Updated: Mar 12
Dear Asian Youth,
I have a really loud voice. And by loud, I mean the kind that you can hear from two football fields away (not to be dramatic or anything). My mother is often embarrassed by my volume, especially in public settings. She often pulls me aside and says, “你真让我没面子!” A rough translation to English would be, “You are making me lose face!” My mother says this because the disruption of my loud voice makes her “look bad”. If you are not Chinese or are unfamiliar with the idea of “face” in Chinese culture, this phrase might seem confusing. “Face”, in this context, does not mean the front of the skull.
“Face” or “面子 (miànzi)” is a sociological construct in Chinese culture that is very nuanced and complex. “Face” is your positive image as an individual, both physically and mentally- kind of like your reputation. One very interesting note about “face” is that it can either be given, earned, or lost. For example, if you wore a really nice outfit one day, and your peers openly praised your clothing, they gave you “face”. If you lead your team to victory in a tournament, you have earned yourself some “face”. On the contrary, if you were caught sliding an unpaid candy bar into your pocket by a convenience store employee, you essentially lost your “face”.
If I had to translate it into an English term, it would probably be your pride, ego, or dignity. Though similar, these terms still cannot be equated with “face”. The main difference between the Western dignity and the Chinese “face” is that one is more about self-perception, while the other is about public-perception. When you think about your ego, you think about how you perceive or value yourself. But for “face”, you are predominantly concerned with your image in the eyes of those around you. The ethics and morals that translate into your behaviors and actions can all affect your “face”. In China, there is a very popular saying that goes: “头可断，血可流，面子不能丢 (my head can break, my blood can bleed, but my “face” cannot be lost)!” It sounds comical enough, but many people live by this statement, though not in such an extreme way. A majority of Chinese people, myself included, are very obsessed with how they are perceived by others. We would rather be physically damaged than to have their public image tarnished. I think this phenomenon is due to the self-consciousness enforced upon us from a young age. China has a very large “shaming-culture”, where having a fear of being shamed is seen as an important part of a “good” individual. According to the teachings of Chinese philosopher Confucius, a sense of shame forces an individual to behave with excellency at all times. This shame may not always be personal “guilt” like the conscience-based dignity in Western culture. This shame most likely comes from the society as a whole that frowns upon certain actions. In simpler words, if a person does something they do not believe is wrong by their principles, but is seen as sinful by societal standards, they still lose “face”. You see, Eastern culture is very family and group-based. But in Western ideologies, as long as your actions do not contradict your personal morals, your sense of dignity is not necessarily affected by external factors. That is why it is still important to differentiate “face” from the aforementioned English words.
The idea of “saving face” can also be analyzed as a reflection of the lack of vulnerability in Chinese culture. I am thankful to be born into a very open-minded and accepting Asian family that has vulnerable and honest conversations. Nonetheless, I am a lucky minority. For many Chinese people, public status or image is all that matters; everyone strives to present their best selves at all times. As a result, being vulnerable about one’s weaknesses is a rare occurrence. I’ve seen many Western celebrities discuss their battles with drug addiction or mental health issues very openly. They take pride in how they overcame barriers to become better individuals, and are happy to share their stories with the public at large. They honor their identities and stay true to who they are. However, you will rarely find Chinese celebrities bringing up their faults or misfortunes, due to their fear of public criticism and judgement that can lead to a disastrous loss of “face”. Even if something negative about a celebrity’s past is proven to be a fact, they will oftentimes try to conceal or deny it best they can. They are unable to embrace their truths like many Westerners can, and will go through crazy lengths to save their “face” (e.g. paying the media large sums of money to not report on certain issues). Again, China’s culture of “shaming” prohibits people from acknowledging their weaknesses and shortcomings, whether it’s public figures or normal citizens.
Additionally, “face” can be communally owned in Chinese culture - contrasting Western beliefs once again. Generally, Western cultures value individuality and self-dependence. People want to develop a powerful sense of self-integrity and respect. However, in Chinese culture, the concept of individualism isn’t as important. In fact, there was and still is a strong emphasis on people being “collective”. This could be your family, friends, or school. Self-image is not as important as the image of the whole group. This explains why my loud voice makes my mother feel like she lost “face” as well.
Yes, I constantly joke with my Chinese relatives and friends about losing “face”, but I’ve recently realized certain downsides of the concept of “face”. The obsession to present a perfect image in the eyes of other people is a huge part of Chinese societal norms; living a life that other people approve of seems to be a common goal. That's how we lose ourselves. We stop acting the way we like and doing the things we love, simply to adhere to other’s standards. We are exhausted from the constant shame and disappointment thrown at us by those who don’t accept who we are. And all of this for what? “Face”? Maintaining a positive image in front of others is obviously not a bad thing; it’s what holds us accountable as kind and respectful human beings. However, that shouldn’t apply to your self-expressions, dreams, or goals. It should not result in the placement of restrictions and constraints on yourselves to conform to those around you. If you are doing something you are truly passionate about, or expressing yourself in your own unique way, I say keep doing what you’re doing! To hell with “face”!