Face in Chinese culture: winning, losing and giving it

April 11, 2011 | Posted by Elisa

Face in Chinese culture can be given, lost, or won. Above, an Olympic gold medalist has just won face for himself, his family, and China.

Face (脸 liǎn or 面子 miànzi) is one of the most crucial and subtle concepts in Chinese culture. For outsiders, however, the notion of face and its applications in daily life can be confusing -- but this need not be so.

Chinese people believe that "face" reflects their dignity, reputation and social status. They can lose face (丢脸 diū liǎn) if they encounter something embarrassing or awkward; they can offer face to others (赏脸 shǎng liǎn) when they go out of their way to do someone a favor; they can leave face for others (留面子 liú miànzi) by not offending or going against someone directly; they can earn face (争面子 zhēng miànzi) by doing something honorable or difficult. Face is so important that one of the harshest criticisms for being shameless is saying that one "doesn't need a face" -- 不要脸 bú yào liǎn.

Often to Chinese people, face stands for dignity and integrity. One well-known story recounts that in 207 AD, the famous general Xiang Yu was beaten in a war and lost the country to his enemy. He felt that he could not face his fellow soldiers and people, so he choose to commit suicide. Sometimes, however, trying too hard to save or build face reflects the lack of confidence and even vanity. An example would be a government officials spending lots of public money on unpractical projects to boost his or her esteem. A project like this -- and they happen in China -- are called "face-saving projects" by unhappy locals.

In fact, face is the single-most important foundation of the connection between people. Keeping a respected face is the prerequisite for Chinese people to face each other comfortably and friendly. While they do try hard to save face for themselves to look good in front others, Chinese people also care about saving face for others. They seldom directly point out other people's faults or show disagreement. They feel hard to say no to others' requests. They always talk and behave with modesty and tolerance to be polite and respectful. Also, when one needs help or support from others, they always say "看在我的面子上 kàn zaì wǒ de miàzi shàng" which asks "for the sake of my face." Thus, earning the credits of face is very important for Chinese people to blend into their community and gain a foothold in society.

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