The many faces of Chinese “face”

Peking Janus faces


I begin my discussion with something that might seem unrelated but which turns out, on further analysis, to be the other side of the coin needed for an understanding of Chinese face, and that is the intriguing phenomenon of Chinese apathy.

Take the Beijing subway. We see the grim parade passing through the cars, the able-bodied leading the blind or crippled, singing or lamenting through portable loudspeakers to cut through the noise, alone or in pairs one after another, spacing themselves throughout the length of the train. It’s all to elicit maximum pity for a display of human pathos so abject it attains to performance art: a legless person crawling on the floor or pushing himself along on a homemade dolly, a teenage girl with burns so disfiguring her eyes are melted shut, people with stubs for hands, horrific skin diseases, and the like. Much more startling, however, is the look on the faces of many of the subway riders.

My own instinctive reaction upon seeing beggars and the severely disabled is to look the other way in awkwardness or embarrassment. I’m also afraid eye contact will embolden them to jab their cup of coins into me until I discharge some money. But whereas riders like myself shift aside or turn away upon noticing their approach, there are others who gaze at beggars intently and without the least compunction. You might at first assume they are trying to stare them down with a silent hostility to forestall any appeal for money. Yet that’s not it at all. It’s colder than that. It is the hardest and severest of gazes, but with little sentiment or purpose. A reactive gaze, bumped from random objects by unusual motion in the field of vision: light particles exploding and settling into the outline of a human beggar. If this organized ensemble of light and color rises to the level of a recognition, it is no more than a momentary distraction. Yet we wouldn’t want to label it mere indifference either, but a shabby sort of curiosity, one appropriate for an object divested of present reality. The beggar exists behind an ontological gulf as vast as that separating the viewer from the apparitions behind the TV screen. If the beggar reversed the equation and offered money instead, the act would have no more power to cross the barrier into the realm of human relevance. In other words, his physical presence isn’t enough to persuade our subway gazer of his existence. The question of the beggar’s existence never occurs to him.

The beggar exists behind an ontological gulf as vast as that separating the apparitions behind the TV screen from the viewer.

Of course, our subway gazer is hardly representative of all Chinese people. This is after all a big society. In evident reaction to this notorious national trait, you also see subway riders who make a point of liberally handing out money to beggars. The sight of Chinese apathy is too close to home and mortifying above all to fellow Chinese.

It is what launched the writing career of Lu Xun, China’s great man of letters, when while training as a physician in Japan he saw a news photo from back home of the execution of a Chinese spy by the Japanese military. What repulsed him was not the humiliating sight of a fellow countryman being executed but the sight of his countrymen casually standing around “to enjoy the spectacle” (Lu, Preface to Call to Arms 5). This onlooker psychology, the fickle crowds that suddenly form on the street in response to any incident “like so many ducks, held and lifted by some invisible hand,” became a leitmotif in Lu Xun’s stories (“Medicine” 34; see also “A public example,” Call to Arms).

“Indifference,” as Lu Xun’s contemporary Lin Yutang writes, “is not a high moral virtue but a social attitude made necessary by the absence of legal protection. It is a form of self-protection, developed in the same manner as the tortoise develops its shell. The famous Chinese apathetic gaze is only a self-protective gaze, acquired by a lot of culture and self-discipline” (49). It may be self-protective but indifference toward others can go to comical extremes. Lin relates the story of a crowd rushing an empty bus at the station before the driver got on. One passenger occupied the driver’s seat because it was the only one left and refused to give it up for the driver (180). Today I often see cars blocking entrances and driveways on streets in Chinese cities, their drivers blissfully ignoring people honking their horns or banging on the offending car’s window to get out of the way.

Such indifference is not just directed towards others but can infect people’s own life. In an acclaimed novella, You Have No Other Choice, Liu Suola describes students’ utter lack of interest in their studies at China’s most prestigious music academy, the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, from which the author herself graduated in the 1980s. Composition student Ma Li never opens his mouth in class, proudly maintains a C average, and spends his free time sleeping or engaging in pointless activities, like cataloging and stamping all of his books with numbers in imitation of a library collection. Liu sums up this archetypal Chinese personality with the four-character idiom, 无动于衷, literally “Unmoved in the heart” (193). Liu herself rose above this affliction. Rebranding herself as Liu Sola, she has since made a successful international career as an eclectic musician.

