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Social Mask and Face in Asia

In 1894, the American missionary Arthur Henderson Smith (1845-1932) published Chinese Characteristics, a book which was to become very influential, for it was not only one of the most popular works about China written by a Western author, but it also inspired the father of contemporary Chinese literature, Lu Xun. 

Smith, who spent 54 years in China, shaped the way Western audiences perceived the Middle Kingdom in the late 18th century and the first half of the 19th century. Today he is probably best remembered for his book China in Convulsion (1901), one of the most interesting contemporary sources on the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, which Smith survived miraculously. [note]

In Chinese Characteristics, Smith introduced to Western audiences the peculiar meaning that the word “face” has in Chinese society: 

In a great range of cases constantly occurring in Chinese social relations, ” face” is not synonymous with honour, much less with reputation, but it is a technical expression to indicate a certain relation instinctively perceived by a Chinese, but almost incomprehensible to the poor foreigner.


Smith gives a few examples of what Chinese mean by the word face, such as the following one:

To decline a gift especially prepared, such as a tablet, or even a simple pair of scrolls, might give great offence, unless it is done while the matter is still in embryo—and this for obvious reasons is generally impossible. In a case within our knowledge, a few Chinese resolved to present a foreigner with a token of this sort, which the foreigner resolved not to accept. When a single step has been taken in the affair, it is too late according to Chinese ideas to decline, for the will of the many must be respected. So the inscription was bought, and arrangements were made to present it, when, to the dismay of the donors, the obstinate foreigner, who had not enjoyed the advantage of an education of which a book of propriety is a part, absolutely refused to receive it. Here was a case of the irresistible projectile, impinging against an invulnerable target. The present could not go back, and the crass foreigner would not receive it. In this crisis the middle-man, through whom the business had thus far proceeded, consented to take charge of it, with the concurrence of both parties, the would-be givers, and the would-not-be receiver. After a certain lapse of time, the obnoxious present was surreptitiously sent to the premises of the (theoretically unwilling) recipient, and thrust into an unused drawer. Thus the donors had sent it—somewhere, while the recipient (theoretically) never received it, and what is of chief importance, the “face” of both parties was saved!


Nowadays, we have no opportunity to verify Smith’s theories of “face”, given that he lived and worked more than a century ago, in a feudal, imperial China that doesn’t exist any longer. 

A more scientific attempt at understanding East Asian cultural patterns was made by American anthropologist Ruth Benedict in her classic book, The Chrysanthemum and The Sword (1946). One of Benedict’s most famous theories revolves around the contrast between guilt societies (West) and shame societies (East Asia). While in guilt societies the individual acts according to abstract moral standards, in shame societies the category of shame exerts control over a person’s behaviour. We can understand shame as

a reaction to other people’s criticism, an acute personal chagrin at our failure to live up to our obligations and the expectations others have of us. In true shame oriented cultures, every person has a place and a duty in the society. One maintains self-respect, not by choosing what is good rather than what is evil, but by choosing what is expected of one.” [note


Generally speaking, life planning and social interaction in Asia are much more influenced by the expectation, or the pressure, of society, than it is the case in Western countries.   

In one of my previous posts I explained that, as far as I can judge, in Taiwan  the understanding of ideas like politeness or respect is not the same as I learnt in Europe. The notions of “social mask” and “face” can perhaps help make these differences clear. 

One of the things that I really love about Taiwan is that whenever I talk with strangers they will be very nice. I know exactly that whatever I do, there will be a certain level of benevolent tolerance towards me. For example, a few days ago I went to Tainan. A friend’s friend, whom I met for the first time that day, showed me around. I unfortunately caused her some trouble, for which I apologized. But I knew she wouldn’t get angry. She couldn’t have got angry with a stranger. I’m not saying that she wasn’t nice or that she was just pretending to be nice, in fact she was extremely friendly. I’m saying that even if she weren’t a friendly person, she wouldn’t have shown anger to me. Paraphrasing Ruth Benedict, I may say that life in Asia is like a chess game. There are certain rules to follow, which make it easier for people to foresee how others will react. In the case I mentioned above, I could predict that a stranger would always be nice to me, no matter what. This is what I would call a “social mask”, a role played in order to interact with other individuals, which doesn’t necessarily represent a person’s true self. This social mask can also be understood as a wall: strangers will keep a distance from each other through a barrier of politeness.

