But It’s Not My Fault – Family and Face in China

We’ve talked before about the Chinese concept of family, and how it looks at times to foreigners. Today I’d like to talk a little bit about fighting in Chinese families, which has broad implications throughout China’s hierarchical structures (family, work, government…).

For example this weekend I was traveling with my Chinese friend and his family. His parents insisted on taking a “short-cut” on the way home that would potentially save thirty minutes on an hour and a half trip. The only problem was that nobody knew exactly how to take the short-cut. My friend thought it would be much easier to take the route he already knew, but his parents insisted we use his GPS to find this way.

After countless u-turns and losing everyone that was supposed to be following us, we finally found the short-cut, which turned out to be a partially constructed freeway, and 3 hours later we arrived. My friend knew that his parents would be blaming him for getting them lost, even though it wasn’t his idea to try the new route.

We had a rough idea of what would be said. They would criticize him for not being able to follow the GPS’s directions (which were truly awful), that he didn’t wait for the other cars (even though they passed him), and that it caused everyone to waste a lot of time (which wouldn’t have happened if we’d taken the original route). In the parentheses you see all of the excuses I would have tried making with my parents if we were having this argument. I know though that my friend made none of these. Instead he hung his head in shame and accepted their criticism; after all he is a very good Chinese son.

And really this is his only option. To not accept the blame would imply that it was his parents fault.

This can be one of the hardest aspects of “face” to accept, you can give “face” to your parents/boss/gov’t official by taking the blame for their mistakes. The general rule is that anyone higher up than you is always right, even if that means your company is making the wrong decision, or your car is headed in the wrong direction.

Accepting blame when something isn’t your fault is very tough for me, and it probably is for most of you too. So if you are getting ready to work in China, be ready, there will be times when you’ll have to swallow your pride and accept the fact that you can either help your boss save face, or potentially ruin that relationship.

Just the other day one of my co-workers was telling me that she thought the hospital was spending too much money on saving face, then explained that the government was also far too concerned with this issue. So perhaps this concept is slowly starting to break down as China’s market opens up to more Western business ideas, but the concept is so deeply rooted in the culture that I expect foreigners to be making similar complaints 50 years from now.

35 responses to “But It’s Not My Fault – Family and Face in China”

  1. This is exactly the part about being Chinese for me that I can’t stand. Of course, the Chinese mind has always had this attitude or mental position, but at least in my generation and the generation that I grew up with, it was NOT THAT anal.

  2. Chopstik says:

    Certainly with the older generations (and even those now in their 30’s or older), I suspect this is far more prevalent. However, I wonder if the same is occurring with the younger “me-first” or “little emperor/empress” generation?

    Additionally, I suspect this is more of an Asian issue rather than limited just to China (it’s worse in Japan from what I understand).

    • Having lived and worked in Japan for three years, I can attest that ‘face’ is a helluva lot more important for the Japanese than for the Chinese. If I had to force a differentiation, I’d say face is more important for city dwellers than for country people there.

      • NiubiCowboy says:

        Naked Listener (or anyone else with experience in Japan), could you elaborate more on the differences between Chinese and Japanese notions of face? Are there differences in the way face is expressed in both cultures or are the differences primarily between what each culture views as important/not important in a potential face-saving situation?

      • @NiubiCowboy – Lots. Maybe too many. Would take a book to talk about what I personally have seen or heard, let alone stuff told to me. But just for your benefit, I would say simply that (in my own experience and I won’t vouch for the experience of others) that ‘face’ in the Chinese context is more directed to the self of the ‘most senior’ person around, whereas ‘face’ for the Japanese is much more utilitarian and for lubricating the social intercourse of people belonging to different generations who hate each others’ guts!

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  5. Wingnut says:

    The Chinese would lose a lot less face in these situations if they considered things in more detail in the first place.

    I would have thought that in a society that considers losing face to be such a bad thing, people would go the extra mile to make sure they were making sensible decisions to avoid the possibility of losing face as much as possible.

    I lived in Japan too and I definitely saw ‘honour’ as being widespread in the same way but I never saw the same ‘lost face’ scenarios. They seemed to get themselves into these kind of situations less frequently, maybe this is because it is more important to them, as mentioned.

    I never back down here or anywhere if I think I am in the right, I imagine it doesn’t make me too popular with my Chinese colleagues but personally I couldn’t care less, I think it’s one of the many charmless, immature characteristics that the Chinese should purge themselves of, the sooner the better.

    • Tom says:

      You would think it would lead to better planning. In the places I have worked, there is usually far more effort put into passing the blame than trying to avoid the mess in the first place. The old adage is true, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

      • Chopstik says:

        Placing blame rather than trying to prevent the problems in the first place is not something that is limited just to China. I’ve worked for more than a few Western companies that seem to operate under the same structure…

  6. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    As a Westerner, I believe that having the humility to admit my mistakes shows my emotional maturity. If I was one of these ghastly old ladies that blamed my son for MY mistakes, I would not be a nice person.
    Incidentally, Frank Dikotter has just won the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize 2011 for outstanding non fiction journalism. His new book “Mao’s Great Famine” uses information newly released from Chinese Provincial archives to estimate that 45 million people died in “The Great Leap Forward”. There’s an example of “Face” for you!
    By the way, last year’s winner of the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for outstanding non fiction journalism was Barbara Demick who wrote “Nothing to Envy – Real Lives in North Korea”. This is also an excellent book which Tom recommended recently.