Other Chinese idioms conveying the idea of indifference or alienation are “A heart closed to sense” (漠不关心), “Numb to all feeling” (麻木不仁), or “Drawing the bow without shooting,” i.e., just going through the motions (引而不发). The Chinese “recognize the necessity of human effort,” Lin explains, “but we also admit the futility of it. This general attitude of mind has a tendency to develop passive defense tactics,” and ultimately “has a strange way of reducing all human activities to the level of the alimentary canal” (53, 56).

Face is the particular Chinese means of cracking through people’s apathy by direct appeal.

Social psychologist Michael Bond observes that the Chinese lack of concern for others has its origin in the country’s long past as a brutal agrarian society with frequent famines, the worst of which killed up to forty million as recently as the 1960s. An ingrained belief in “the limited good,” according to which everyone is in competition with everyone else for scarce supplies, is entrenched in the culture. “This view of the world promotes a suspicious attitude towards others, discouraging association with anyone whose fate is not linked to one’s own” (36). Bond cites Ralph Townsend (Ways That Are Dark: The Truth About China) in a harsh but accurate assessment: “’What we see among [the Chinese] is complete indifference to supreme distress in anyone not of their immediate family or associations, even where the most trifling effort would assist the afflicted person’” (57). I again emphasize that this characterizes some, but not all Chinese, many of whom are highly attuned to and revolted by this age-old problem.

How to surmount people’s stony front of apathy? How to get their attention when the only people they notice are those who can advance or hinder their station in life? There are three ways: 1) Force. The leverage you command by being someone’s superior, a boss or other person of power and respect. 2) Deception. The temporary leverage you command by trickery and wiles. 3) Face. The leverage you command by wearing people down. Face is the particular Chinese means of cracking through people’s apathy by direct appeal. Before we move on to discuss face, we need to address deception and dishonesty, which are also germane to the culture and merge into face. 


The Chinese art of conversation involves taking nothing at face value. The simplest communications are tricky affairs, as both parties try to work out what the other really means and the right chess moves to make in response. It can be hard to read people and difficult to know when they’re speaking the truth or if they ever are speaking the truth.

Let’s say I invite a Chinese woman out to dinner. I use a female as an example since it would be unheard of for a man to invite another man out, even for a beer, unless it was to propose some intriguing business opportunity. A woman is hardly any easier to persuade to go with me unless she is potentially interested in romance or something else she might profit from. Granted her assent, the negotiations have only begun. It won’t do to ask her what kind of restaurant she wants to visit. Though you’re just trying to be courteous, the Chinese don’t like to be given choices, which forces them to make blind moves rather than respond tactically to your moves. It’s like you’re posing a riddle and testing them. Knowing the most popular cuisines of the moment (in rough order: hotpot, Sichuan, Yunnan, Korean, Japanese, Italian), I suggest hotpot.

This gives her something to latch onto. As she assumes I don’t like Chinese food and I’m only inviting her to hotpot out of politeness (though I happen to like hotpot), she responds in kind despite not liking Western food. “Could we do Italian instead? I’ll treat.”

I’m expected to treat anyway—whether or not she has any further interest in seeing me.

Beijing is huge, and I offer to meet her at an Italian restaurant in her area for her convenience. In response, she won’t tell me in what part of the city she lives; to do so might put the idea into my head of escorting her back home, with further insinuations. I could suggest a restaurant near her workplace, but I’m afraid she’ll read it as another attempt to manipulate the aftermath of the dinner. So without regard for her I select a restaurant in a popular nightlife area, and that works.

“What would you like to eat?” I ask, handing her the menu, once seated for dinner.

“What would you like to eat?” is the predictable response.

“In Western restaurants, customers order their own dish, since we don’t share dishes as you do with Chinese food.” I know she’s aware of this, but I want to eliminate this option from her list.

“I want to know what you like to eat,” she reiterates, dispensing with the tedium of having to choose an appropriate dish price-wise so as to save my face. For my part, if I order an inexpensive dish, I automatically lose face in her eyes for being cheap. I will also make her lose face in being associated with me. So despite my insistence that she order whatever she wants, she orders the same dish I do.

