Mianzi (face) and other key concepts in Chinese culture

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Mianzi (face) and other key concepts in Chinese culture

Postby long_way » Mon Jun 16, 2008 6:33 pm


Dr Xiangqun Chang's PhD dissertation ( http://personal.lse.ac.uk/changx/ ) although too scholarly for the average traveler contains clear explanation of basic Chinese cultural concepts such as Mianzi (face), Guanxi (social connections), Bao (reciprocity), huhui (mutually beneficial) etc..

Her PhD dissertation can be found here: http://personal.lse.ac.uk/changx/PhD%20Thesis.htm however in chapter 6 you can find information on above mentioned concepts: http://personal.lse.ac.uk/changx/thesis/chapter%206.pdf

" Mianzi (mien-tzu)

Mianzi (face) is the first Chinese notion in the area of interpersonal relationships to gain the attention of non-Chinese writers and scholars. Arthur Smith (1894) began his description of the Chinese character with a discussion of face in the late nineteenth century. Lin Yutang (1935/95) summarised three immutable laws of a Chinese universe: face (mianzi), fate (mingyun), and favour (enhui part of bao), as early as 1935. Hu Hsien Chin (1944) was the earliest researcher to study Chinese face systematically. She divided Chinese face into lian (lien) and mianzi (mien-tzu) with a list of five different uses of lian and twenty-one of mianzi (45-60).

According to Hu, “The importance of lien and mien-tzu varies with the social circumstances of ego. All persons growing up in any community have the same claim to lien, an honest, decent ‘face’; but their mien-tzu will differ with the status of the family, personal ties, ego’s ability to impress people, etc. In a tightly knit community the minimum requirements for the status of each person are well recognized. Anyone who does not fulfill the responsibilities associated with his roles will throw out of gear some part of the mechanism of well-ordered social life.”(62). All the subsequent discussions retain Hu’s distinction between mianzi
and lian, but each elaborates one or the other’s importance. They also refer to Erving Goffman’s work on face (1959), e.g. Hwang (1985/87) used it in a study of Chinese power games. As a micro-sociologist Goffman analyses everyday life and is concerned with the ways in which people play roles, and manage the impressions they present to each other in different settings, showing that societies are ordered through a multiplicity of human interactions. In short, Goffman conceptualizes “face work” as about the maintenance and the disturbance of the surface. The key
difference between Goffman and Hwang’s face studies and the Chinese version of face is that Chinese face has a much richer and more positive concept to do with one’s reputation, respect, dignity, prestige, status, feeling, sensibilities, self-respect, etc. Thus Chinese face can serve the positive role of keeping society in harmony as well as having adverse effects for certain individuals, e.g. killing people by forcing them to commit suicide.

It’s useful to make distinctions between mianzi and lian (Hu 1944), ascribed and achieved status (Ho 1976), social and moral face (King and Myers 1977, Cheng 1986, Chen 1989, Zhu 1989, Yang M.10 1994, Yan 1996b). It’s also helpful that previous researchers have identified li or liyi (propriety) and de (morality) as respectively the social and moral roots of Chinese face (Cheng, King and Myers, Zhu). Yang M. (1994), Yan (1996b) and Kipnis’s (1997) empirical studies have proved mianzi, guanxi, renqing and ganqing worked together in Chinese society. In contrast to these writers, I am particularly interested in the principles of high regard
and the maintenance of good social relations. For me, both mianzi and lian or lianmian (Kaixiangong’s term: lian + mianzi, cheek and face) touch upon two principles in maintaining reciprocal personal relationships. They are moral constraint (Yan’s term) and social embarrassment, which can be seen as part of the lishang criteria (2.2.3)."
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