FACE: A CHINESE CONCEPT IN A GLOBAL SOCIOLOGY
University of Western Sydney
The concept of face, as it is developed by Goffman, has strong conceptual links with
the notion of a „looking-glass‟ self outlined by Adam Smith and developed
sociologically by Cooley. It also has links with the Chinese concept of face, which
relates to the transfer of social science concepts from one cultural setting to another.
By discussing the specificity and universality of face the paper indicates the
significance of the Chinese concept of face in a global sociology. The paper goes on
to examine aspects of the treatment of the Chinese concept of face and in doing so
presents a more comprehensive account of a sociological conceptualisation of face.
The paper then considers the relationship between face and emotions in indicating the
mechanisms that underlie face. Finally, a distinction is made between face as an
embedded social process and as an object of social contestation.
Key words: face, mianzi, lian, emotion, conformity, Goffman.
FACE: A CHINESE CONCEPT IN A GLOBAL SOCIOLOGY
The question of the mobility of social science concepts from one cultural
setting to another has recently been raised as a matter of significance for the
development of social science „on a world scale‟ (Connell 2007). The application of
concepts drawn from non-Western experience and social theory in the development of
a „global‟ social science raises questions concerning the capacity of „local‟ concepts
to provide explanations of non-local, even universal phenomena. An early and
unrecognised instance of such a development is Goffman‟s now classic elaboration of
the concept of face. While not highlighting his reliance on the Chinese conception of
face, which he nevertheless acknowledges in a footnote at the beginning of his
discussion (Goffman 1972: 5-6 footnote 1), Goffman‟s argument is therefore an
instance of the benefits of cross-cultural borrowing in achievement of theoretical
The present paper shows that sociological analysis of the concept of face can
continue to benefit from discussion of Chinese distinctions and conceptualisations.
This is because while face is indeed a universal phenomenon, namely the social
anchoring of self in the gaze of others, the Chinese experience of face highlights
aspects of face that are less visible in non-Chinese societies. The notion of face is
therefore appropriate in demonstrating the benefits, indeed, intellectual necessity
under conditions of globalisation, of incorporating non-Western concepts into
mainstream theorizing in generation of a global social science. The importance of face
in modestly contributing to this development derives from its elemental role in human
sociality in general, and at the same time its high salience in Chinese society in
particular. In demonstrating the value of drawing on Chinese experience and
understanding of face in elaborating a concept basic to Western social science (as we
shall see in Smith and Cooley as well as Goffman) the remote and exotic becomes
familiar, and cultural distance is bridged in social science understanding that therefore
ceases to be either Western or Eastern but is now shared.
In the discussion to follow it is shown that while there may be specific and
distinct cultural elements which determine different aspects of face and while the
rules according to which face operates may vary, the imperatives of a self-awareness
of social evaluation is universal. In examining treatments of the Chinese concept of
face it will be shown that differences between two terms, lian and mianzi, both of
which mean face, raise issues of the distinction between different contextual
consideration of face, including its moral and social aspects. Through further
discussion of additional distinctions within the concept the paper goes on to provide
an account of face which reflects both its comprehensiveness and dynamics. The
experience of face generates emotions of various sorts within the individual, which
are significant in understanding the mechanisms of face. Finally an additional
dimension of the complexity of face is in the fact that it can function not only as a
means of social interaction but can become an object of self-conscious consideration
and intentional management.
The specificity and universality of face
Terms such as mianzi (face), guanxi (interdependent relations), renqing
(reciprocal favour or benefit) and huibao (interdependent obligation), for instance, are
readily seen to be indicative of characteristically indigenous Chinese socio-cultural
phenomena, in the sense that they uniquely derive from the Chinese historical
experience. It is widely accepted, as Buckley, Clegg and Tan (2006: 276) indicate,
that „[t]he need for mianzi is intrinsic to various aspects of personal and interpersonal
relationship development in China‟. Mianzi or face is an inevitable and unavoidable
aspect of interpersonal encounters, connections and relationships in almost every
aspect of social life in China, ranging from informal personal interactions to the most
ordered and formal elements of organisational and institutional relationships. It is one
of the keys in understanding Chinese politics, economics, business, and education at
every level. Hence: „[n]early all Chinese and Western researchers identify face as a
major dimension of Chinese culture‟ (Cardon and Scott 2003: 9).
