What is this abstract concept called FACE?

No, this is not about looks or Botox or face-lifting creams or hairstyles, or tanning salons, or the desire to have a rounder, paler moon face—the standard of beauty to most Chinese.

What I’m writing about is the meaning of “face” to the Chinese

Dr. Martha Lee wrote, “Nobody ever said what you do with those who have ‘disgraced’ the family name by getting divorced.” Dr. Lee was writing of the ‘hongbao’ dilemma.

In China, if you do something that is considered a disgrace, like getting divorced, that may be considered a “loss of face” for everyone in the family.

Lin Yutang wrote in My Country and My People, “it is easier to give an example of Chinese ‘face’ than to define it.

“The ‘face’ is psychological and not physiological.  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’.”

For instance, when our daughter was a pre-teen, we went on weekend hikes as a family in the hills behind our home when we lived in Southern California. The end of the hike was in a large park across the street from the La Puente Mall. On one fateful day, when she was nine or ten, she was the first to discover a dead man, and she came running back with a shocked expression on her face.

It turned out the dead man was an architect from Taiwan and his company had gone bankrupt. His “loss of face” for failing had driven him to take an extension cord from his mother’s house, find a suitable tree in an isolated portion of that park, and hang himself.

He was dead when we reached him.

Do not stereotype. The meaning of “face” may vary between Chinese. It depends on the balance between Confucianism and Daoism along with factors like Buddhism or belief in the Christian, Islamic or Jewish God.

“Face” is why some Chinese mothers ride their children hard to do well in school while telling everyone they know that their kid is stupid and/or lazy and has no chance to succeed.

Chinese mothers may often tell their children the same thing. However, if the child is accepted to a prestigious university, that Chinese mother has now earned bragging rights and “gained much face” for the job she did as a mother

To get a better idea, I recommend reading Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club or watch the film.  We had a house full of my wife’s Chinese friends and their families over for dinner. After eating, the children gathered in our downstairs TV room to watch a movie. They picked “The Joy Luck Club”, and during one scene, when the Chinese mother was acting very Chinese, all the children looked at each other, nodded ‘yes’ and laughed ironically. Since my wife is Chinese, I knew why they reacted that way. They all had Chinese mothers.

“Face” is why the Chinese businessman will take great risks or take only a few risks and if given a chance may steal another person blind—that is if they believe they can get away with it. If they are caught and it is against the law, that is a “loss of face”—one reason for suicide.

Most Chinese men will wait until they are successful before they let others know. If they fail, it’s possible no one will hear about it beyond the family unit.

“Face” is why Chinese men often work twelve to sixteen hour days, seven days a week earning small but saving large. The Chinese will do without luxuries and save to pay for their child’s university education. Chinese women will work just as hard.

Studies in today’s China show that the average family saves/spends a third of its income for a child’s education.

Regaining “face” may be one reason why Mao reoccupied Tibet for China in 1949. Look closely, and you may discover that even Taiwan claims Tibet for the same reason.

The other reason may have been tactical—to control the high ground as Israel controls the Golan Heights.

Having control over the Tibetan plateau was one of the tactical reasons Britain convinced the Dalai Lama to declare freedom from China in 1912.

“Face” may be why China’s leaders get so angry over Taiwan. As long as Taiwan is not ruled by the mainland, it may be seen as a “loss of face”.

It’s why the Chinese want to walk on the moon and reach the other planets before anyone else. In China, “face” is universal to most of the population and different for each person.

For the Chinese, taking risks is no stranger. It’s probably the reason the Chinese invented paper, the crossbow, the compass, the stirrup, developed a cure for scurvy, the printing press, gunpowder, and built multi-stage rockets using gunpowder as a propellant centuries before anyone in the West did.

China’s list of innovative inventions is longer than this sample. Many of these inventions eventually appeared in the West centuries later where Westerners took credit for them.

Now you know the truth.

In What the Chinese Want Even More than Oil or Gold, the focus was on Chinese gambling and about illegal lotteries going legal and national. Since I married into a Chinese family, I understand what the author of this piece was saying, but the topic is more complex than that.

To learn more, I suggest you read the Investoralist, “Where Curious Minds Meet”. The Investorilist piece says that gambling is China’s Achilles heel.

I disagree.

I believe it is risk taking that brought China to greatness in the past. It’s when most Chinese stopped taking risks in the 15th century that China started to lose its spot as a regional superpower. It’s all about ‘face’. Take a risk and win but make a mistake and get caught, you “lose face” and maybe your life too, which may explain many of the suicides in countries such as China, Japan and Korea.


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.

#1 - Joanna Daneman review posted June 19 2014

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8 Responses to What is this abstract concept called FACE?

  1. Billie Echols says:

    I do enjoy reading your essays or whatever you refer to them as…on a trip to Japan, my husband learned about ‘face’…seems similar to theirs?

    • Thank you. I think it is safe to say that the concept of ‘face’ is similar throughout most of Asia. China was a super power in that region for about 1,500 years. In addition, Chinese merchants sailed to and traded with most if not all of the nations in Asia during that period and Chinese merchants and business people even migrated to many of those areas.

      Japan’s written language, ancient architecture and building styles and religion all originally came from China.

      This post on http://history-world.org/Chinese%20Civilization%20To%20Japan.htm explains The Spread of Chinese Civilization to Japan.

      “Although its full impact on global history has not been felt until the
      last century or so, the transmission of key elements in Chinese culture to the
      offshore islands that came to make up Japan clearly provides one of the most
      important examples of the spread of civilization from a central core area to
      neighboring or overseas peoples. In the 1st centuries A.D., the peoples of
      Japan imported a wide range of ideas, techniques of production, institutional
      models, and material objects from the Chinese mainland. After adapting these
      imports to make them compatible with the quite sophisticated culture they had
      previously developed, the Japanese used what they had borrowed from China to
      build a civilization of their own.”