“I’d like to have some wine. Would you like some as well?” I ask. I expect her to refuse: to accept a glass of wine implies she falls into the category of women of dubious morals who are open to being seduced.

“Sure, I’d love one.”

During the meal she takes not so much as a sip of the wine.

“Try the wine. It’s good,” I urge, pointlessly.

Although she claimed to have desired a glass, leaving it unsullied is not considered a breach of etiquette. Maybe she has never tried wine in her life and never intends to, but as I had made it plain I was hoping she’d partake, she doesn’t want to hurt my feelings by refusing the offer outright. Placing a glass of wine in front of her is also a way of compromising—and looking sophisticated. Or for all I know she might be an alcoholic and would happily drink a bottle’s worth on her own. But were I to order an expensive bottle to give her all the more reason to try it, she would no more feel under obligation to do so. Again, alcohol offered by a man is threatening. I have put her on the spot, and she has every right to shore up her feminine dignity. This is Chinese woman’s prerogative. The wasted glass is simply factored into the expense of taking her out to eat….

The Chinese hate dishonesty as much as everyone else. They just have a different starting point, or baseline, for understanding it. It’s a necessary evil. It’s everywhere and to get anywhere in life you need to make use of, indeed rely on it. They assume that, while not everyone is dishonest, anyone is liable to be. We are all dishonest, if not in spirit but as the occasion demands. Until your actions prove otherwise, it is presumed you are being deceptive every time you open your mouth. This does not devalue you in other people’s eyes, because they’re also playing the game. And many readily take to it and excel at it. What might confront us as a choice between honesty and dishonesty hardly bothers the Chinese, for whom circumlocution is pragmatic and the only real way to converse: “The aim of [the indirect speech] style is to protect the relationship and allow the parties to the conversation maximum freedom of maneuver. A tentative approach permits the relationship to evolve harmoniously” (Bond 53).

Until your actions prove otherwise, it is presumed you are being dishonest every time you open your mouth.

It might be argued we’re not exactly dealing with dishonesty here, because no outright deception is involved. Both parties are engaging in an honest attempt to ferret out each other’s implied and intended meanings according to accepted conventions of discourse. It could even be described as nothing more than the Chinese version of politeness and etiquette. And of course the conversational norms of all cultures employ hedging, benign deception and white lies. The Chinese just elaborate this tendency to a greater degree, even where it shades into lying (traditionally celebrated as a skill in its own right).

Still, it is often difficult to know whether one is dealing with a white lie or outright lying. Lu Xun points to one particularly useful phrase (and variants thereof): “I’m not sure” (说不清): “By concluding their advice with this evasive expression [people] achieve blissful immunity from reproach. The necessity for such a phrase was brought home to me still more forcibly now, since it was indispensable even in speaking with a beggar woman” (“The New Year’s Sacrifice,” Call to Arms 186).

Similarly, I always look for a book in Chinese bookstores myself rather than ask a clerk, since the expected answer is another ubiquitous catchphrase of evasion, “没有” (“not any”). The book might not in fact be available or it might be and the clerk is too lazy to check.

Consider another example of the feigning involved in everyday interactions by the writer Bo Yang. On a visit back to his old university in Taiwan, he was conversing with a British professor when they were joined by a former colleague of Bo’s. The colleague invited Bo to dinner; he politely refused, claiming he was otherwise engaged for the evening. The colleague insisted until Bo agreed. “When the British professor and I had finished our work, I said to him, ‘I’m heading home.’ He asked me, ‘I thought you were going to your friend’s home for dinner.’ I said, ‘Where did you get that idea?’ ‘But he’s making dinner especially for you!’ This is just one example of how difficult it is for Western people to understand the noncommittal etiquette practiced by most Chinese.” Bo regards such disingenuous politeness routines, by the way, as a “virus” long infecting the culture and passed down from generation to generation (n.p.).

The fact that many Chinese find these social intricacies onerous suggests more than mere etiquette is at work. Some seek out the company of foreigners with whom they can interact in more relaxed fashion. Others become reclusive. But for the majority who are bound down in complex social webs, opting out is not an option.