Face, in the sense presented here, even as a term which is original to Chinese
culture, cannot be seen as an exclusively Chinese phenomenon: „concern for face is
not solely an “Asian” phenomenon, as it is found in individuals from all societies and
ethnic groups‟ (Lau and Wong 2008: 52). Brown and Levinson (1987: 62) similarly
argue that „the mutual knowledge of [a person‟s] public self-image or face, and the
social necessity to orient oneself to it in interaction, are universal‟. The insight that
individuals, irrespective of their cultural background, cannot disregard the opinions or
appraisals of others in their own self-understanding, led Goffman (1972: 44) to
remark that „underneath their differences in culture, people everywhere are the
same … [in the sense that one] is taught to be perceptive, to have feelings attached to
self and a self expressed through face, to have pride, honour, and dignity, to have
considerateness, to have tact and a certain amount of poise‟. Through their social
relationships individuals seek the approval or respect of others and typically desire to
achieve a position of approbation in the social group to which they belong.
The universality of face is widely acknowledged. Zhu (2003: 316), for
instance, says: „people, despite their various cultural backgrounds, are believed to
possess self-image/value and want their self-image/value to be appreciated and
respected by other members of the community‟. This point is reinforced by Hwang et
al (2003: 74) when they describe face as „an important pancultural construct to
explain the desire for social acceptance‟. Ho (1976: 883) similarly argues that face
should be regarded as a concept of central importance in sociology '„because of the
pervasiveness with which it asserts its influence in social intercourse, it is virtually
impossible to think of a facet of social life to which the question of face is irrelevant‟.
The consensus of a number of writers, from a broad social science background, holds
that face includes a socially formed self-image that is essential to the dynamics of the
individual‟s relations with others regardless of their cultural background or national
context. The qualification, that while face itself is universal, features important to it in
any particular culture may not be general across them all (Ho 1976: 881-2), shall be
In considering the universality of face it is relevant to mention that the word
„face‟ may be absent even when the concept is discussed or applied. The term
„looking glass‟ self, developed by the 18th century Scottish thinker Adam Smith,
captures the details of the relationships of face outlined above:
We suppose ourselves the spectators of our own behaviour, and endeavour to
imagine what effect it would, in this light, produce upon us. This is the only
looking-glass by which we can, in some measure, with the eyes of other
people, scrutinise the propriety of our own conduct. If in this view it pleases us,
we are tolerably satisfied… if we are doubtful about it, we are often, upon that
very account, more anxious to gain their approbation, and … we are altogether
distracted at the thoughts of their censure, which then strikes us with double
severity (Smith quoted in Barbalet 2001: 108).
By imagining how they are seen by others individuals are directed in their behaviour
by a self image or face that comes out of their social relations.
A person may not know or be aware of their dependence on the opinion of
others, on the importance of face in their own self-image and behaviour, a particularly
relevant consideration for understanding face in individualistic cultures in which
persons believe themselves to be self-sufficient and autonomous. The point has been
made by Cooley, who also uses the term „the reflected or looking glass self‟ (Cooley
1964: 184) and introduced it into modern sociology:
Many people … will deny, perhaps with indignation, that … care [of what
others think of them] is an important factor in what they are and do. But this is
illusion. If failure or disgrace arrives, if one suddenly finds that the faces of
men show coldness or contempt instead of the kindness and deference that he
is used to, he will perceive from the shock, the fear, the sense of being outcast
and helpless, that he was living in the minds of others without knowing it, just
as we daily walk the solid ground without thinking how it bears us up (Cooley
This „outgoing of the imagination towards another person‟s point of view‟, Cooley
(1964: 206) observes, „means that we are undergoing his influence‟.
While there are differences in the degree to which face is regarded as an object
of explicit concern that may influence behaviour directly, the underlying processes of
face – even if a person is not aware of them – are as general as human society itself.
While being an underlying aspect of all social behaviour, face may also be a distinct
and distinguishable cultural object in which an explicit concern for face is itself a
factor in motivating the actions and influencing the behaviour of individuals. In this
case a set of culturally explicit rules will operate by which face is understood as a
thing that may be achieved, lost, saved and in any event is required to be at least
maintained. Such rules, and the considerations and distinctions they draw upon,
arguably indicate aspects of the more universal mechanisms of face. In the next
section aspects of the Chinese treatment of face will be discussed in order to prefigure
features of face which are broader than the particularly Chinese experience of face.
