Editor’s note: The following article was translated and edited from a response to the question of "Why are Chinese so Concerned About Saving Face?" that appeared on the Q&A section of soso.com. The writer, "Dashuwugen" (大树无根), explains the evolution of the word’s definition, the cultural background, several common examples of "extreme acts of saving face", and ultimately asks, "is it really worth it?"
Mianzi, or face is something that Chinese people think about more than any other. Be it the nation's leaders, or its common citizens, the consideration of saving face is always the first thing they think about before they act. Since face is so important, it's worth asking, what exactly is it?
What is face?
If you check a dictionary, you'll see that the original intended meaning of mianzi (面子) was a noun for the face, surface, or exterior of something. Later, the meaning of the word extended to include someone's feelings or the face value of something. Finally, the word came to mean "fame", "prestige" or "reputation". In the daily lives of Chinese people, the meaning of face is particularly complicated, as giving face (or not) to someone oftentimes isn't communicated directly through words, but is instead something that must be perceived through actions. The absolute concern over saving face (sometimes taken to the extreme) has truly remained a cultural phenomenon unique to Chinese people, and today it's one of the few social elements left that is still inextricably linked with Chinese traditions that are thousands of years old. Unsurprisingly, foreigners upon seeing face-saving measures in action sometimes cannot help but shake their heads and judge it wholly excessive.
"Do not wash your dirty linen in public"
There's a common saying in China that you "do not wash your dirty linen in public" (家丑不可外扬). This saying is synonymous with that of saving face. When something disgraceful happens that could be harmful to the family name or the family, such as an unruly child, domestic abuse, a uxorious husband etc., Chinese would rather repress their feelings inwardly than speak out, for fear that if others knew that they would lose face, and be ridiculed (in broader terms, such "disgraceful" events that happen within China being leaked internationally can also be considered as losing face). This absolute concern about outward appearances can be taken to such extremes that people’s lives become a living hell. For example, when Chinese mediate their domestic disputes, you'll oftentimes hear the following phrase: "swallowing a broken front tooth" (打破门牙往肚里咽), which is to say that they'd rather swallow their own tooth than spit it out and lose face in front of others.
Face as moral integrity?
Saving face can also manifest itself as a form of moral integrity, as seen in such phrases as: "I'd rather starve to death than be disloyal" (饿死事小，失节事大) or "It's better to be destroyed than give up your principals, it's better to die in glory than live in dishonour" (宁为玉碎，不为瓦全). Although equally extreme, concern over this kind of mianzi is at least somewhat admirable. However, more often than not, Chinese people’s concern of saving face really only refers to the concern of saving their own, their family’s or their friend's face, and they could care less about the face of strangers, perhaps even intentionally hurting it. There’s a saying for that too: "good deeds don't leave the house, bad deeds travel thousands of miles" (好事不出门，坏事行千里). Stories from day-to-day life seem to confirm this point: some people are so bored that they cause others to lose face just to pass the time.
Saving face, taken to extremes
1) The happily married couple
Long ago, I was told a near-ridiculous story. An old married couple, who had been together for many decades, had never argued with each other. They had no children, and no one had ever seen either of them do anything unseemly. Nearly all of the people who lived in the area thought that they were the textbook definition of a "harmonious couple" (夫妻和睦), and that their life together must be quite happy. In fact, since their wedding day, this happy old couple had never slept in the same bed, and had never been able to express their feelings to one another. Yet, the vanity for both sides was so strong, and they cared so much about saving face that they never let any of this known, and they absolutely refused to get divorced, so life just dragged on, and on. All for the sake of saving face, they each wore a smile in front of others, while they dried their tears in private.
2) "Treating" and "gifting"
To save face, Chinese people often "treat" others, trying to act bigger than they truly are (打肿脸充胖子). Regardless of whether it is to please a single person or a room full of people, they’ll always usher the waiters to fill teapot or bring another dish out to the already full table, all the while repeatedly apologizing that "there's not enough food". To save face, it is said that Chinese people must "break the pan to sell the iron" (摔锅卖铁) to afford constantly giving gifts to others, and the number of gifting occasions is seemingly endless: weddings, a baby's first month, a 10th birthday, a 40th birthday, a school graduation, enlisting in the military, receiving a job promotion, moving into a new house, birthdays etc. That is to say, saving face causes Chinese people to "eat losses"; they must constantly grin and bear it, for fear that if they don’t, others will gossip about them being stingy. This concern over saving face can even lead people to break the law, get arrested and be carted off to jail.