The numerous little instances in everyday interaction which the Chinese refer to as “saving” or “losing” face (such as in my hypothetical dinner conversation above) can be described as micro face. Micro face is momentary and subjectively experienced and does not generally impinge on the stability of interpersonal relations. Macro face, or face properly speaking, arises when people stake claims on each other. The key is that face does not come into play unless one can legitimately stake a claim on someone else; otherwise, relationships would be thrown into turmoil, as everyone brandished face claims to extract gains from people indiscriminately. The initial, default state is that no one except family members has claims on you. Children are already in debt to their parents for the huge expense and investment in raising them—an ideology of filial piety hammered into children throughout their life. Relatives too can stake some claim on one another for the same reason, namely mutual responsibility for the family welfare.

When I say children are in “debt” to their parents, this is ostensibly a symbolic, not a monetary debt, though money is invariably involved. Money provides an apt analogy for an understanding of face. Face is often calibrated in highly precise terms, as if it were measurable—e.g., one needs to do precisely such and such in order to rectify another’s loss of face. And the two values are indeed convertible: face money is the fee paid to someone to restore his or her face (though the aggrieved party never refers to money explicitly; it is simply understood). When they grow up and become employed, children begin the process of paying their parents back, by supporting them. This may not seem to have anything to do with face because it is the normative social arrangement in China. In much of Asia as well, children are expected to be financially responsible for their parents’ welfare. But face can come into play, when the parents have reason to believe they are being shortchanged.

A former grad student of mine who made a career in banking will serve as an example. After years of hard work and thriftiness, Kitty was able to afford to buy a large Beijing apartment. She invited her parents from Sichuan to come and live with her for a time. Her mother went back home, but her father lingered, growing ever more despondent over Kitty’s stubborn refusal to get married. She had recently terminated a troubled, drawn-out relationship with a Chinese man and no longer regarded marriage as a priority but prized her independence. Her father found this incomprehensible. She was beautiful and could easily find an eligible man.

Meanwhile the mortgage payments were quite burdensome, so she decided to sell the apartment and buy a smaller one, but a current buyer’s market was making this difficult. This further compounded her father’s distress. The albatross of the apartment and her still being single at almost thirty caused him to “lose face” in front of his friends and relatives back home. What he really wanted, she assumed, was for her to find a nice man with a good job to marry her and take her in, and in the meantime turn over the proceeds of the home sale to her father’s safekeeping. In other words, he wanted the money. She was unmoved and maintained a hard front. This made him yet more depressed, which by now was turning into full-blown clinical depression. She took him to the doctor’s and he was put on antidepressants. He failed to improve, all along reminding her that the onus for restoring his loss of face fell squarely on her.

If it seems odd that a father in otherwise comfortable circumstances and sound health could attribute his shaky sense of wellbeing to his child’s actions, this is not unusual in China. Family members and close friends alike spend much of their energy infinitely wrapping invisible threads around each other in ever-tighter co-dependency relationships. East-Asian societies are often described as “shame-based” as opposed to the “guilt-based” cultures of the Judeo-Christian West. Yet given the extent to which the Chinese employ guilt to control one another, you might be persuaded it’s more operative here than anywhere else. Mature adults will admit to needing permission from a parent or a friend to have so much as a dinner or coffee date with someone not of their circle.

Family members and close friends alike spend much of their creative energy infinitely wrapping invisible threads around each other in ever-tighter co-dependency relationships.

Fortunately, many Chinese attain enough independence of mind to see this form of psychological control for what it is. In Kitty’s case, there was good old Chinese apathy factoring in as well. Her stony indifference only provoked her father to up the stakes and grow more hysterical, trying to make her responsible for his very mental health and sanity. But as when we haggle over something that is outrageously priced by offering a fraction of the initial quote, they finally struck up a bargain. She paid him off with enough face money to make him leave and cease interfering in her life. Again, there would have been no need to refer to the term as such and they might not have thought of their negotiations in this way. “Face money” is only our term for analysis. But money took care of the problem.