Distinctions within the concept of face
In a pioneering anthropological account of the „Chinese concept face‟ the
distinction between two Chinese words which both mean face, lian and mianzi, is
explored (Hu 1944)¹. We shall see that the distinction between these words raises a
number of relevant concerns for an understanding of face in general, and the impact
of face on self formation and social relations.
The idea that the Chinese concept of face can be regarded as having two
component parts, one moral (covered by the term lian) and the other social (covered
by the term mianzi), corresponds to this linguistic distinction. Lian is defined by Hu
(1944: 45) as „respect of the group for a man with a good moral reputation … it
represents the confidence of society in the integrity of ego‟s moral character, the loss
of which make it impossible for him to function properly within the community‟.
Mianzi, as distinct from lian, according to Hu (1944: 45), „stands for the kind of
prestige … [of] a reputation achieved through getting on in life, through success and
ostentation … For this kind of recognition ego is dependent at all times on his
The differentiation of lian and mianzi, representing moral and social aspects of
face respectively, is not confined to Hu‟s account. Earley (1997: 56), for instance,
defines „lian as a set of rules for moral conduct and mianzi as a person‟s position
within a social structure … lian reflects the enactment of “correct” behaviour,
whereas mianzi reflects an outcome state of social interaction‟. But the distinction
between moral and social aspects of face, which is not without significance, cannot
rest on this linguistic division: the concept of lian in fact is not limited to moral
connotation and mianzi does not necessarily exclude a moral sense. Mianzi, Ho (1976:
868) says, is „not altogether devoid of moral content‟ and the two terms, lian and
mianzi, „are not completely differentiated from each other in that the terms are
interchangeable in some contexts‟. Even in the examples given by Hu, lian may be
devoid of a moral aspect, as when a lecturer is unable to answer students‟ questions,
he then will have „his incapability … proven and his lien [lian] lost‟ (Hu 1944: 48).
At the same time Hu (1944: 57) provides an example of mianzi which shows that it
may have moral implications: „[e]verybody knows that X is incapable of holding that
job. But of course, he and so-and-so were schoolmates, so so-and-so wanted to give
him some mien-tzu [mianzi]‟. Even if Hu believes that an incompetent‟s achieving a
position of employment through nepotism is without moral relevance, X‟s
employment in a job everyone knows he is incapable of holding is not merely social
Indeed, the case for a simple dichotomy between lian as moral face and mianzi
as social face is further weakened by the fact that the concept lian does not have a
clear cut moral connotation in a number of common Chinese concepts in which lian is
a part of the expression or term. These include, for instance, such concepts as
zhanglian (to increase face), shanglian (to give face), fanlian bu renren (total denial
of relations between previously close friends), da zhonglian chong pangzi
(falsification of credentials and worth to achieve face), sipo lian (reckless disregard
for previous good relations), silian (long face, sulky), heilian (bad cop of the „good
cop, bad cop‟ couple), honglian (good cop of the „good cop, bad cop‟ couple), among
others. If a person believes or feels that he or she has lost lian or does not have lian
when facing others, it does not necessarily indicate that they have transgressed moral
standards. For instance, a person who has failed a university entrance examination
may be unable to face their parents, teachers and others who had high expectations of
him or her. While this is not a situation of moral failure it would conventionally be
described as meilian jian fumu, as a situation in which the person has no face in front
Another possible way of distinguishing between lian and mianzi is to say that
the two terms refer to different levels of severity in an incident related to face or to the
„amount‟ of face a person possesses or has lost or gained. Hsu (1996), for instance,
suggests that lian may refer to face-relevant situations of great significance or gravity,
in which moral wrongdoing may then appear to be an important element of the
situation, whereas mianzi signifies face in less important or more mundane incidents.
A different approach, however, which also avoids the moral/social distinction of lian
and mianzi, operates in terms not of the significance of the situation but the sense of
dignity of the person. According to Cheng (1986: 336):
The mien-tzu of a person is the uppermost limit of his dignity and social
respectability whereas lien is … the minimum social respectability a person
has in the society regardless of his actual social position, prestige, wealth or
The alternative positions set out here, represented by Hsu (1996) and Cheng (1986),
are not necessarily opposed. When lian relates to the lower limits of respectability
then the marginal impact of moral transgression will be much higher than it would be
for mianzi, this latter being the upper limits of dignity and therefore a moral space
with relatively more latitude than found with lian. What is clear in both Hsu‟s and
Cheng‟s account is that lian and mianzi can be distinguished in terms of the gravity of
the situations which provokes them and not necessarily in the types of values, moral
or pragmatic and positional, associated with those situations.
