Face Dignity

Face (sociological concept)
Face, idiomatically meaning dignity/prestige, is a fundamental concept in the fields of sociology, sociolinguistics, semantics, politeness theory, psychology, political science, communication, and Face Negotiation Theory.


Although Lin Yutang (1943:200) claimed “Face cannot be translated or defined”, compare these definitions:

The term face may be defined as the positive social value a person effectively claims for himself by the line others assume he has taken during a particular contact. Face is an image of self delineated in terms of approved social attributes. (Goffman 1955:213)
Face is the respectability and/or deference which a person can claim for himself from others, by virtue of the relative position he occupies in his social network and the degree to which he is judged to have functioned adequately in that position as well as acceptably in his general conduct. (Ho 1975:883)
[Face] is something that is emotionally invested, and that can be lost, maintained, or enhanced, and must be constantly attended to in interaction. In general, people cooperate (and assume each other’s cooperation) in maintaining face in interaction, such cooperation being based on the mutual vulnerability of face. (Brown and Levinson 1978:66)
Face is a sense of worth that comes from knowing one’s status and reflects concern with the congruency between one’s performance or appearance and one’s real worth. (Huang 1987:71)
“Face” means ‘sociodynamic valuation’, a lexical hyponym of words meaning ‘prestige; dignity; honor; respect; status’. (Carr 1993:90)
“Face” has more meaning based on Chinese culture context.

“The concept of face is, of course, Chinese in origin” (Ho 1975:867), yet many languages have “face” terms that metaphorically mean “prestige; honor; reputation.” Marcel Mauss, who sociologically studied the Kwakwaka’wakw (formerly known as Kwakiutl) and Haida nations in British Columbia, interpreted the Kwak’wala word q’elsem (lit. “rotten face”) meaning “stingy potlatch-giver; one who gives no feast.”

Kwakiutl and Haida noblemen have the same notion of ‘face’ as the Chinese mandarin or officer. It is said of one of the great mythical chiefs who gave no feast that he had a ‘rotten face.’ The expression is more apt than it is even in China; for to lose one’s face is to lose one’s spirit, which is truly the ‘face’, the dancing mask, the right to incarnate a spirit and wear an emblem or totem. It is the veritable persona which is at stake, and it can be lost in the potlatch just as it can be lost in the game of gift-giving, in war, or through some error in ritual. (1954:38)

Michael Carr (1992, 1993) lexicographically investigated “face; prestige” dictionary forms in Chinese, Japanese, and English. Within this sample, Chinese dictionaries include 98 forms, e.g., sipo lian 撕破臉 (lit. “rip up face”) “have no consideration for someone’s feelings”; Japanese dictionaries list 89, e.g., kao o uru 顔を売る (lit. “sell face”) “become popular; gain influence”; and English dictionaries include 5 forms, e.g., lose face (borrowed from Chinese diulian 丟臉 “lose face”). Carr found that the Chinese and Japanese lexicons have roughly equal numbers of words for “losing face” and “saving face”, while English has more for “saving face.”


Two influential Chinese authors explained “face.” Lu Xun referred to the missionary Arthur Henderson Smith’s (1894:16-18) interpretation.

The term “face” keeps cropping up in our conversation, and it seems such a simple expression that I doubt whether many people give it much thought. Recently, however, we have heard this word on the lips of foreigners too, who seem to be studying it. They find it extremely hard to understand, but believe that “face” is the key to the Chinese spirit and that grasping it will be like grabbing a queue twenty-four years ago [when wearing a queue was compulsory] – everything else will follow. (1934, 1959:129)

Lin Yutang considered the psychology of “face.”

Interesting as the Chinese physiological face is, the psychological face makes a still more fascinating study. It is not a face that can be washed or shaved, but a face that can be “granted” and “lost” and “fought for” and “presented as a gift.” Here we arrive at the most curious point of Chinese social psychology. Abstract and intangible, it is yet the most delicate standard by which Chinese social intercourse is regulated. (1935: 199-200)

Lin refers to liu mianzi 留面子 “grant face; give (someone) a chance to regain lost honor”, shī miàn zi 失面子 “lose face”, zheng mianzi 爭面子 “fight for face; keeping up with the Joneses”, and gei mianzi 給面子 “give face; show respect (for someone’s feelings).”

