Boyé Lafayette De Mente
Until the last few decades of the 20th century it was difficult or impossible for ordinary Chinese to develop a strong sense of self-esteem or pride because the culture in which they lived denied them the right to think and act independently and prevented them from being able to demonstrate their own individual worth, including taking credit for personal accomplishments.
Failure to abide by these ancient taboos—many of which had been codified as law by the imperial dynasties and continued by the Communist regime—was regarded as immoral and unethical by traditional standards, and could have series consequences.
However, there were two key ways in China that individuals could stand out quietly and unobtrusively, and one of the most important of these was for them to develop skill in an art or craft or another endeavor to an extraordinary degree—and that is exactly what many Chinese did over the generations.
One other way that the Chinese were able to feel good about themselves without breaking any taboos was to have mianzi (me-enn-jee) or “face”—meaning to have unblemished reputations for living up to all of the cultural expectations that had built up over the centuries, and most importantly, not to allow anyone to damage their face or themselves damage anyone else's face unless they were prepared to take the consequences, since such behavior called for a reciprocal action of some kind.
In fact, having “face” was generally more important than having some kind of special expertise, since economic and social survival in traditional China depended upon not having any serious blemishes on one’s reputation that would prevent you from making and keeping the kind of “social connections” that were essential for survival in an authoritarian society.
Today, for the first time in their history, private Chinese are mostly free to pursue individual goals, to take pride in their accomplishments, and to otherwise act as individuals. But the importance of social connections and “face” have hardly diminished. Both concepts are so deeply embedded in the culture that they continue to play leading roles in the everyday lives of the people.
You still have to protect your "face" and develop an extensive network of personal connections with local and regional government officials and with your suppliers to be successful in business, and without similar social connections your personal life as well is not likely to go smoothly.
This need for mianzi and connections is one of the first things that foreigners wanting to succeed in China must learn, and once the lesson is taken to heart they must thereafter spend a substantial amount of time and expense in maintaining their face and their connections.
The Chinese concept of "face" is very personal, and covers any act, comment, tone of voice or even facial expression that indicates criticism or disapproval, especially when any of these things occur in front of other people. Because of this extrordinary sensitivity, managers and others in positions of authority should be cautious about criticizing or disciplining employees (and others) in public.
There are a variety of things involved in developing and maintaining face and connections in China, many of which are familiar to most people—eating and drinking together, giving gifts, doing favors, not criticizing people to their face, and so on. But these things must be done according to the cultural protocol that applies, or such efforts may backfire.
It is fairly common for Chinese in all social categories to take personal advantage of those who need their friendship and cooperation, especially naïve foreigners, and these situations may be hard for foreigners to recognize and avoid. It is vital that one know how to handle these situations.
Throughout China’s history, including the heyday of the Communist regime, many bureaucrats made a regular practice of using their power to get personal favors for themselves or members of their families from people who needed their services, and the practice continues today. It is even more important to know how to handle these situations when government officials are concerned.
Still today the best recourse is to get insights and guidance from a trusted Chinese friend or other foreigners who have been in China for many years, are well-versed in the “face and connections” factors and can guide you around the pitfalls.
Copyright © 2007 by Boyé Lafayette De Mente
For additional cultural insights on surviving and making out in China, see the author’s The Chinese Have a Word for It! and Chinese Etiquette & Ethics in Business. For a full list of his books on China, Japan, and Korea, see his personal website at: http://www.phoenixbookspublishers.com/, and/or the Books Search facility of Amazon.com and other booksellers.