The Asian concept of ‘face’

Face is a very large aspect of Asian culture. Face represents the level of glory and/or shame that an individual, a family, or even an entire nation has. This concept is something that is not necessarily well understood outside of Asian cultures.

Face is given to an individual or group when something is accomplished or when they are praised. For example, the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing has brought great pride and ‘face’ to China and Chinese as a whole.

Face is taken away when an individual or group when they do something shameful or something unflattering is pointed out. For example, when an individual is criticized for doing well at their job. That could constitute a loss of face.

These days with the Olympics in China, there is a lot of face being given and being taken away. Some non-Asians may not understand what the big deal is. The Olympics in China is a huge event that announces to the world that China has arrived. That China is proud and powerful nation capable of putting together a great international event.

Admittedly, China has a lot of issues that are talked about in the media: the Tibet issue, human rights violations, unsafe products, and health epidemics. However, nobody likes all their shortcomings to be pointed out for everyone to see. The feeling is even more pronounced in a face-based culture.

So during what is supposed to be a time of glory and celebration for China, there are a lot of “attacks” in the Western media that are pooping on China’s party. [Although, with the earthquake in Sichuan, media criticism has definitely died down and has thankfully focused more on helping the victims] Yes, China does need to face up to some of its issues; however, if the media and governments insist on hanging China’s dirty laundry in front of their face, it will not be welcomed.

All this loss of face due to Olympic torch protests and “anti-China” reporting has actually created a firestorm of national pride in China and amongst some overseas Chinese. It’s like a big slap in the face. At a time where we should be creating constructive dialogue with all nations, this current interaction is creating a destructive dialogue. I’ve seen comments online saying that Western media is biased, anti-China, brainwashed and naive. I’ve seen some of the same comments going the other way. This kind of dialogue does not not create understanding for the other side’s views. The comments only serve to entrench pre-existing negative views and stereotypes.

So the concept of face can be a very complicated value. Some may say that it is a juvenile response, but regardless of your value judgment upon ‘face’, it is a reality that people have to live with and deal with when interacting with Asian cultures, particularly East Asian cultures.


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