[Weekly Word] The niceties of social niceties

Illustration by Kevin Christopher M. Tee (2015); editing by Allister Roy S. Chua (2015)
Illustration by Kevin Christopher M. Tee (2015); editing by Allister Roy S. Chua (2015)

Pinyin: miàn | Wade-Giles: mien

Part of living a responsible lifestyle, especially when you’re interacting with others, includes gaining at least an understanding of the culture or background they come from. In doing so, you show respect both to others and to yourself. To others, it’s obvious: you show due regard to the norms and things they hold dear, and that it is something they will appreciate especially coming from someone whose ways are different from theirs (and I’m not just speaking about international cultures, it can also be within communities in a society and even inter-religious interactions). But you also respect yourself, upholding your own dignity and showing that you are not someone who is to be taken lightly, or bullied, or shamed. That you are actually someone of worth and of importance.

Suddenly, consciousness seems to never have been this important.

And this is the core precept of the sociological concept of face, in Chinese 面 (Pinyin: miàn) – though there are two other terms, miàn is the oldest and used in classical Chinese. Although English has the expressions “to save face” and “to lose face”, this concept originated in Chinese society, and is described as having no direct English equivalent. It also happens to be one of the most defining features in Chinese society (and other East Asian societies, for that matter), even until now.

The closest description would be some sort of social dignity or prestige – one that is highly volatile. Author Lin Yutang, in his 1935 book My Country and My People, says that:

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”. Here we arrive at the most curious point of Chinese social psychology. Abstract and intangible, it is yet the most delicate standard by which Chinese social intercourse is regulated.

Similarly, a Chinese “popular expressions” textbook I bought in Taiwan was divided topically – about miàn. The same book mentions that it would be impossible to navigate through the nuances of Chinese society without understanding the concept – something that is essential more than ever today with China’s becoming a key player on the global stage.

In a personal finance book released here just last year, I read that the financial system will either work for you or against you – there is no gray or neutral area. You have to master it or be mastered by it. Naturally, we would rather master it. It’s the same for face.

The Chinese may have had it right in the beginning when they began the delicate system of face – accepting that humans have innate dignity, dignity that should be preserved and not destroyed. They also accepted the sad truth that people are prone to judging others rashly (and judging at all, for that matter) – and that if one does not know how to navigate this intricate social web, it will be to his utter ruin in the context of interpersonal interactions. For them, face is a metonymy of the entire human person – lose it and you lose yourself, save it and you save yourself. This is the driving principle behind concepts such as seppuku – the Japanese would rather die with honor than live with shame.

This brings to mind a key plot element in the famous To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Atticus Finch, the protagonist’s father, is called to represent Tom Robinson, an African-American (in Depression-era Deep South) charged with rape of a white woman, Mayella Ewell. A chief prosecution witness is the woman’s father, Bob, infamous for being the town drunk, and they win the case primarily because Robinson is black. However, Bob was humiliated at the trial and seeks revenge, even attempting to kill the protagonist and her brother. This is a literary example of losing face, and how it would be possible to be on the winning side but on the losing side in terms of face.

The concept of face is indeed very complex and one may even think it pretentious or inauthentic. But seeing how it’s tied to the concept of innate human dignity gave me a new perspective on it, and the realization that while we may want to change the game, we also need to remember that we are in a community and that we must show respect for others no matter their background or their beliefs.

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