CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
Nos. 30/31, June/September 2012


What is Face? | China Heritage Quarterly

What is Face?

Lin Yutang 林語堂

The following 'Little Critic' essay originally appeared in The China Critic, IV:16 (16 April 1931): 372-372. It was collected in T'ang Leang-li's China's Own Critics. Some minor stylistic changes have been made to the text in accord with in-house style, and section headings have been added.—The Editor

Not until everybody loses face in China, will this country ever become a democratic nation. And the quicker we lose face, the better it is for everybody all around. The more I think about it, the more firmly convinced I am of the truth of this statement. And if at the next People's Conference, the delegates will sign a covenant whereby the whole nation agrees that henceforth no citizen of the Republic of China shall ever have face, I will wager that this stipulation will have a far deeper and more real effect on the governance of the nation than any paper constitution the Conference can ever get out for us. When no citizen of this country has face, then it will be fair and possible to ask all the foreigners in China to lose face also, which means the abolition of special privilege, and extra-territoriality, that hateful child of Father Might and Dame Face, will ipso facto be abolished. If I am not mistaken, that should mean the birth of a happy and independent China, and, as President Harding might put it, the dawn of an era of international cooperation among nations devoted to the cause of moral and spiritual regeneration of humanity, whatever this sort of verbiage may mean.

Face, Favour and Privilege

Of course, I am speaking of face, and not faces. In other words, we are at present concerned with a psychological, and not a physiological question. The Chinese physiological face would be an interesting topic enough, but I am not sure, as the psychological face has a far more intriguing interest for us. I remember somewhere I said that China is being governed by the three Muses: Face, Favour and Privilege. To this day, I know these Muses wield a far greater and subtler power than Chiang Kai-shek himself. And if something is not done immediately, Dame Face, in the company of her sisters Favour and Privilege, will yet have a joy ride over any constitutional acre the delegates may kindly plough for us.

No one who knows China can affect to be surprised at the above statement or to believe that Face is a negligible or unreal factor in Chinese life and politics. The man who does so and, in his dealings with Chinese, forgets to give face its due attention, thereby stamps himself as an incorrigible foreigner who will never know and understand the Chinese people. In my school days, there was a foreign missionary principal, who thought he was doing a good turn to the Chinese teacher by increasing his salary from $18.00 to $19.00 a month. My teacher protested angrily to me and other students that he could never make that thick-headed foreign principal understand he would either have $20.00 or else no increase at all, i.e., receiving the respectable and nice-sounding $18.00. If his scholar friends back home were to inquire what he received, could he have the face to say that his salary was $19.00? But the thick-headed foreigner insisted on giving him that extra dollar as a sign of recognition of his service, and I never saw a Chinese gentleman in a worse state of misery than that teacher of mine that fine morning.

Face has done mightier things than that in China, of course. Some of our readers will perhaps recall that a whole ministry of the government was once abolished to save the face of one minister. Face has sent quite a few political convicts and defeated generals, who ought otherwise to be sitting in prison, to tours of industrial investigation to Europe and America, with good hard cash provided by the government. Battles have been sacrificed and empires have been lost because the generals must be wasting time bargaining for some honorific titles rather than proceeding according to military tactics. Hot controversies have raged and protracted legal battles have been fought, in which the wise arbiter knows that, all the time, nothing really prevents the parties from coming together except probably the wording of a public apology.

Fighting for Face 爭臉

To confound this 'fighting for face' 爭臉 with fighting for western honour, or to confuse the two in general, however, is to commit a grievous error.

The man who is slapped on the cheek and does not offer a challenge for a duel is losing 'honour', but he is not losing 'face'. On the other hand, the ugly son of a general who goes to a sing-song girls' house, is insulted, and returns to order the arrest of the sing-song girl and closing down of the house is getting 'face', but we would hardly say that he is gaining 'honour'.

It is perhaps easier to illustrate what face is than to give a definition for it. The official in the metropolis, for instance, who can drive at sixty miles per hour, while the plebeians may only drive at thirty-five, is gaining a lot of face. If his car hits a man, and when the police come round, he silently and quietly draws a card from his pocketbook, smiles graciously and sails away, he is gaining greater face still. If, however, the police pretend not to know him, the official will begin to 'talk mandarin' by asking the police 'if he knows his father' 認得你的老子嗎? and his face waxes still greater. And if the incorrigible police insist on taking the chauffeur to the station, but the official telephones to the Chief of Police, who immediately releases his chauffeur and orders the dismissal of the little fellow who did not 'know his father', then the state of the official is truly beatific.

One might multiply these examples of face ad infinitum. The means of getting face are many and varied, and some very curious indeed. To walk deliberately and nonchalantly across the lawn, where a signboard clearly says 'Keep off the lawn' is one way. To smoke in a library where smoking is prohibited is another. There was a South-Sea millionaire merchant whose way of getting face was to go into a steamer saloon with his balloon trousers half way above the knees, displaying his fine naked calves and pretty twisting toes across the saloon sofa, and offering to pay any fine the captain may order for infringement of western etiquette. The story has also been told of a Peking university professor who hated the foreign devil so much that, when a foreign educationalist came to visit the library room, he patriotically sat on the reading table, and coughed and spat when the visitor passed before him, in sublime disregard of the latter. He would not even condescend to notice the foreign visitor's presence. He thought he had thereby profoundly humiliated the foreign visitor and had succeeded in inflicting on the latter a wound which he would never forget—which, I am sure, he did. Such 'face' is truly impressive.

Farewell to Dame Face

I have found it, however, on the whole more comfortable to travel with people who have no face to save than with those who have. If thirty-five miles an hour is good enough for the plebeians who have no face to save, it is good enough for me. The Shanghai public has not yet forgotten the incident of the Ta-chi steamer, which sank from an explosion caused by our soldiers going into a store-room containing cases of sulphur and insisting on having the face to throw their lighted cigarette ends where they pleased, against the pleadings and warnings of the compradore. The compradore probably yielded because he was afraid whether he 'knew his father.' So far as I know, these soldiers have saved their face, but have no saved their charred carcasses. To plead illiteracy and ignorance for the soldiers is to misstate the problem. There was once a literate and learned Chinese general who insisted on carrying overweight baggage into an aeroplane, against the warnings of the pilot, and who, moreover, wanted to have face before the many guests who sent him off by telling the pilot to circle around the field a little. The pilot became nervous, the plane refused to go up evenly, it hit against a tree, and eventually the general paid for his face by losing his leg. Anybody who thinks that Dame Face is good enough to compensate for overweight luggage in an aeroplane ought to lose his leg and be thankful for it.

So we come back to our original position. Not until everybody loses face in China shall we become a truly democratic country, and the sooner we lose face, the better it is for everybody all around. The people haven't got much face, anyway. The question is, when will our officials be willing to lose theirs? When face is lost in the police courts, then we have safe traffic. When face is lost in the law-courts, then we have justice. And, when face is lost in the parliament and government by face gives way to a government by law, then we have a true republic. And finally, when face, under the name of Foreign Prestige, is lost in the mixed courts, then we have international good will and cooperation.