The Concept of Face in Chinese Culture and the Difference Between Mianzi and Lian

lianmianzipicLu Xun, one of China’s most influential writers of the 20th century, once described “face” as the “guiding principle of the Chinese mind” (中國精神的綱領). “Face” (面子), he remarked, is “a word we [Chinese] hear often and understand intuitively, so we don’t think too much about it.” But Westerners seemed to struggle to grasp it. “Recently foreigners have begun using this word, too,” Lu Xun wrote, “but apparently they’re still studying its meaning. They think that it is not easy to understand.” Lu Xun gave one interesting example of “face”:

People say that during the Qing Dynasty foreigners would go to the Zongli Yamen [the Foreign Ministry of imperial China] when they wanted to put forward requests. If their demands were rejected, they would threaten Qing officials, who would then get scared and comply at once. Yet they would let the foreigners go out through a side door and not through the main door, so as to show that the foreigners had no face [面子], while, by contrast, China had face and was in a higher position (see: 魯迅: 說“面子”).

Since Lu Xun’s anecdote may seem quite outdated nowadays, let us look at two modern examples of the use of “face”. A netizen asked on Zhidao Baidu (a website similar to Yahoo! Answers):

Is it bad if my boss treats [us/me] to a meal and I don’t go?


A user replied:

If you don’t go it means you don’t give face to your boss … Nowadays face is the most important thing for a boss. If you don’t go, forget about making a career in that company … Let me give you a piece of advice: you’d better go! Relationships are very important, if you don’t cultivate them, you won’t achieve anything. That’s how society works these days …

你不去就是不给你老板的面子。。。 现在老板最重视的就是面子。你要是不去,以后你就别想在那个公司做了。。。。还是奉劝你一句:你还是去吧!!人际关系要紧啊没人际关系什么都做不了的现在就是这样的社会。。。。

The second example is from Taiwan‘s PTT. A user wrote:

If my company gives a dinner party or the manager invites us to have dinner on a Friday after working hours, is everyone supposed to go even if they have to attend classes? Personally, I would choose to skip class and go to the dinner because:

1. I want to fit in, I don’t want to be different from others

2. I want to give the manager face

3. I can seize the opportunity to socialize with my colleagues …

Basically nowadays when a company invites its employees to dinner, everyone will obey and go (even if they don’t want to go, they have to)

假設公司請吃飯 或者 主管請吃飯

1.要合群 不要跟別人不一樣
3.順便跟同事交流一下 …

基本上現在公司說要吃飯都會乖乖的配合 (不想去也必須去)

The above examples show that “face” is a very important concept in Chinese culture, and one which probably everyone who has lived in the Chinese-speaking world has sooner or later encountered. Yet ever since Lu Xun’s time, Westerners have struggled to understand this concept, whose “subtle intricacies” seem to confound even seasoned expats. In the present article we shall explore the meaning of “face”, the difference between lian and mianzi, and examine some examples of how these terms are used.

The Meaning of Face

“Face” is a sociological term that describes a phenomenon which exists not only in China, but in every human society. We should therefore first understand the general idea of “face” before we analyse the characteristics that make “face” in China unique.

“Face” is a fundamental part of human interaction. It is the way we present ourselves to others, it determines how we are judged and how we want to be perceived by others (see: P. Christopher Earley: Face, Harmony, and Social Structure: An Analysis of Organizational Behavior across Cultures, 1997, p.42).

In his seminal work, Interaction Ritual – Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior (1967), Erving Goffman defines “face” 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 1967, p. 5).

We can see that “face” has an internal component (self or ego) and an external component (society). The first term refers to a person’s self-evaluation in relation to others; the latter refers to the moral standards, social hierarchy and rules of conduct in a given social setting.

According to Christopher Earley, “face” is

the evaluation of self based on internal and external (to the individual) judgments concerning a person’s adherence to moral rules of conduct and position within a given social structure (Earley 1997, p. 43).

Another definition of face is given by David Yau-fai Ho:

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; the face extended to a person by others is a function of the degree of congruence between judgments of his total condition in life, including his actions as well as those of people closely associated with him, and the social expectations the others have placed upon him (David Yau-fai Ho: On the Concept of Face. In: American Journal of Sociology, Volume 81, Number 4, Jan. 1976, p. 883).