  7. yaxue c. says:

    Last year, a friend of mine who is a professor of literature at the Beijing Normal University sent me an English translation of his paper, asking me to evaluate the quality of the translation. The School of Literature had commissioned a translation company to translate an anthology of their faculty’s papers to be distributed overseas to “spread their research accomplishment”, and now the translation was done and the school wanted to know what each contributer thought about the translation. My friend’s English is not up to the task, so he asked me to help.

    I read the first paragraph and couldn’t bring myself to continue. It is awakard Chiglish through and through, just excruciating to read. I told my friend that nobody would be able, or have the patience, to read such papers, and, instead of spreading their accomplishment, they would be subjected to ridicule, and that’s nobody else’s fault but their own. I asked my friend, “For crying out loud, how can you guys, a bunch of intellectuals, possibly pay someone a bundle of money to do this without going through an evaluation process beforehand?! Such a thing will never happen in America! (Well, maybe not absolutely but by and large).

  8. shirley says:

    This is not ture for me. I don’t afford the fault for my parents. But regard to leader, I’m not so sure then.

  9. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    My friend who has an MA in English from Beijing Foreign Languages University, speaks and writes very good English. She now has some kind of Government job connected to education (I do not really understand this job which often entails travelling about China with a bunch of colleagues, enjoying banquets and sightseeing). She recently sent me a piece of translation for a plaque to be placed in a Municipal museum dedicated to Education Technology. I imagine that the Chinese version of the plaque is very “propogandist” in tone as her English version was excruciating! I was shocked and like Yaxue, could not continue reading it. I simply could not make sense of this Chinglish flowery language. A British friend in Beijing had already suggested to her (In a face saving kind of way) that she tone down the language and use less words but she was not listening. He and I both cringed to think of this Chinglish plaque appearing in the museum. As my British friend said – No English speaker will bother to read it!

    • > A British friend in Beijing had already suggested to her (In a face saving kind of
      > way) that she tone down the language and use less words but she was not listening.

      Funnily enough, that kind of passive-aggressive not-gonna-listen behaviour is REALLY common from Chinese people (mainlanders and Hongkongers alike) when I advise them not to do something in English. The only difference is that one particular Chinese (not telling whether mainlander or Hongkonger) told me in all seriousness that (words to the effect) because they had spent more time learning English than native English sperkers do, their English logically must be better because of the effort! Go figure.

      • NiubiCowboy says:

        I had similar experiences to both of you with various friends, co-workers, and colleagues. I would be asked for assistance regarding a translation or what would constitute proper English usage in a certain situation, and more often than not the answer I provided would inevitably be challenged by the questioner.

        “Are you sure? In school we were told…”
        “Yes, I’m quite sure. In colloquial English you’d usually say…or you could also say…”
        “Hmm..well, at school we were told…so I will say this instead. Will people understand me?”
        “[Hesitantly] …yeah, they’d probably understand what you were TRYING to say, but–”
        “Okay, then I will just say what my teacher taught me.”

        I often wondered why someone would even bother asking for advice if they had no intention of accepting it.

      • @NiubiCowboy:
        I could’ve sworn you were at some of my meetings with that conversation! I’ve long learnt to spot these people before they start ‘acting up.’ I’ve also learn to become extremely snotty at these people when they bring it on. In my ‘spot and snot’ technique, my usual refrain (for educational purposes, of course): “Oh, you’d like my assistance, do you now? I would just like to state that whatever I could recommend would highly likely to be different from what you have been taught. Unless you have lived or grown up in an authentic English-speaking environment, I’m afraid it’s highly likely you would be confused as to what makes regular English usage. I don’t think it’s going to be worth your time letting me polish up your English. Would you want me to recommend someone else who’s more suitable for you?” Now you see how snotty I can get.

      • Tom says:

        I don’t know why, but I too seem to get pulled in on these kinds of projects. I’ve gotten to the point know where I just ask “who is reading this?” If it’s a Chinese audience than I will leave in their mile long list of adjectives that seems to be the hallmark of excellent writing in Chinese, otherwise I mercilessly remove the needlessly wordy bits.
        It’s an awful awful job at times, especially when somebody “knows” English.

    • > mile long list of adjectives that seems to be the hallmark of excellent writing

      Tom, I hadn’t thought of describing it like that, at least not so succinctly. May I borrow this phrase into my spot and snot repertoire? Please?

      • Tom says:

        I had a report to translate about a new section of the hospital, it was something like, ‘tranquil lakeside resplendent comfortable environment, modern advanced technologies and equipments, and convenient nearby comfortable transportation…’

        Awful stuff. Please stop this wherever you can.

