This is a story about one of my students who has lived in Shanghai for more than ten years. One day, we came across the word “mianzi” in Chinese class and he laughed. He said he had heard a lot about “mianzi” but was still very confused about that concept.
If you check in a dictionary, you’ll see that the original meaning of “mianzi” is a face, surface, or exterior of something. Later, the meaning of the word extended to include someone’s feelings or the face value of something. Finally, the word came to mean fame, prestige or reputation.
For the Chinese, the meaning of face is particularly complicated as giving face (or not) to someone often times isn’t communicated directly through words, but is instead something that must be perceived through actions. The absolute concern over saving face (sometimes taken to the extreme) has truly remained a cultural phenomenon unique to Chinese people and today it’s one of the few social elements left that is still inextricably linked with China’s old traditions. Unsurprisingly, foreigners upon seeing face-saving measures in action sometimes cannot help but shake their heads and judge it.
Examples of “mianzi”:
Insist on paying the bill, not repremanding your employees in front of others, let your boss enter/exit a room first, always be positive and polite even if the situation is not great or the food is not good, parents will never say anything bad about their child in front of strangers, etc…
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