Domestic Affairs

Lose face to find self-respect

By Linda Gibson (
Updated: 2010-08-29 13:08
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News media have carried stories recently about bairen chong menmian – "white-guy window dressing."

The practice of companies renting Caucasians, who are paid to meet customers and pretend they are employees, is based on the Chinese notion of face. The idea that Western faces give more prestige than Asian faces is only one of the unattractive aspects of this cultural mindset.

As near as a foreigner like me can understand it, the basis of face seems to be worry about other peoples' opinions. If they think badly of you, that's a loss of face and a reason to feel bad yourself.

This gives way too much power to other people.

Face often is used as an excuse to avoid responsibility for one's actions. Instead of admitting a mistake and apologizing, fear about loss of face drives people to blame others, cover up their error or retaliate against whoever is thought to be responsible for pointing out the mistake. One goal of face is to encourage moral behavior. Clearly, that isn't working well.

Could it be that the notion of face also stunts Chinese creativity? People brave enough to take risks and dare ridicule to try something different are those who make breakthroughs that advance society. Whoever first developed gunpowder, paper, printing and the compass were those kind of persons.

People who simply copy what others have done because it works well enough don't contribute any advances.

Somewhere between the stifling group-think of face-bound Asians and the every-man-for-himself individualism of the West (which also is carried way too far) lies a place where good manners, thoughtfulness of others and selflessness join self-respect, personal integrity and initiative.

Getting there would be worth the risks.