This post is part of a series exploring Chinese culture. See the links at the bottom of this page for more.
The concept of “face” or “self-image”, known as Mianzi in Chinese, is core to Chinese culture and one which is critical to understand. It can be loosely described as someone’s social status or reputation in the eyes of others and is integral to both social and business dealings. Throughout a Chinese person’s life, it must be maintained and enhanced through giving to and receiving from others in both words and actions. By showing respect and trust recognition is earned and mianzi is built. It may be something as small as who gets in the lift first to the awarding of multi-million dollar contracts but without it you will have very little power or influence.
Mianzi also extends beyond the individual level to families and even the entire nation. For a student to receive high marks is for the face of the parents as well as the child. Likewise, an athlete winning an international competition gives face to the nation.
To make someone lose face (even unknowingly) is a huge dishonour and could mean the end of a relationship. This is usually avoided by the telling of what are called “white lies” in the west, that is to say, something which isn’t completely true to save the other person’s face (e.g. grading someone as average when in fact you mean poor). Business disputes are also often handled informally by a third party outside the legal system to avoid loss of face.
One of the most common confusions arising from mianzi can be seen when confirming schedules. Asking someone if they will be able to deliver on time will most often return the answer yes, even if they mean no or maybe, as to say anything else would mean implying that they were not competent. To avoid this situation try asking the question in an indirect way or get that person/group to set their own schedules to make them primarily accountable to themselves.
Closely associated with mianzi is Guanxi which literally means “connections” or “relationships” as it essentially boils down to exchanging favours – “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”. It can loosely be compared with the idea of networking in the west but usually goes much further in terms of developing and nurturing the relationship through social exchanges and favours which must be repaid at a greater value in time. In such an environment issues of cronyism and corruption are not uncommon when guanxi obligations take precedence over normal rules or laws.
Much of this notion of connectedness can be traced to the belief that one is always part of a network or group, be it family, work or socially orientated which was strongly prevalent in agricultural history when people lived in communes. A person’s identity is inextricably linked to their network and is rarely treated on an individual basis (which would be considered selfish). This nurtures a strong sense of belonging and patriotism but can negatively affect independent and innovative thinking as well as hinder open communication.
In this context relationships between family, friends and business associates are often closely interwoven. Anyone or anything outside this web of trust is considered a stranger and will often be treated with indifference or worse. When beginning a business relationship it is important to spend time forming your own circles of influence and become comfortable with anyone you may form a partnership with. Common sense and intuition are still important in any situation.
Doctrine of the Mean (Zhong Yong)
Known as the ‘Doctrine of the Mean‘ or ‘Golden Mean’ this concept involves balancing one’s position among a group to maintain conformity and a sense of harmony. To do this while still achieving one’s personal objectives is considered the ideal way of living and stems from Confucian philosophy. This can be applied to all areas of life, be it in the home where one should respect their parents and keep their spouse/children happy, or in the workplace where one should behave in a way which is seen to be neither ambitious nor lazy at the same time.
This concept is important when trying to motivate or reward people as otherwise it may be used as an excuse for complacent or passive behaviour. The fact that China is generally a peace-loving nation can also be attributed to this principle.
Yin and Yang
Another core element of Chinese philosophy is the concept of Yin and Yang which seeks to describe how opposing forces are interconnected and interdependent in the natural world. Many natural dualities such as dark and light, female and male, honour and dishonour are given as examples of Yin and Yang. The ever-turning symbol underlines the belief that things can change and always will so, as in western culture, keeping your enemies/competitors close is also important as you never know what tomorrow will bring.
The need to balance opposing forces can sometimes explain why seemingly contradictory theories and principles are able to coexist in relative harmony. Within an organisation trying to balance people’s positions can be an effective way of managing teams although it can lead to internal power struggles and inefficient bureaucracies.
In traditional Chinese medicine, health is also represented as a balance of Yin and Yang (anatomy and physiology). When a person becomes ill practitioners attempt to determine the exact nature of the imbalance and then correct it through the use of herbal remedies, acupuncture, diet and lifestyle changes. As the balance is restored in the body so is health.
Next time we examine and summarize key differences between eastern and western cultural values.
If you have any experiences you’d like to share or think I’ve got something wrong please feel free to leave a comment below.