      For instance, in Thailand, the CIA Factbook lists 14% of Thai as Chinese origin. They don’t have Chiense surnames anymore becasue in the 1920s, the Thai king issued a royal decree to erase their last names. Thailand was going through sort of an ethnic cleaning at the time and I recall reading that they also made it illegal for Chinese to own business in Tailing but that didn’t last long because the Chinese owned so many businesses and banks in Thailand that business came to a stop when they were forced to close all their doors to customers. In addition, through the centuries, significant intermixing has taken place such that there are few pure ethnic Chinese anymore, and those of partially mixed Chinese ancestry account for as much as a third to a half of the Thai population.

      In Burma, now known as Myanmar, it is estimated that Burmese Chinese form about 3% of the population probably because when Imperial China was trying to conqueror Burma, they failed, I think twice. I know for sure the last dynasty in China invaded Burma in the 17th century and the cost of the war is one of the rwasons the Qing Dynasty eventually ended up broke and collapsed in 1911.

      Chinese Filipinos are one of the largest overseas Chinese communities in Southeast Asia.[2] Sangleys—Filipinos with at least some Chinese ancestry—comprise 27-35% of the Philippine population totaling up to 30 million people.[3] There are approximately 2 million Filipinos with pure Chinese ancestry, or around 2.5% of the population.[4]

      Singapore is a multiracial and multicultural country with a majority population of Chinese (75.9% of the resident population).

      Vietnam was ruled by China for more than a 1,000 years before the Vietnamese drove them out after 1,000 years of rebellion to regain their homeland, and that had an impact on Vietnamese culture. Before the Chinese actually colonized Vietnam, groups from southern China began to move into the Tonkin Delta in order to start new lives after being forced to leave their homelands. Thus, around the 3rd century BC, changes in China began to heavily influence the Đông Sơn culture which was thriving in Vietnam.

      In the West, and the United States in particular, few know that China was the wealthiest, and after the Roman Empire fell, the most powerful and technologically advanced civilization in the world for about 1,500 years until the 15th and 16th centuries and the rise of the Western colonial empires: the British, French, Germans, Portuguese and Americans.

      • Susan says:

        I have a friend who once told me that she doesn’t like Chinese culture, but loves Japanese. I have tried to tell her many times that Japan was heavily influenced by China, but she won’t hear it. Glad you made my point for me in this response.

      • Good, but she still might not want to believe you. I’ve learned that hard way that some people won’t change their mind or views no matter what the evidence is that proves them wrong. When that happens, I just nod and walk away.

  2. Susan says:

    Excellent piece. Those of us who marry or adopt into a Chinese family have to stay on our toes. My ace in the hole is that I don’t mind losing face.

    • Thank you. I too don’t mind losing face either. In fact, I tend to criticize often with profanity myself more than I criticize others. I don’t care what other people think about me. There is an old saying, “It takes one to know one.”

      And here is the dictionary definition for that old saying:

      “The person who expressed criticism has similar faults to the person being criticized. This classic retort to an insult dates from the early 1900s. For example, You say she’s a terrible cook? It takes one to know one! For a synonym, see pot calling the kettle black A near equivalent is the proverbial it takes a thief to catch a thief , meaning “no one is better at finding a wrongdoer than another wrongdoer.” First recorded in 1665, it remains current.

      And :o) then there this quote credited to Jesus Christ: “He who is without sin can cast the first stone?”

      Then there are these from around the world:

      “The vile are ever prone to detect the faults of others, though they be as small as mustard seeds, and persistently shut their eyes against their own, though they be as large as Vilva fruit.” – Hinduism. Garuda Purana 112

      “Easily seen are others’ faults, hard indeed to see are one’s own. Like chaff one winnows others’ faults, but one’s own one hides, as a crafty fowler conceals himself by camouflage.

      “He who sees others’ faults is ever irritable–his corruptions grow. He is far from the destruction of the corruptions.” – Buddhism. Dhammapada 252-53

      “Happy is the person who finds fault with himself instead of finding fault with others.” – Islam. Hadith

      Confucius said, “The gentleman calls attention to the good points in others; he does not call attention to their defects. The small man does just the reverse of this.”

  3. sanukjim says:

    In the 60s in Vietnam an agent for USAID or one of their likes agency s publicly humiliated a South Vietnamese colonel for stealing funds supplied by The United States for the feeding and use of the locals.The following week the said colonel went back to that village,rounded up all witnesses and killed them,because he had lost face to them and no one should be alive to remember that. Check the book” A Bright And Shinning Lie”

    • I’ve heard of that book.

      Here’s the Amazon link.


      When he came to Vietnam in 1962, Lieutenant Colonel John Paul Vann was the one clear-sighted participant in an enterpirse riddled with arrogance and self-deception, a charismatic soldier who put his life and career on the line in an attempt to convince his superiors that the war should be fought another way. By the time he died in 1972, Vann had embraced the follies he once decired. He died believing that the war had been won.

      “In this magisterial book, a monument of history and biography that was awarded the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction, a renowned journalist tells the story of John Vann–“the one irreplaceable American in Vietnam”–and of the tragedy that destroyed a country and squandered so much of America’s young manhood and resources.”

      And here is the trailer for the film. I don’t think I’ve seen the film—no wonder I missed it. It was produced by HBO and the only time I see their films is on DVD. Back to Amazon.

      And here is the link to the DVD on Amazon—I’ll be ordering it.


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