China First Hand

23 February 2006

Keep The Face

Filed under: Culture,Personal — china1sthand @ 2:22 pm


My previous 2 articles were on gift-giving and guanxi.  These are interlinked, because in China, I think the reason people exchange gifts is to build guanxi.  A third concept underlying all of this is ‘Face’.  Perhaps this term is not commonly used in the West, but it is very important in China.  ‘Face’ is your self-respect, your pride, your reputation.  Everyone wants to save face and no one wants to lose it.

The details of the rules of ‘face’ are not too clear.  For example, in China one person pays for the whole meal.  The person that should pay depends on rules such as superiority; host; turn.  It is always polite to at least attempt to pay for the meal – but impolite if the appropriate person does not do it and they lose face!  On many occasions I genuinely wanted to pay because I thought it the polite and fair thing to do.  Should I insist, as you always must do with the Chinese, or is that forcing someone to lose face?


Politeness is an aspect of this idea, because if you are rude, you will lose face.  There are a few obvious rules of politeness in China.  You should pour other people’s tea before your own.  You shouldn’t stick your chopsticks in your rice as if you have stabbed it!  It is polite to ask after someone’s family.  One thing that confuses many Westerners about the Chinese is that they often say ‘yes’ but then go against their word.  Don’t presume they are liars.  In China, it is polite to agree with other people – Chinese feel awkward saying ‘no’ – but a yes should not always be taken literally.


China has an increasing division between rich and poor, and it does not have a fair and effective legal system.  I would expect this combination to inevitably lead to high crime levels.  Even as an obvious target, I was never the victim of theft.  In fact, I felt perfectly safe wandering this capital city alone.  People don’t appear to even consider an opportunity for crime.  In fact, I am constantly amazed by the honesty of the Chinese!  I sometimes try to give people money, for example when I take their photograph.  They either refuse or are ashamed to accept it.  This shows that the idea of ‘face’ probably explains how Chinese react to receiving gifts.  Crime (and anything to make you lose ‘face’) will obviously also affect what other people think of you, and therefore could be detrimental to your guanxi.  Becoming a criminal has too much at stake.


Now then, I can’t complete this article by implying that I have not been the victim of crime.  Unfortunately I have, and it wasn’t a pleasant experience.  I will spare you the details – as much for my own wellbeing as yours.  The crimes I were twice subjected to were sexual in nature.  They were nothing to put me in danger, but these crimes are less about that than pure power games.  The target is the Westerner, perhaps?  Maybe for what we represent?  Certainly we don’t know the rules for dealing with crime in China, and we are unlikely to affect their guanxi.  It is not nice being trapped in a crowded bus, fearing that your shouts will result in blank stares – or in more judgement being placed on you than the actual criminal.  Anyway, all I’m saying is that ‘guanxi’ and ‘face’ I think prevent many crimes from happening, but you can’t stop them all.


The structure of Chinese society makes so much sense!!  If only it were combined with the legal systems of the West – you would create the ideal society!  …?




  1. […] Chinese think it is polite that if you receive a gift, you should give another of equal value.  I’m not sure that this makes sense to me.  I give presents because I think the person deserves it, so for them to feel obliged to return the favour goes completely against the point.  My hosts had been incredibly kind to me, providing me with food and company – and a free home!!  I desperately wanted to give gifts as some way toward repaying them.  I kept having to try creative ways of giving, so that they couldn’t refuse – and every time I gave a gift I always got one back!  What do I do?  On my last day, I met my hosts for the last time at a farewell dinner.  I gave them a big golden box of fancy chocolates, wrapped in red.  I went home pleased to have completed my plan successfully –they won’t have time now to find anything in return!  That evening a knock came on our door…. I now own several pairs of brand new Chinese tights!  I didn’t look grateful – but I was. […]

    Pingback by For You…I Insist « China First Hand — 16 September 2006 @ 8:36 pm | Reply

  2. […] With guanxi, there is no line between business and personal: Your reputation affects everything. This is an excellent idea, because you must genuinely be the person you present! There is no room for untruthful sales banter here! However, it also means that your family is always involved. Family are the most important relationships in China. Your actions reflect on your family, so you are responsible for your family as well as yourself. This is a good way to build commitment and motivation. Often, people want to achieve not for their own satisfaction, but for the positive impact it will have on their family. However, it also means there is a lot at stake in everything you do – and anything your family does affects you also. Life is far more complicated and unpredictable. […]

    Pingback by I’ll Scratch Your Back « China First Hand — 16 September 2006 @ 8:43 pm | Reply

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