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Social attitude’s effect on concept of face weakening

HUANG JINLAN | 2017-07-27
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)


Ancestor worship has been prevalent in China since ancient times. In the picture above, the members of the Tu ethnic group pay respect to their ancestors during Spring Festival.

Generally speaking, traditional societies are made up of communities of acquaintances. However, traditional societies in the West and China had different internal structures.
Traditional Western societies had communities tied by blood, geography and spiritual beliefs. Each of these factors bonded people together to varying degrees, but there was an overall tendency for communities to coalesce on the basis of shared faith.

By contrast, ancestor worship, the dominant form of spiritual belief in ancient China, was firmly based on lineage. This emphasis on kinship formed the core of social relations for centuries, separating the Chinese acquaintance society from the West.


Art of relationships
When social circles are built on the bondage of blood ties, people form a “differential mode of association,” or chaxugeju, as pioneering Chinese sociologist and anthropologist Fei Xiaotong put it. Ancestry explicitly defines the proximity or distance among people.

Different social organizations also lead to differentiated behavioral patterns. In a parallel organizational mode, universalism is the norm and individuals are treated on equal terms, whereas a differential mode of association upholds particularism, and individuals are not required to adhere to the same criteria.

A practical consequence of this difference in social networking is that the differential mode spawns a cultural mechanism characterized by face, or mianzi; social networking, or guanxi, and favor, or renqing.

In a hierarchical society, those on top of the social ladder are deemed to be given more respect, and the extra respect they gain through seniority in the family or society is the root of the Chinese concept of face.

In China, each individual can be said to be surrounded by a series of concentric circles produced by one’s own social influence. Each web of social relations has a self as its center. Each circle spreading out from the center becomes more distant and  insignificant.

Everyone’s circles are interrelated, and one touches different circles at different times and places. On different occasions, one’s own social network comes into contact with someone else’s. The contacts trigger a massive interaction of networks that is dubbed the “art of relationships.”

In addition, the difference of status and closeness of relationship create differential treatment, forming a centrifugal force to the society. Thus, while emphasizing such a differentiation, particularism calls for a day-to-day social cohesion mechanism.

In this light, reciprocity and mutual benefit became the essential and basic rules of social conduct. To a large extent, particularism and the concept of face, social networking and favor are interdependent and have a cause-and-effect relationship.

Traditional Chinese society lacks general trust, so people are constrained when dealing with strangers, and in certain situations, they would be required to expand their social circles. They would then make a temporary network on top of their regular contacts according to the requirements of a given event. It is such use of connections that would usually get things done and prevent crises.

However, it can carry a negative connotation—of favoritism and cronyism. The subtlety and complexity of China’s old school of social networking has thus evolved into the specialized study of the art of relationships or “a study of guanxi.”

The vast networks of personal connections in society have potential to be harmful. For one, it not only causes unfair distribution of social resources, it also provides the grounds for the abuse of public power and corruption. Therefore, though social connections have some positive influence in its initial state, its further development unavoidably brings a destructive impact on social order.


Face, favor in the past
In general, gaining face could be accomplished in three ways in traditional Chinese society. First, it comes with the innate identity or status. The second is through one’s hard work. Lastly, it could also be achieved in a deliberate and pretentious manner.

In terms of functionality, face gained through innate factors has limited influence on people’s behavior. On the contrary, face acquired through efforts has an effective guiding and stimulating effect. Given that a near impeccable personality, outstanding social achievements and fame can bring people decency, honor, and dignity, people are subconsciously motivated to work toward these things, thus showing the positive incentive function of face.

At the same time, traditional Chinese society values lineage, which makes people’s sense of family or clan honor extremely strong. For ancient Chinese, one’s achievements and fame not only represented personal improvement, but also that of the family, including the present members as well as the deceased ancestors and future generations, which reinforces the inspiring role of acquired face in shaping people’s behavior. Apart from positive incentives, face-keeping can also inhibit misconduct.

In the Chinese context, renqing, or favor, has two connotations. It means a common-sense feeling that meets basic human needs. It also refers to the attitudes of treating others and handling social affairs in the approach, such as “don’t do to others what you don’t want others to do to you.” It is often said that people should be reasonable and act out of common sense, and that is what common sense feeling comes from.

Second, favor refers to social cooperation and mutual benefit, which is usually carried out through reciprocation. Owing favors thus becomes a social concept that does not apply to human needs, nor to social conduct, but more to social exchange.

In sum, favors have two functions: one is to help each other and the other is to promote cooperation in society as a whole.


Tainted role of face, favor today
Today, face is mostly judged by materialistic criteria. This differs from traditional societies, in which face was granted based on a diversity of standards, such as ancestry, social status, personality, achievement and fame. In the past, wealth was only a part of a man’s achievements, and face gained through wealth would have to be balanced with moral consideration.

In traditional society, for wealth to confer face, it had to be obtained in a proper way. Wealthy men were expected to shoulder the moral obligation of giving back to society. That is to say, the more affluent people got, the more social responsibility they had to take, whether it is through charity or other ways to benefit the village.

In short, the wealth gained from society should be returned to society in other forms. Otherwise, the wealthy would be widely criticized for being rich but selfish. However, at present, the criteria for granting face are becoming increasingly materialistic, and wealth somewhat becomes the most important and even the only criteria to measure one’s face.

Also, in ancient times, people who did things solely for gaining face were despised. However, face-saving projects are a common form of public relations in today’s world, which not only applies to ordinary people’s daily lives, but also to public power sectors.

At the same time, a transformation of personal networks of influence into tools for enhancing social cooperation is underway, too. First, it has become a tool for collecting money. In many places, especially vast rural areas, people are forced to chip in under various circumstances.

Not to mention that favors are not mutual benefits any more. In many cases, it is a bribery to tip those in power rather than a reciprocation of giving and taking in basically the same amount of money.

In this sense, favors have accelerated social stratification on the grassroots level because those who choose not to engage in the cycle risk becoming marginalized and left out.


Social attitude matters less
To delve into the matter, one might find that social attitude no longer holds sways over people’s perception of face and relationships. In traditional society, social mobility was relatively low. Without special circumstances, it was common for a person to be born and die in the same place and never leave.

Under such a social structure, public opinion had a great impact on individual behavior. Given that an individual was a part of family or clan, his or her reputation would shadow a series of related personnel. The implication was profound. If one lost positive social comments, it would not only affect his ego, it would also come at the price of losing opportunities and resources for his family.

What’s more, social attitude surrounding a particular someone or something could easily produce a butterfly effect, so that the stakeholder could face a situation in which a collective praise or condemnation occurred. To say the least, public opinion was quite powerful in ancient times, and it could strong-arm people to take a careful look of their actions.

However, as of today, traditional social structure has gradually disintegrated and the degree of the strangeness of society deepens, so the importance of public opinion is at large reduced and it can hardly exert heavy pressure.

Though people still value face, the means of gaining face is no longer the same. In the old times, people sought to prudent behavior and hard work, but now people sometimes resort to pretentious means, even crimes, to make themselves look decent.

With the weakening role of public opinion, social morality becomes less important. Considering this factor, together with the declining moral component of face, the evaluation of mianzi will inevitably become materialistic. In this sense, renqing not only fails to bring cooperation and collaboration in society, it leads to deeper divisions and polarization, thus eventually becoming a booster for abuse of public power and corruption.


Huang Jinlan is an associate professor from the School of Law at Xiamen University.