Foreigners and “Face” in China (Part I)

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Cultures across the world have the concept of “face,” a term usually used to refer to a person’s own sense of dignity and social standing.  In English, there are phrases like “save face” or “lose face.”  In fact, these are phraseological calques translated directly from Chinese and infused into the English language in the 19th century by the English community in China.  This is not to say that “face” is not important in English speaking cultures, it is just vastly more important in Asian ones.  Michael Carr, in his article “Chinese ‘Face’ in Japanese and English” found that English dictionaries have 5 forms of the word “face” while Chinese dictionaries have 98.

The Chinese culture of “face” is very complex.  Looking at Chinse customs and habits without a deeper understanding of the culture behind it, an onlooker can often be perplexed by what they are witnessing.  In my  former position as a teacher in China, I dealt with “face” on an daily basis. 

One example of the effects of “face” in the Chinese classroom that I witnessed frequently was the  fact that students often had difficulty answering questions posed directly to them. When I asked  a student an opinion question, I noticed that often times the student would look around to his classmates for the answer and begin discussing with them what he should say. At first, I discouraged this behavior, but as time went on and I learned more about the culture of “face”, I became more tolerant of it, but not more accepting.  The students were so worried about being wrong in front of their peers that they would refuse to answer.  They needed to talk to their classmates to make sure they had an acceptable answer before responding to me for fear of failure.

This phenomenon directly contrasts with the Western education style. In fact, many of the most famous and successful people in Western history have advocated failure as a means of growing and learning.  To quote Winston Churchill, “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” Denis Waitley, a Naval Academy graduate, consultant and best-selling author, said, “Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is something we can avoid only by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.”

These quotes imply we should hold ourselves accountable for progress and that success is a by-product of failure.  We should intrisically feel bad for not pushing ourselves forward through failure.  Western societies are generally guilt-based cultures, something which can be attributed to historical religious traditions which encourage individuals to do things because they are good or right, and produce concepts such as Irish Catholic guilt.

In contrast, Chinese society is a largely shame-based society where greater value is placed on social harmony than on the individual.  In “The Analects”, a traditional Chinese work whose influences can still be seen in modern Chinese society, the Chinese philosopher Confucius wrote that rulers seeking to control their subjects should, “Lead them with excellence and put them in their place through roles and ritual practices, and in addition to developing a sense of shame, they will order themselves harmoniously.”  Traditional Chinese culture attaches greater importance to using shame, as opposed to guilt, as a social mechanism to ensure that people to do what is good and right.

Another way that the culture of face manifests in modern China is in restaurants.  When the check comes, the men will argue and fight with each other over who will pay the bill, using the opportunity to display their machoism and wealth.  This kind of arguing is a required cultural act even if you have no intention of actually paying the bill.

There have been many times when I have invited a Chinese friend to dinner (if you invite, you pay) and each time at the end of the dinner I ended up in a wrestling match with my friend over who will pay the bill, even though the culturally established practice is for me (the invitor) to pay.  My Chinese friends always know this and will eventually relent after we engage in a grappling match (which often leaves the server thoroughly amused), but they cannot simply allow me to pay without a fight because of the loss of face that that would cause them to incur.  It would look bad for them to allow me pay without putting up a fight, especially because I am a foreigner.

These examples have only scratched the surface.  Next week I will discuss foreigners in China and the ways in which they are seen as having the ability to add face and prestige to Chinese businesses and individuals.

One thought on “Foreigners and “Face” in China (Part I)

  1. Also if you are a girl in China, you practically never pay for anything in social occasions. Even if you really want to! 🙂

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