The concept of Face refers to 2 separate but related beliefs in Chinese social relations for judging conduct — lian and mianzi.
Lian represents the confidence of society in the integrity of a person’s moral character. Mianzi represents social perceptions of a person’s prestige; a reputation achieved through getting on in life, through success and orientation.
It’s imperative for a person to maintain face, as it translates into power and influence, and affects goodwill. A loss of lian could verily result in a loss of trust within a social group, while a loss of mianzi could verily result in a loss of authority. To gossip about a person stealing would cause a loss of lian but not mianzi. Continually interrupting your boss while they’re speaking could cause them a loss of mianzi but not lian.
This is a true story of one man’s journey in China as he experiences some of the little-known cultures within.
I stopped on the road alongside a farm one day to adjust the carburetors on my motorcycle, while the farming family was watching me with great curiosity. Many locals have never seen a foreigner in real life. They were absolutely stunned that I had stopped in front of their farmhouse. So, I said a friendly “Ni Hao” and a conversation ensued.
As I spoke with the farmers, I noticed that their children were fishing in the lake that bordered their farm. After they invited me to the house for tea — a major local custom — I inquired about the fishing. You see, I love fishing, and I miss fishing from ‘back home’ very much. They offered to allow me to fish on their property. But I had no gear with me and hadn’t brought any from home, so I said I would return one day.
I wasn’t about to let a single week pass. It was late April and I knew the fish were active. I tracked down a Chengdu Rod and Reel store, bought some gear and drove back to the humble farmhouse in the mountains about 1 hour’s drive from Chengdu, China. They were very pleased to see me again, and sent the children with me to show me the best fishing spot.
After a glorious morning of probing the waters fishing, I brought my terrific catch of fish back to the family and offered them up. This of course led to more tea and eventually a meal.
They evidently invited the other nearby farmers to come meet and greet the ‘Loewie’ — ‘Foreigner’ in the Sichuanhua dialect. I think it was mostly to prove that last week’s tale of ‘the Foreigner who visited’ wasn’t a tall tale after all. The husband and wife farmer whom I had initially befriended were beaming ear to ear … I mean they were floating on air!
You see, everything in this culture is based on the concept of ‘Face’ — saving face, giving face, avoiding losing face. For a foreigner to visit a simple farming family in China is major, huge, ‘FACE’. They treated me like a ‘President’ and offered me the best of everything. I almost felt like they were about to offer me their daughter — well not exactly, but you get the gist.
Now I felt as honored as they did. I mean, they were just as poor as poor can be. But they gave me special treatment — the best food on the table and the only beer they had. It would have been bad of me to decline anything they offered. They would have lost face, and I knew this, as I had studied the culture prior to coming. But, I felt I had to repay them.
Had I just whipped out some cash and said “here, this is for fishing and I know you’re poor and could use the money”, it would have been viewed as an insult. I would have stolen their ‘face’. I would have lost ‘face’ too. Instead, I went into a lengthy story on how much I must pay to fish back home.
I told them a single trip would cost $100 U.S. dollars or 800 RMB (Yuan) They gasped! Now of course, this was B.S. I really pay nothing back home, except for the meager yearly license fee ($15). But, I needed to figure out a way to repay their kindness and save ‘face’ at the same time.
Eventually, I deeply apologized to them that I wasn’t wealthy enough to pay them what I normally pay at home, and said that the city (Chengdu) was very expensive where I was living. I asked them to please accept my humble offering of 500 RMB. In their customary way, they refused twice (while I insisted) and then took the money. They hid their pleasure and acted almost remorseful to accept (as is the custom). But, I knew inside they were freaked out. Their hearts were doing somersaults!
You see, 500 RMB is almost 3 months wages for this family. This money was a proverbial ‘Godsend’. But, in reality, it’s only $60 US to me. This meager offering from me will put shoes on their children’s feet, good food on their table for more than a month, and fulfill a few other necessities.
And, I now have a permanent fishing spot if I wish. It was a win-win situation for all. I was able to do some sorely missed fishing, helped a very poor farm family, gave my countryman a good name, and made friends with the salt of the earth. All in all, it was a good day’s work.
The Concept of Face
When trying to avoid conflict, Chinese in general will avoid causing another person to lose mianzi by not bringing up embarrassing facts in public. Conversely, when challenging authority or a person’s standing within a community, Chinese will often attempt to create a loss of lian or mianzi.
Oddly enough, outright lying doesn’t cause loss of face. Say an airline reservation is cancelled, they could then lie that it was merely delayed. Inability to arrange the trip would cause a loss of face, while lying that it was delayed doesn’t. So-called ‘polite lies’ are perfectly acceptable, and even expected.
The concept of face is explained and differentiated from other closely related principles — authority, standards of behavior, personality, status, dignity, honor, and prestige. The claim to face may rest on the basis of status, whether assigned or achieved, and on personal or non-personal factors. It may also vary according to the group with which a person is interacting.
Basic differences are found between the processes involved in gaining versus losing face. While it’s not a necessity for one to strive to gain face, losing face is a serious matter which will, in varying degrees, affect one’s ability to function effectively in society.
Face is lost when the individual, either through their action or that of people closely related to them fails to meet essential requirements placed upon them by virtue of the social position they have.
In contrast to the ideology of individualism, the question of face frequently arises beyond the realm of individual responsibility and skewed desire.
Reciprocity is natural in face behavior, in which a mutually restrictive, even coercive, power is placed upon each member of the social group. It’s argued that face behavior is universal and that face should be utilized as a form of central importance in the social sciences.
The concept of face also exists in Korean, Malay, Laotian, Japanese, Vietnamese and Thai cultures.
Sources for ‘Face’: Copyright David Yau-fai Ho — The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 81, No. 4 (Jan., 1976), pp. 867-884, and Wikipedia.
All photos are property of a personal contact in China who wishes to remain anonymous. Copyright 2007 Life in the Fast Lane.Tags:Chengdu China Chinese culture face ideology lian lifestyle lose face mianzi philosophy save face Sichuanhua