Why Chinese People Need Face Between Family Members?

Chinese Mother and Son

The Chinese concept of face is something that I struggle to understand sometimes. It seems to create so much pressure on people when they always have to keep in mind what others are thinking about them. In the mind of Chinese people my boyfriend is a bad guy. He is really eager to work and make money in order to have a comfortable life, but also to gain face. In China there seems to be no point to have money if you don’t show it off to others.

What is surprising to me is that how important face is even between family members. I was talking about Chinese new year with my boyfriend and he said that there is no point for Chinese guy to go back home during the holiday if he doesn’t have any money to give to family members. Also a Chinese boyfriend of my Western friend confirmed this and says he isn’t successful enough to go home to celebrate the spring festival.

Where is the importance of family and the closeness of relatives? I though the main point of the most important festival in China is to spend time with your family. When did money become greater than love inside a family? There must be many things about the concept of face that I don’t understand. But recently I’ve begin to wonder why Chinese people have to remember their face even in front of their closest family members?

In Finland our biggest holiday is Christmas where we gather together with our family, eat well and exchange presents. No matter how badly I would have messed up my life, I’m always welcomed back home. Actually in Finland it is quite common that young people and students visit home when they don’t have any money. To go back home where their mother will cook their favourite food and give them some pocket money. Of course for some people this becomes a nasty habit and they don’t learn how to take care of them selves. Or rich parents give everything to their kids not considering the negative effects.

I would really like to understand the importance of face to Chinese people, so I would love to hear about your experiences and opinions in the comments.

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  • Richard

    I think this is due to China’s rapid economic advances in recent years. It’s fostered a materialistic people. See how the women only care about a man’s material possessions. Or as you noted a man feeling he’s inadequate to go home or to even ask a girl out.

    Contrast this to more established Chinese societies. Hong Kong sure is a bit materialistic, but I don’t sense that they show off as much. They’ve lived in an era of relative plenty for quite some time. Singapore and immigrant Chinese communities in Western countries also tend to keep their wealth hidden.

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    Sara Reply:

    Good theory Richard. Actually after reading your comment I remembered one Chinese family I used to know in Finland. The parents were quite wealthy but it never showed outside. Something totally opposite to the Chinese people here in China.

    The whole face thing just seems to put so much pressure to the shoulders of many (all?) Chinese people. What is the positive side of having the concept of face?

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  • Zacky

    Face is considered as the reflection of Chinese their social status. Chinese culture nurtures most people like that, for example, if I did something immoral, I will feel ashamed of it, this considers as losing face, or if I miscalculate some simple math say 1+1=3, I will lose face too, people would think how stupid I am or how I could calculate this stupid question wrong as an senior, a minor mistake or a low mark in your test can be a disgrace of my status or even your family, because I represent them and I am from there, kinda like humiliation. if I got a good income, which means I am successful, people will admire me, also I will be happy, this considers as face-saving. Any failure or success will lead to a face-issue to my status quo, people have jealousy, they wanna compete and compare who is better, it is impossible that you don’t want be that part of it, they will naturally associate what I am like that, people would discuss or gossip behind me secretly, your boyfriend already earn a lot of face himself, also for his family because you are with him-an interracial relationship, you know many Chinese guys think white girls are beautiful and exotic, perhaps more attractive than some Chinese girls, and white female and Asian male relationship is extremely rare in China, even in the world, but on the other hand you are from a western country a rich society (Finland a very wealthy nation), your bf will probably feel you are superior to him, you know, China is still a masculine culture, also somehow very traditional, materialism is strongly constructed in many people’s heart, all of these things can associate with their faces :)

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    Sara Reply:

    This was a very good explanation about face Zacky! It got me thinking that I do think that face is good in some way, because it prevents you to do bad things (what is bad in Chinese culture) and courages you to success. I just hope it wouldn’t be so demanding and stressful. And I wish that people would remember that there are more important things in life than what other people think about you. At least this is the way I think, but seems to be totally different in China. Sure I understand that making money is important in China because without money you can’t live. But wouldn’t it be ok to have just enough money for a comfortable living, and no need to become too rich? Because sometimes when aiming to be rich people forget what are the most important things in life, like family and love.

