Exactly How Important is Face in China…?

I know in my blogs I always talk about “face” and how important it is… for the most part it is a way of life here.   I wanted to do a blog on what exactly it is and how it important it is .. not only to my husband but.. to everyone here in China.

I was searching the internet to get some facts and found this blog about face that explained everything perfectly… I just could not have written it any better than this guy….. so I wanted everyone to read it…and really see what the people here go thru everyday of their lives.


FACE, what is it?
(Giving Face, Not Giving Face, Losing Face, Saving Face)

By Liang Jieming

Face is the desire to not appear weak or to look bad in the eyes of
others. Face is all about the other people viewing you and not about
the person. If you are the only person around, there is no need for
Face. This is different from Pride. With Pride, when you are alone
in the office, you will still sit straight, look proper and do your
best work. With Face, it is different. With Face, when you are alone
in the office, you will probably slouch, put your leg on the chair and
be lazy… but when another person walks into the room, Face kicks in
and immediately you sit straight and try to look like you have been
good all along.

Face is also a matter of degree. The position of the person viewing
you is important in Face. Not so much the person’s status in society
but rather your own rating of the person’s status. If you don’t
believe that the person is very important to you (career-wise,
love-wise etc) then you don’t bother with Face. But if you believe
the person is very important to you, you will “put your best face
forward” so to speak. The degree of Face put forward is directly
proportional to the degree in which the other person is assessed.
Naturally you’ll see this in the difference between how a person
treats his boss/client/peer compared to how he treats his

Face can be lost when you appear weaker or less competent in front of
a person you respect or are in competition with. Conversely, face can
be gained when you are seen to be good and “superior” in what you are
doing and hence rise a notch in the eyes of the other.

So how do you save face? Saving face is a gift by others to you. If
you are about to lose face by appearing stupid of incapable in front
of someone you need to impress, I may (provided I am in a position to
help) help you save face by, taking the humiliation onto myself,
divert attention elsewhere, propose a compromise solution that isn’t
as humiliating etc.

Of course like all things, Face can be taken to extremes. One might
go to great lengths just to avoid looking bad, or one might decide
that he/she must look good to just about everyone, or one might
develop a superior attitude towards everyone else and hence needs to
maintain his/her face all the time. But whatever it is, I believe
Face developed from the need to establish a social order. With a
large population there comes a need to determine your level in society
as well as a method of being cordial to one another. This is very
much in opposite to the concept of Individualism where I do what I do,
I believe what I believe and heck with what people think. This kind
of attitude might have existed once in China but it would have given
way to compromise solutions like Face when the population pressures
grew. (Actually you see a form of Face in India too.)

Face is complicated and this is just a brief overview of what I think
is Face. Face applies differently for different people. (see this
disclaimer is also about Face. I need it to save Face in case someone
proves me wrong). Face in it’s best form is about doing things to the
best of your abilities… Face in it’s worst is about pretending to be
better than you really are because of false pride.

Ok, two more concepts on Face.

Giving and Not Giving Face. Can Face be given or withheld? Of course
it can. Take for example my disclaimer above. I made a
disclaimer to Save Face for myself. However, it is still up to you
whether you wish to Give or Not Give Face. You can Give me Face by
politely agreeing even if you don’t agree with what I said or Not Give
me Face by critically commenting on how wrong I am. Friends honor each
other by giving Face. For example, when invited to a dinner party, I
might Give Face to my friend and attend his party despite a prior
engagement because I value the friendship. The more difficult it is to
attend because of prior engagements, the more Face I give. If I had to
climb mountains, swim oceans and cross deserts to attend I would be
paying my friend the greatest of compliments.

This is the least understood part of Face I think. Often you see
subordinates helping their Bosses Save Face in front of others so that
others will not look down on their Bosses. This can take the form of
making the Boss look good or shielding the boss from criticism. Then
the guest would Give Face by taking one of the offered ways of Saving
Face and hence allow the Boss to be “Da BOSS”.

So how do you Not Give Face? Basically if you really don’t like the
person, or you intend to destroy the person’s reputation, or sometimes
as a joke among friends (friendly ribbing), you can proceed to Not
Give Face to a person. This would be a blatant, sarcastic, blunt and
verbal open attack on the person’s work, character etc. A common
phrase you will hear when this happens is when a 3rd person steps in
and says, “Eh, give him/her some face.” This really means, “You’ve
gone a bit too far, let him/her retain what’s left of his/her dignity
or reputation and stop your criticism/attack.” Not Giving Face can also be
a simple snub. Taking the same example of a dinner party invite, I could
snub the host and Not Give Face by declining. The snub is made worse
when the reasons for declining are small or non-existent.

Obviously Face is a compromise type of solution to a meeting of two
people. The English have something similar in their “Gentlemanly
Conduct”. It allows for foes to meet in the middle ground. You can
compete with a person but you must be careful to maintain his Face.
If you damage his Face, you had better be prepared to go all the way
because you would have “pulled off the gloves” and he would have no
recourse but to attack you to Save Face in front of others. This
incidentally is one reason why the Japanese Samurai perform Hara-kiri
when they lose in battle. They cannot stand the humiliation of
defeat, ie. they lose so much Face that they believe they can no
longer salvage their reputations and death becomes preferable.


It is sad.. but so true this is the life in China.. and this is what my husband and I have to deal with. Face is a major part of every day life here.. from what clothes you where, what kind of car you drive, what your house looks like, or how well your kids do in school.   It can make or break you in business and without it.. you are nothing.  Such as the life in China… having face means having respect and not having respect in China is the same has being the dirt under someone’s foot.


until next time…


4 thoughts on “Exactly How Important is Face in China…?

  1. zoiks! You’ve unpacked what underlies virtually every social interaction, relationship, invitation, gift, and exchange.

    It seems the hardest thing for foreigners who come from individualist, less-hierarchical cultures, and a worldview that values truth/justice over face/shame… is this very concept of honour. We might receive face, but learning to give face, and also to save another’s reputation seems *just* beyond reach.

  2. Pingback: Foreigners encountering ‘face’ in China | China Hope Live

  3. Randy

    That’s crazy…..
    It sounds more giving in rather than saving something. The thing of pride is more accommodating to the American way of life. I’m guilty of pride. Especially when it comes to something I want. When it comes to certain things — If I can’t get it myself— then I just won’t have it. Better that than feel obligated to someone.

    I feel bad for the Chinese because this is certainly detrimental to self-esteem….

  4. Ami

    Egads 😦 However, this reminds me of southern black traditional roles as well. I can see a lot of this on my mothers side of the family. They are as traditional southern black as they come. There is a lot of commonality between the two cultures, but my o my the pressure :/ I’ve also been guilty of face saving and face offering gestures, so this does not escape me…

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