It is worth noting that although she made the distinction between lian and
mianzi, Hu (1944: 62) recognises that „lien [lian] and mien-tzu [mianzi] are not two
entirely independent concepts‟. This is because lian and mianzi can be used
interchangably in most situations. For instance, both „zhanglian‟ and „zengjia mianzi‟
can be used to mean „to enhance face‟ while „shanglian‟ and „gei mianzi‟ may both
represent „to give face‟. When referring to a situation of „to gain face‟, either „zheng
lianmian‟ or „zheng mianzi‟ can be used; „to maintain one‟s face‟, either „baochi …
lianmian‟ or „baochi…mianzi‟ can be used. Both „shiqu lianmian‟ and „shiqu mianzi‟
can mean „to lose face‟.
One possible explanation for the failure in the relevant discussion to find a
common basis for the differences between lian and mianzi, and indeed for the less
frequent reference to lian (which has not been of concern here), is that mianzi is a
more variable term which has more applications, and as a consequence it has become
the more studied term in academic research. As Cheng (1986: 331-332) notes, „lien
[lian] is a concrete term and a more confined concept than mien [mian], while mien
can be said to be more general and less concrete but has more meaning content than
lien. This should explain why mien essentially has more social, moral, civil as well as
valuational content than lien‟. Indeed, my own preference is to use the single term,
mianzi, while at the same time acknowledging that face has both moral and social
aspects which are necessarily interrelated and also that there are differences in the
degree to which experience of the power of face can influence self appraisal and a
Further distinctions within the concept of face
In the English language, in which a singular term for face applies, the explicit
distinction between lian and mianzi is unknown. And yet, as we shall see, another
dichotomy emerges, namely the distinction between positive and negative face.
According to Goffman (1972: 5):
face may be defined as the positive social value a person effectively claims for
himself by the line others assume he has taken during a particular contact.
Face is an image of self delineated in terms of approved social attributes.
While this statement is a useful summary of the concept of face, it may be misleading
to insist, as Goffman does, that the social value a person claims for himself must be
positively approved. To say that it is „positive‟ makes sense in so far as loss of face
requires a substraction from an existing stock of face, which can be assumed to be a
positive quantum. But this is not the usual understanding of positive in the context,
which is rather taken to be a normative evaluation. This is the way in which Goffman
is usually interpreted and no doubt wished to be understood. For face to be
meaningful, however, the question is not whether the evaluation is positive in this
sense but whether it is socially shared or current. And what is socially shared or
approved at one time in a particular social situation and with regard to a specific
social group may be understood quite differently at another time and for a different
social group. This is not clearly captured in Goffman‟s statement.
The idea that a person‟s having face is associated with that person‟s „positive‟
self evaluation can be understood not normatively but quantitatively in the sense that
a loss of face would amount to a subtraction from an existing stock of face. The issue
of positive evaluation, in this sense, then, relates to a quantitative relationship
between what a person possesses of face and what is socially given – or taken –
against the amount of face a person has at any given time. This is what „the positive
social value a person effectively claims for himself‟ amounts to and it is how
Goffman should be understood.
Difficulty with use of the terms positive and negative in the context of face
can be indicated further by briefly considering a view of face which its proponents
claim builds on Goffman‟s research. Brown and Levinson (1987: 61-2) say that „the
public self-image that every [social] member wants to claim for himself‟ consists of
two components, negative face and positive face, with negative face as „the want of
every “competent adult member” that his actions be unimpeded by others‟ and
positive as „the want of every member that his wants be desirable to at least some
others‟. Brown and Levinson develop their „politeness theory‟ of face by relating face
to its significant role in human communication, in which negative face („please
excuse me‟) yields to the other and positive face (expectation of praise) asserts self
over the other. The difficulty here is that rather than being a general theory of face, a
thin aspect of face is used to develop a theory of communication. The point to be
taken from this example is that face must be understood as something possessed by
individuals and that is provided to them or taken from them by a complex of social
interactions. Whether the face is positive or negative is not a matter of definition but
arises from the interactions themselves. But what has been said here suggests that
inherent in the distinction between positive and negative face is another distinction,
between internal and external or subjective and objective aspects of face.
