The culture of ‘Face’ in China or Miànzi

Miànzi – Giving, Losing and Saving face


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Miànzi – face

The English expression ‘to save face’ comes from the Chinese word for face Miànzi (pronounced mee-en-zuh). As part of our blog series about Sourcing from China, Jecky Guo and I have had a discussion about the meaning of Miànzi. Here we discuss its’ importance to ensuring productive relationships between Chinese colleagues, suppliers and friends. If we understand cultural difference between the West and the Far East, we are more likely to have better relationships and business outcomes.

My occasional exasperation when dealing with importing and sourcing from China, is with the Chinese inability to give a straight answer ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. For example, a sourcing related issue about compensation for a quality problem. This boils down to Miànzi – losing face. To avoid embarrassment for both parties (and this is important for understanding Miànzi) expressions such as ‘let me think about it’, ‘maybe’, a yes that sounds like a maybe, or a maybe that is probably a no. But you will probably not receive an outright ‘no’. The important aspect of understanding Miànzi is it is about both ‘giving face’ and ‘receiving face’

The old Chinese saying says “face is important to man as the bark to the tree”. Jecky says most Chinese love Miànzi, as outside comment is very important to them. There is a Chinese culture to impress and to gain respect from people. Similarly, to defer to people even if they are wrong to ensure they do not lose face.

Western & Far Eastern culture differences

Methinks possibly not too much difference between Western & Chinese cultures here with a kind of one-upmanship going on. The other party, though, cannot lose face in Chinese culture which is the difference between West and East. Jecky feels that Miànzi sometimes leads to showing off, such as competing and insisting on paying for a restaurant bill with friends; overspending on clothes to impress when it is not affordable. As the Chinese saying goes, “slap one’s face until it is swollen in order to look imposing”. However, this lack of a direct approach can confuse the situation as things are left unsaid because of the potential to lose face for either party

Jecky does prefer the Western style of business, which as he says it is more direct, efficient and produces quicker results

Pointers to doing Business in China

So how should we go about doing good business in China mindful of the Chinese culture of Miànzi? There are many articles that provide excellent advice and books such as Doing Business in China for Dummies. Here are a few pointers:

Get them to talk

Let your Chinese colleague talk in English to you. Many Chinese are concerned at their lack of good English and losing face. So be patient and compliment them on their communication skill. This gives your colleague Miànzi and is a great start to the relationship

Who’s the boss?

Understand and respond accordingly to the top-down hierarchy in China by quickly sussing who is the senior person in the organisation. Pay extra respect and avoid disagreement particularly with co-workers around. Jecky has some thoughts about this. He agrees with the concept but also says most senior business people are smart. If they make a mistake pointing it out can be a kind of respect providing it is done without offence. Most senior business people dislike undue flattery and ultimately the best way to show and gain respect is through your ability and attitude. This seems to me a common-sense approach and one I would wholly concur with in my 15 years of doing business in China

Don’t argue

There is another Chinese proverb “no discord, no concord” where often friends are made following an argument. Chinese culture and Western cultures are different though because of the effect of Miànzi. If the case for your argument is correct but your manner is offensive, then this is not acceptable as you offend the person’s Miànzi. Jecky says for the foreigner there is no problem to have disagreement or argument, but you must show caution to have such discussions kindly and honestly, not with any malice. Otherwise it will be very difficult for your Chinese counterpart to accept

Having dinner (Ganbei- cheers!)

The eating and drinking culture is very important in China for business and cooperation. As the alcohol flows (usually in the direction of the foreigner!) then conversations become more open and there are many toasts and compliments traded. This is not wasted time as it is a cornerstone of Miànzi

Yes, well maybe but never no

Finally, and partly in answer to my previous exasperation with lack of a Chinese yes or no answer to difficult questions Jecky sheds some light on why. He explained to me that things change as time moves on and the Chinese prefer to offer several possibilities which could offer different outcomes eventually. The message for doing business in China is to remain patient and closely supervise the business process.


Jecky prefers the Western approach to business and the efficient way it is carried out. Personally, I admire the patient, long term approach to business relationship applied by the Chinese. Once you understand the culture more your chances to make a success of sourcing from China improve. I find the Chinese efficient, quick to respond and knowledgeable in trading successfully