China: Culture of “Mianzi”


As final exams creep up, I’ve been spending most of my time working on my final 2,000-character paper about the Mosuo ethnic minority group. Besides going to classes, going out to eat, visiting a couple museums and getting a massage, I’ve spent this entire past week in my dorm studying.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about a short story we read in my modern Chinese literature class that revolves around the Chinese social concept “Mianzi,” (面子 miànzi) which literally means “face” but refers to one’s reputation and dignity in social contexts. Of course, all cultures emphasize respect, but mianzi is a crucial component of nearly all social interactions in China, and the loss of one’s mianzi brings unbearable shame – my literature teacher that some traditional Chinese people would rather commit suicide than return home to disgrace after a severe failure (such as getting fired from a job or getting expelled from school).

As the blog I linked above points out, mianzi is a social currency that can be lost, saved, given or won, which greatly contrasts with the Western self-presumptive representations of social status. Mianzi is lost when one is embarrassed publicly, mianzi is saved or won by showing respect and suppressing negative emotions, and mianzi is given through praise, gifts or acknowledgment of social status.

Mianzi is also deeply rooted in the collective business culture – Forbes writes of a Chinese employee who left his job at a U.S. multinational corporation after being publicly criticized by the Head of Sales for his team’s underperformance. He would rather leave a well-paying job than work in a place where he feels there would be no way to possibly regain his mianzi after such humiliation.

My literature teacher said that views toward mianzi are changing and due to Globalization (cough, Americanization), Chinese youth are watching more and more American T.V. shows such a Friends, so they’re worrying less and less about certain behaviors that would traditionally cause one to lose mianzi, such as living with a partner before marriage.

My roommate from last summer in Shanghai, Xiao Juan, said that mianzi builds one’s self-esteem and people will pay a price for such such self-esteem – for example, when going out to eat, Chinese people all rush to pay the bill first because it shows that they’re not stingy and care about others.

My current roommate, Xiao Cui, thinks that attaching too much importance to mianzi is not healthy and is a display of vanity. Excessively seeking the recognition of others will make you lose yourself because you have to create the illusion of good behavior, she said. Many young people exaggerate their own strengths and abilities and may even steal money  to buy an expensive cellphone or other valuables in order to show that they are rich, she said.

In Tie Ning’s fictional story “Under a Tree,” Lao Yu was once the star-student of his middle school – in the time it took other students to write one essay, he could write two and he could pronounce the name of discrete Russian authors. In those days, Lao Yu and his classmate Xiang Zhuzhu were in continuous competition, but Lao Yu always received a slightly higher test grade than her. (You could say in middle school, Lao Yu’s mianzi was at its peak.)

Twenty or so years later, Lao Yu is a middle school teacher in an ordinary town. He is married to a woman from the countryside with little-to-no education who earns a living cleaning bathrooms and they have two children together. But him and his wife’s pay isn’t enough to afford central heating so his teenage daughter – who is preparing for the monumentally-important Gaokao (College Entrance Exam) – has developed chilblains – a medical condition that occurs when one is exposed to cold and humidity, causing tissue damage, resulting in redness, itching and inflammation of the skin.

Lao Yu has been actively avoiding invitations to a middle school classmate reunion, that is until the organizer of the reunion shows up at his work and persuades him to come by  revealing that Xiang Zhuzhu, who has become a successful politician, will be attending. Lao Yu is curious to see how his childhood competitor is doing after all these years – has she really surpassed him on the social ladder?

Sure enough, at the reunion, Xiang Zhuzhu is cool and collected, respectful and dignified, and even passes out small gifts and business cards to everyone, whereas Lao Yu, for the most part, sits alone, refusing to engage in conversation – except to brag about how smart his children are.

In the following two years, two more reunions are held but Lao Yu doesn’t attend. One day when him and his family are eating dinner and watching T.V., Xiang Zhuzhu appears on the screen – she has become the town mayor. Lao Yu’s wife and daughter entreat him to ask Xiang Zhuzhu for a favor: find them a house with central heating. An old classmate would certainly be willing to help out, they assured Lao Yu.

Lao Yu begrudgingly calls Xiang Zhuzhu and awkwardly asks if he can come over that night. After she agrees, Lao Yu quickly hangs up, clearly embarrassed. (Traditional Chinese men think that asking a woman for financial help is an extreme loss of mianzi because it shows that they can’t provide for their families and have to ask the weaker sex for help.)

Lao Yu shows up at Xiang Zhuzhu’s home, wearing boots, a wool cap and quilted jacket. He’s instantly intimidated by her crisp cashmere sweater and the elegant decor of the living room. Xiang Zhuzhu immediately asks Lao Yu if there’s anything she can do for him, to which he vehemently shakes his head no. Instead, Lao Yu starts babbling on and on about various books and movies, meanwhile Xiang Zhuzhu earnestly listens and nods.

Lao Yu keeps prattling on about every topic imaginable – telescopes, genetically-engineered kidneys, nuclear energy, etc., etc. – until finally, it’s past 11 p.m. and Xiang Zhuzhu’s daughter crawls into her laps and asks if it’s bedtime. Lao Yu stands up to leave and Xiang Zhuzhu asks him one last time if there’s anything she can do for him. But of course, Lao Yu says, “no, no, no!”

On his bike ride home, Lao Yu stops to stand underneath a tree (the leaves shelter his guilt), looks at the trunk and asks, “Will you help me find a house with heating?” Finally, Lao Yu feels like the heavy burden has been lifted off his shoulders. He assures himself that his daughter will pass the Gaokao and will eventually be able to live in a dorm with heating. When he approaches his house, he sees the lights are still on in the window – his family stayed up in anticipation of the good news.


Harbin Opera House
Harbin’s Museum of Children’s Art
The gardens of Harbin’s Sun Island

Leave a Reply