    I know that it’s easy for me to talk about money because my free student money from Finland is much more than common Chinese worker make in a month. So there are many aspects that I don’t understand because I’m from a different country. But I hope to learn how to understand.

    You are right Zacky that my boyfriend have gained face because he is with me. Put in the same time it puts a lot of pressure on him. Chinese people seem to think that in order to have me he must be something amazing and really rich. It’s hard to fulfil those expectations. They also think I’m rich, but forget that I’m still just a student.

    I’ve heard that basically Chinese men (maybe men everywhere) don’t want to have a girlfriend/wife better than him. By better I mean in this context that the girl has more money, better education, maybe smarter. But I’m lucky to find a guy, my boyfriend, that doesn’t care about this. He always says that the most important thing is that his girlfriend (Me) is happy.

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    Zacky Reply:

    I am glad that your boyfriend makes you feel that way :) everyone has dignity and self-esteem, instead, Chinese would be more likely to use ‘face’ this term to describe themselves. It’s interesting that we have that thing in our culture. About money, in fact, this is a social issue, somewhere in China like Shenzhen, Shanghai and Hangzhou are very expensive, I mean the cost of living can’t be less expensive than some European countries and the States, however, most people’s income isn’t as high as like you guys. Also, there is a huge gap between the rich and the poor in China, some rich people ain’t less affluent than the richest people from your country. while the poor can be extremely miserable like some underdeveloped African areas, it’s the fact that this severe imbalance massively exists in our society, for you, perhaps, I know you can easily spend lots of money live here like in the heaven, as average income in your country is several dozens of times higher than ours.

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    Sara Reply:

    I agree with you Zacky that the gap between rich and poor is huge in China. And I think that for the future it’s important to make that gap a little bit smaller, help poor people to make a better living. I know expats surely are living like a heaven in China. Big houses, fancy cars, ayis helping at home etc. My life style is far from that because I’m still a student. And kind of hope not to move into that life style later on. I prefer living somewhere between the locals and expats.

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  • c

    i’m always baffled about this ‘give them face’ concept. you ‘re brave to step into a foreign culture than your own that doesn’t always treat every one right, it must be stressful for your bf trying to please the sh*t out of every body. What does he think about this? does he accept this, does he ever get angry about all these stupid demands when people should learn to be self sufficient!

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    Sara Reply:

    My boyfriend just thinks that that’s the way it is. And he also want’s to achieve these demands in order to offer nice life for me, and only second to look good in other’s eyes.

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  • Hi oh my god it is the exact same situation with my boyfriend, He was saying to me he feels so embarrassed this year, its the first time since he moved to Ireland that he hasn’t been able to send money back to his mom for Chinese new year. (The economic situation in Ireland these days is not great so his hours have been cut) So because of this he didn’t want to go home to celebrate Chinese new year.

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    Sara Reply:

    Thank you for commenting Sarah. The filial piety seems to be really strong in China. As is the importance of face. My boyfriend is always talking how important it is to make money so he could give some to his family and we could have a better life. Seems like Chinese people are thinking that the money is key to anything. Of course money is important and it’s extremely hard to live without it and really stressful if you only have little, but the constant talking about money is what make my head ache.

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  • Part of why the younger generation is expected to give money to their parents during Spring Festival is because it’s a sign of gratitude to their parents for raising them all these years. Sharing money with relatives I think is part of the communist culture of China.

    In terms of explaining the concept of “face,” I think that while I understand it and the reasons behind it, it’s hard to explain where it came from. It’s just a big part of China’s culture, and something that would take years to change. However, there are people nowadays who don’t care as much about face, which is encouraging.

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    Sara Reply:

    Thanks for commenting Michelle. I think this weekend I really understood that it’s not the money some Chinese people want, it’s actually the need to help their loved ones and relatives. Right now I’m thinking how come they are so unselfish and work hard the whole year just to give more to their family? Also I’ve recently learned a lot more how hard the life in China can be to those people that doesn’t have much money.

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  • Hi Sarah, thanks for leaving a comment on my blog! I enjoy discovering yours!

