This post is also available in: Deutsch
Keeping face simply means to avoid embarrassment. China is a “shame based” culture unlike the western countries, which have a “guilt based” culture. The whole idea of western religion is being saved from our sins by Jesus Christ or forgiveness ans so on. Unlike western people Asians have a more optimistic view on human nature. In the asian mind, people do not inherit sins, if you were raised by a good family there is no reason why you should not become a good person, therefore sin has less significance in Chinese society than shame.
Ancient Chinese literature contains a range of examples about keeping face. The anecdotes of Confucian classics give us rules on keeping and restoring face. In case of embarrassment most of the story’s end with suicide as the last option to restore face, e.g. officials would receive a silk made scarf to hang themselves as a form of mild punishment. Due to the superstitious belief that a persons integrity shows itself in its facial characteristics, Chinese predominantly use the word “face” instead of “reputation”(Rupprecht,2001)
The difference between Liǎn and Miànzi :
Lian is the society’s confidence in a persons moral character while Mianzi is a perception of a persons prestige. Losing lian might result in a loss of trust within a social network. Loss of mianzi means loss of authority.
When people do something shameless in China you might hear somebody shout 不要脸 (bùyàoliǎn) which means something like “don’t want face”. Often it is used between friends when teasing each other.
There are some extreme examples which of course do not occur every time in everyday life. I remember reading an online article about a chinese guy knocking his friend unconscious because he paid the restaurant bill all by himself when the two guys and their circle of friends were leaving a restaurant. Because that guy paid it all by himself, he embarrassed his friend in front of their peers. It is an old tradition in China to fight over the matter of who is going to pay the bill.
Face or Reputation in China has a much broader meaning and importance. In China’s everyday life a persons entire effort is made and friendships are build just to gain social reputation. It is about more than just embarrassment. You can gain face by individual achievement or promoting social harmony and being helpful to other people. Face is strongly tied to relationships. Losing your face in China can mean losing your role in a social circle with consequence of losing your friends, new potential business partners turning away from you, losing a job etc.
The multidimensional side of Face in China :
Having face also means playing the right role according your position in a social hierarchy ladder or following the appropriate code of moral dependent on the situation. It’s roots are in the Confucian idea of the five relationships. The five relationships are father, ruler, husband, older/younger brother and friend. Friend is the only relationship at eye level.
One leads the younger brother while listening to the elder, respecting and honoring your parents, dominating and appreciating your spouse. This concept extends towards other roles in society like being hard-working and self-sacrificing at work (inside the danwei), polite and hospitable towards strangers and respectful and obedient towards teachers.
Think of others :
Keeping your own face and not losing it also means making sure that you would not do anything that might make another person lose face. If you know that a certain decision or behavior will make your boss or your friends lose face in front of others, avoid it to make sure you do not burn “bridges”.
Give face to others by subordinating yourself in the right order and expressing the necessary amount of respect for the other person and you both will benefit in long-term. Sometimes it also means complementing someone in public.
Your face is your social capital and investment. You gain it by respecting the conduct of behavior and lose it through ignorance.