Here’s the interesting thing about face money. In contrast to matters of compensation, where you settle with someone for a sum of money they are reasonably entitled to for some harm or offense (a traffic accident, cheating, slander, etc.), face money comes out of nowhere. No one ever really deserves it. This gives it a magical quality, as if conjured out of nothing. We might call this “face inflation.” But again, you need to stake a fair claim on someone to begin with before playing their guilt strings. The further away you are from a person’s inner circle, the harder it is to do this. Nor is it to be confused with guanxi or exchange relationships (“contacts”), where people mutually benefit from one another’s specialized services or privileged access. The Chinese interact with anyone potentially useful, “exchanging our labor, our friendship, our information, our affection, our appreciation, on a quid pro quo basis.” People become indebted “to various associates who have helped them, such as teachers, former bosses, confidants and so forth. The norm of reciprocity requires that they honor these social debts should they ever be called on to do so” (Bond 58-59). In such cases the nature and extent of the “debt” is clear and easily cancelled by an equivalent payment or service.

With face money, the equation is more of a qualitative one, though with quantitative consequences. You are not just paying someone back but redressing a wrong—often a nebulous one at that. There is a huge amount of space for play, from legitimate grievances and harms, to strangers who are eager to ingratiate themselves and offer you favors in order to squeeze a potentially larger payback from you down the line. There are people who may come out of the woodwork years later, long after you’ve forgotten about them and you wonder how you could possibly be indebted to them. And not only are you indebted to them, their unhappiness over your neglect, their loss of face, has a high interest rate and requires a corresponding payment to restore things.

On the one hand, face is very real. Because anyone can potentially claim loss of face if they know how to play their hand, the resultant fear of losing face causes many to constantly try to gain more face as insurance against future loss—while striving to gain the upper hand on others by having amassed more face. On the other, face is illusory and never means more than how it is used or exploited. It can mean virtually anything. This flexibility is what enables it to be at once enormously important to some and no more than an afterthought to others. This potentiality—latent or actualized—is what gives face its power.

To understand the elasticity and adaptability of Chinese face, we must go beyond the traditional notion of it as a simple personal attribute, viz. the “dignity” or “self-respect” which accrues to each of us as members of a community. There have been academic attempts to classify face, distinguishing between the two Chinese words for “face,” 面子 and 脸, the former sometimes defined as relative and the latter as absolute. That is, one can gain prestige or honor (mianzi) to a relative degree through one’s efforts, lose it through misfortune and gain it back again, whereas once one has lost one’s dignity or reputation (lian), such as through reprehensible actions or behavior, the loss is absolute (see Mao below for a scholarly discussion). Loss of lian is thus regarded as more serious than loss of mianzi.

There are people who may come out of the woodwork years later, long after you’ve forgotten about them and you wonder how you could possibly be indebted to them.

Pushing such distinctions too hard, however, creates a false dichotomy which fails to jive with common usage. The two terms are in fact interchangeable. Characters frequently lose face in Qian Zhongshu’s classic novel of manners, Fortress Besieged. The protagonist, Fang Hongjian, experiences a devastating humiliation to his teaching career when, assuming he is about to be promoted from lecturer to professor, he discovers he’s being fired for incompetence. The word used here to describe his loss of face is mianzi (197). Later in the novel, lian is used to describe a comparatively minor instance, the loss of face Fang’s father experiences upon being informed his son is marrying a woman without his consent (305).

Both mianzi and lian can additionally describe the most inconsequential feelings or perceptions (micro face). I have been with Chinese who spontaneously remark how they’ve “lost face” (diu lian) over something that could hardly be considered their fault, such as having difficulty finding the address of a place they wanted to take me to.

The reason the two terms are interchangeable is clear. Face is inherently indefinable, and this, again, is the source of its power. It’s irreducible and full of paradox. It functions as a kind of object, a metaphorical one, but also a concrete sort of thing, one that can be given or taken away. Yet defining it as a discrete, static item prevents us from grasping that face is changeable and chameleon-like, a type of force (think Star Wars “The Force”) which people strategically and aggressively make use of for various ends. As Lin Yutang has remarked, “Face cannot be translated or defined,” yet it is “prized above all earthly possessions. It is more powerful than fate or favor, and more respected than the constitution. It often decides a military victory or defeat, and can demolish a whole government ministry” (196). The PRC leadership in the revolution’s early years regarded face as so potent a force in Chinese society that they sought to rein it in with such slogans as “Disregard face. Be frank. Everyone is equal” (Blum 107).

At the same time, says Lin, face is no more than a “hollow thing which men in China live by” (196). As soon as we attempt to say exactly what it is, it slips out from under our grasp. As Lu Xun writes, “It is a good thing that the Chinese want face; the pity is that this face is so flexible, so constantly changing, that it becomes confused with not wanting face” (“On ‘Face’” 134).


