In 1935, Lin Yutang said, “Face cannot be translated or defined. It is like honor and is not honor. It cannot be purchased with money, and gives a man or a woman a material pride. It is hollow and is what men fight for and what many women die for.
“It is invisible and yet by definition exists by being shown to the public. It exists in the ether and yet can be heard, and sounds eminently respectable and solid. It is amenable, not to reason but to social convention.
“It protracts lawsuits, breaks up family fortunes, causes murders and suicides, and yet it often makes man out of a renegade who has been insulted by his fellow townsmen, and it is prized above all earthy possession.”
“It is more powerful than fate and favor,” Lin Yutang said, “and more respected than the constitution. It often decides a military victory or defeat, and can demolish a whole government ministry. It is that hollow thing which men in China live by.” (Lin Yutang, My Country and My People, Halcyon House, New York, NY, 1938, page 200)
Chinese like Yue Fei and Guan Yu were honorable men and gained much face/respect because of their beliefs and behavior.
When anyone in China reacts to anything, politically or personally, honor plays a large role. It doesn’t matter if one is a member of the Communist Party, a farmer or a factory worker or one of the wealthiest members of the new capitalist elite.
Most Chinese measure what is important in life by a different standard than the rest of the world.
Return to Part 2 or start with Part 1
Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the lusty love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.
Finalist in Fiction & Literature – Historical Fiction
The National “Best Books 2010” Awards
Honorable Mentions in General Fiction
2012 San Francisco Book Festival
2012 New York Book Festival
2012 London Book Festival
2009 Los Angeles Book Festival
2009 Hollywood Book Festival
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Do the Japanese share this same feeling about ‘face’?
That’s a good question. I haven’t studied the Japanese culture, but I do know that China has had an influence on the Japanese going back to the Han Dynasty in Xian.
The first mention of Japan was in the Chinese historic text Book of Later Han, in the year 57 AD, in which it was noted that the Emperor of the Han Dynasty gave a golden seal to Wa (Japan). The King of Na gold seal was discovered in northern Kyūshū in the eighteenth century. From then on Japan was repeatedly recorded in Chinese historical texts, at first sporadically, but eventually continuously as Japan matured into a notable power in the region.
Important elements brought back from China included Buddhist teachings, Chinese customs and culture, bureaucracy, architecture and city planning. The Japanese kimono is very similar to the clothing of the Tang Dynasty, and many historians believe that the Japanese started wearing robes like what Tang royalty wore, eventually adapting the garb to match Japanese culture. The capital city of Kyoto was also planned according to Feng Shui elements from the Chinese capital of Chang’an (known as Xian today). During the Heian period, Buddhism became one of the major religions, alongside Shinto.
In addition, “In terms of Edward T. Hall’s dichotomy between high context cultures focused upon in-groups and low context cultures focused upon individuals, face-saving is generally viewed as more important in high context cultures such as China or Japan than in low-context ones such as the U.S. or Germany (Cohen 1977).”
And then I found this: “Face has further applications in political science. For instance, Susan Pharr (1989) stressed the importance of ‘losing face’ in Japanese comparative politics.”
In fact, my wife and father in law can both read the Japanese written language, but they have never studied Japanese. The reason they can read it is because the Japanese modeled their written language after Mandarin.
Thanks, my husband spent some time in Japan in 1963, and came back talking about one of the things that they never wanted to do, was to lose face. Also, I have read that Japanese students will sometimes commit suicide if they aren’t doing well in their studies.
Yes, suicide is a common way to atone for loss of face in Japanese culture. When our daughter was still a child—about 7 I think—we were hiking in the hills near our house in Southern California when we still lived there, and she ran ahead of us. A few minutes later, she came running back because she saw this man hanging in a tree. It turned out that he was a Japanese architect who had lost his business. After losing his business, he borought this family to the U.S. to live with his mother and one day he went out for a walk and took an electric cord with him. He climbed into that tree where I daughter discovered his body and hung himself by tying the cord around his neck and a tree limb and then jumping off the limb.
In addition, I recall a story I read in the LA Times about a Japanese woman who attempted to kill herself and her children by leaping off the Santa Monica pier. Her young children all drowned but she was rescued by a man who dived off the peer. The U.S. courts wanted to try her for causing the deaths of her children but she was a Japanese citizen and Japan requested she be returned to Japan because what she did waa considered cultural. It turned out that her reason for wanting to die was because she felt responsible for her husband having an affair with another woman and she felt it was her fault.