The three aforementioned definitions show that “face” refers to the position, prestige, image of an individual in a society. “Face” can be gained, lost and augmented.

In order to illustrate how the concept of “face” works in human interaction, we shall now examine an excerpt from the short-story Lost Face by Jack London.

Subienkow lay down in the snow, resting his head on the log like a tired child about to sleep. He had lived so many dreary years that he was indeed tired.

“I laugh at you and your strength, O Makamuk,” he said. “Strike, and strike hard.”

He lifted his hand. Makamuk swung the axe, a broadaxe for the squaring of logs. The bright steel flashed through the frosty air, poised for a perceptible instant above Makamuk’s head, then descended upon Subienkow’s bare neck. Clear through flesh and bone it cut its way, biting deeply into the log beneath. The amazed savages saw the head bounce a yard away from the blood-spouting trunk.

There was a great bewilderment and silence, while slowly it began to dawn in their minds that there had been no medicine. The fur-thief had outwitted them. Alone, of all their prisoners, he had escaped the torture. That had been the stake for which he played. A great roar of laughter went up. Makamuk bowed his head in shame. The fur-thief had fooled him. He had lost face before all his people. Still they continued to roar out their laughter. Makamuk turned, and with bowed head stalked away. He knew that thenceforth he would be no longer known as Makamuk. He would be Lost Face; the record of his shame would be with him until he died; and whenever the tribes gathered in the spring for the salmon, or in the summer for the trading, the story would pass back and forth across the camp-fires of how the fur-thief died peaceably, at a single stroke, by the hand of Lost Face.

“Who was Lost Face?” he could hear, in anticipation, some insolent young buck demand, “Oh, Lost Face,” would be the answer, “he who once was Makamuk in the days before he cut off the fur-thief’s head.” (Jack London: Lost Face, 1919, p. 29, my emphasis).

Makamuk, the chief of an Indian tribe, lost “face” because he was hoodwinked by Subienkow. His “face”, in this social context, was the prestige and status of a leader who was supposed to protect the community. As soon as he realized that he had been fooled, Makamuk knew that he had lost his reputation among his people.

The Chinese Concept of Face and the Difference between Lian and Mianzi

While “face” exists in many cultures all over the world, in China this concept has its own specific characteristics. “Face” in China is more pervasive and more nuanced than in other societies. The reason is that Chinese society values hierarchy, social roles and interpersonal relationships to a high degree. Therefore, “face” plays a key role in more social contexts than in other cultures. As Hsien Chin Hu put it, “while the desire for prestige exists in every human society, the value placed upon it and the means for attaining it vary considerably” (Hsien Chin Hu: The Chinese Concepts of “Face”. In: American Anthropologist New Series, Vol. 46, No. 1, Part 1, Jan. – Mar. 1944, p. 45).

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“Face”, as Lin Yutang explained in his work My Country and My People is “psychological and not physiological”,  it “can be ‘granted’ and ‘lost’ and ‘fought for’ and ‘presented as a gift.’ … Abstract and intangible, it is yet the most delicate standard by which Chinese social intercourse is regulated” (Lin Yutang: My Country and my People, 1935, p. 190).

However, the first difficulty in defining the Chinese concept of “face” is that the Chinese language uses two different words: lian (臉/脸) and mianzi (面子). Each of them has a distinct, though somewhat overlapping connotation. According to Hsien Chin Hu, mian(zi) is the older word, dating back to ancient literature. Lian, on the other hand, is a more recent word whose earliest reference can be found during the Yuan Dynasty (1277-1367) (Hu 1944, p. 45).

Broadly speaking, lian means “sense of shame in relation to social standards of morality and behaviour”, while mianzi means “status, prestige, social position”.  A person may have mianzi and yet have no lian. For example, a corrupt official who disregards social and moral standards has no lian; however, if he has status and prestige, he has mianzi, despite having achieved his success by immoral means. We shall now examine the two terms separately.