    Face, tell me about it… I’m from Canada, raised in a judeo-christian background where ostentation, show off and exhibition of wealth is considered extremely rude. What a shock it was when I moved to Asia and met perfect strangers that would ask me point blank how much money I was making… There you go for the proverbial Asian politeness!!! Then all the ways to show off one’s ”new money”, which I still find distateful to this day, specially when the people doing it just have ‘peasant’ written on their forehead…
    Face between family members still shocks me, even after 10 years in Asia! It’s good to know that the younger generation is changing a bit. I know some friends here were amazed at seeing my parents and me interact and learn that we have a friendly relationship and they don’t tell me how to live my life!
    Well, differences make life interesting!!! Don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of chances to spend CNY in his family after you’re married, then you’ll wish you were just home alone chilling out!!!
    :)

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    Sara Reply:

    I really enjoy your blog too Happy in Asia! In Finland we also consider it little bit rude to show off your wealth. In Finnish we have this saying that if you have the luck, you better hide it. Oh yes, the politeness really is different in China than in the west! Sometimes I’m not sure if the word private excists in Chinese. In the land where people sometimes even doesn’t close the toilet doors.

    Recently I’ve started thinking that is it face that people don’t go back for Spring Festival or could it be that they just don’t want to dissapoint their family members when they ask for money. Or is it the same thing?

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  • I also think it is extremely hard to understand the concept of face for a foreigner, since it roots in Chinese culture. Face is a sociological concept for Chinese, it hard to be translated or defined, and basically I don’t think that it is like Richard commented above “this is due to China’s rapid economic advances in recent years.” In old China even Feudal China few thousands ago, when the face just is the key to social activities.
    The concept of face may be regarded as the positive social value in Confucianism, maybe you know, Confucianism is Chinese mainstream of traditional culture for thousands years, while almost all of Chinese tend to be educated under Confucianism, simply such as “a man has face and a tree has bark”, from father generation to son generation and continue. In which the core is cultivating individual to obey to “礼(courtesy)、义(righteousness also brotherhood relationship oriented)、廉(incorruptibleness, by others estimate)、耻(shame-knowing)、谦恭(courtliness)、矜持(reservedness and connotation)、中庸(compromise also mix)、和谐(harmony)” and so on, unfortunately, the culture thought has been practicing with “save face to others” and “don’t lose face in front of others” and “save faces each other” stead of礼/矜持/谦恭and耻 and中庸/和谐. In modern China especially latest 30 years after “Cultural Revolution” by Mao, the gap between rich and poor become bigger, the poor tend to try to show off their scanty money(even from offspring) and offspring capability(i.e. famous university or job position/level) for parental personal dignity and prestige, all of which to prove their existence in more psychological manner. Most of Chinese have no religion, also forced by state, so individual pays more attention to material possessions,
    Unfortunately, money-earning is becoming the core of social status for man or woman, while his/her status lies on other people who realize and know his/her existence by the complicated “face networks”.
    It is really bad things for nation in modern civilized world, face breeds corruption, generally for normal intelligence commenter, there are no officials in mainland that can be proof against corruption, merchants connived with officials, once one save face to the other, and vice versa on another day; face and do-not-lose-face is become the footnote of comparing phenomenon specially overspread in the poor, which makes everyone lose his/her nature to be blue with high pressure; maybe you don’t believe, face and save-face-for-friend seem to become trend instead of law between the rich. Face is the most frequent topic between Chinese, upon to the state leader, then low to ordinary civilian, face also is the son of politics, basically China state has been willing to collect and centralize most of resource to serve and construct few huge cities such like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou etc. the state feels that she is “have-face” in front of foreigner and western countries, if you and other foreigners would go to other area, you definitely an opposite country. China always likes to show off her fortune and capability in order to conceal somehow truth just like previous described “the poor” case.
    Anyway, I think the face in Chinese culture is a kind of dreg, should be eliminated by the law construction development and economic enhancement, what if China want to keep shoulder to shoulder with civilized countries just like Finland or other modern countries in future, but it is a long course, I can not see the hope within my life.
    You learn Chinese culture, I would like to suggest you despise this point of face, or don’t wish you adapt it in Chinese manner or something like that. Because it kills individual nature herein makes people crazy…

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    Sara Reply:

    Thank you for explaining and sharing your opinion about the face concept. Yes, sometimes it’s really hard for laowais to understand it and yet it’s really imporant part of life in China. And you are right that people have face but also cities and the whole China has face. It becomes very clearn when something big is happening in China, like the Olympics, Expo and the Asian Games.

