Perhaps no other aspect of Chinese culture gets as much attention or is as difficult for foreigners to understand, as face. At first glance, it doesn’t seem like such a complicated subject. After all, the concept of ‘saving face’ seems like a general human principle, hardly unique to Chinese culture. We all think we know what it means to “save face,” and on the surface, you would be correct in assigning that definition to the Chinese version of face—it’s a general way to avoid humiliation. Well, sort of. Not really.
In China, face is far more complicated than not wanting to admit to an embarrassing mistake. It’s an important social transaction, and it plays out in intricate and complicated ways, especially in business and social relationships. At some point, face will affect every interaction you have with the Chinese, whether you’re a teacher of Chinese students or a business manager with Chinese employees. Its power to cement (or destroy) a deal, shape friendships, secure prestige and confer good standing upon whoever is given the gift of face can confuse and frustrate foreigners to no end.
To understand face, you must know that it’s part of a structural system connected to a person’s public role and built upon the primacy of reputation and shame. To have face in a situation means lending proper authority and influence to a public persona. You can support your friend or business associate in gaining guanxi (status) by giving them face. Face is especially relevant in a time of challenge, where someone may need affirmation or social investment, and in this sense, it’s a product of a profoundly communal environment. If you don’t help your colleague or friend in a time of challenge, it will be embarrassing to them. Your role is to support their need. If you give them the favor of face, in a public way, you have also built their guanxi or status. Since face is so intimately connected to guānxi, the more status you have, the greater care you need to take with face.
In China, with Chinese friends or colleagues, you need to pay careful attention to this—difficult topics often do not get communicated directly. More importantly, face is connected as much to what you might receive in return as to what you give. What’s most complicated about face is that it doesn’t necessarily have to do with not humiliating someone else. In some ways, the Chinese can be confrontational, so you can’t always connect face to the idea of humiliation. It’s connected more to prestige. It is deeply contextual, and also transactional, and that’s why it’s so confusing to foreigners.
One of the best examples I know of miànzi in action was a situation when Marcel, a school head, was faced with an angry Shanghai government official. Essentially, he was chewed out (yes, humiliated) by said official over a publicly sensitive situation. By allowing himself to be chastised, and by respectfully agreeing that he was at fault, (even though he did not believe he was at fault), Marcel was giving the official the chance to save face— the government wanted to know why it wasn’t “informed,” and so that official got to establish his authority. In return, the school saved face because it was not burdened by further restrictions, sanctions, reports, and inspections. It was a transactional exchange.
So, if I help you with face, you may then help me in return. By allowing himself to be chided, Marcel also allowed the official to look like he was doing his job. The meeting ended with the official stating how much he respected the school and how important the school is to the Shanghai community. The same official was now affirming Marcel’s value and the school’s value and helping Marcel ‘save face.’
Miànzi: Important people need to support the importance of each other—face allows you to help other people stay important or become more important. Ta-da!