to say, "He is very tall," then you can make the appropriate adverbial changes, such as 他挺高 tā tǐng gāo, or 他比较高 tā bǐ jiào gāo to mean "He is quite tall,” and “He is relatively tall,” respectively.
It’s important to know that in Chinese we often describe someone’s body type using 长得 zhǎng dé. By itself, this translates into English as, "to look or grow." However, when we use it in a sentence, its translation changes slightly. For example, 他长得很胖 tā zhǎng dé hěn pàng doesn’t really mean, “He has grown fat,” or “He looks fat.” We should simply understand this as, "He is fat."
In addition to those simple adjectives such as 高 gāo (tall), 矮 ǎi (short), 胖 pàng (fat), and 瘦 shòu (thin), there are of course many other ways to describe a person's body type in Chinese.
Generally speaking, 高 gāo (tall) is a positive adjective, but we can add some suffix words to make them more lively and specific. Take for example, 高大 gāo dà and 高挑 gāo tiāo. 高挑 gāo tiāo is usually used to describe a woman, so the meaning of the word is more like “tall and slender.” This would usually have a positive connotation in English as well.
高大 gāo dà is used to describe men, as 大 dà means strong and wide. You can see that this word doesn’t really have a positive connotation when used to describe women. When used to describe a man, it sounds a bit more natural. It should be noted that in Chinese, whether used to describe men or women, we will not use the word 大 dà. Although Chinese people can probably understand what you mean, it is probably best to use a more accurate term like those mentioned above.
The word 矮 ǎi is a pejorative adjective. Therefore, to describe a person directly as 矮 in Chinese can sometimes be quite rude. But don’t worry, we have other more appropriate words to describe such a figure. Examples include 娇小 jiāo xiǎo (petite) and 小巧 xiǎo qiǎo (small), which are two ways usually used to describe a woman. In Chinese, we do not use 小 to directly describe a person's appearance. We'll say instead, 他的个子不高 tā de gè zi bù gāo, or 她很娇小 tā hěn jiāo xiǎo. 个子 gè zi means stature. We can also use 身高 shēn gāo to signify the same thing.
The word 胖 pàng I suppose is not a word of praise in the world, so we have to be careful when using it. We can describe a lady with words such as 圆润 yuán rèn (round), or 丰满 fēng mǎn (plump). Perhaps using 胖 pàng to describe men is more acceptable and commonly used. Maybe men are not as sensitive as ladies, so sometimes they can be described more directly without been offended.
瘦 shòu is a word that is very different in Chinese and English. In English, the word is not necessarily a compliment, but in Chinese, most of the time it is used as such (particularly to describe a woman). Saying this word to a Chinese woman could make her very happy! In Chinese, 瘦 means slim, slender, or has a good figure. But, it can also be derogatory when used in combination with other words: 精瘦 jīng shòu, 瘦小 shòu xiǎo, 瘦弱 shòu ruò. These words usually give a sick or unhealthy impression.
If you add a 子 zi after these common adjectives, such as 胖子 pàng zi, 瘦子 shòu zi, or 矮子 ǎi zi, these adjectives turn into nouns. It can be used to indicate people who have this type of body. However, they are pejorative, so we should be careful when we use them. Note that in Chinese, there is no such word as 高子 gāo zi, so we still need to say, 高个子的人 gāo gè zi de rén or 高大的人 gāo dà de rén.
If you want a simple way to praise a person's body, no matter what kind of shape they have, you can just say, 身材好 shēn cái hǎo! It means “well built.” If someone really is quite chubby and you want to describe them as such without being offensive, you can also use the 微胖 wēi pàng, which is less negative.
这个男人是很大。Zhè gè nán rén shì hěn dà.
这个男人很高大。Zhè gè nán rén hěn gāo dà.
This man is tall.
他是一个小人。Tā shì yí gè xiǎo rén.
他的个子很小。Tā de gè zi hěn xiǎo.
He is small.
他是一个大胖人。Tā shì yí gè dà pàng rén.
他是一个大胖子。Tā shì yí gè dà pàng zi.
He is a fat person.
Hero Image by bahind (CC BY-SA 2.0)