In August 2012, China was swept by a wave of anti-Japanese protests that saw people from all walks of life marching through the streets, destroying cars and demanding that the government "smash Japanese imperialism." The cause of this nationwide outrage was the Japanese government's nationalization of the Diaoyu Islands (Senkaku Islands in Japanese), a collection of tiny, uninhabitable rocks off the coast of Taiwan. The Economist speculated about the two countries going to war over over the Diaoyus, which have no human population or proven resources. The most common explanations given by the Western media for these outbursts and China's tremendous sensitivity to the islands' sovereignty were (a) oil (the East China Sea is thought to hold significant petroleum reserves and ownership of the islands would enhance claims to the adjacent seabeds) and (b) national defense (the Diaoyus are part of the "first island chain," a group of islands China has designated as militarily important). In fact, the real issue was face.
For the Chinese, the Diaoyu Islands (which are geographically much closer to China but have been controlled by Japan since 1895) are a powerful symbol of China's "Century of Humiliation." This period, which started with the First Opium War in 1839 and ended with the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, was a time when Chinese was too weak to resist foreign invasions, or otherwise exert its influence in the world. To have Japan, China's longstanding nemesis and a frequent invader, pronounce on the disposition of what China regards as sovereign territory, was a serious insult to the country's national pride. Many Chinese people believe that's why Japan did it - just to humiliate China on the world stage. Oil reserves and military bases mattered hardly at all - the man on the street burning his own Toyota was doing it because of face.
Face is central to Chinese culture and, therefore, a critical part of doing business with the Chinese. Face reflects certain Confucian values, especially the idea that respect is owed to the senior party in any relationship. Because of that, it is intrinsic to guanxi, the network of relationships and mutual obligations within which all Chinese people live. Face is governed by a simple set of rules, which are nevertheless tricky to apply in the real world. Knowing what face is, how to give it, how to protect it, and how to use it to get what you want, are critical in dealing successfully with the Chinese.
As a concept, face seems like it ought not be that hard. After all, the same word exists in English, and is used in approximately the same way, describing a "loss of face" or a "face saving gesture." This leads most Westerners to the erroneous conclusion that face is the same for the Chinese as it is for Westerners. However, the idea in Chinese is somewhat more complex, and a significant body of academic literature is devoted to explaining it.
The modern concept of face is actually a combination of two earlier concepts, known as lian and mianzi. According to Hsien Chin Hu, lian is "...the respect of the group for a man with a good moral reputations," whereas mianzi is "...a reputation achieved through getting on in life, through success and ostentation." In current usage, both meanings have been subsumed within mianzi. Hu-Ching Chang and G. Richard Holt define the modern concept of face as "...a form of respect which interactants assume towards each other in the course of their interaction." For our purposes, face can be defined as "a person's pride, respect and dignity."
Face is connected to the Confucian idea of the Five Basic Relationships, which states that there are five fundamental associations in life, each with its own set of mutual obligations:
Confucius' Five Basic Relationships
Father & Son Loving/Reverent
Older Brother & Younger Brother Gentle/Respectful
Husband & Wife Kind/Obedient
Older Friend & Younger Friend Considerate/Deferential
Ruler & Subject Benevolent/Loyal
The Chinese concept of face is subject to a set of unspoken but nonetheless widely-understood rules. The first rule is that in all situations, face is critically important. This is true for ALL social interactions, from parents interacting with their children to diplomacy between nations. For the Chinese, all are seen through the lens of face. This does not mean that face outweighs every other concern, or that it's the dominant consideration in every social transaction. It DOES mean that, for the Chinese, face is ALWAYS a significant consideration, it's always one of the factors vying for acknowledgement.
The second rule of face is that it must be protected. In particular, this means that there must be a face-saving way out of every interaction for all the parties involved. Backing a Chinese person into a corner where they have no way to protect their face almost always ends badly. To some extent, the need to protect face and the inability to find a face-saving way out of a bad situation explains the disastrous (from the Chinese viewpoint) outcome of the Opium Wars, which started China's "Century of Humiliation." In 1839, alarmed by the impact of rising opium imports, the Chinese government banned the drug and began confiscating it from European (mostly British) traders. The British government attempted dialogue with the relevant officials, but was rebuffed and told to deal with the imperial trade representative (a powerful but low ranking official) and work through the restrictive (and degrading) Canton Trade laws. The British, infuriated by what they saw as Chinese arrogance and intransigence, promptly dispatched an expeditionary force supported by gunships. The British, with advanced weaponry, crushed the Chinese opposition and imposed the punitive and humiliating Treaty of Naking on the Qing court.
As John Quincy Adams commented, "...the cause of the war is the kowtow - the arrogant and insupportable pretensions of China that she will hold commercial intercourse with the rest of mankind not upon terms of equal reciprocity, but upon the insulting and degrading forms of the relations between lord and vassal." Face would not allow the Chinese emperor, the Son of Heaven, or his senior officials, to negotiate with foreigners (barbarians) and merchants (a low class occupation). Having no face-saving way out of the conflict with Britain, the Chinese fought on until they were utterly defeated, losing important pieces of territory, control over the destructive opium trade, and a significant part of its sovereignty in the process. All because they could not find a way to save face.