This seems to me to be consistent with a number of phenomena I’ve observed in Taiwan, and I’d like to name two of them. The first is the common phenomenon of people speaking in a high-pitch voice, the second is make-up.

If you come to Taiwan, you will for sure hear a lot of people in shops who talk in an almost unnatural high-pitch voice. There are grown-up girls who pretend to have baby voices. Surprisingly enough, the reason is that a high-pitch voice is considered polite. No one expects shop assistants to be natural. They should act and follow precise requirements of politeness, even if they make male shop assistant sound extremely effeminate, and women sound like little girls. As a Westerner, I had never in my whole life associated high-pitch voice with politeness. That’s probably the reason why to me this is rather annoying.

The second phenomenon is make-up, which I believe to be one of the most astonishing things I’ve seen in Taiwan. Girls change their whole appearance through make-up, making their eyes bigger with the aid of contact lenses, using long fake eyelashes, face powder and all sorts of cosmetics. The result is astounding. Watch the following video to see the full extent to which make-up can transform normal girls into beauties.




If you think that this girl is just an exception, you are wrong. Extreme make-up is a very common sight in Taiwan, and just as the high-pitch voice, it is considered a sign of politeness. In fact, bosses might ask their female employees to put make-up on, because if they don’t, they’ll be considered rude. 

It’s obvious that make-up is not just an Asian phenomenon. But I would argue that most Westerners would consider so heavy make-up as highly unnatural, and in the end, as a superfluous mask that hides the true self of a person. Instead of accepting themselves as they are, girls hide themselves behind this mask, even though sooner or later their friends or boyfriends will find out how they really look like. This is, again, one of the most important differences I’ve observed between Westerners and Asians. When I was in Europe, I had the impression that people value “honesty”, in the sense of being one’s true self in social interactions, even if that means confrontation with others, while in Asia rules of politeness often regulate social interaction between people who don’t know each other. As I mentioned previously, these rules do not apply when people have a closer relationship. It is absolutely normal for friends to quarrel, to get angry with or criticize each other, as well as for bosses to shout at their employees mercilessly.   

One should therefore not mistake friendliness for goodness. The point I want to make is that, as far as I can judge, in Asia social standards are extremely important in defining what an individual should do and how he or she should live. And that the pursuit of such goals is not necessarily related to the general moral directives I learnt in the West. 

Let me tell you a story to explain this point. Imagine the following situation: a 28-year-old girl believes that she should get married before she gets 30, being this what her parents and society expect. She has had the same boyfriend for a long time, but she doesn’t really love him as much as he loves her. She doesn’t break up, however, because she is afraid that she wouldn’t be able to find another guy to get married with. So she keeps the “old” one, but at the same time she looks for a “better” one: a guy who has more money, has a flat and a car and is more handsome. If a girl could get married with such a man by the age of 28, then the expectations of society would be completely fulfilled and she could deem herself lucky. And if she finds such a man, she might break up with her old boyfriend in favour of the new one. Because the point of marriage is, in the eyes of society, not to find true love, but to have a comfortable and stable life. Such stories are not uncommon, as far as I know.

Imagine now another situation: a girl wants to find a boyfriend, because, according to the expectations of society, a girl who hasn’t got a boyfriend is considered to be a “loser”. That’s why parents in Asia might make their daughter feel ashamed of being single and encourage her to find a boyfriend, something that I never heard of in Europe. So, this imaginary girl we’re talking about finds two guys, but she’s not so sure which is the better one. Again, social criteria are here very important. She will be very nice to them, pretend to be very soft and sweet – a behaviour which does not necessarily reflect her true self. After choosing one of the two guys, she will probably not confront the one she wants to reject, but stop contacting him and find excuses not to meet him. Such as: “I’m busy”, “I have to work,” or something like this. Although I personally consider this sort of indirect rejections way more painful and disrespectful than an honest and direct talk – if a girl tells me she loves someone else, I would still respect her and I’d appreciate she told me the truth – in Taiwan avoiding confrontation is easier for the girl, and somehow it saves both persons’ face, though it won’t prevent the guy to suffer.  

