"giving and Losing "face": Honour, Social Reputation and Networking in Asian Countries"

People will never forget how you made them feel.

- Maya Angelou -

While Maya Angelou’s quote is universal and likely to resonate with most people regardless of their cultural background, interactions between Westerners and members of Asian cultures may be negatively affected by the poor understanding of “face”, a concept relevant in both the Confucian-Asia cluster and the Southern-Asia cluster [1], but not something Westerners are usually familiar with.

As mentioned in a previous article, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Singapore are countries/societies characterized by honor and shame as primary agents of social control [2]:

In true shame-oriented cultures, every person has a place and a duty in the society. One maintains self-respect, not by choosing what is good rather than what is evil, but by choosing what is expected of one. Those who fail will often turn their aggression against themselves instead of using violence against others. By punishing themselves they maintain their self-respect before others, for shame cannot be relieved, as guilt can be, by confession and atonement. Shame is removed and honour restored only when a person does what the society expects of him or her in the situation.” [3]

In Asian countries “face” (corresponding to one’s public image and social status) is not a matter of bruised egos: it’s about social pride, dignity, honour, high moral - communal - values (morality must be cultivated so that one’s own conduct will not cause others to lose face).

In order to understand the meaning of face in Confucian-Asian societies, we must first get acquainted with the main principles of Confucianism, a philosophy based on the beliefs that a structured society is an essential requirement to live a healthy life and that people are basically good and “improvable” through self-cultivation, that focuses on human behaviour, that places particular emphasis on family and social harmony [4] [5]:

Tsze-chang asked Confucius the source of perfect virtue. Confucius said: «To be able to practice five things everywhere under heaven constitutes perfect virtue: gravity, generosity of soul, sincerity, earnest­ness, and kindness. If you are grave, you will not be treated with disrespect. If you are generous, you will win all. If you are sincere, people will repose trust in you. If you are earnest, you will accomplish much. If you are kind, this will enable you to employ the services of others. The firm, the enduring, the simple, and the modest are near to virtue.»

The concepts of Jen/Ren and Li are often considered the basis of Confucianism:

- Jen/Ren is the virtue of humanity, goodness, benevolence, something dearer than life itself, concerned with desiring only goods for others and with self-cultivation (Confucian morality aimed at restoring social order through self-legislation: “Lead the people with governmental measures and regulate them by law and punishment, and they will avoid wrong-doing but will have no sense of honour and shame. Lead them with virtue and regulate them by the rules of propriety (li), and they will have a sense of shame and, moreover, set themselves right.” [6])

- Li is basically the practical application of Jen, a guide to priorities management and to “correct” human behaviour according to an established code of conduct concerned with rules of propriety, worship, ceremony, manners, politeness, decorum, social etiquette

Under the concept of Li fall the five key relationships of Confucianism, based on the principles of hierarchy/authority (with the exception of the Friend to Friend relationship, that presupposes equality) and mutuality:

- Father to Son

- Elder- to Younger Sibling

- Husband to Wife

- Emperor to Subject (Ruler to Ruled)

- Friend to Friend

Juniors are expected to respect and revere the elders, elders are expected to lead by example and to show benevolence and concern towards the juniors, the wife must honour the husband, the husband must honour and provide for the wife, the ruler will protect the ruled, the ruled will be loyal to the ruler.

Everyone in a Confucian society has a social role to fulfil, and based on this premise “Face is the respectability and/or deference which a person can claim for himself from others, by virtue of the relative position he occupies in his social network and the degree to which he is judged to have functioned adequately in that position as well as acceptably in his general conduct; the face extended to a person by others is a function of the degree of congruence between judgements of his total condition in life, including his actions as well as those of people closely associated with him, and the social expectations the others have placed upon him.[7]

Since humility is a fundamental virtue in the Confucian tradition, face is especially important when it is given since it helps building someone’s public reputation.

It must be noted that in Chinese culture “face” is usually defined as either mianzi (social face) or lian (moral face), two correlated and often overlapping concepts: the former is concerned with prestige, status and the social front, the latter is concerned with moral standards and with someone’s ability to fulfil their social obligations.

For non-Asian nationals, the concept of giving/losing someone’s face is especially difficult to understand because it’s communicated through actions rather than words (see also High-Context Cultures for further reference): for instance, praising someone for their work in front of other is a way to give them face, while reprimanding them publicly leads to the opposite outcome (see related LinkedIn post for clarifications).

“Face” is therefore some sort of social currency, with the exchange of favours and courtesies serving - together with xīn (trust) - as the foundation for guānxi (someone’s social capital, a concept usually translated from Chinese as “relationships”, “connections”, “network”, although in Chinese culture guānxi has a richer and more complex meaning that does also express the need for reciprocation and mutual benefit):

Interesting as the Chinese physiological face is, the psychological face makes a still more fascinating study. It is not a face that can be washed or shaved, but a face that can be "granted" and "lost" and "fought for" and "presented as a gift."

Here we arrive at the most curious point of Chinese social psychology. Abstract and intangible, it is yet the most delicate standard by which Chinese social intercourse is regulated.[8]



Related posts:

- Social Connections Harmony Consensus Confucian Beliefs and Business Culture in China Japan and Korea



[1] Globe Project, Online: https://globeproject.com/

[2] Herbert R. (1946). “The chrysanthemum and the sword : patterns of Japanese culture”. Boston : Houghton Mifflin Co.

[3] Hiebert, Paul G. (1985). ”Anthropological Insights for Missionaries”. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House

[4] Henderson, J. (1999). “The Original Analects: Sayings of Confucius and His Successors; A New Translation and Commentary by E. Bruce Brooks and A. Taeko Brooks”. New York: Columbia University Press

[5] Confucius, & Legge J. (1971). “Confucian Analects: The Great Learning, and the Doctrine of the Mean”. New York: Dover Publications

[6] Chan, W. (1969). ”A source book in Chinese philosophy”. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press

[7]. Ho D. Y. F. (1976). ”On the concept of face”. Am. J. Soc. 81 867–884. 10.1086/226145

[8] Lin, Y. (1935). ”My country and my people”. New York: Reynal & Hitchcock

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