The relationship between a person‟s self image and their social standing in the
formation of face is noted by a number of writers (Ho 1976: 803; Cheng 1986: 332).
The subjective dimension of face is the value or self-regard of a person in their own
estimation, in their self-esteem, as it relates to their social relationships and to society
at large; while the objective dimension, on the other hand, is the social standing a
person possess through the recognition they receive from others in the same society or
from a specific person on a given occasion. Cheng (1986: 332), in particular,
acknowledges the difference between how a person may imagine they are seen by
others and how that person is actually seen by others. The question is not whether
others view a person objectively in the sense of a clear, rational or even scientific
appraisal but that the person is an „object‟ of another‟s appraisal as opposed to being
the „subject‟ of their own assessment.
The distinction between subjective and objective aspects of face corresponds
with accounts which regard face as the result of dual sources: „the evaluation of self
based on internal and external (to the individual) judgments concerning a person‟s
adherence to moral rules of conduct and position within a given society‟ (Earley 1997:
43). On this basis face manifests two phases or parts: „[f]irst, there is a distinction
between face tied to rules of conduct versus face as a position in a social hierarchy.
Second, there is a distinction between the sources of these perceptions, namely,
internal versus external reference‟ (Earley 1997: 55). It is curious that Earley here
confines considerations of face to „adherence to moral rules of conduct‟ when social
evaluation of all sorts of competences relating to diverse types of actions and events
can have consequences for loss – and gain – of face as we have seen above. But that
matter aside, the distinction he draws between internal and external processes is
continuous with the other distinctions referred to above.
What emerges from the preceding discussion in this section and the previous is
a more complete appreciation of the component parts and also the underlying
processes of face which indicate the complexity of its referents to moral as well as
social factors, to differences in the gravity of situations which provoke face
considerations and also to the internal or psychological aspects of a person‟s face as
well as the more directly public or social appraisals productive of face. Thus a
definition or understanding of face can be constructed which recognises the following
elements that emerges from the critical analysis of the concept of face conducted
through the preceding discussion.
The first thing to notice is that face is always a self image. That self image can
be conceptualised as having two inter-related forms: face is an image of self
possessed by a person through their interest in how they are regarded or judged by
others, and face is a social representation of a person reflecting the respect, regard or
confidence others have in them. Secondly, the evaluations of self which are
constitutive of a face state (the state of gaining, losing, recovering or maintaining face)
are necessarily socially current and never personal or idiosyncratic, and therefore the
evaluations leading to face function in terms of the self‟s successful performance of
actions socially understood as representing or reflecting those values (in the case of
gaining, recovering and maintaining face) or unsuccessful performance, negligence or
negation of those values as represented in actions or expressions of attitude (in the
case of losing face). Third, the particular values salient for face can be moral,
pragmatic or utilitarian, and social positional.
It is important to emphasise that while the particular content of the values
mentioned above is not fixed, and therefore that there is variation between different
societies and through time in a single society, social values are the essential currency
of face. Judgements of right and wrong, of capacities to perform skilled
accomplishments and of social standing relative to others all relate to a sense of a
person‟s fulfilment of obligations to him or herself as a member of a social group and
contributor to a social network and therefore also to the group or network itself.
Finally, the idea that face is socially provided to persons or taken by them through the
fulfilment of „obligations‟ means that social judgements of a person‟s performance
against the values salient for face is always in terms of social expectations. The social
approval and disapproval generative of face, then, has a continuously prospective
element, connected with what is socially expected. Attributions of face are never fixed
or static but dynamically subject to change both in terms of the individual‟s behaviour
and its social appraisal and also in terms of the values and expectations which govern
What have not been identified in the definition of face set out above are the
mechanisms that align a social evaluation of a person‟s face with the self image
possessed by the face „holder‟. This is the question of the interaction between inner
and outer processes, between a person‟s own perception of his or her social self-image
or face and the perception other people form of that person‟s social „worth‟ or
„standing‟. When face is seen to be subject to not only external or social judgment but
also to internal assessments, then the relevance of emotions becomes central to face
considerations and to the internal mechanisms of face.
