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Facing the New Year
By Yao Minji

Jerry Lu, a financial consultant at an investment company, has been pulling all-nighters to get every bit of work done before he can go home and embrace the seven-day Spring Festival holiday.

Now, exhausted, Lu just wants to go home to Yancheng City in Jiangsu Province and relax with his parents whom he hasn't visited since the last Chinese Lunar New Year. Lu, like most people working away from home, misses his mother's home cooking and chats with his father.

His parents tell all their friends that the 26-year-old is "the perfect son." Lu had planned to travel with an acquaintance who drives home to a nearby Jiangsu village, and then take the bus from there to see his parents.

His parents vetoed the plan.

"They told me that I would have to drive home with my new car," Lu tells Shanghai Daily. "I bought a car last year and they told everyone I would drive home, so I just have to, otherwise my parents will lose face. And that's the last thing you want to do - to have your parents lose face."

So, instead of going in a friend's car, Lu will have to drive home himself. It is usually a five-hour drive, but he expects at least eight hours since everyone is going home for the holiday.

"An eight-hour drive is horrible, but compared with having my parents lose face, it's still better. After all, don't people say, 'Fight for face until death and suffer while you're alive?' That perfectly describes my situation now," Lu says with a bitter smile, but he soon gets concerned talking to a reporter.

It's all common sense

"Are you going to make me or my parents look stupid in your article? Actually, what's so interesting about this 'face' question anyhow? It's all so common sense. I don't even know what to tell you about it," he adds.

All 12 people interviewed for this article about mian zi 面子 (face, image, reputation) were a bit suspicious and confused that Shanghai Daily was even asking about face and looking for examples.

"It's something that's completely blended into everyday life and so common that it's not even noticeable," says 24-year-old Kathy Yu, a Shanghai native studying for her master's degree in Michigan in the United States.

"You ask me about saving face and I can't even think of an answer. It's like picking out salt from every single dish you eat," she says in a Skype interview. "I'm doing it every second so I can't pick it out."

Cultural anthropologists call East Asian, as well as Middle Eastern and South Asian cultures shame-based or shame-honor societies that place great value on reputation, status and how people are viewed by others.

Confucius once said in "The Analects" that "Lead the people with administrative injunctions and put them in their place with penal law, and they will avoid punishments but will be without a sense of shame. Lead them with excellence and put them in their place through roles and ritual practices, and in addition to developing a sense of shame, they will order themselves harmoniously."

As Kathy Yu says, shame is an extricable part of everyday life for Chinese, Japanese, Korean and other East Asians with long Confucian culture, though it may be expressed in different ways.

In Japan, bosses deliberately criticize employees in public to shame them and motivate them to perform better. In China, it is the opposite. You must never make others feel ashamed because face, or mian zi, is important.

The Chinese language is filled with common phrases about face.

Chinese say lose face, diu lian 丢脸, meaning shame, and grow face, zhang lian 张脸, for honor. A shameless person is described as someone who doesn't want face (bu yao lian 不要脸), or who has a very thick face (lian pi hou 脸皮厚). Having no face to be seen, mei lian jian ren 没脸见人, describes extreme humiliation or mortification. And to give someone face, gei mian zi 给面子, or to save some face, liu mian zi 留面子, are considered smart and mature socializing devices.

Chinese also say a tree lives for the skin or bark and a person for the face (ren huo yi zhang lian, shu huo yi zhang pi 人活一张脸,树活一张皮), to emphasize its importance. In ancient times, people committed suicide when they lost face or brought dishonor on themselves and their family. There were countless ways to lose face, as when a man was demoted from his position and a woman divorced.

Today, of course, not many people kill themselves over honor, but to many people, losing face is still a terrible situation.

There's no clear definition of face, how to give it or save it for someone, or for oneself.

But many customs are based on face and they are very evident at this time of year, when there are many banquets, gifts are exchanged, red envelopes of cash are handed out and families go home for reunions.

In January, volunteers started a project in Beijing called Guang Pan Xing Dong 光盘行动, literally meaning "Clean the Plate Project," asking people not to over-order and waste food that they don't eat.

They refer to dining out with friends, family and colleagues, and at this time of year, there are banquets all over China. Hosts must be as generous as possible, and over-ordering and ordering expensive dishes are part of their efforts to gain or maintain face.

Volunteers hand out pamphlets at gas stations and ask restaurant owners to post notices, reminding people to order sensibly.

After the project was promoted online, Internet users spread the word and the message was retweeted thousands of times within days.

But many people say that reducing waste is difficult or impossible because a lavish and over-abundant banquet shows that host can afford it and that he or she is generous and gracious. Throwing a big banquet is a way to gain face.

If all dishes are finished, it traditionally means the host hasn't ordered enough food and that is very impolite. He or she loses face.

Another Spring Festival custom is the hong bao 红包, or the red envelope with money that is traditionally given to children. It is important to always give the same amount, or more.

Mike Li, 25, just got married and his parents spent all their savings paying for his wedding and half of the down payment on his apartment. Both are retiring this year, which means their income will drop.

