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Barriers to Apologizing, Part 2

From the series Peacemaking in China

Generally speaking, Chinese people view apologizing as a weakness. If I apologize to you, I automatically lose; you win. Being a white American, I was surprised by Li Qiang’s description of how significantly apologizing impacts one’s perception of their position and identity relative to others:

First, when a person apologizes, identity-wise they will feel that “I am a level lower than you.” To be lower than someone else means that I am now in a situation where I can be controlled. You have rights over me: I can’t hurt you, but you can hurt me.

Chinese culture has moralized everything. Someone who makes a mistake is seen as flawed, deficient, and having shortcomings. A person who has not made mistakes is morally higher. They can then comment on and criticize the one who has made a mistake.

If I am going to apologize, first I must accept that I am lower than you. Face, however, says that I cannot be lower than others, thus there’s a tension.1

I grew up with an entirely different framework regarding apologizing. In my cultural environment, owning up to sin or a mistake by apologizing, while uncomfortable and potentially humiliating, was also strongly encouraged as the honest and right thing to do. Leadership training in both secular and Christian contexts in my environment viewed confession and apology as an aspect of living in integrity. Apologizing was seen as something that would benefit the relationship, result in deeper trust, and honor God. So I perked up my ears when I realized that the people I was interviewing for my dissertation research were describing something outside of my experience. I needed to lean in further to better understand what else made apologizing so difficult.

Once I tuned in to this relating of apologizing to a lowering in personal status, I began to see this understanding imbedded in people’s comments. Zhang Jing said,

I think that apologizing is a humbling of yourself. Apologizing is another way to say that we are putting ourselves lower in rank or are inferior to the other person, right? First, you must give up your right, your demand to be respected. [emphasis added]2

Zhang Min’s description of how she used to view apologizing to others also had this understanding imbedded within:

If I didn’t believe in the Lord, if I didn’t have this faith, I probably would not set aside face. I would rather let go of the friendship.

I don’t lack friends. So, with the average friend I wouldn’t set aside my social status and go to another person to say sorry because if I do this, I will be looked down on, “You are weak, you are . . .”

But after believing in Jesus, the situation changed. To be a channel of love you should apologize first. This is how faith changed me. [emphasis added]3

When I heard these comments of what one expects to experience after confessing sin or admitting a mistake by apologizing, I gained an even deeper appreciation for the Chinese Christians I knew who were living as peacemakers.

Apologizing is not for the faint of heart. Those I interviewed courageously chose to apologize despite the potential criticism, lecturing, shame, loss of face, and loss of social status that they might experience. They gained the strength and courage to live and love like this as they developed a new identity rooted in God’s love, and a true view of themselves. They had experienced gospel power at work in their hearts which expanded their view of love and enabled them to lower themselves.

Not that apologizing is easy for anyone, but I am grateful to have gained a better understanding of why it can be even harder for those who expect to face the social judgement of being considered morally inferior if they apologize.

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 second part of a two-part blog post. Click here to read part one.


  1. Li Qiang (pseudonym), author interview, 2019.
  2. Zhang Jing (pseudonym), author interview, 2019.
  3. Zhang Min (pseudonym), author interview, 2019.
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Image credit: Hrushikesh Vegad via UnSplash.
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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