To illustrate face’s knack for creating something from nothing, we move on to discuss sex face, which demonstrates this alchemy more colorfully than in other spheres of life. Sex face is the displacement of sexuality onto face. It is where sex disappears into and is expressed through face. As a kind of counterweight to centuries of sexist oppression, it constitutes Chinese woman’s particular leverage against men.

The other side of the coin of sex face, and why it’s so potent, is the virtual insignificance of sexuality itself. Because sex is so completely invested in face, the act itself matters little in people’s lives. The notion of sex as something pleasurable in its own right and to be enjoyed for its own sake, does not apply in China the way it does in most other cultures and societies. Peter Hessler has noted this phenomenon: “In my experience as a reporter, the Chinese rarely talk about [sex] and it simply is not a prime motivator for the things they do. They just don’t care very much about it, at least during this particular period. So I focused on other aspects of Chinese society (money, jobs, migration, family relations, generational tensions)” (n.p.).

The Chinese are mystified, when they are not appalled, by the Western preoccupation with sex and pornography. It seems to them such a waste and squandering of resources, much better spent on the practical affairs of life. To them, the obsession with sex is a neurosis, a social ill like drug use, and accounts for most social problems and perversions. The West’s moribund economies, political scandals, and frivolous mass media are all attributable to the distraction of sex. Sex does have importance for the Chinese, but it’s put in its place and kept out of the way, the way face is out of the way: normally invisible and for all practical purposes nonexistent—until you see the explosive results of its violation.

The lack of interest in sex is not the same for women as it is for men. Although Chinese men are far less bothered by their sex drive than men elsewhere in the world, comparatively speaking they are more interested in sex than the women are, for whom the urge scarcely exists. Chinese women can exploit this discrepancy to exert power over men.

Because the sex drive is the one force capable of undermining parental authority and Confucian family structure, it is stamped out early in childhood and with a vigor reminiscent of the most severe Catholic upbringing, but seemingly more effective: “The consequence of this silent conspiracy are an avoidance of the opposite sex before marriage, ignorance about the biology of sex, low levels of sexual activity, and a widespread moralism about sexual propriety” (Bond 64). As the drive cannot be entirely eradicated, it is sublimated to other purposes, traditionally the system of concubinage, which expanded men’s sexual options in the polygamous household and gave women the means of policing men within this sphere by the whip of jealousy, “their only weapon of defense” (Lin 141).

Outside the household, Chinese woman’s aura of being unattainable increased her perceived value to males. As her sexuality became identified with inviolability, she cultivated “the charm of mystery and distance, and the more she is secluded the more she is worth” (Lin 151). Decades after the end of polygamy, this prototypical Chinese woman has persisted into modern times, as sharply depicted by Qian Zhongshu in the China of the 1930s: “She raised her head, her face filled with an expression of solemn unapproachability, as though having been wronged by men in a previous life, she was still keeping her guard up in this one. She looked him over a moment, shot her red lips over toward the left, then lowered her head and continued filing away at her nails” (Ch’ien 316). The same woman would not be out of place today, sitting in a Starbucks and fiddling with an iPhone instead of a nail file.

Because sex is so completely invested in face, the act itself matters little in people’s lives.

The dour gravity with which sexual relations have long been regarded is traditionally exemplified by the most extreme ramifications when propriety is even momentarily disturbed. Lin notes that “Chinese girls used to die for face, if their bodies had been accidentally exposed to a man” (196). Women in Imperial China subjected to a sexual proposition (调戏) of any sort were expected to commit suicide to establish their innocence and become a “chastity martyr” (Sommer). There is the funny scene, bordering on the tragic, in Lu Xun’s “The True Story of Ah Q,” when the bumbling hero (whom we might today characterize as suffering from Asperger syndrome) makes a boorish sexual advance on a maidservant: “’Sleep with me!’ Ah Q suddenly rushed forward and threw himself at her feet. There was a moment of absolute silence. ‘Aiya!’ Dumbfounded for an instant, Amah Wu suddenly began to tremble, then rushed out shrieking and could soon be heard sobbing’” (Call to Arms 104). Ah Q is chased and beaten by the neighbors, and the girl has to be restrained from committing suicide over his verbal outrage.

