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About Face
by Valerie Sartor
2012-07-25 09:30:57
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For people in most cultures, one’s face is an extremely important part of the body. Humans use their face to interact with others; they turn their faces away to avoid contact. Some cultures even hide the female face to protect their women from strangers. Regarding Chinese and English, the word ‘face’ has some key similarities, but also some significant differences. Anyone living in China or visiting China might want to understand some concepts of Chinese face in order to interact effectively and kindly with Chinese people.

First off, the English word ‘face’ translates into two characters in Chinese: lian () and mian (). Like many Chinese characters, the two symbols represent abstract concepts. Understanding these characters can help foreign guests to grasp how Chinese view ‘face,’ which in turn helps explain why Chinese people behave the way they do.

As in English, ‘face’ in Chinese highlights the way a person looks and appears to others. In Chinese, you can recognize a newcomer as a ‘new face’ and a regular, known member as an ‘old face.’ Like people, a building or place can take on a ‘new face’: 面目一新;mian mu yi xin. A product or idea can also ‘switch faces’: 头换;gai tou huan mian –in English what we call filling old wine into new bottles.  These types of ‘face’ refer to physical, superficial appearances, rather than the essence of ‘face,’ which refers to dignity, power, and position.

In Chinese, the word ‘face’ can also indicate character and emotion to a higher degree than the way this word is used in English. For example, in Chinese one’s face reveals the heart (); mian ru qi xin --面如其心-his face reveals his heart. A person’s face can be happy: lian dui xiao rong; 堆笑容; full of smiles, or angry, lian hong er chi; 脸红耳赤; red in face and ears. As in English, a person’s state on mind is revealed via the face. In Chinese, a hot face, 脸热; lian re, signifies shame; a serious face, however, hardens into metal: ; ban lian. Unlike English, the Chinese language can be used to describe people using face in highly metaphorical ways. Someone with a leather face, ; pi lian, is considered naughty, while someone with a soft face, mian lian, is thought to be shy. Moreover, when face combines with another important body part, the heart ((; xin), Chinese face can become poetic indeed: lian ruan xin shan; 脸软心善- “soft face, kind heart.” In contrast, mian shan xin zha --面善心 “kind face, deceitful heart.”Clearly, the link between heart and face is close.

 In Chinese, the relationship between face and social networking is also close. To meet someone is literally to see a face: ;jian mian, or 会面;hui mian. Thus, the face represents a crucial sign of interpersonal relationships. For example, if a Chinese changes his face, 变脸;bian lian, or doesn’t recognize a face, ;fan lian bu ren ren, this indicates hostility.

To maintain good social relationships in China, people must keep their face and other people’s faces in good order. Bad relationships reflect on the face; for example quarrelling is called scratching the face, 抓破; zhua po lian. Likewise, insincere relationships mean showing a harmonious face and an inharmonious heart, 面和心不和; mian he xin bu he.

Adept Chinese seek to save their own and their friends’ faces; 要面子; yao mianzi, Face (;mian) can also signify direction: ; mian dui means to be faced with something, as in the sentence, women bixu mian dui xian shi – We must face reality. The character lian () often relates face to relationships with others, in terms of dignity and power. One must never lose face: diu lian; . In fact, those who lose their face in China are either shameless or desperate. People with much prestige and fame in China have head (tou; ) plus face: you tou you lian: ; he has head and face.

In China, face can be given, granted, cultivated or lost. We know that English has face idioms mirroring Chinese expressions; a new face, pull a long face, put on a good face. English also has a link between face and emotion; red faced with shame. But Chinese is richer using facial metaphors. For example, in Chinese, you can fling your face, rip your face, or protect your face. This richness derives from the fact that the Chinese are the originators of the concept of social face. A Chinese proverb tells it all: ren yao lian shu yao pi; ), 要皮 - a man needs face the way a tree needs bark. The Western concept of face somewhat addresses social discourse; especially regarding formal diplomatic terms and usage. Yet English lacks the depth and beauty of Chinese when describing ordinary interpersonal relationships with others. For this reason, studying Chinese can aid foreigners to become more diplomatic in their interactions with people of the same culture, or people from other cultures.  



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