The Chinese language is ripe with delicious ambiguities.  One of the most debatable of all is the word miàn zi 面子 meaning “face” or dignity or reputation, but such definitions somehow feel inadequate.

There is also lián 脸 referring to the physical face as well as a person’s moral standing within society, which can be damaged due to improper conduct, i.e. diū lián 丟脸 lose face.  In practice, the concept of face is extremely subjective with no right or wrong answers.

“But what is this thing called ‘face’. It is very well if you don’t stop to think, but the more you think, the more confused you grow.”
– Lu Xun, renowned Chinese writer

Sorting out the various angles of face in a volatile social situation is akin to tiptoeing across quicksand holding a metal pole in a lightning storm chased by crocodiles…blindfolded. But when has that ever stopped anyone? So here we go – somebody grab that pole.

If a person feels he’s lost face in a social setting, he could react with unrestrained anger to the slightest insult, even if unintentional. Yet that same person might think nothing of cheating someone in a business deal. Some foreigners write this off as an “overly sensitive ego” and conclude the fundamental rule of face is: thou shalt not hurt the feelings of those in thine inner circle, but go forth around others and be inconsiderate. But really, it’s not that simple.

The problem is, everyone seems to have a different notion of face, how it operates and where the hidden boundaries are. Even among Chinese themselves, it’s a moving target subject to individual whims and blood alcohol levels. How much face someone has is a function of his social status and varies according to the group in which he’s interacting. It’s grounded in the Confucian value of respect for the position and experience of the individuals we encounter.

So we decided to ask a few friends the ten thousand RMB question:

How do you define the abstract concept of face?

Here’s what they told us:

“Face is like a suit you’re wearing. You want it to look good and expensive. To lose face is to damage your suit. To gain face is like wearing a cheap suit that other people think is expensive. I think Asian people care more about face, while Westerners sometimes don’t mind making a fool of themselves.”
– Hai Yan, Shanghainese

“Face is ego, but in another sense face is respect, and respect equals power…the exchange of face is never equal because society is diverse in terms of wealth, race, gender.”
– Min Tze, Malaysian

“Face is a universal thing. It’s more nuanced in Asia, but there’s always been an awareness of this notion in the West, although there was no name for it before.”
– William, Australian in China

“Losing face is different for everyone. It’s based on the social expectations other people place on you… Face can be a bad thing when it impedes the decision making process and limits sincerity.”
– Liu, German Chinese

“Making sure you don’t embarrass anybody in anything you do.”
– Gavin, Canadian in China

“Face is something you have within your circle of friends, family and acquaintances. If you don’t know someone on the street, you can be rude to them without causing them to lose face. At times…it’s all very confusing.”
– Patrick, Australian in China

Agree?  Disagree?  Have your own view on the subject?
Tell us what you think!

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