The Chinese language has three common words meaning “face”:

mian (Chinese: 面; pinyin: miàn; Wade–Giles: mien)
lian (simplified Chinese: 脸; traditional Chinese: 臉; pinyin: liǎn; Wade–Giles: lien)
yan (simplified Chinese: 颜; traditional Chinese: 顏; pinyin: yán; Wade–Giles: yen).
Mian 面 “face; personal esteem; countenance; surface; side” occurs in words like:

mianzi 面子 “face; side; reputation; self-respect; prestige, honor; social standing”
mianmu 面目 (lit. “face eyes”) “face; appearance; respect; social standing; prestige; honor”
mianpi 面皮 (lit. “face skin”) “facial skin; complexion; feelings; sensitivity; sense of shame”
timian 体面 (lit. “body face”) “face; good looking; honor; dignity; prestige”
qingmian 情面 (lit. “feelings face”) “face; prestige; favor; kindness; partiality”
Mianmu, which occurs in the Shijing, Guanzi, and other Chinese classics, is the oldest Chinese word for figurative “face” (Carr 1992:43). David Yau-fai Ho (1974:241) describes timian as “an expression without an exact equivalent in English”, meaning “the social front, the ostensible display of one’s social standing to the public. It is both a prerogative and an implicit obligation for the socially prominent to be particular about.” Mianzi is a measurable and quantifiable concept of “face.” Hsien-chin Hu says it,

can be borrowed, struggled for, added to, padded, — all terms indicating a gradual increase in volume. It is built up through initial high position, wealth, power, ability, through cleverly establishing social ties to a number of prominent people, as well as through avoidance of acts that would cause unfavorable comment. (1944:61)

Lian 臉 “face; countenance; respect; reputation; prestige” is seen in several “face” words:

lianshang 臉上 (lit. “face on/above”) “one’s face; honor; respect”
lianmian 臉面 (lit. “face face”) “face; self-respect; prestige; influence”
lianpi 臉皮 (lit. “face skin”) “face; sensitivity; compassion”
Hu (1944:51-52) contrasts meiyou lian 沒有臉 (lit. “without face”) “audacious; wanton; shameless” as “the most severe condemnation that can be made of a person” and buyao lian 不要臉 (lit. “don’t want face”) “shameless; selfishly inconsiderate” as “a serious accusation meaning that ego does not care what society thinks of his character, that he is ready to obtain benefits for himself in defiance of moral standards.”

Yan 顏 “face; prestige; reputation; honor” occurs in the common expression diu yan 丟顏 and the words:

yanhou 顏厚 (lit. “face thick”) or houyan 厚顏 “thick-skinned; brazen; shameless; impudent”
yanmian 顏面 (lit. “face face”) “face; honor; prestige”
Chinese uses yan less often in expressing “face; prestige” than either mian or lian.

Carr (1992:58-60) summarizes four common Chinese lexical patterns for “face” words. First, the lexicon antithetically modifies all three “face” words with hou 厚 “thick; deep; great” and bao or bo 薄 “thin; slight; weak” to describe “(in)sensitivity to prestige”, for example, mianpi hou “thick-skinned; shameless” and mianpi bao “thin-skinned; diffident.” Second, owing to the importance of the visible face, kan 看 “see; look” meaning “have consideration for” and buhaokan 不好看 “not good looking” describe “face.” Third, several expressions reciprocally describe you 有 “having” or meiyou 沒有 “not having” “face”, such as dajia you mianzi “everybody has mutual honor” and meiyou mianzi “lacking prestige.” Fourth, “losing face” can be expressed with the common “lose” verb shi 失 and the rarer diu 丟, for instance, shi mianzi and diu mianzi “lose face; lose prestige.”