Face and emotions
Face arises in social interactions or relationships which are in turn responsible
for emotional experiences, and it is these latter that underlie the processes of face. The
social basis of face provides it with contingent or conditional qualities which are
experienced in terms of emotional feelings. The conditionality of face is captured in
Goffman‟s (1972: 10) statement that „while [a person‟s] social face can be his most
personal possession and the centre of his security and pleasure, it is only on loan to
him from society; it will be withdrawn unless he conducts himself in a way that is
worthy of it‟.
Face is what a person feels about his or her image as it is seen through the
eyes of others, of the person‟s social group, community or a wider public. When a
person sees his or her own image in this social „mirror‟ constituted by others, as
discussed above in the account of the „looking-glass‟ self, that person‟s emotional
state will inevitably be affected by the vision their imagination presents and will be
involved in the processes of feeling pride, embarrassment or whatever state the
individual‟s face is formed through and responds to. As Goffman (1972: 6) observes:
„a person tends to experience an immediate emotional response to the face which a
contact with others allows him‟.
Face, therefore, is not to be detached or separated from emotion but, rather,
face is infused with different emotions and exists in terms of them. As Jia (2001: 31)
argues, „emotion intertwines and overlaps with lian/mianzi‟. Viewing oneself through
the eyes of others, one‟s face may be enhanced (gain face), maintained (unchanged
face), protected (saved face), or reduced (loss of face). In gaining face, persons
experience feelings associated with pride, honour and dignity. When a person
maintains his or her face, in Goffman‟s (1972: 8) words is „in face‟, then that person
„responds with feelings of confidence and assurance‟. When a person saves his or her
own face, which unlike the maintenance of face requires not merely social acceptance
of a given state but the purposeful activity of the person directed to his or her
presentation to others, that person is likely to feel a sense of relief and security. When
a person loses face, or as Goffman (1972: 8) puts it, is „in wrong face or out of face‟,
then „he is likely‟, Goffman continues, „to feel ashamed and inferior because of what
has happened to the activity on his account and because of what may happen to his
reputation as a participant‟. Depending on the seriousness of the matter and a person‟s
perception and psychological bearing, the feelings that they will experience may
range from embarrassment to shame, from incompetency to inferiority. There is
confirmation of this perspective in the findings which Redding and Ng (1982: 215)
report that strong feelings of pride, satisfaction, and confidence followed from gaining
face while strong feelings of shame accompanied losing face.
The emotional components of face are not simply a product or residue of
experiences of face and changes in face, they are the drivers of the dynamic motion of
the face states, including the gaining, losing, recovering and the maintaining of face.
In social terms emotions arise out of the interactions between persons and in that
sense are social products. Subjectively emotions give direction to and energise actions.
The importance of emotions to face, then, is not simply that changes in face states
produce emotional responses but in the fact that the particular emotions produced by
different face states are the mechanisms that lead to the stabilization of or to changes
in those face states. The feeling of shame, for instance, associated with the loss of face,
provides its subject with a painful signal of the social disapproval of his or her
transgression and motivates a withdrawal from the society of others. The shamed
isolation of an individual is itself a penalty that brings with it various painful
deprivations which motivate remorseful shame that signals to others the subject‟s
recognition of his or her transgression and also the person‟s sorrow about their
previous behaviour and a desire to make amends. This is the beginning of recovering
face and is facilitated by the emotional components of face. As a subjective
experience, then, emotions are directed to not only internal feelings but also to
particular ways of relating to and interacting with others. This is connected with a
further aspect of face, namely, the way in which one person‟s experience of face is
supported and encouraged by their emotional feelings, and by feelings-related actions
Since face is crucial to each person‟s normal operation in their own social
networks, a person is expected not only to look after their own face but also to
maintain the face of others. There are frequently social obligations to give face,
maintain and also save the face of another in order for a person to perform their own
role or maintain their own position in their social circumstances and location. That is
why a person also has „feelings about the face sustained for the other participants‟, as
Goffman (1972: 6) puts it. By enhancing the face of another, one may achieve a sense
of power, fulfilment or joy depending on the relationship between the two persons and
also possibly the motives of the face giver. By rescuing the face of another, one may
have feelings of benevolence, or empathy or guiltlessness. There are two possible
orientations, as Goffman points out: „a defensive orientation toward saving his own
face and a protective orientation toward saving the others‟ face‟ (Goffman 1972: 14).
A person‟s achievement of face therefore involves not only what society provides to
him or her but also what that person offers to others in society. Each of these is
accomplished through the emotional experiences that social interaction conveys.