If a son steals his father’s money, he “has no lian“, that is, he has no sense of morality. Given the importance of filial piety in Chinese culture, disrespecting one’s parents is definitely a behaviour that will be criticized by society. A son that doesn’t comply with the social norms regarding filial piety has no lian because he doesn’t understand or doesn’t accept what society views as right. Christopher Earley defines lian

as a product of one’s behavior as compared with a set of rules for moral conduct … a resultant of a person’s ‘correct’ behavior (and values/beliefs/norms underlying those behaviors) … Lian reflects the legitimacy that an individual has within a given society (P. Christopher Earley: Understanding Social Motivation from an Interpersonal Perspective: Organizational Face Theory. In: Work Motivation in the Context of a Globalizing Economy, ed. Miriam Erez, Uwe Kleinbeck, and Henk Thierry, 2001, p. 371).

According to Hsien Chin Hu, a person who has lian will fulfill his or her social obligations and will be recognized by society as having moral integrity. The loss of lian, on the other hand, occurs when a person acts in a way that undermines the trust of society in his or her moral integrity. Therefore, an individual who has no lian cannot “function properly within the community” (see Hu 1944, p. 45).

The source of lian lies both in the individual and in society. It is based on a system of values that is shaped by the “personal, social, and cultural experiences of an individual” (Earley 1997, p. 84). On the one hand, individuals acquire values that already exist in society. On the other hand, every person may accept, reject or modify these values, as well as create his or her own. When we look at lian in Chinese culture,  however, I shall argue that the primary role of society in determining what is moral and what is immoral must be emphasized, although every individual case may be different.

The preeminence of social standards in China derives from Confucian ethical traditions, which emphasized the subordination of the individual to the family system and other networks of relationships. According to Confucius and his disciples, benevolence (仁, ren) is humanity’s highest moral value. Benevolence is chiefly expressed in human relationships, the most basic and important of which are family relationships.

Filial piety is the most basic and natural manifestation of innate human benevolence. In the worldview of Confucian thinkers, life revolved around “five constant relationships” (五倫): emperor-subject, father-son, husband-wife, elder-younger, friendships. The family was regarded as the nucleus of society, from which virtue, social and political order emanated (see: Joseph Chan: Territorial Boundaries and Confucianism. In: Confucian Political Ethics, ed. Daniel A. Bell, 2008, p. 64). Given the importance of society in Chinese thinking, it is only too natural that social values exert a deep influence on the individual.


Mianzi is a term that can be broadly translated as status, prestige and social position. While lian refers to an individual’s morality, mianzi describes a person’s status in society regardless of whether he or she accepts common ethical norms. Mianzi thus functions like “a social exchange currency” which can be gained, lost and given. Mianzi depends on the social context in which a person lives and can be regarded as “an embedded aspect of an individual’s relations within a social system” (Earley 1997, p.67).

Mianzi is the measure of one’s position, prestige and leverage in society, 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” (Hu 1944, p. 61).

Because mianzi does not primarily derive from ethical norms, it is regarded by society with a degree of skepticism, because it refers both to “well-earned popularity” and to an implicit “desire for self-aggrandizement” and “self-maximation” through personal exertion (ibid.). Hu points out that “to have no lian” is a serious insult that casts doubt on an individual’s moral character, while “to have no mianzi” simply signifies the failure of a person “to achieve a reputation through success in life” (ibid.).

The following sentence well illustrates the difference between mianzi and lian:

Only people who don’t care about lian will be successful


This somewhat cynical statement shows that having lian and having mianzi is not the same thing. One can achieve status, prestige and leverage by disregarding moral standards. One can gain mianzi and at the same time have no lian.

Nevertheless, mianzi and lian are to a certain degree interdependent and overlapping. If one loses too much lian, one will probably lose mianzi as a long-term result, because no one will trust a person who has no moral standards. The case of Li Zhen shows the complex interrelation of mianzi and lian.

Li Zhen was a secretary of Cheng Weigao, a Hebei Communist Party official who in 2003 was accused “of misusing his influence to enable his wife and children to engage in illegal activities, of accepting valuable gifts as inducements and of conspiring with his two secretaries to engage in criminal activities [and] of seeking vengeance against the colleagues who reported his corruption.” Li Zhen – one of Cheng’s two secretaries – was found guilty of “corruption, accepting bribes and other crimes” and was sentenced to death.