Indeed, when you meet someone new, you can often hardly tell if they want to be good friends with you. Because they will mostly be nice and friendly. After a while, however, they might suddenly be “very busy”.
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Categories: Uncategorized

7 replies »

  1. Hello there! I came across your blog through mylanguageexchange website. It's a great blog exploring asian cultures through the point of view of an european.

    I do agree with your observation of how singles are considered losers in asian society. Just like how during Chinese New Year, people would always ask me am I attached? If not, why etc etc? hahaha. I am used to it and I think they are probably trying to break the ice.

    But I guess the society is slowly evolving now, with more and more younger people declaring singlehood as a choice and parents accepting it.

    By the way, I am from Singapore and I would say the people here are kinda opposite from the Taiwanese. We speak in a lower pitch, which borders on sounding boring at times. lol. girls here do make-up but it's not really a must. Perhaps due to our small country size, everywhere is a stone's throwaway, and people do not see a need to dress nicely. You often see people wearing bermudas, slippers without make-up on prancing around shopping centres.oh, and perhaps it 's due to our hot weather too. haha.

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  2. Hello, thanks for sharing your view: )

    Singapore is a place I would really like to visit. To be honest, I didn't know much about it before I came to Taiwan, probably because, as you may know, Western education system is very West-centred, so I never studied Asian history when I was young.

    Recently, however, I “discovered” Singapore, and I wish I can to go there soon. I'd really like to observe the difference between Singapore and Taiwan you mentioned before.

    Please feel free to comment and share your opinion whenever you like.

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  3. Actually, even singapore's education system is very singapore-centred. Our history lessons tend to focus on our own history, with only some snippets of history of other countries.

    Yup. I would say Singapore's rather different given the cosmopolitan landscape over here. As for attractions, there's not much of scenery to see . Most attractions are man-made, sad to say, food is probably the main attraction. But yup, most tranvellers would come to Singapore for 2-3 days and head to other parts of south-east asia like Thailand, Malaysia etc which have their own charms. 🙂

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  4. I just read through your blog after seeing a link on twitter – that's a great piece! I had noticed the extreme make-up phenomenon, but never connected it this way to codes of politeness. Have you had views of Taiwan from Italian friends? I remember talking about 'honesty' with Italian friends – I'm French myself – and they often complained about French people being way too frontal, direct, honest – 'you should not say things so directly, it's not polite', I sometimes heard; and women did tend to wear quite a lot of make-up. Anyway, that's a cultural parallelism I'd be interested in following :-).

    I was also thinking of a piece I translated earlier by Taiwanese blogger Wu Danru (she's quite interesting for cultural observation) – about why Taiwanese women don't divorce to preserve appearances and harmony. If you're interested, link is here: http://marcopoloproject.org/online/女人不离婚的真正原因-the-real-reason-women-do-not-divorce-english/

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  5. Hi Julien, thanks for your interesting comment and the link you shared. I agree with you, it's always very interesting to observe these cultural differences, like in your example between the French and the Italians, which I find very interesting. Unfortunately, I don't know enough French people to be able to make a comparison. It's very fascinating when one tries to go beyond prejudices, to go beyond what appears “strange” or contradictory.

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  6. Hi,
    OMG your article is really long! I am looking for a language exchange partner then I find your blog. I am a Taiwanese girl, and I do not agree with your make-up opinion. I did not put make up on when I worked in Taiwan (Make-up is only for interview, once you get the job you do not need it: P), and no one complained! However, young girls (like 12 years-old) put make up on is quite common in the UK. I think those young girls look natural pretty/cute in their age, really do not need fake tan and fake eyelash on their face.
    The video is not about make-up, I will call it MAJIC! Before you start a relationship with a girl with heavy make, go to swimming with her first!
    I hope you enjoy your life in Taiwan.

    Lily

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  7. Hello Lily,

    thanks for sharing your view. Haha, I find your suggestion about swimming with a girl before starting a relationship very funny. Well, as I explained in another post, everyone has different experiences. Even among people from the same country there might be very different opinions.

    Anyhow, make-up was one of the things that impressed me most when I came to Taiwan, because I'd never seen so much make-up in Europe. But that's just my personal experience.

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