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As seen in the Transitions Abroad Webzine August 2008 Issue

Keeping Face in China

Understanding The Effects of Mianzi and Guanxi in Day-to-Day Chinese Life

A street scene in Shanghai, China
A street scene in Shanghai, China.

The concept of "face," i.e., mianzi, is a very difficult one to explain in a few sentences. It is also impossible to discuss "face" without introducing the related concept of guanxi, i.e., "relationship" or social networking. Nevertheless, these two concepts, and how they are expressed in day-to-day life in China, are absolutely essential for foreigners to understand, prior to their arrival, if they are to avoid feeling insulted or disrespected.

From a Western perspective, it is very difficult to fully appreciate just how critically important the role of face is in the day-to-day lives of the Chinese. A recent study conducted by the China Youth Daily found that over 93% of the 1,150 respondents surveyed admitted that face is very important to them, with 75% acknowledging that making a mistake in public was, by far, the most humiliating experience they could ever have (Shan, 2005). In other words, most Chinese will do whatever they can to avoid looking bad in public and that often manifests itself in an unwillingness to openly admit to any wrongdoing, no matter how small or insignificant the error might have been. This phenomenon goes a long way in explaining, for example, why the vast majority of Chinese students are so reluctant to voluntarily participate in class or even during less formal activities such as English corners: The fear of making a mistake in front of others is just too overwhelmingly prohibitive.

According to one Asian scholar, Ting-Toomey (1988), "face" is a "strategy that protects self-respect and individual identity. Face saving activities are the rites that protect the individual's role in the guanxi network, preserving individual identity and social status" (p. 215). What most foreigners simply cannot understand or accept is that, from a Chinese perspective, "lying" to either save or give face is not viewed as a lie at all when it is obvious (to them) that the intent or underlying motivation was never to deceive.

All Westerners use face-saving strategies as narcissistic defenses, i.e., to protect themselves from humiliation, social embarrassment and, to some extent, personal accountability: "Sorry, I was stuck in traffic," or "the check is in the mail," are two commonplace examples. Many suggest, however, that there is a significant difference between Western and Asian cultures in the intention and function of face-saving strategies. Gao and Ting-Toomey (1998) suggest that "while individualist cultures, such as western culture, use mianzi to place emphasis on noninclusion (sic) and the creation of individual identity, collectivist cultures focus on inclusion of others and the creation of a collective identity" (p. 137).

What this means, essentially, is that face-saving strategies in the West are almost exclusively intended to protect oneself from narcissistic injury, irrespective of social context, whereas in the East, they are concomitantly intended to preserve and maintain strong social relationships (in what is referred to as "face-giving"). Related, the nature of the face-saving/giving strategy employed, at the time, will vary considerably (unlike in the West) based on one's particular constructed role within the social network.

For example, imagine that a Chinese child accidentally knocks over a vase at home and breaks it. To his friends and distant acquaintances, he might simply say "I didn't do it," but to his parents, he would mostly likely alter his strategy to something like "I was feeling dizzy at the time and lost my balance. I am sorry I forgot to eat breakfast," so as not to shame them into thinking they raised a careless son. University students notoriously and deliberately "lie" all of the time when completing the teaching evaluations for their professors: "Excellent" means good; "good" means average; and "average" means poor—it's a face-giving strategy which is routinely employed by them and is well-known. (This strategy also saves them face, as it would be a significant loss of face to admit that you had a terrible professor; it might mean you were poorly educated or were unworthy of someone better.)

One of the most poignant and powerful illustrations of this collectivist, inclusive face-saving/giving strategy, I have ever read, is expressed in the following example by Hammond and Glenn (1988, p. 28):

An example of this can be found in a recent Chinese colleague who was awarded a post-doctoral research fellowship in Europe. The colleague, who was studying in Taiwan at the time, passed up the prestigious fellowship. He later revealed that his father was unemployed at the time and he thought accepting the fellowship would deepen his father's shame, disrupt their relationship, and put the family relationships out of balance. "It is important," he said, "for the first son to be ready to assume the role of head of the family when the father is ready to give it up, not before."

In this case, the young Chinese scholar never directly shared his feelings with his father who would have been shocked and shamed by his position. But his father implicitly understood what his son was doing, and deeply appreciated his son's face saving choices.