These days, no Chinese woman takes her own life over an unwanted sexual advance. But she might consider it a huge loss of face and serious trouble would rebound on the offender. An example comes to mind of a woman I was acquainted with who got into just such a scrape with her male American roommate while in grad school in the US. It illustrates how cultural differences can thrust these issues into sharp relief; the same flare-up would unlikely have occurred with a Chinese male.

Peili was attractive, spoke excellent English, and popular with a Facebook following of more than a thousand friends, most of them Americans and fellow students. One day she posted a question on Facebook concerning how to dispose of a roommate after he had proposed sex to her. The manner or propriety of the offense was not at issue; it was only how to get rid of him as soon as possible. The mostly female responses were largely supportive, but more details were requested. You can’t just kick out a roommate. If she had sublet the room to him, she might have sought the police’s help to have him removed for trespassing—if she could prove criminal offense. But he was also on the lease, and landlords are averse to involving themselves in tenants’ internal disputes. There had been no campaign of sexual harassment, nor a hostile environment such as created by innuendo, leering, etc.; she admitted he had proposed sex only once, in a frank and direct manner, and apologized upon being rejected. He was of course bewildered and taken aback when she told him to vacate the premises immediately, and he refused.

I don’t know what havoc she wreaked on him, but about a week later she triumphantly announced on Facebook that he had left.

It is unlikely a Chinese man would ever find himself in such straights, at least not without first reaping something from it. He would have gone the polite route, however long it took, of wooing her into bed. If he then found her of no further interest he would dump her. She would no more tolerate this sort of violation either and would demand some kind of recompense, such as face money. He would be expecting this and pay her off accordingly, to get her out of the way. The sum would be determined by their relative financial means. If she was of rural background, he might get away with the modest equivalent of, say, USD $500. If she was middle-class, perhaps ten times as much; considerably more if he was wealthy. And that would be the end of it.

We can’t really blame the American chap for not being savvy to the Chinese economics of sex face. This ignorance protected him from anything worse. Peili had no effective means of claiming back her sexual face. Also luckily for him, it transpired when they were both students and relatively powerless—before she went on to a career as a reporter and could have done him a lot more damage. But while her face was never properly restored, she made sure she reaped a partial victory.

Works cited:

Blum, Susan D. Lies that bind: Chinese truth, other truths (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007).

Bo, Yang. “The ugly Chinaman.” Speech given at Iowa University, 24 September 1984 ( [originally published in Bo Yang, The ugly Chinaman and the crisis of Chinese culture (Allen & Unwin, 1992)].

Bond, Michael Harris. Beyond the Chinese face: Insights from psychology (Oxford University, 1991).

Ch’ien, Chung-shu. Fortress Besieged (Beijing: Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press) [originally published 1947].

Hessler, Peter. Response to criticism of his New Yorker (Oct. 13, 2014) article “Tales of the trash: A neighborhood garbageman explains modern Egypt” (

Lin, Yutang. My country and my people (Beijing: Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press, 1998) [originally published 1935].

Liu, Suola. “Ni bie wu xuanze” [“You have no other choice”], in Hundun jia ligeleng [Confusion and irrelevance] (Beijing: Zhongguo Huaqiao Chubanshe, 1994).

Lu, Xun. Selected works. Vol. 4. (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1980) [originally published 1934-36].

Lu, Xun. Call to arms [1918-22] and Wandering [1924-25] (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 2014).Mao, Luming Robert. “Beyond politeness theory: ‘Face’ revisited and renewed,” Journal of Pragmatics, 21 (1994), pp. 451-86.

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Sommer, Matthew H. Sex, Law, and Society in Late Imperial China (Stanford UP, 2002).

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4 replies »

  1. Pingback: Hao Hao Report
  2. This completely indifference to anyone and anything outside of one’s own circle of family and friends and irrelevant to one’s interests has also been noted of people in India. I think it might just be a product of the harshness of life in poor countries with a billion people. There is just no time to concern yourself with frivolities.

      • Yes, but how many of them grew up in such circumstances? Plus life is tough for everyone is such societies. Even if you are rich, there is always the risk of losing it all, and you have to keep your guard up.

        Plus, I wouldn’t call it apathy. I think “indifference” is the word.

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