    I’m not yet sure how I should deal with the face concept but I’ll keep your advice in mind.

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  • Come on! Let’s be realistic here. Every culture has its own unique things. Let’s not turn this to a negative discussion or anything near that. I really admire the cultural differences between different ethnic background. The chinese culture is great and the unique difference makes them very interesting to talk to and to follow. It shows respect towards family members in the end!

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    Sara Reply:

    One of the most interesting questions is why something happens or why people do things the way they do. It’s interesting to try to find those things out.

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  • zhang

    Actually in Finland it is quite common that young people…… =================================
    so do Chinese!
    Face is about respect,selfrespect,glory,honour,pride…
    But sometimes it becomes false pride,vanity…
    “Face”is seldom used on formal occasions.
    你是我的骄傲=你真给我长脸=i am proud of you
    羞耻=没面子=to be disgraced=lose face
    他虚荣=他死要面子=he is shabby-genteel or he has a false sense of pride.

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    zhang Reply:

    As a man,i dont want to go back home without money even though i am quite sure my families will not mind.Let families live a decent life is the responsibility of men.
    so i totally understand why your BF works so hard.

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    Sara Reply:

    Thank you for sharing your opinion Zhang, it’s nice to hear what Chinese men think about this issue.

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  • MIchael Udel

    I’ve observed in all my time here that the social system in China is a hierarchical arrangement wherein every human interaction is an opportunity for people to have a superior or inferior position (above or below) compared to the other person. Chinese are always comparing themselves to others according to their relative position and face is the acknowledgement of who is superior. I think this is the dominant idea in Chinese society wherever you are: work, family, school, etc.

    Hierarchical social systems are different from Western society where there are fundamental ideas about equality among people regardless of social position or status. You can have a boss (superior) at work, but you both have equal rights and intrinsic value as people. This equality allows for mutually beneficial cooperation, which is very difficult to find in China.

    In China, status or position is never forgotten and face is the real-time measurement of this status. Without some status (face), you’re in a lower position and are subject to the whims or desires of superiors without any real power to protect yourself. All you can do in the inferior position is either demonstrate a sickening and exaggerated effeminate obsequiousness, or become senseless to the abuse of your superior, which is also a frequent behavior. In fact, it seems that senselessness has become habitual. Ever notice that Chinese usually take abuse from others without facing them or even paying close attention? It’s the self-defense of the powerless.

    Perhaps because of the formerly large size of Chinese families before the one-child policy, determining status among relatives follows the same general hierarchical social patterns as outside the family, so I think face and hierarchy are just as prevalent inside families as without. Love is not the currency of status, face is, and money can buy a lot of face. Like my students always say, “No money, no talk.”

    Why go home for spring festival if you will be treated as inferior?

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  • Al

    Their concept of “face” is completely messed up. They lie and cheat to save face which is scandalous, even to family members. If they knew being honest was more respectable, then China would be a better place.

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  • Ihcnawleong

    i think your boyfriend case is not associated with  ‘face’ . This is like a  burden, duty for his family.Chinese people always have to give money for their parents during new years.Maybe he feel shameful himself or gulity for his family

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    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    For me it feels like all the things are in someway related to the face. No matter if it’s like that or not, that surely seems to be the case, like you said, that Chinese people have a duty for their faimily to take care of them and it might seem like burden too.

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    Ihcnawleong Reply:

    Hope you don`t mind me so irritating.I think how the duty(the tradition) was formed is about Confucius. Many years ago(around 3000 years..),he(Confucius) advocated people should take care of their parents when they get old. This is because there was not any welfare system for old people on that time. I think why he advocate this is it can make the population grow and the reason for parents having children.
    By the way, May I type chinese here?

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    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    可以 :)

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