In Chinese culture "context creating communication" such as actions, attitude, body language, etc., are far more important than any words that could possibly be spoken. For example, when asked a direct question by a Westerner, a Chinese might answer "yes" but act as if they have said "no." This deliberately ambiguous communication is designed to let the Westerner know that the real answer is "no" but the relationship is worthy of preservation. By way of a more personal illustration, most of my students have told me that in all their 22 years of life, they have never heard their parents say "I love you" to each other, not even once, although they know without a doubt that the love is there. When I ask them how they know, they invariably say "by the feelings and how they act." In China, actual words simply don't mean as much to them as they do to us. In China, verbal communications pale considerably in comparison to actions and feeling states derived from non-verbal meta-communications.

Conversely, Westerners place far more emphasis on the literal integrity and meaning of spoken words and, from our perspective (having completely missed the contextual meta-communications), we will only hear a "lie" whereas a Chinese would have known intuitively and precisely what was intended and would not have perceived intentional deception at all. From the Chinese perspective, the overall communication would only constitute a real lie if the accompanying meta-communications were deliberately calculated to mislead. This distinction constitutes a world of difference between our two cultures and is very difficult to appreciate from a Western perspective. Sometimes these non-verbal cues are very difficult to interpret unless you were raised with them.

I once brought a Chinese colleague with me to a local merchant I felt was avoiding me around a service complaint that I had over some window blinds that had been installed the week before. I observed, very carefully, the facial expressions the owner was using during the conversation with my friend and my conclusion was (from a Western perspective, and based on the tone of her voice and what was translated to me), that I was never going to see them again. As we walked away, my friend assured me that they would come back. When I asked him to explain how he knew this, he could offer little more than "It is hard for me to explain in English; I only know that she was telling me the truth and they want to take care of this for you." They showed up two days later and took care of the problem.

Sometimes a lie is just a lie (even in China). However, and in fact, sometimes the absence of "lying," e.g., a direct proclamation of "no" when "no" was intended, could suggest gross disrespect. The Chinese feel it is rude to directly deny a request, and will either fail to give any response at all or will indirectly say "no" with a qualification such as, "Well, that might not be very convenient." At other times (especially when dealing with some foreigners and lower-class Chinese of no perceived social consequence, i.e., those far removed from one's guanxi network), a face-saving strategy at that moment would serve no "inclusive" function at all: The response is simply intended to avoid personal accountability and confrontation with a non-member (from a guanxi perspective).

For example, a couple of years ago I was in the market for a new dog, and was delighted when I found an animal hospital that was selling mid-sized poodles. I have owned poodles my entire adult life and noticed that the tail, on the one I was particularly interested in, had been cut a little bit too short. When I inadvertently made the rather serious faux pas of directly commenting on this to the owner of the hospital, in front of his wife and employees, he looked at me firmly and squarely in the eyes and replied, "I didn't cut the tail too short, it just fell off." In this case, the sheer absurdity of the response was intended not only to convey a disinterest in assuming any personal responsibility for the mistake (as I was not a member of his guanxi network), but to also express his displeasure in being "corrected" in front of others by both an outsider and a lay person. It was as if he was saying: "I will have you know that I am a competent professional. I know what I'm doing here and you can trust me, even though the tail may have been cut too short. You have some nerve for even mentioning it."

The point is, in instances such as this one, the response is only a "lie" to us (as Westerners) because we are not attending to the non-verbal cues (particularly in regard to slight facial posturing, eye and head positioning, degree of body rigor and positioning of hands) that correctly inform the words—if you know what to look and feel for.


Gao, G. and Ting-Toomey, S. (1998). Communicating Effectively with the Chinese, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Press.

Hammond, Scott C. and Glen, Lowell M., (2004). "The ancient practice of Chinese social networking: Guanxi and social network theory," in E:CO Special Double Issue (Vol 6:1-2, pp. 24-31).

Shan, Echo. (2005, August 8). "Mianzi" of Chinese weighs a lot, comes at a price. China Daily. Retrieved July 23, 2008 from

Ting-Toomey, S. (1988). "Intercultural Conflict Styles: A Face Negotiation Theory," in Theories in Intercultural Communication, Y.Y. Kim & W.B. Gudykunst (eds.), Newbury Park: Sage Press (pp. 213-235).

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Living in China: Articles and the Best Expatriate Resources
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Culture Shock in China for English Teachers
How to Choose Your First Job Teaching English in China
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