3) Face and business
All Chinese people are aware that some will "use dirty tricks to mislead their friends" (鬼迷熟人). This saying describes when a consumer continues to buy something from an acquaintance or friend despite being deceived and taken advantage of constantly (via paying for defective, inferior, sub-standard or even dangerous products). Why do such situations keep happening? In short, because Chinese people are so concerned about saving face, they'd rather let their friends cheat them, than yell at them and have people think that they have no self-restraint or lack class. Of course, many businesspersons thoroughly understand this, and make money by deliberately deceiving their friends. China's problematic "debt chain" phenomenon (such as in Wenzhou) is also closely related with company bosses saving face: they'd rather borrow money from multiple parties at increasingly unsustainable interest rates than have others know that their company is broke.
Face throughout history
Chinese people have long held face in the highest regard. As early as the Spring and Autumn Period, there was the "Lintong Dou Bao" story (临潼斗宝), now used as an idiomatic phrase meaning "to show off one's wealth". In the Eastern Jin Dynasty, there were the "Shichong Doufu" and "Guojiu Doufu" stories (石崇和国舅斗富) about competing with each other for wealth. The last emperor of the Sui Dynasty, Yang Di had trees bound in expensive silks and frequently treated guests to fine meals to exert his face-ness. And in more modern times, the list of extravagant face-saving gestures is simply too long to mention.
Is it worth it?
Ostensibly, the act of giving or not giving face – regardless of time, place, or situation – is a unilateral decision. But in reality, face is a bilateral affair. If one person doesn't pay attention to the other person's face, then that other person will not be obligated to return the face, or deal with the constraints of doing so. That is to say, the ones who lose are invariably the ones who are concerned about face: even if you think that suffering financial losses is unimportant as compared to the loss of face, other people will still think that you're stupid and foolish.
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Keywords: Chinese saving face “saving face” definition Chinese mianzi Chinese culture
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I think they're hypocritical, I'm not saying this to blatantly insult, but where's the saving face when you can hear someone screaming down the cell phone on the metro? Or when you see some guy (and now even teenage boys) push his girlfriend around and scream at her in front of everyone on the street? Or when a woman stands in he middle of a big supermarket to scream her head off just because what she bought earlier is now reduced in price and she wants the staff to do something about it? Where's this saving face when they see someone different and start laughing at them, or make a point to say something loudly to their friends so they all start laughing? Where's the saving face when they just stare at foreigners?
I'm sure all this existed at some point years ago but it's certainly out of the window now, along with common sense or common courtesy.
May 02, 2012 10:24 Report Abuse
How does staring at foreigners or screaming down the cell phone cause one to lose face? You seem to have little concept of what saving face is about. In any case, it is a bit ridiculous to assume that the Chinese have lost the concept of face just because you see people in China doing stuff which you feel would cause you to lose face.
And let's not fall into these rather silly arguments about how in the past, "before the cultural revolution", these values were really adhered to, whereas now they are not.
If you could visit China in 1906, you would find people behaving in ways which you would find even more absurd than the present ones.
May 03, 2012 00:08 Report Abuse
You are right that acting with a lack of decorum is not really related.
However, there is still nothing good to be said about "face". It has nothing to do with tact, just spinelessness. It creates many problems, and solves none.
The suggestion in this article that "face" is related to honour is laughable. Lying to save yourself from confronting something isn't honour. It's the opposite. People lie because of shame, cowardice, or a lack of integrity, not honour.
May 03, 2012 03:09 Report Abuse
Wow, jixiang, you have got to be kidding!
The article very clearly states that emotional displays in public are considered unacceptable. Thus, when you scream on a cell phone or
act like an abusive prick to your girlfriend, you are definitely "going overboard" emotionally. Sorry, but if someone pointed out that a person was behaving in a rude and obnoxious manner, the offender would definitely
And, sorry, Rain, decorum, many other things, are definitely related to saving face
May 03, 2012 05:23 Report Abuse
Yes, getting angry in public does mean losing face, and indeed you will find that a lot of Chinese will swallow their pride and walk away in situations where you would expect them to go b. Sometimes they do go nuts, but really much less often than you would expect, considering the stress in their lives.
However, spitting or talking loudly have nothing to do with it. Quite simply, the people who do these things don't see anything wrong with them, because in traditional and poor Chinese environments, spitting is not seen as bad manners, so you do not lose face doing it.
In circles of university educated young people, on the other hand, spitting is seen as bad manners, and they don't do it.