While he was awaiting execution, Li Zhen was interviewed by journalist Qiao Yunhua. Li disclosed, whether consciously or not, interesting aspects of the way of thinking of corrupt officials in China. Li argued that what had motivated him to commit crimes was his obsession with vanity and mianzi. “All officialdom,” Li stated, “is fond of face … ; it’s not just me. Who hasn’t suffered for the sake of face…?” (Qiao Yunhua: At the Gates of Hell, 2004, p. 84. Quoted in: John Osburg: Anxious Wealth: Money and Morality among China’s New Rich, 2013, p. 94).

Li explained how his position as a party official allowed him to gain leverage and status, and ultimately to increase his mianzi:

When I started, I exchanged the mianzi of my position as secretary, after that it was my personal … mianzi, and then it was just the mianzi of my name, Li Zhen. When I reached that stage, a phone call, a meal, a note, a name card, even mentioning my name had an effect. Basically I no longer needed to put forth anything else … (ibid.).

At that point Li Zhen had accumulated so much mianzi that he no longer had to ask for favours. People actively looked for him and gave him money or gifts or invited him to meals. This shows that one can have mianzi without abiding by common moral standards. Yet Li Zhen walked a fine line. His desire for wealth and power was selfish and could have had a negative impact on his reputation. Therefore, even mianzi-related corruption was often disguised with the language of politeness, or friendship, or favour, because the pretense of morality had to be maintained even in a corrupt environment.

Let us now return to the meaning of Lu Xun’s anecdote about mianzi. The fact that Qing officials let foreigners exit through side doors was meant to give mianzi to the Chinese, thus reaffirming that Beijing did not acknowledge Western superiority. Such symbolic act obviously had nothing to do with real power. Qing officials knew that Western states were stronger. Mianzi does not just represent power, but social recognition of status, prestige and influence.

After having explained the concepts of lian and mianzi, let us now look at a few examples.

Usage of Lian and Mianzi

A) Love and mianzi

In Chinese society every individual has certain duties and obligations that depend on his or her social roles (husband, wife, son, daughter, boss, employee, etc). Everyone has several social roles at the same time (one can be a husband, a son, a boss, a customer etc.) therefore one has different mianzis according to each specific social role and situation (one may have much mianzi with one’s employees, but less mianzi with one’s boss etc.).

Mianzi mirrors one’s social roles and how well one fulfills them. One example is the relationship between boyfriend and girlfriend. In Chinese culture, a man is supposed to be superior to a woman in terms of social status, financial status and education. Therefore, it is a great embarrassment for many men if their girlfriend earns more or is better-educated than them. The following example from a forum discussion demonstrates the relation between mianzi and love relationships.

My girlfriend earns more than me and I feel inferior to her … On the one hand I’m happy because even if I didn’t work, there would be someone who could provide for me. On the other hand, I feel inferior, especially whenever we go out to eat and she wants to pay the bill.

女友薪水比我高,感觉很自卑 … 内心开心,开心的是就算我不干活也有人能养活我。同时我也很自卑,特别是上街吃饭她抢着付钱的时候。

Mianzi is important because it is the invisible social value of every individual. We have to note that in the West, too, social roles exist and thus social status is different, yet not to the same extent as in China. Interestingly, the question of whether a relationship can work if a woman earns more than a man is also discussed in the West. The difference between China and the West is that, in the latter, social status and male superiority are hotly debated topics. To put it simply, there is no consensus on this issue, but diverging discourses. Social roles in China, including love relationships, have always tended to be more rigid, monolithic and pervasive than in Western societies.

B) “To Give Mianzi

Although people often claim that Chinese society values harmony, the reality is often quite different. Due to the importance attached to propriety and “face”, people might argue over matters which in other cultures would appear trivial. The following passage from a newspaper article about a friendship that ended because someone didn’t give mianzi to one of his best friends demonstrates this point. The story was published in the popular Taiwanese tabloid Apple Daily.

After he [an acquaintance of the author of the article] had just graduated from university, his best friend decided to get married and asked him to host the wedding banquet. Since he was the host, when he received the wedding invitation he did not prepare any gift money (禮金). Little did he know that his friend would get angry and refuse to answer his phone calls.