While most studies of face have confined themselves to the social production
of an individual‟s face, there is another side of face, then, in which a person‟s face is
also the consequence of what they provide to other members of society. This matter is
less frequently discussed even though it is an essential aspect of face and one which is
given greater relief in the context of a recognition that face functions in terms of
emotional experiences, and of the reciprocal nature of emotions.
The dual forms of face
It can be seen from what has been shown above that face is a complex but efficient
force of social control in social interactions, which includes incentives and sanctions
enforced through both subjective and socially current perceptions and expectations.
Individual experiences of face will necessarily be pleasurable or painful, depending
on whether face is gained, say, or lost. The role of these and other emotional feelings
is central to the way in which face, as a social force, promotes social conformity.
Although he does not use the term face, Barbalet (2001: 108) finds these processes in
Smith‟s understanding that „social harmony and order are maintained, not by the
subject‟s feelings for others, but by the subject‟s feelings concerning how they are
regarded by others‟. These mechanisms of face operate instantly, efficiently and
automatically. In order to maintain face, a person will tend to represent themselves or
behave in a way that leads to their social acceptance or respect. The positive or
negative response from other members of a society toward that person then reinforces
such behaviour and leads to continual and further conformity. When it encourages
socially approved behaviour, then face enhances social harmony and stability. In this
vein it has been suggested that in Chinese society concern for face similarly serves to
„regulate the perceived appropriate social behaviour of the Chinese, thus maintaining
social harmony‟ (Lau and Wong 2008: 53).
One of the problems with social conformity or harmony as a valued outcome
of social relations, including those of face, is that the possible costs for not only
individual independence but also for society as a whole, depend significantly on the
specific content of the object or nature of what is conformed to. In a landmark social
psychological study of conformity Asch, reporting an experimental situation in which
the majority of participants were instructed by the investigator to give completely
erroneous responses to the subject of the experiment, found that „three-quarters of the
subjects in the study were swayed at least once by the majority responses, only one
quarter remained completely independent‟ (quoted in Scheff 1988: 402). In discussing
Asch‟s conformity experiments Scheff (1988: 403) indicates that people find it
extremely painful to perceive or imagine that they are negatively evaluated by others.
When face leads to the approval of error (factual or moral), inappropriate or wrongful
behaviour, vanity or the overvaluing of socially trivial characteristics such as celebrity
or sporting success, and when face consideration rewards inconsequential or
misguided achievements, then behaviour designed to maintain or achieve face can
arguably be seen as a destructive force. During the Cultural Revolution period (1966-
1976) in China, for instance, illiteracy was socially encouraged and education was
condemned. Perhaps everyone in China at the time was familiar with the social praise
of and the giving of face to Zhang Tiesheng for handing in a blank examination paper.
In this way young people in China during the Cultural Revolution gained face by
avoiding school, joining Hong Weibing (Red Guard) and tormenting and harassing
distinguished intellectuals. In this instance face was part of the process which led the
country to chaos and destroyed not only social justice but the best interests of
countless young people.
As a mechanism for the maintenance of social order, and especially
conformity, the impact of face on a person and indeed on their society will be
dependent on the nature of the social order to which conforming behaviour is
orientated. Face only entails the tendency to take pleasure in social approbation and
to experience pain in meeting social disapproval or condemnation. At the same time,
and through the same processes or mechanisms a person may feel that their own
preferences or values are subverted in circumstances in which fear of loss of face, for
example, leads to conforming on the grounds of a matter that independently of social
approval may have been simply shrugged off or ignored. Under such conditions a
face-focussed individual may jeopardise not only his or her normal social functioning
but his or her own best interests and the interests of their associates. The question
raised by these considerations is the possibility of the reification of face, the
generation of face as a conscious project of social relations.
It has been shown that face can be seen as a consequence or outcome of social
interactions, encounters and relationships, and that face gives rise to emotions that are
experienced as either pleasure or pain. It is possible, then, that face considerations
may go beyond a mere mechanism associated with social approval and disapproval of
the thing that gives rise to face or subtracts from it, and that face itself becomes an
object of self-conscious consideration. It is possible, then, that persons may be
engaged in the construction of face as a self-conscious project, not only to achieve the
pleasure of social approval and avoid the pain of social disapproval or censure, but
also to engage in a politics of face as an explicit social practice. Indeed, this may be a
normal aspect of face under certain circumstances as when there is an absence in a
society of other explicit bases of social control or conformity, such as law or
organised religion that functions in terms of a sin-morality – neither of which has
traditionally operated in China, for example. Under these circumstances face work
becomes more or less disengaged from the everyday and normal exchanges between
individuals and becomes instead a matter of primary concern; rather than an effect of
social interactions it becomes the purpose of social engagements. This is a second
order of face when face becomes an explicit and conscious purpose of interaction
rather than a means of interaction.