May 03, 2012 17:21 Report Abuse
So what now? Are you saying Chinese are more stressed than the rest of the world? So, they should be given a pass since they could understandably be even worse?
Are you saying that with all the PSAs and signs everywhere that most people haven't a clue that spitting and shitting everywhere is unacceptable?
By the way, I have just had several boxes of presents for my family completely smashed yesterday while getting stuck in the middle of the worst mob rush onto a bus I've ever experienced. Except for myself and a few children the entire mob was composed of your so-called "educated " students and a total contradiction that any progress is being made from education.
Instead of your constant campaigning for us to show patience and understanding and sympathy to Chinese and their shit behaviors , why don't you start promoting Chinese to start taking some accountability for their actions?
I've seen you get trashed on other forums with your stupid fucking defenses of shit behavior. There is nothing admirable in the way you constantly "stick to your guns" no matter how many times your comments have been proven to be moronic.
I suggest you take up a new hobby.... maybe arts and crafts
May 03, 2012 21:57 Report Abuse
Yes. People such as me.
I'm not even slightly insecure about my or my country's flaws. I don't lie to my colleagues. I don't try to pretend I'm richer or more important than I am. I treat my friends with genuine (honest) respect, not fake respect.
Basically, I'm not so pathetically insecure that I have to lie about myself. I am happy for people to value me for who I am - the upside of which is that I have real friends, not phony ones.
May 05, 2012 07:18 Report Abuse
Regarding some of the posts here:
Saving face can be a common feature among many groups of people out there. However, it is also true that this phenomenon is particularly strong in China. Anyway, the "face" thing is very complicated and not easy to understand for many people, including the Chinese themselves. Sometimes, some people know they are doing the wrong thing, but they refuse to admit it. It might have to do with face, but it might not. Not everything good or bad in China has to do with "face". So, let's not generalize and exaggerate too much. In addition, different people also tend to behave differently, they are individuals after all. So, too much generalizations isn't good. Given the complexity of many things in China, including the concept of face, it's better to not come up with simple, easy and biased explanations for many of these things.
As for "Tales of a Shanghai Griffin" and other similar writings, I wouldn't put too much weight into them. They can be very biased and ill-informed. China, if one exams closely, has been changing and the place today is not exactly the same as of 100-200 years ago. In fact, throughout her history, China has been constantly changing, she has not been static. China has also been through some major changes in the last couple of hundred of years. China is changing now as we speak, and will continue to change in the future. Sure, the China of now is not "totally" different from the China in the past, but one cannot also say she is the same as before.
As for criticizing the Chinese government, many Chinese would definitely do that, a lot of the times, privately. You can also find many criticisms online too, you just have to look for them. Sometimes, just because the Chinese don't criticize China in front of foreigners doesn't mean they are not critical. Many Chinese were and have been and still are critical of China and anything Chinese. Remembering the radical part of the May 4th movement? There is still a lot of that going on today. In fact, it's been there for a long time now, it has never ended. But a key point is, not everyone like to admit their problems in front of outsiders.
I have met many educated Chinese who have much less of some of these problems people have been complaining about. Of course, not every educated Chinese has good behavior, but certainly the number is growning. Just because you haven't met a "good" Chinese, doesn't mean people like that don't exist or have not existed, or that education isn't working or hasn't been working in China. Sure, things can definitely be better, but I think things are improving, and have been so for a while now. I see an overall improvement, albeit very slowly, but an improvement nonetheless.
Also, don't forget about China's tragic modern history and her current condition, this will certainly explain many of Chinese's behaviors and problems these days (e.g. insecurities, don't want to admit fault in front of outsiders...etc.,), along with many other things related to anything Chinese, both of now and in the recent past, and perhaps also in the future.
Finally, I don't think this article from the Chinese internet is a good and creditble source of information. So, no need to take it that seriously, as this article can be not so good and misleading.
Oct 15, 2012 18:32 Report Abuse
Btw, in my previous post, the quotation marks I used on the words "face", "totally" and "good" were for emphasis only. I was not trying to be ironic there. For the latter two words, I was simply saying that the China of now is not totally different from the China in the past, but differences between the two still exists because China was and has/had been, and is/will be constantly changing. The same is true with the China of past and present being different from the China in the future. Also, yes there are definitely good Chinese out there who are responsible, accountable for their actions and who have overall good qualities. These people (many of them are very thoughtful individuals) have been and are still working to make China better. They have always existed in the past and are here in the present and will always be there in the future. Again, many of China's problems are complex and difficult, a lot of them are also historically related, so it's important to avoid giving bad answers/explanations to these complicated problems. Also, many Chinese were/have been/had been/are/will be critical of themselves, other Chinese, and China herself, including the government. These criticisms showed/have shown/had shown/show/will show up in the public realm, the private realm, to friends, or whoever/whatever, including oneself/themselves.
