Talking about “Face” in Chinese

Talking about “Face” in Chinese November 12, 2013

How do you use Mandarin to talk about honor and shame (i.e. “face”)?

What if you don’t speak Chinese? For those not interested in speaking Chinese, there’s still plenty here to help you learn about how language reveals culture. Some observations may help people think about how to use language to share God’s message, regardless of one’s cultural settings.chinese-303488_640

Presuming to exhaust the depths of Chinese honor-shame language is laughable. There are hundreds of words and idioms that convey variously related ideas. I’ll offer some basics for now.

Beyond a Superficial Understanding of Honor

Mainly, two words are used to mean “face”:

1) 面子, miànzi –– this is most general word.

2) 脸, liǎn –– is often interchangeable with miànzi, but it does have the ability to connote much more, though many Chinese are not initially conscious of the face. Liǎn can convey a more narrow idea that carries moral implications. It speaks a little more to one’s value as a person.

Here is one way to say it: One is born with liǎn but not necessarily miànzi. A person could possibly accept losing miànzi, but one could never accept losing liǎn. So, liǎn is miànzi, but miànzi is not necessarily liǎn. Miànzi may be superficial (pun intended), as with movie stars. Liǎn goes deeper. Various books and articles have explained this in more detail.

Because this distinction is based in mandarin, I think northern Chinese might grasp the point a little faster than southern Chinese (whose daily diction is influenced by Cantonese), but they all acknowledge the point once I explain what I mean.

What Can You Do With a Person’s Face

First of all, you can “have face” (有面子, yǒu miànzi). Only then can you “lose face” (丢面子; diū miànzi; 丢脸, diū liǎn). However, you would prefer to “save/keep face” (留面子, liú miànzi), so you need to protect/preserve face (保全面子, bǎoquán miànzi). After all, it may prove difficult to “redeem/restore face” (挽回面子, wǎnhuí miànzi).

Of course, we all “by nature love face” (天生爱面子, tiānshēng ài miànzi). This is not necessarily bad. “People want face like a tree wants bark” (人要脸树要皮, rén yào liǎn, shù yào pí). Sadly, before God, we have all lost face (丢脸, diū liǎn)?

Why? Rather than “giving God face” (给神面子, gěi shén miànzi), we have “made him lost face” (丢他的脸, diū tā de liǎn) in the eyes of world. Or, we might say we have “blackened” or “thrown mud” in God’s face (在神的脸上抹黑, zài shén de liǎn shàng mǒhēi). It’s quite true that we “love face too much” (太爱面子, tài ài miànzi).

We “owe God face” (欠神脸, qiàn shén liǎn).

However, as he looks at the world, he sees us “striving/fighting/competing for face” (争面子, zhēng miànzi). It seems that a basic principle is all sinners “to try to preserve face whatever the hardship” (死要面子活受罪, sǐ yào miànzi huó shòuzuì). If we want to humbly love God and others, we have “to put down our face” (放下面子, fàngxià miànzi).

Face is neither inherently good nor bad. It just is. To some degree, everyone is “inclined to pursue face and avoid shame” (趋荣避褥, qūróng bìrǔ). If you say that you don’t want face (不要脸, búyào liǎn), this conveys the idea that you have “no sense of shame.” So, “caring about face” (关心面子, guānxīn miànzi) is critical for being a moral person. (This will become clearer when in my upcoming post using “honor” verbiage.)


Photo Credit: pixabay/ClkerFreeVectorImages

Other Posts You may Like–––

Explaining the Trinity in Chinese Language (www.patheos.com/blogs/jacksonwu)

Chinese Characters in the Chinese New Testament (www.patheos.com/blogs/jacksonwu)


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  • Brent

    This is great! Very helpful! Looking forward to the follow-up post!

  • Reblogged this on Center for Chinese Church Studies and commented:
    From a Bible study perspective, the ancient cultures of the Scriptures are very much honor/shame. Thus, keeping this framework in mind can be helpful in interpretion of some passages.

    • Thanks for reblogging this post. I totally agree with you (as you may know from my articles). This language and the worldview behind it can really help us engage Chinese people with Scripture. Thank you for your work.

  • I just ordered your book on Amazon and I’m looking forward to it