Why and how to talk about “face” in China

Why and how to talk about “face” in China September 24, 2014

Why and how might the mianzi/lian distinction shape our conversations with Chinese Christians and non-Christians?

In my previous post, I explained the difference between those two words, both of which can be translated “face.” In this post, I’ll touch on a few reasons why it can be helpful to keep in mind these two ways of talking about “face.” In addition, I will suggest a few ideas about how to talk about this verbal and conceptual distinction.

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Love requires mianzi and lian

“Face” is fundamental not simply for human relationships but to love itself.

My prior post began to make that point clear. Now, I’d like us to consider just a few passages.

1 Peter 2:17, “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.”

Rom 12:9–10, “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.”

Rom 13:7–8, “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”

Of course, one should not exaggerate the point, as I find people tend to do. Giving people mianzi doesn’t necessarily mean we are “people pleasing” in a negative sense. Likewise, we don’t give people “face” for just any reason.

“Face” (whether mianzi or lian) is a broad term about honor, respect, and social value. Accordingly, how we use these words will vary and require flexibility corresponding to the situation.

How does this influence conversations?

Because the distinction between lian and mianzi is subtle, we have to consider how this insight applies to our ministry. Let me be clear –– one would not depend on it in order to make or break a theological argument. Rather, it is useful for communication if one carefully accounts for the specific dynamics in particular conversations. In other words, we should not expect to apply this insight the same way in all our interactions with Chinese friends.

1. Contrast Via Usage

First of all, the speaker can subtly utilize the distinction simply by his or her usage (without specifically making a big deal of it). That is, every time a person talks about sinners’ chasing after face, he or she can use the word mianzi. When talking about God’s honor or reputation, Christians could use lian. While not being quite so direct in making the contrast, our choice of words creates a verbal distinction to contrast good and bad face.

2. Include Adjectives

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Second, I would suggest adding certain adjectives to magnify the force of the distinction. Accordingly, we can explain that people are constantly settling for a superficial kind of face (肤浅的面子). Or perhaps, we might say “outward/external mianzi” (外在的面子).

On the other hand, one could speak more positively about how Christ gives us “real face” (真正的脸). Similarly, you could express the fact that Christians get face before God: 我们在神眼中有脸. Various adaptions could me made to speak of mianzi (with a neutral or negative ring) and lian (with a positive connotation).

3. Explain More

Finally, if you have a few minutes, it does help do offer a fuller, more explicit explanation about how you are contrasting mianzi and lian. I must warn you that you WILL hear the two objections I mentioned above. Guaranteed. Yet, if you are patient, give examples, and explain why you are speaking in this way, then most Chinese people will set down their concerns. Of course, some never will.

At the very minimum, the verbal contrast can act as a very helpful explanatory device, even it takes a little explaining on the front it. Once a person “gets it,” it is far easier for them to remember and internalize many key ideas related to the gospel and Christian theology.

The Human Problem: “丢脸争面”

Lian and mianzi are help people grasp the core human problem –– sin.

As I have written elsewhere, one phrase I commonly use with great effect is diu lian zheng mian (丢脸争面). However, let me clarify that I wouldn’t just recommend walking up to someone with this little made up phrase and expect people to know what you mean. 丢脸争面 functions similarly to a lot of other Chinese idioms or chengyu (成语). At first, it’s meaning is not overtly apparent but once you grasp the back-story, it is a powerful memory device that sticks with the average Chinese. It uses four characters, contains a conception contrast, utilizes a slight rhyme, and utilizes two actions that every Chinese person understands.

Saving God's Face: A Chinese Contextualization of Salvation through Honor and Shame (EMS Dissertation Series)In short, humanity “has lost lian before God” (…在神面前丢脸了). In order to compensate for our lack of lian, we strive after mianzi (. . . 为弥补我们脸的缺乏而且争夺面子). That is, we want our friend groups, our boss, our coworkers and various others to give us mianzi. This gives us the sense of security and belonging that we as sinners intuitively know we lack because we have made God “lose face” before a watching world.

In Saving God’s Face, I also offer a way of understanding what Christ accomplished both for God and for the nations. Christ saves God’s face (. . . 挽回神的脸). In addition, God through Christ “restores our face” (恢复我们的脸).

“Glory imputation” is explicit, not implicit, in Scripture. Hence, Jesus prays “The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one” (John 17:22). In effect, we share Christ’s face. Therefore, we can be unified and not compete for the kind of transient world that the world offers.

There are not short cuts to genuine contextualization. Thinking and communicating cross-culturally can be a messy process. Be patient and don’t be afraid to experiment a bit.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Leave a comment and share your experiences.


* Previously, I wrote a few posts that explain how to talk about honor and shame in Chinese. To see those posts, click here and here.

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