I know it's difficult, but I do urge more patience and understanding for anything Chinese. It's not easy, was not easy, has/had not been easy, and will not be easy to solve China/Chinese's problems, in the past, the present, or the future. So, be patient.
Oct 15, 2012 21:41 Report Abuse
Johnny, I think you might have made a mistake in your post. You wrote "Of course, not every educated Chinese has good behavior, but certainly the number is growning." You meant to say that the number of educated Chinese with good behavior and manners are growing, correct? I think that is my impression as well, as I think there are more good-mannered and educated Chinese than before. Hopefully, their number will continue to grow.
Nov 11, 2012 21:34 Report Abuse
Oooops! The following, "as I think there are now more" is what I should've written in my previous post. Also to respond to another poster, yes, many Chinese do hate and are critical of the Communists (not everyone, of course). This has been the case for a while now. If you really do the research by studying things and talking to the right people, you will know what I am talking about. And "saving face" has very little to do with this issue, because many Chinese have been expressing their displeasure of the Communists for some time now, both privately and publicly. You can find a lot of criticisms of the Communists online, you just have to look for them. Of course, you can find these things outside of the internet as well, but it's just much harder to find them, especially in the public sphere (you can definitely find them in the private sphere by talking to the right people and doing investigations...etc.,). But criticisms of the Communists are definitely there in the public sphere as well, both on the internet and off the internet.
Nov 13, 2012 20:38 Report Abuse
This is for the person named "rain" and everyone that thinks like him : You are lying right now by saying that you didn't lie about yourself, when surely you did it at least once. Also means you are saving face by no recognizing it, which leads to those that vote you for good are saving face too. Everyone lies and save face, for any reason, i don't care, everyone just do, it is in human nature. That you are happy for people who value you for who you are means that you care for them, and that means that sooner or later you'll have to lie to them, just for no to hurt them. You write like someone who has not much life experience.
Jun 29, 2014 19:22 Report Abuse
Would running for the metro and having the doors close on them while everyone is laughing be considered a loss of face? I see this every morning. How about picking your nose on a packed bus, throwing rubbish on the street for all to see, spitting on a train or getting wasted in a restaurant and falling down the stairs? The amount of face I see lost everyday by Chinese is staggering.
To be honest I don't think the Chinese even know the meaning of the word "face". It is very important in Japan, but not China. In China it's just about ego a measuring the size of your dick.
May 02, 2012 17:55 Report Abuse
#8 Bozo ---
Just to be clear - I am not Chinese and I am not defending them.
They have their own "categorization" of things. Not making sense to most of us, but I think it has been clear on the back of their minds.
We went to a burial-mountain last tombsweeping day biking. We posed and took pictures of ourselves on the hill with the tombs... one Chinese friend talk to us and told us it is very disrespectful to do that. I challenged him by asking and pointing to a lot of trash thrown beside the tombs and ask the same - is this not equally being disrespectful?
He replied confidently No, and I thought of this "categorization"...
May 03, 2012 20:49 Report Abuse
Your story reminds me of a similar incident in which a group of Chinese guys drank themselves silly at lunch, shouting at the top of their lungs, kicking over beer bottles, spitting phlegm on the floor, spitting half-chewed food on each other, and chain-smoking to excess. I absentmindedly tapped my chopsticks against my plate a few times (just a nervous tick born of my anxiety over the uncomfortable environment), and they started lecturing me about how disrespectful it is to drum my chopsticks. Give me a break.
May 04, 2012 03:40 Report Abuse
Is not pathetic, is like saying that feeling scared is pathetic, and only for kids. Kids lie cos they don't think about the result as an adult would do. The same as kids feel scared for childish reasons. A kid would lie for watching a movie or eating a cookie, would lie for himself. An adult would lie for do not make his friend or fiancee feel bad or worse, an adult would lie cos care for his family, while a kid would lie cos just care for himself.
Jun 29, 2014 19:35 Report Abuse
In my opinion the chinese people lost their face by themself. Everyday in the streets. Most of them have a hell of bad behavior like spiting, speak really loud and scream to each other, many of the mostly middleaged people are rude and unfriendly.
This is they lost their face by themself ...
May 02, 2012 23:58 Report Abuse
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