Recent studies of Chinese “face” have principally accepted Hu Hsien-chin’s original distinction between a person’s mianzi “social status” and lian “moral character.” Hu (1944:45) dichotomized mianzi as “a reputation achieved through getting on in life, through success and ostentation” versus lian which “represents the confidence of society in the integrity of ego’s moral character, the loss of which makes it impossible for him to function properly within the community.” Ho qualified this dichotomy:

Although the distinction between the two sets of criteria for judging face – based on judgments of character and, broadly, of the amoral aspects of social performance – is justified, it cannot be anchored to a linguistic distinction between the two terms, lien and mien-tzu, as proposed by Hu. However, we may continue to use these terms in the senses that Hu has defined. (1975:868)

On the basis of experiments showing that Chinese high school students defined losses of mianzi and lian interchangeably, while university students distinguished them, Huang Shuanfan concluded that:

Succinctly, among college subjects, loss of mianzi is more definitely tied to failure to measure up to one’s sense of self-esteem or to what is expected by others, whereas loss of lian is closely tied to transgression of social codes. Hu’s (1944) forty year old distinction between the two Chinese concepts of faces appears to stand very well, even today. (1987:73)

Lian is the confidence of society in a person’s moral character, while mianzi represents social perceptions of a person’s prestige. For a person to maintain face is important with Chinese social relations because face translates into power and influence and affects goodwill. A loss of lian would result in a loss of trust within a social network, while a loss of mianzi would likely result in a loss of authority.

Two “face”-related concepts in Chinese social relations are guanxi “connections; relationships” and ganqing “feelings.”


Look up face in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
The English semantic field for “face” words meaning “prestige; honor” is smaller than the corresponding Chinese field, but historical dictionaries more accurately record its history. The Oxford English Dictionary (2nd ed., 1989) documents how the English community in China originated lose face and save face in the late 19th century, and how morphological variants like face-saver subsequently developed.

Lose face is a linguistic borrowing from Chinese diulian 丟臉 “lose face.” The OED2 Face 10 definition distinguishes meanings between native 10a. “Outward show; assumed or factitious appearance; disguise, pretence; an instance of this; a pretext” (for instance, to put a good face on) and borrowed:

10b. to save one’s face: see save v. 8f; also to save face; to lose face [tr. Chinese tiu lien]: to be humiliated, lose one’s credit, good name, or reputation; similarly, loss of face. Hence face = reputation, good name.

Robert Hart originally translated lose face in a January 23, 1876 Zongli Yamen customs memorandum, “The Inspector General’s Memorandum Concerning Commercial Relations” (Appendix II in Hart 1901:182-251).

The country begins to feel that Government consented to arrangements by which China has lost face; the officials have long been conscious that they are becoming ridiculous in the eyes of the people, seeing that where a foreigner is concerned they can neither enforce a Chinese right, nor redress a Chinese grievance, even on Chinese soil. (1901:225)

Loss of face occurs in The Times (August 3, 1929): “Each wishes to concede only what can be conceded without loss of ‘face’.”

Save face was coined from lose face applying the semantic opposition between lose and save. The OED defines Save 8 “To keep, protect or guard (a thing) from damage, loss, or destruction”, and elaborates,

8f. to save one’s face: to avoid being disgraced or humiliated. Similarly, to save (another’s) face. Hence save-face adj. = face-saving … Originally used by the English community in China, with reference to the continual devices among the Chinese to avoid incurring or inflicting disgrace. The exact phrase appears not to occur in Chinese, but ‘to lose face’ (tiu lien), and ‘for the sake of his face’, are common.

For the earliest usage examples, the OED gives the following. Save one’s face is recorded in the Westminster Gazette (April 5, 1898): “Unquestionably the process of saving one’s face leads to curious results in other countries than China.” Save-face is found in Chambers Journal of Literature, Science and Arts (1917): “The civilian native staff had bolted at the first sign of trouble, ‘going to report to the authorities’ being their ‘save face’ for it!” Face-saving first appears in Enoch A. Bennett’s Lilian (1922): “She had been trapped beyond any chance of a face-saving lie.” Face-saver, defined as “something that ‘saves one’s face’,” originated in Edgar Snow’s Scorched Earth (1941): “As a face-saver, however, Doihara was given enough support, from the Kwantung Army in Manchuria.” Carr (1993:74) notes, “It is significant that the earliest usages for English lose face, save face, save-face and face-saver refer to China, while later ones are more international in application.”

By expanding “lose face” into “save face”, English developed oppositely from Chinese, which has many “lose face” collocations, but none literally meaning “save face.” Yao mianzi 要面子 “eager to gain reputation; be concerned about appearances” is (Hu 1944:58) “the closest Chinese approximation” for “save face.”

