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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The best thing to remember about the Chinese obsession with saving face is that it only has merit inside China. Otherwise, in Europe, North America and South America, for instance, the whole notion that before one decides anything, one must decide if it's a face-saving action, a face-losing action or a face-neutral action. . . . and then make the decision, well, outside of China that entire "I must decide how to cover my ass" mentality is regarded as useless because it is useless. China is a society that is bound and wed to "Submit, Obey and Kiss My Ass Or I Will Kill You." Mao changed a lot here but he did not change that, and likely, the "Submit, Obey and Kiss My Ass Or I Will Kill You" mentality found throughout all of Chinese society will never change. Real simple, as a foreigner here: Be silent, smile the fake polite smile when it's time to smile the fake polite smile, collect the money, rock the wire transfers and get on the big Freedom Bird, and don't come back. We are foreigners, we are not welcome here and acceptance is a beautiful thing. So is clarity. What is very clear is that in any situation, a Chinese boss will go out of his way to impose his power and do not even think about questioning him, as that in itself means that he has to put the screws to you, silly foreigner, to prove to China that he will save face above all else. Chiang Kaishek lost face to Mao, so did all the Shanghai opium mafia, and in the Chinese way, those Chinese on the mainland and on Taiwan who grew poppies, processed opium and heroin, and worked for Chiang Kaishek's opium mafia worldwide still want revenge on the communists for kicking their opium-loving asses out of China. And it was the educated classes and the super-wealthy who lost face in China to the poor, never forget that about the Chinese Revolution.
Jul 08, 2018 21:09 Report Abuse
I recently experienced saving "face" at dinner on multiple occasions recently. Friends invite me to dinner one-on-one and then they order food enough for 7 people! Literally. One time we went to an upscale Western restaurant and the friend insisted on getting the family meal and I didn't want to be too insistent. How much food? Steak, one noodle dish, one platter of fried food, one ice cream (delivered at the beginning of the meal, so it melted). At least this friend accepted taking food home. Another lady at another time kept on insisting on offering more food when it was clear we were full and would not allow anyone to take any food home, so there was a ton of waste. I find it all to be wasteful - wasting money, wasting food. It all seems fake, not welcoming, especially when it's only two people. I must admit it doesn't feel the same when this much food is offered at home, because we will eat it.
May 22, 2015 00:27 Report Abuse
Without the need of reading the article that's been written surely by a foreigner who thinks his knowledge about China and Chinese is great, just cos he/she surely is been working as an English teacher in this country for 3 years or around, i'll just answer to " Why are Chinese so Concerned About Saving Face? " : cos they only have one.
Jun 26, 2014 19:58 Report Abuse
A Western teacher where I am currently working had a student who had leukemia and was hospitalised in bigger city. He planned to visit her and let it be known if others wanted to join him. Soon he was called into the department head's office and told that it was not a good idea for him to visit her. Being a Westerner he asked why and was told it would make the Chinese teachers lose face because they were too "busy" to go. Instead the school took up the token collection of money for the student. That way their "face" was satisfied. Seems you especially can't have a waigouren showing you up - after all foreigners have no face just a big nose.
May 25, 2014 07:55 Report Abuse
The article is pretty good save for the "is it worth it?" question that really does not provide any answers. What I would have liked to see as well is something that answers this question: How do others treat face? It would be fascinating to get into the negative ways people may judge each other according to face as well as the possible positives of social uniformity.
May 25, 2014 00:22 Report Abuse
In this world, specially this country is a lot hate and anger circulating around, some Chinese hate foreigners for that same reason some foreigners hate Chinese, culture (let's call it like that...) differences. And of course cos there is hate and anger building up for very long time, till the point that you hate someone just for the looking of the face.
Jun 29, 2014 19:48 Report Abuse
Jixiang,respect is not one dimensional.I remember it was you who was engaged in a bitter debate here about what you considered to be loud behaviour of some Africans students in Beijing.You went on and on saying how your country has built infrastructure and they haven't. The discussion above is now proving that your infrastructure cannot tame some of the wild manners people exhibit in your country.You seem to be involved in select memory,where ordinary Chinese in villages are allowed to get away with nasty behaviour and those in elite circles have to observe good manners. In foreign countries,most of the values children learn are inculcated into them early in life.As early as 4 they start hearing about:"You shall love your neighbour as yourself".This statement is pregnant with a lot of meaning.The neighbour here doesn't necessarily mean the one living next to your home.It means the one you may come across in a bus,restaurant,school.But if you naturally have that desire to be territorial and confrontational,you will never observe this kind of value.
May 03, 2012 22:11 Report Abuse
You have open conversations with your friends or family. Communicate honestly, who wants to do that with someone that they don't know or like?, i only communicate honestly with my family and friends cos we trust and understand each other, would you do what you are saying with someone that you don't know at all? really?. I personally would not communicate honestly with people that i have no idea about, otherwise if i do they are gonna hate me, and then i wouldn't be able to make any friend.
Jun 29, 2014 19:44 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
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
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