What Does "Miànzi" Really Mean?

A closer look on what ‘Face’ (面子) exactly is in China

Written by Juliette Pitt

So, we’re sure if you’ve been to China or if you are familiar with Chinese culture you have come across the term “miànzi”(面子).

The direct translation of “miànzi” is face. Similar to the Western idea of reputation, ‘face’ describes one’s reputation or dignity in social contexts.

In this article we will dive into the many different concepts of ‘face’, and we hope this will help you gain more insight into the importance of ‘mianzi’ in Chinese society.


#What does it really mean?

The concepts of honourprestige, and respect exists in every culture but in China and other Asian societies, they play an instrumental part of most social interactions, especially in the business world. In the business world, “miànzi” can be further understood as the ‘unwritten’ rules that revolve around non-verbal communication. For instance, an answer to a question might be too embarrassing to say and thus in order to ‘save face‘ the actual answer can sometimes only be read in between the lines.

Further, miànzi promotes trust and it means that you are respected by your peers including family. Hence, miànzi plays a crucial role in building ‘guan xi‘, connections (关系,guānxì)with others.From a Western perspective, it is significantly different from the Western view of social status. In China, the role of face is intertwined in the day-to-day lives of the Chinese. One should always be aware of one’s own face and make considerations to preserve the face of others.Thus, it is much less to do with the individual perspective but with the collective interests and opinion. For example, if one loses ‘face’ this can be detrimental for a family’s prestige and thus it is advisable never to insult, embarrass, or demean a person in public.Though it is true that “miànzi” plays a role in Chinese consumption practices, especially in relation to luxury goods so as to ‘display’ one’s social prestige, there are many different aspects of “face” that are important to understand. 

#The many concepts of ‘face’ 

  • Having Face 有面子(yǒu miànzi): This is always a good thing, if you have face then you have a good reputation and giving your word is considered as good as gold! 
  • Giving Face 面子(gěimiànzi): This refers to certain actions that show respect and thus ‘give face’ to people. Common examples are giving someone a compliment, toasting at a banquet, paying a bill, giving a present or gift, keeping one’s word, or helping someone in need.
  • Losing face 丢脸(diūliǎn): This occurs if a certain action causes someone to ‘lose face’. It is often referred to an action that causes embarrassment, for example if your gift is turned down by a friend or colleague this could be costly for one’s reputation.
  • Win face 爭面子(zhēng miànzi): A classic example that explains this concept is fighting to pay the bill in a restaurant. Winning face is a testament to how powerful this concept is in Chinese society as it is still very important to one’s prestige.
  • Saving face 挽回面子(wǎnhuí miànzi): This implies a situation whereby someone’s reputation is threatened or has been lost and it is then subsequently restored. For example, if it turns out the person was not in the wrong then it is often said they have ‘saved face’.
  • No face 没面子 (méimiànzi): Similar to losing face, this is more serious. Having ‘no face’ implies that one’s reputation is at rock bottom.
  • Not wanting face 不要脸(bùyào liǎn): If somebody does something shameless or just doesn’t care about their appearance it is said to be ‘not wanting face’.

#Is it still important?

Whilst the many different concepts of face might seem daunting, not to worry, it is something that once in China you will slowly get to understand. The various aspects of “miànzi” are still very important today. Although it might not be as powerful as it was hundreds of years ago when there was no commercial legal system and government regulators, it is still something to observe and respect. Particularly, if you are working in a Chinese company then it is important to be aware of the unspoken rules of conduct and respect everyone’s “miànzi” as far as possible.Today in the modern world, you might find that there is a much more relaxed interpretations of “miànzi “, however it is still necessary to understand this so-called “guiding principle of the Chinese mind”.

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