The underlying reason for this difference is that English “face” lacks the sociological contrast between Chinese lian and mianzi. Since Chinese lian is ethically absolute while mianzi is socially quantitative, losing the former is more significant. According to Huang:

The fact that Chinese lexicalizes losing face (丟臉, 沒面子), but not gaining face is a potent reminder that losing face has far more serious implications for one’s sense of self-esteem or decency than gaining face. (1987:71)

Ho explains how “losing” one’s “face” is more sociodynamically significant than “saving” it.

Previous writers on face have treated losing face and gaining face simply as if they were opposite outcomes in a social encounter and have thus failed to notice the basic difference between two social processes that are involved. In the first instance, while it is meaningful to speak of both losing and gaining mien-tzu it is meaningful to speak only of losing lien. One does not speak of gaining lien because, regardless of one’s station in life, one is expected to behave in accordance with the precepts of the culture; correctly conceptualized, exemplary conduct adds not to one’s lien, but to one’s mien-tzu. (1975:870)

“Losing face” brings into question one’s moral decency and societal adequacy, but not “gaining face.”

The lose verb in lose face means “fail to maintain” (cf. lose one’s life), while the save in save face means “avoid loss/damage” (cf. save one’s honor). “The English creation of save face as the opposite of lose face was arbitrary because lose has other antonyms: win, find, keep, catch, maintain, preserve, gain, and regain”, Carr (1993:77) notes, “Speakers occasionally use the last three (esp. gain) regarding face ‘prestige’, though less frequently than save.” Another usage example is give face, which is included in the Wiktionary but not the OED2.

Among the English words of Chinese origin, lose face is an uncommon verb phrase and a unique semantic loan translation. Most Anglo-Chinese borrowings are nouns (Yuan 1981:250), with a few exceptions such as to kowtow, to Shanghai, to brainwash, and lose face. English face meaning “prestige; honor” is the only case of a Chinese semantic loan. Semantic loans extend an indigenous word’s meaning in conformity with a foreign model (e.g., French realiser “achieve; create; construct” used in the sense of English realize). The vast majority of English words from Chinese are ordinary loanwords with regular phonemic adaptation (e.g., chop suey < Cantonese tsap-sui 雜碎 "miscellaneous pieces"). A few are calques where a borrowing is blended with native elements (e.g., chopsticks < Pidgin chop "quick, fast" < Cantonese kap 急 "quick" + stick). Face meaning "prestige" is technically a "loan synonym" owing to semantic overlap between the native English meaning "outward semblance; effrontery" and the borrowed Chinese meaning "prestige; dignity."

John Orr (1953) coined the term "invisible exports" to describe how French forme, ouverte, and courir borrowed the sports meanings of English form, open, and run. Chinese lose face is an imperceptible English import because it appears to be a predictable semantic extension of face, and not a noticeable foreign borrowing. This invisible face "prestige; status" loan is, Chan and Kwok (1985:60) explain, "so firmly established in the English vocabulary that the average native speaker is unaware of its Chinese origin."

When face acquired its Chinese sense of "prestige; honor", it filled a lexical gap in the English lexicon. Chan and Kwok write,

The Chinese has supplied a specific 'name' for a 'thing' embodying qualities not expressed or possibly not fully expressed, by a number of terms in English. The aptness of the figurative extension has probably also played a part (1985:61-62).

Carr concludes,

The nearest English synonyms of the apt figurative face are prestige, honor, respect, dignity, status, reputation, social acceptance, or good name. Ho (1975:874-880) explains how 'face' is a more basic meaning than 'status', 'dignity', or 'honor'. 'Prestige' appears to be semantically closest to 'face', however a person can be said to have face but not prestige, or vice versa. Prestige is not necessary; one can easily live without it, but hardly without "face." (1993:87-88)


in Arabic the expression 'Hifz Ma'a Wajh' حفظ ماء وجه is used widely, it translates literally to 'save the water of face' which is used in situation where an individual or an entity is trying to maintain dignity and prestige.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Carmen
    Jul 01, 2013 @ 20:26:51

    Gia very interesting, Always i like to read your post.
    Thank you for your information


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