      • You know, Tom, the funny thing I always notice with the Chinese when their writing in English is the almost complete lack of conjunctions like ‘with’ and ‘that,’ but too many ‘which’ and comma splices (i.e. run-in sentences) – to say nothing about their tendency to make one sentence do multiple linguistic/lexical jobs. It just drives me bonkers. Fortunately (for my sanity) I no longer work in publishing or as an editor. Fortunately (for them), I don’t practise law.

  10. […] 原文:But It's Not My Fault – Family and Face in China 译文:这不是我的错 —— 中国家庭和面子时间:2011年7月7日作者:“中国红”博主,Tom由译者志愿者翻译并校对 之前我们讨论了中国的家庭观和外国人有时如何看待它。今天我想要讨论一些中国家庭中的纠纷,它在中国社会阶级结构中(家庭,工作,政府。。。。。。)有着广泛的意义。 […]

  11. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    But we English speakers all learn English at school. It is one of our most important subjects.

    • That’s what I said to that Chinese person. Wouldn’t have it. Turned the tables on said person using the same reasoning, and still said person wouldn’t have it. After a while, the snottiness just became unbearable. Then I just took off on my motorbike and be done with it. Talk about face, whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean.

  12. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    The sort of person who blames their adult kids for their own mistakes!

  13. Yaxue C. says:

    A friend of mine, a scholar, once asked me to help him clarify the translation of a sentence from Adorno’s seminal paper “Cultural Industry Reconsidered” because the published translation just doesn’t make any sense. I told him it was incorrect and offered a new translation. He came back saying “Thank you for your help, but I think I am going to translate it as such and such.” And his version is still wrong! So insulted, I screamed at him, “What do you want from me anyway? Do you want a correct translation or just an opinion? If you have already decided what YOU want Adorno to say, why do you even bother asking me? And by the way, the next sentence is also wrong!” He was really shocked by my rage.

    At this point I realized that, fundamentally, he thought he was smarter and couldn’t be wrong, even though his English was inadequate to just read news. To teach him a lesson, I offered to correct the entire Adorno translation. Guess what? Just about every single sentence was wrong one way or the other. When he saw my translation and the notes I had made for every correction, he began to grasp what foolishness he had committed and how, with the new translation, a “difficult” paper all of sudden lit up in a smooth and clear flow. After that, only after that, he said he “服了”.

    By the way, while Chinese publishers publish an astonishing amount of translations every year, the quality is beyond poor and shabby. Once I was browsing in a bookstore in Beijing and, upon opening a translation that interested me, I detected errors upon errors just reading the translation without even looking at the source. A few years ago, I offered myself to a publisher to translate the Canadian writer Alice Munro except they had to pay me a rate that is worth my time. Naturally they would have to pay me much more than they normally to a translator living in China. To make this work for them, I helped them to apply for a grant from the Canadian government that provides assistance to foreign publishers who intend to translate Canadian authors and that would cover half of the payment to the translator. Guess what? I never heard from them again. My guess is, they got the grant and made a profit out of it after paying a translator cheap. The quality? Go figure. I feel so bad for Alice Munro–she is a great writer.

  14. gregorylent says:

    the west calls it “covering your ass” .. it’s everywhere .. don’t think about blame or no blame . see it as ego ..

    makes it much easier to deal with .. and see in my/your/self

  15. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    Yes, it takes emotional maturity to listen to another point of view and then admit your mistakes!

  16. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    Simple common sense is in short supply worldwide!

  17. John Book says:

    In my years as a missionary/English teacher in Japan and since I’m married to a Japanese national..I can tell you that, “face” is similar in Japan as it is in China. One big difference, it seems to my experience…and my wife’s, is that face in Japan is very closely connected to shame.
    You protect your boss or authority figure’s “face” to keep a good relationship. Because of shame, you must protect your whole family, friends, neighbors, company, etc…. shame lasts for generations. If your great grand father did something that cost “face”, people will hence-forth know you as the great grandson of the man who did so and so.

    It is common to make big lies to protect “face” and prevent shame…in the home with the wife or in the board room. It is more “moral” to tell the lie and save face than it is to tell a truth and lose “face”. It is a way of life in Japan…. losing “face” or being the cause of lost “face” is a hot item.. By all means, try to avoid it at any cost….unless you have an aversion to not telling the truth. If so, get accustomed to never getting promoted or being harassed on the job continually.
    Or figure your wife will never speak to you in a civil manner.

    Love it or leave it……

  18. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    I wonder if the higher incidence of suicide in China (and Japan? – not sure about the suicide rates there), compared with the Western individualistic societies, is due to the psychological pressure of “face”. I also wonder how under reported suicide is, also due to shame and “face”.

  19. […] gains a small amount of guanxi at a huge cost, but is held simply because it would be a complete loss of face not to. It is estimated that Chinese gov’t officials at all levels spend nearly […]

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