For Chinese, shopping is saving face

Updated: 2012-01-10 19:30

By Huang Shuo (

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On Dec 26, 2011, the day after Christmas, many luxury fashion shops in London, the capital of Britain, launched sales promotions to draw customers. The main force making their way through the stampede is unquestionably Chinese.

On the streets of London, Chinese people were everywhere, carrying big shopping bags with famous brand logos on them. According to The London Daily News, Chinese customers spent an average of £1,310 ($2,029) per sale during Christmas, a 26 percent increase from a year earlier. To cater to customers’ needs, many shops even opened up fast access to banks in China and offered Mandarin services.

It’s true that China’s economy has been growing remarkably in the last few years, but behind this, there’s another factor with great influence on the shopping sprees - face. In Chinese culture, the concept of face is of prime importance. It has many meanings, such as self-esteem, reputation, and social status.

And to Chinese, possessing luxuries is a significant way to gain face. It represents wealth, further speaking to one’s capability to make money. We can call it vanity, but that’s what Chinese regard rather important in life. For Westerners, the fear of public speaking is ranked higher than the fear of death. What ranks higher than the fear of death to Chinese people is probably the fear of losing face.

Because in China, relationships are closely connected to the matter of face, giving luxuries as a present is another way to gain face. Chinese people advocate reciprocity. No matter if it’s in business or in personal relationships, present-giving is an essential etiquette. That’s why in recent years, not only overseas Chinese join the shopping spree but also native Chinese specially take the long journey to buy luxuries.

They believe the products are above the price in value even including airfare, despite the fact that most of the givers or receivers don’t really know the true value of the presents. The present-giving courtesy demands equivalent exchanges. So to save face, the receivers take the presents, and then give something back of the same value. It seems to have become a social obligation as well as pressure to some people who are not able to afford playing the game long term. They get economically and mentally exhausted by giving and receiving luxury presents.

As part of a distinctive culture, the Chinese desire to save face is blameless, and buying luxuries is a big part of it. But meanwhile, it’s crucial to make clear when to put face on the list and how much we should pay for it.

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