The third rule of face is that it is hierarchical. Hierarchy is a central tenet of Confucianism and is embodied in the Five Basic Relationships. The face hierarchy says that NO interactions are done on an equal basis, that one party is always higher (and therefore more deserving of face) than the other. This does not mean that face is a "winner take all" concept, where the dominant party is wholly deserving of respect and dignity and the other party gets none. Quite the contrary, almost every situation demands that BOTH parties receive face. An obligation of the dominant party is to protect the face of the less powerful party, to ensure they don't lose face. Nonetheless, there is a kind of "face scale" where various factors are weighed to see who is deserving of the most face. In general, the factors look like this:
Factors on the "Face Scale"
Age (older = more face)
Success (more success = more face)
Rank (higher rank = more face)
Education (more education = more face)
Obligation (being owed a favor or obligation = more face)
Other factors, such as gender (men are traditionally given higher status than women, but this is less true now than before), sometimes come into play, but much less regularly. Trying to take account for all of these factors is often dauntingly complex.
The fourth rule of face is "an eye for an eye." This applies to giving someone face (that's usually a good way to get face in return), but it REALLY applies to making someone lose face. To Westerners, this often makes the Chinese appear prickly and thin-skinned - a seemingly small infraction can result in a significant backlash from a Chinese colleague.
A famous and vivid example of the quid pro quo aspect of face occurred during Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to the White House in 2006. The visit was marred by four incidents, all reported as inconsequential by the Western media, but which infuriated Hu and the Chinese. First, there was wrangling over the official tone of the meeting - the Chinese wanted a full diplomatic "state" visit with a 21-gun salute and dinner in the State Dining Room; the Americans wanted a lesser "official visit" with a 19-gun salute and lunch in the East Room. In the end, it was a mix of both, with the two sides describing it differently. When the ceremony started and the Chinese national anthem was played, it was announced as the "national anthem of the Republic of China." The Republic of China is the official name of Taiwan; the People's Republic of China is the official name of China. Then, Hu's speech was interrupted by a reporter/demonstrator who was a member of the Falun Gong, a religious group outlawed in China. The woman screamed at the two world leaders for three full minutes before being removed by the Secret Service. Finally, after the speeches were concluded and the presidents were walking down off the podium, President Bush attempted to pull President Hu toward a different staircase by physically yanking on his jacket. As the Washington Post said of the incident, "Hu looked down at his sleeve to see the president of the United States tugging at it as if redirecting an errant child." The entire business was so face-losing that Chinese state media gave it less coverage than it did to Hu's visit to Bill Gates' house.
In response, Hu gave the US nothing in the negotiations that followed - no concessions on helping the US reign in nuclear threats from North Korea and Iran, no concessions on the value of the Chinese renminbi and no concessions on the trade deficit with China. The US administration, which had billed the meeting as a working session on these issues, was unable to report progress on even a single issue during the visit. Instead, that day's White House press release was entitled "MEDICARE CHECK-UP: Prescription Drug Benefit Enrollment Hits 30 Million." Ouch.
The incidents with Hu at the White House also point to the fifth rule of face, namely that it is very publicity-sensitive. Things done in public carry a much greater weight, and a much greater risk, than things done in private. This is one reason why the Chinese are so reluctant to disagree in public - they are afraid that a refusal will cause a loss of face to them or the other party. In relation to face, "public" includes anyone not immediately concerned with the issue being discussed or the action being taken. So, a dispute among family members may still be very threatening to the face of the parties involved, even if it is only other members of the family who are aware of the dispute. Chang and Holt provide a good example of this in a story about a woman who called her aunt after 30 years of estrangement over a matter concerning a stolen cucumber:
"When her aunt received this phone call, on the other side of the phone line, she heard her aunt cry right at that moment. She told her aunt, 'Years ago, I did not steal your cucumber." Her aunt said, "I know. Because I found out who really stole the cucumber."
Rather than suffer a loss of face in front of other family members, the aunt maintained her side of the grudge for 30 years, despite knowing she was, in fact, wrong. As this story demonstrates, face is very sensitive to publicity.
The sixth and final rule of face is that it extends to those who are connected to you. Thus, a loss of face for one family member is a loss of face for all. A common parental admonition in China is for children to study hard so as to not cause the parents to lose face. The same is true for universities, companies and other organizations - an accomplishment by a graduate, an employee or a member brings face to everyone associated with those institutions. Students bring (or lose) face for their teachers depending on their accomplishments. Broadly speaking, face is reflected on everyone with whom you are associated, which gives it a communal aspect.
While these six rules are by no means comprehensive, they provide a good guide to understanding and navigating the Chinese concept of face.