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"Mian Zi" (face)

The Treasure that Never Wears Out


If you’ve ever seen two drivers in China standing in the middle of the street yelling at each other, chances are it’s about “face,” not a fender-bender.

Simply coming up with a definition of “face” is daunting enough. Various terms I have heard (and used) to describe “face” include self-esteem, dignity, image, and reputation, particularly in the eyes of a group that one belongs to.

The third element that Huo Shui highlights for us in “Living Wisely in China” is the Chinese notion of “face.” This one is arguably the most important and the most difficult for westerners to grasp. He gives us a glimpse into how “face” plays out in everyday life in China.

No one wants to be diu ren (embarrassed in front of people, a “lost person”); every individual has a sense of self-esteem. This human characteristic is extremely pronounced in Chinese culture; it has been observed to an extent that is beyond a Westerner’s imagination.

For example, a Chinese may wrong you and be fully aware of his wrongdoing, but if you point this out to him or criticize him with another person present, he will desperately defend himself denying any offense. However, if the conversation takes place between just the two of you, he will readily accept your criticism. The facts you point out are the same, but his reaction is different due to the changed situation.

The reason: mian zi (face).

This comes out in other situations as well. For example, if you ask someone for help, few people will give you a negative answer; most will say: “Sure, no problem.” Is it really “no problem?” In actuality, there may be many problems, but the individual will not admit it. When you follow up on the issue, the individual will say, “Oh, this needs to be delayed a little bit. Please be patient, because…”

Eventually, you will find that from the very beginning this person was unable to help you.

Another common example is seen when friends go out for dinner together. When dinner is over, since they have not talked about who will pay for it, everyone will be fighting to pay the entire bill. Each one is afraid of being thought of as a tightwad.

A story goes that many years ago in Shanghai a man lived in the slums. He would go out on the street only after putting on his one decent jacket, combing and slicking his hair back, shining his shoes and spreading pork lard on his lips to pretend to be a wealthy man who had just enjoyed a greasy meal.

That’s what mian zi is.

Today, similar incidents occur, only in more subtle ways. For example, unemployed people actually “work” for mian zi. They leave home as usual in the morning as if they were going to work, but they do not end up at their previous workplaces but stay with friends or go to parks or cinemas to kill time.

When you invite friends over or to join you for an outing, you need to first examine each person’s special needs. How free is this person? Has he or she eaten yet? If expenses are involved, who will pay for them?

You need to think these through and not ask your friends for information. Even if you do, you will only get polite answers that do not reflect what is truly on their mind. Chinese deem it a virtue not to bother others with questions. Between friends and acquaintances it is harder to ask for a favor precisely because of the relationship.

When in doubt, remember that it is all about face.

Image credit: Street Scene in Kowloon, Hong Kong), by  Josep Castell, via Flickr

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is senior vice president of ChinaSource and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University... View Full Bio