He was very distressed and told his friend that there had been a misunderstanding. He explained that he didn’t have much money, since he had just finished university; besides, he had bought a new suit and had hosted the wedding banquet. But his friend wouldn’t accept his apologies, arguing that by not giving him gift money he had not given him mianzi; he had even provided him with the opportunity to redress his mistake, but he still had not given him any gift. Since he had not done that, there was no reason why they should be friends any more.  


This story shows how sensitive people are about mianzi, and that interpersonal relationships can be severely damaged by not following what society regards as “proper behaviour”. Even when it comes to friendship mianzi is a measure of closeness, of status, which is regulated by “propriety”. While some may argue that such incidents are the exception and one cannot generalize, the author of the article herself notes that weddings are a big test for interpersonal relationships (社交關係大考驗), listing off various sources of potential conflicts between family members as well as friends.

C) “Don’t want lian

The following story, also from Apple Daily, illustrates the meaning of the expression “don’t want lian” (不要臉), which is used when one accuses somebody of not caring about “what society thinks of his character” (Hu 1944, p. 51). Bu yao lian can thus simply be translated as “shameless”:

Yesterday a netizen took a video [that] shows a man arguing with a woman and her husband. The man told the couple that they shouldn’t tread on the grass of the park. “You don’t want lian” – he said angrily … “Do you tread on the grass of your own garden?” The woman shouted back at him: “No, it’s you who have no lian!” …

有網友昨天 … 拍下…影片 … 影片中的男子糾正婦人及其丈夫不該踩進花圃,怒罵「不要臉」…「你家花圃可以踩的呀?」婦人也回罵「你才不要臉」… 

D)  “To lose lian

“To lose lian” is a “condemnation by the group for immoral or socially disagreeable behavior” (Hu 1944, p. 46). An infraction of the moral code of society may cause severe criticism and tarnish a person’s, or, even worse, a family’s reputation. In the worst cases, to lose lian can refer to criminal acts such as theft or fraud. However, it can also describe a behaviour which non-Chinese cultures might not consider shameful or unlawful. Let us look at the following example from the magazine Tianxia:

When Chinese people talk about “life’s greatest event” they usually mean marriage. The traditional belief that when boys and girls reach marriageable age they should marry and have children, is deep-rooted in China … The opinion that “you feel that you have lost lian if your children don’t get married” is even stronger in China than in Japan. Parents of unmarried children will often be asked by relatives and friends: “When will your children get married?” Parents worry so much about “face” that they not only exert excessive pressure on their children, but even actively seek a marriage partner for them.

中國人説「人生大事」一般是指結婚。男女到了適婚年齡就應該結婚生子的傳統觀念在中國根深蒂固 … 「因為子女未婚而感到丟臉」的想法在中國比日本還嚴重。如果子女未婚,父母就容易被親戚和周圍的人們好奇地問:「(孩子)什麼時候結婚?」為了自己的臉面加上對晚年的擔憂,父母不但給子女施加過度的壓力,甚至還親自出動替子女找對象. 

The reason why parents are so concerned with their children’s marriage and see it as a matter both of lian and of mianzi, is that in traditional Confucian thought children have the moral obligation to marry and have children. It is a matter of prestige and social standing for parents to have grandchildren who can perpetuate the family. Not fulfilling this duty is unfilial and therefore a disruption of social order.

If you want to support our website, you might be interested in taking a look at our translations of Chinese literature on Amazon. Currently available is ‘Craven A and other Stories’ by Mu Shiying. Thank you for your support!


4 thoughts on “The Concept of Face in Chinese Culture and the Difference Between Mianzi and Lian

  1. In Italy once there was Delitto d’onore, when a husband could kill his treacherous wife with much lesser punishment (and he lessened his loss in mianzi, and did something his lian told him to do)
    Fortunately it is not so anymore, even if something remains in mentality.
    We have many social constraints (lian), and social rewards (mianzi), but this is less and less so.
    Interesting is when this system conflicts with other great principles: does a monk feel these constraints?


    • Thanks for your comment. Interesting observation. Would you then say that the Chinese concepts of mianzi and lian can be found in exactly the same form in Western societies?


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