Li has 12 cousins from the two families and eight of them have children, which means a lot of money to be given out. Now that Li is married with a home, he should also give the children red envelopes. After spending all his savings on the other half of the mortgage down payment and making monthly payments, Li doesn't have enough to spare. But his mother has saved money for so he won't lose face.

"She's been cutting her own budget in order to give me the money I'm supposed to give to my nephews and nieces. It will just look very bad if I don't give out red envelopes," Li says.

Like Li, many people inherit the concepts of gift giving and face saving from their parents.

Thirty-one-year-old businessman Francis Wang sometimes receives expensive foreign cigarettes from his friends who are studying or working overseas. He usually only smokes one and keeps the rest to hand out to important customers, thereby gaining face.

"You can't really ask me to explain it. My dad used to do it, you know, to have cheap cigarettes for himself and expensive ones to hand out to friends. He never told me to do the same, but I just picked it up," Wang explains. "I can't really say whether it's for my face. But it helps, you know, to have the customers think I really have face."

In Chinese, to really have face, or hen you mian zi 很有面子, often is equivalent to being well-connected, and good connections are important to doing business in China.

For Wang, the weeks before the Spring Festival are among the busiest times of the year. He needs to ensure gifts are send to customers and business partners, and it's also time to collect debts.

"My friends who are not in business often don't understand why I have debts from couple of years ago and I can't collect them. They don't understand how tricky it is and how careful you have to be when you collect debt. To them, it's simple: people must pay their debts," Wang says.

"But it's very complicated. You have to care about their face. You can't just go straight to them and say, 'You signed the contract saying you would pay me now, so pay.' That's called si po lian pi 撕破脸皮 (tearing up face) and that's bad for business. Once the face is torn up, they'll just say they can't pay and you can go to court. But it takes forever in court."

Instead, Wang visits them, takes gifts, and shares his difficulties with them to make them feel that paying the debt is doing him a favor.

Tearing up face is the worst thing possible for many Chinese, and not only in business.

To avoid tearing up the face, it is important not to criticize or even to disagree with someone in public, especially not with a superior. Many women are advised, often by their mothers, never to challenge a boyfriend or husband in public, to give him face, no matter how much they want to criticize them in private.

Unlike Jerry Lu who is determined to take the exhausting drive home in his new car, master's degree candidate Kathy Yu in the US never intended to come home, even though she had time for a visit and could afford tickets.

Though winter break ends before the Spring Festival, many overseas Chinese students returned to celebrate it early. Yu decided against returning as soon as she heard her presence was especially necessary to help her father save face at work.

He fears he will not be able to retire with face and proper benefits since he recently challenged his new boss in public, something he never should have done. The new boss, much younger than Yu's father, was appointed over Yu after the older one retired. The young man wanted her father to modify a project, but Yu's father insisted, in the presence of others, that it had already been approved.

"My dad and mom will probably ask me to visit and socialize with people at work, because they can't lose face by doing it themselves - to beg people who used to work under them. They think I'll be fine because I'm much younger," Yu says. "But I don't want to do it either, wasting my rest time 'begging' people just to save face for my dad."

Yu's father works in management for a state-owned company and will retire in two months, before his birthday. It is a tradition for managers in state-owned companies or high-ranking civil servants to be hired back as consultants, to show that they are indispensable, even in retirement. It's a matter of face for the retiree.

Her father has heard that he might only get a consultant's post at an affiliated company, not at headquarters. That would be a loss of face, indicating he wasn't good enough to be hired back where the important decisions are made. It would show he wasn't well connected and that too is a loss of face.

Expensive gifts

"Relatives and friends will gossip about it, trying to guess why he wasn't hired back to headquarters," Yu says. "Mom will lose face in her family and dad will lose face among his old pals. I understand all their worries, but I just can't convince myself to do it. I'm not very good at it either."

Another major reason for not going home is that she doesn't want to spend days shopping for other people and return with two huge suitcases of expensive presents they could easily have bought in China. A daughter returning from overseas laden with presents gives face to her family, and herself, since it appears that she is doing well financially.

"I'm not sure if it's a face thing, or if it's special to Chinese people, but they make me feel that I must get presents for everyone since I'm returning from so far away," Yu says.

Her mother actually pays for all the gifts but tells everyone that her daughter Yu pays with earnings from a well-paying part-time job. "But I'm a student and I'm barely making money to support myself. My parents are still paying my tuition," Yu says.

Recent graduate Mike Sun is in similar situation. He has been looking for a job since he returned to Shanghai last year after obtaining a master's degree in the UK. Returning overseas students used to be golden when it came to hiring, but they are no longer as popular and easily hired, unless they graduate with honors from the best universities. Sun went to an ordinary school and got adequate grades. He has had trouble finding a job "that can give me and my family face."

He wanted to lower his salary requirements to the going rate, but his parents and girlfriend oppose taking less.

"My mom is willing to pay me pocket money every month, while I live at home, rather than having me work at some position they are not satisfied with," Sun says. It's a matter of face.

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