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Barriers to Apologizing, Part 1

From the series Peacemaking in China

The traditional Confucian way of viewing relationships continues to set the general expectations—the unspoken cultural guidelines—for how two people in Chinese culture should relate to each other, including when conflict happens. Li Qiang explained to me:

Chinese people rarely relate to each other as equals. In Chinese traditional relationships, there is a superiority order: a father is superior to his son, a ruler is superior to his ministers, a husband is superior to his wife, and an older brother is superior to the younger brother.

The older (or superior) is always right and the younger (or subordinate) needs to obey or behave in a certain way toward the older (or higher ranked). If you are above me, I am expected to respect you, and you are expected to look after me.1

This social ordering affects how, consciously or unconsciously, Chinese people approach reconciliation in relationships: subordinates are expected to apologize, while superiors are not.2 Believing they have no other choice, subordinates often choose to superficially reconcile based on these social rules. “Forget about it! I’ll give you face; you are older than me; you are the boss.3 But the heart hasn’t forgotten, and the conflict issue remains.

Huang Jingjing illustrated these expectations related to superior-subordinate apology when describing her own growing-up experiences:

In China, a lot of parents rarely apologize to their kids. When I was young, my dad frequently said, “Your elder is always right.” Parents are always right. He was also quite strict, never giving us the opportunity to explain. So from the time I was young, I never learned about apologizing.4

If the elder is always right, then logically speaking, the elder never needs to apologize. But practically speaking, it’s not possible for a person to be right one hundred percent of the time. Thus the tension.

Li Qiang was once placed in a bind based on the Confucian ordering of relationships and the related expectations. After a conflict erupted between him and someone else in his Bible study group, he knew that God expected him to apologize. Yet apologizing was the opposite of the cultural norm and could have negative ramifications. He described his dilemma in this way:

According to the Chinese way of thinking, as the small group leader of my Bible study group, I am to some degree now an “elder person.” And in fact, according to age, I am slightly older than the others. The age difference predisposes me, according to how this culture has established face, to be seen as having more wisdom and as being smarter. I should also be treated with more respect.

So if I behave like someone younger than me, that is, if I apologize, then the previous relationship of “I am higher than you, you are lower than me” changes. In this case, they are now above me; they have a certain authority to criticize me now.5

Should Li Qiang behave according to the general expectations of the superior person and not apologize? Or should he obey the Bible, confess his sin, apologize, and face whatever possible negative repercussions there may be, if or when they come? What would you do in his situation?

Li Qiang chose to shift away from saving or protecting his own face and apologized.

My identity before God is the most important; it is of chief importance. My relationship with others is secondary. If he now views himself as better than me because I chose to set aside my face and apologize after doing something wrong, I won’t pay attention to this. No matter how he feels about me, how God views me is most important.6

When apologizing to his younger Bible study group member, Li Qiang prioritized honoring and loving God and his brother over preserving and protecting his own face. How God viewed him was more important to Li Qiang than whether someone else looked down on him because he apologized. And for those who are wondering, Li Qiang’s small group member accepted his apology, and they were reconciled. Li Qiang maintained his elder status, and he continued leading their small group in humility and the confidence of Christ.

Note: This blog post contains content from Jolene’s forthcoming book, Changing Normal: A New Approach to Conflict, Face Issues, and Reconciling Relationships.

Editor’s note: This is the first blog of two on the challenges Chinese believers face when apologizing. Stay tuned for the second part at the end of the month! Subscribe to get it delivered to your inbox as soon as it’s published.


  1. Li Qiang (pseudonym), author interview, 2019. Confucian relationalism, a term used by Kwang-Kuo Hwang, is the technical term that defines a number of social relationships in China. Confucian values and their accompanying ethical system dictate the intimacy or distance of a relationship as well as the superior or inferior status of each party in a relationship. See Kwang-Kuo Hwang, Foundations of Chinese Psychology: Confucian Social Relations (New York, NY: Springer, 2012).
  2. A superior or elder person is expected to be tolerant, generous, and forgiving, to overlook the younger person’s errors or faults, but not to apologize when they are in error.
  3. Chen Meizhen (pseudonym), author interview, 2019, translated from Chinese.
  4. Li Qiang (pseudonym), author interview, 2019, translated from Chinese.
  5. Li Qiang (pseudonym), author interview, 2019, translated from Chinese.
  6. Li Qiang (pseudonym), author interview, 2019, translated from Chinese.
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Image credit: Jeong Eun Lee via Pixabay.
Jolene Kinser

Jolene Kinser

Having spent much of the time between 1997 and 2020 committed to working overseas in China, Jolene Kinser now lives in southern California. Jolene works as a global Chinese peacemaking ministry developer and educator and as a peacemaking specialist under the South Pacific District of the Christian and Missionary Alliance. Jolene …View Full Bio

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