x  55 - Issues of Face

This is substantially the same as the offering made to the OVS newsletter June 2010. If you don’t recognise that reference, it doesn’t apply. The significant difference between the two versions is that this copy has already been (and will be again in the future) edited in the light of further experience and will be further edited if any comment is received.



It’s all a matter of face.

A teenager spends a lot of their life worrying that ‘everyone’ is looking at them; try being a foreigner in China. Visit somewhere out of the way, and you discover what being stared at means. I’ve caused people to fall off their bicycles just by being in the same street.  My first set of colleagues here included Kenyan and a Pakistani. On the several occasions that we would go out in the city together we would forever be stopped for photographs. I was in the street with my Kenyan colleague late one night, being stared at as usual when he pointed out that I was collecting more stares than him —where in daylight it was the other way around. We both saw what was funny about this—and the couple immediately facing us leapt in surprise as a pair of previously unseen teeth sprang into being. Which made us both laugh all the harder.

Concerned about racism? Britain is a multi-cultural society and is pretty well balanced and tolerant. In China there are 50 recognised minorities and I have more than once heard the comment “She’s doing quite well for a minority student”—as if the non-Han are somehow disadvantaged. Try similar to this in Britain and there will be trouble.

The kanji—the Japanese term for ideographic writing, distinct from romanji, western, Roman, writing—of face as used above is lian3 (well, almost). The eastern meaning of ‘face’ is quite different, more akin to reputation, image or even standing in the community, but heavily confused by perception. Or the perception of that perception. This version of face is mianzi, mian2zi0—on the face of it (sorry)—meaning the ‘social perceptions of a person’s prestige’. The words of choice for face in Mandarin are mian2 , lian3   and yan2 .   面子 , mian2zi0, is the term which first comes to mind (to a Chinese) when we talk about the cultural issue. This in itself is a cultural issue, and the recursive nature of the problem is part of the problem! As my favourite dictionary has it: “recursion: see recursion”.

Face in this sense is a difficult idea to understand because its concept runs through the whole society and remains largely unexplained, or at least unsatisfactorily so. Quite often what I would rather call a cultural difference is described as a face issue, when I can see no possible connection with my (up to that point) understanding of the term.

I give you an example of face from the classroom. Your revered teacher is perfect; therefore you will not ask questions; because the teacher is perfect so there must be no questions to ask; because asking a question indicates that the teaching is not perfect and so is an insult. So you do not ask questions. You don’t need me telling you how this affects western-style teaching, but the word for ‘lesson’ has a quite different resonance, more akin to lecture, hectoring or performance. The reverence for teachers follows from Confucian teaching—and in modern China I see just how thin the veneer of reverence is, although there are still no questions.

This example applies to all situations where respect is required, which means that any or every Chinese has problems with talking with their parents, with their boss and so on. Conversely, they have no issues with being direct (rude, to western eyes and ears) to people in a position ‘below’ them, such as shop assistants and waiters—anyone in the service industries. In turn, this makes the service industries not provide service, but whatever it is perceived that the customer wants. Do not confuse perception with truth.

Losing face is a far bigger issue than gaining it. Indeed, when I ask at length of my Chinese friends (itself a face-losing exercise for them) it appears that there are many ways to lose face (and to describe that peril) but few ways to gain it; you can only find ways to not lose, what we call ‘save face’—and in Chinese this is to gain reputation, which is not quite the same thing. Westerners tend to break the mould – we disregard face to a large extent. It is a bad thing to disregard Chinese face, so I am often welcomed to disregard my own ’face’ but not that of the people with whom I speak.

All of this makes China an exciting, challenging place to be, on a daily basis. Every time you think you have grasped an idea, it runs away, far too much like my teaching. This confusion can be described (often by those about to leave China) as having foundations on sand, but for some of us that very confusion just lends to the excitement. Because one is always learning something new, the old(er) China hand’s response to your own ‘new’ discovery is “Welcome to China”.

Problems, problems. This cultural facet, trying not to lose face, does little for the economy of the country. Because it is not appropriate to criticise your boss, so the typical worker will make no suggestions, ever. Nor will most workers offer information, so it is all too easy for any boss to think all is wonderful. If you ask any question, the response is highly likely to be what the respondent thinks you want to hear: this means that you must be careful in phrasing questions. Useless examples: “Do you have enough work?” Have you done my homework?”, “Do you understand?”—these will all result in a “yes”, even when patently untrue. In consequence many firms are quite ridiculously un(der)productive, even when undercutting the relevant international competition quite ferociously. Discovering useful, ‘real’ data to establish any sort of quality control is very difficult.

And therein, quality of data and its measurement, lies another story; the pure mathematics in China is out of sight (good to fantastic) compared to Britain; a typical final year student at a good school is well into second year undergraduate study (e.g. continuity of functions). On the other hand, even those with Master’s degrees in mathematics still have no statistics, not even at the level of every GCSE student. So, where at one level a British mathematician would find school work here extremely challenging, on the applied front it is challenging in an opposite sense.

Welcome to China.


DJS     20100607
Visiting Britain’ covers related issues.

A week later - and having just uploaded it - I had a further layer of confusion added.

I was (we were) in a Moslem noodle shop for dinner, in ZhaoQing. It is a pretty typical eating house of its type:  a single room about 10x5m, circular tables of various sizes, with stools; not much cooling provided; tv blaring in corner (in this case the bass needs serious attention) and the street noises barely held at bay. Food quick, cheap, tasty and cheerful. To this add a single family: apparently ‘northerners’, numbering six with one small of about five years. They are loud. They commandeer the tv control before they sit, although they have taken the table furthest from the tv and switch it from the football (World Cup) to a cartoon channel, despite that there were at least five people watching the soccer (well, waiting to watch the soccer, actually). Next, they seat their small at an adjacent table, less easy to watch the tv from, and give him what looks like a KFC or McD meal in a box. To add to the insult, it is a meat-laden meal.

My confusion is at several levels here. The behaviour was inherently insulting to all and there was no recognition that anyone in the room (10-15 others) existed. The tv-grabbing was peremptory. The meal supplied from outside was equally peremptory and with no consideration, not even consideration of an apology. The child took little notice of the cartoon until after his meal was over (and that was finished by the adults). The insult to the staff was layered too: meat from outside in a Moslem eating-house? What think you of the parenting skills here?  Of course, none of us have ever shoved the kids in front of the tv, have we?

Now, the problems: No-one is/was prepared to complain (but me) because that involves losing face. Yet the loud group seems to have been unaware that their behaviour is causing them to lose face, so the embarrassment is both on their behalf and quite wasted. The staff, the most insulted sub-group, will not reject this custom or customers because that is a bigger still loss of face. No-one will complain about the tv change (loss of face again).

I commiserated with the waiter as I thanked (and paid him) for the food. My partner was more upset at the prospect of me criticising these twits than if I had done the complaining. I’d like just enough language to upbraid them (but English usually works). On my own, I’d have used Voice and Foreign Devil to help out.

So I remain more confused. Everyone saved face (by not losing it, in all senses) except the pillock group, who remain unaware of their behaviour.  How is this acceptable? Does the weakness of the society - failure of collective response - point to something the Chinese need to attend to? Do they view any part of a reaction as a slippery slope to ruin (ruination of their society as they know it)?

Do we do this in the west, too?

DJS 20100615


Photo: taken by Jill Cowie, on the wall near Beijing in 2008 about 100 days before the Olympics began.

© David Scoins 2017