What has been shown in the discussion above, however, is that in those
societies in which face is an explicit object of social relations, rather than simply a
means through which social relations are conducted, the processes involved are a
highly visible form of those which govern the operations of a mere socially embedded
from of face work, which both Smith and Cooley summarised in terms of a „looking
The significance of the argument above has been to indicate distinctions
within face states, namely moral, pragmatic or utilitarian and positional valuations.
Also, by distinguishing between external and internal processes of face, the
importance of the integral connection between emotions and face has been
highlighted. A further contribution of the paper is the distinction between face as an
embedded social process and as an object of social contestation.
The preceding discussion has clarified key elements of face, and the processes
underlying it, by drawing upon, among other things, examination of the Chinese
concept of face. The value of cultural borrowing in the development of social science
has therefore been demonstrated in the generation in this paper of a comprehensive
account of face. Indeed, by drawing upon the Chinese conception of face it is possible
to discover details of the complexity of face, as the present paper has demonstrated.
The significance of conceptual refinement for advancement of sociological
theory is indicated in Merton‟s classic discussion of the relationship between theory
and empirical research in which the „basic requirement of research is that the concepts,
the variables, be defined with sufficient clarity to enable the research to proceed‟
(Merton 1968: 169). The task of conceptual refinement and innovation is necessary,
according to Merton, to identify and understand previously neglected objects and
relationships and thereby advance social theory (Merton 1968: 146-7). One source of
conceptual development in a globalized world, as Goffman hinted, can be cross-
cultural. Underlying the discussion of face in the present paper, therefore, is a
demonstration of a more general point concerning the development of sociological
theory by introducing, in this case, Chinese concepts.
The origin of social science in European and North American historical
experiences has not inhibited its universalistic pretensions (Connell 2006). It is
frequently mentioned that the application of Western social science to non-Western
societies is either exploitative, with the non-Western case simply mined for data, or
generative of flawed description or theory (Hamilton 2006: 50-74, 220-36). One
possible response to the asymmetrical „theory flow‟, from the metropole to the
periphery (Appadurai 2001; Castells 1996; Hannerz 2008), practised in the present
paper, is to incorporate into standard or Western social theory concepts drawn from
non-Western cultures and fashioned through non-Western, in this case Chinese
experiences. Not only does this go toward redressing the imbalance, it also enriches
sociological theory in general, and in particular, the theory of face.
¹ Relative to its importance in Chinese social relations there are surprisingly few
sociological discussions of face in Chinese sources. One obvious explanation is that
face is so basic to social relations between Chinese persons that it is simply taken for
granted and has failed to attract Chinese sociological investigation. While this is no
doubt true, it is also important to note that sociology was first introduced into China in
the early 20th century by American missionary sociologists, bringing with them
American textbooks and pursuing American research interests in which face and
related characteristically Chinese elements had no place (Wong 1979: 11-19). When
sociology underwent sinicisation, from the 1930s, it was directed to the study of
minorities, agrarian class structure and issues of structural change (Wong 1979: 19-36)
and again the topic of face draw no sociological attention. Only when Chinese writers
attempted to explain Chinese society to foreigners did face become a research theme,
and then the discussion of face by Chinese sociologists (Hu 1944; Ho 1976; Hsu 1996;
Hwang 1987a; Jia 2001) and social commentators (Lin 1936: 186-93) was in English.
More recently, since China has „opened its doors‟ there has risen in China and in
Taiwan an interest in comparing Chinese and non-Chinese societies, face has become
a topic about which there is Chinese-language discussion among Chinese sociologists
and especially psychologists (Hwang 1987a; Hwang 1987b; Lu 1996; Zhai 1994; Zhai
1995: Zuo 1997). It is interesting in this context to notice that Ho later published a
Chinese version of his (1976) paper in a book (Ho, Peng and Zhao 2006), and
similarly Hwang‟s (1987a) paper was simultaneously published in Chinese (Hwang
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