In 1997, I moved from America to China to teach English and study Mandarin. I ended up working there for 15 years. While in the country, I ran an organization with team members of diverse ages, cultures, and ethnicities. Just like in the United States, I discovered that many interpersonal conflicts in China are left unaddressed and unresolved.

On my team, two Chinese colleagues resisted working together due to past conflicts that had never been addressed. A local pastor in my community told me about a pastor and an elder of a church who didn’t speak to each other for months due to a church split.

The term that most mainland Chinese people associate with conflict is maodun (矛盾) according to research conducted by Stonehill College’s communications professor Xuejian Yu. Maodun is typically perceived as something negative and destructive that should be minimized or dealt with through an avoidant or evasive nonconfrontational manner, thus preventing the loss of “face” or any experience of shame for all involved.

The Chinese words for “face” are mianzi (面子) and lian (脸). They refer to each individual’s perception or awareness of his or her own reputation in the eyes of others, which then forms the basis for one’s personal sense of integrity, honor, shame, prestige, and dignity. (For simplicity’s sake, I have combined the meanings of mianzi and lian in my description of face.)

In a broader context, face is “the pervasive human attempt to establish a sense of worth and meaning (‘esteem’) and to find acceptance (esteem that is ‘social’),” describes American missiologist Chris Flanders. Simply put, individuals possess face when they believe they are solid and respected in their identities, perceive that their reputations are intact, and feel accepted and socially affirmed as having value to others and their communities.

I interviewed 31 believers from 13 different urban city churches in China and discovered that many consider face as a negative and significant hindrance to living the Christian life. (All the names of the Chinese Christians quoted here are pseudonyms for security reasons.)

“Face doesn’t help reconciliation at all,” said Wang Min, a pastor’s wife from western China. “If no one else is present to mediate and a person has been shamed in a group, they will not reconcile because they feel like they have lost face. Even if they were clearly wrong, they won’t admit it.”

“When a person is paying attention to face, they would rather die before reconciling. Or they reconcile at the surface level, only reconciling in response to the pressure of someone else being present,” Wang added.

These findings led me to ask, How does the Bible speak into the concept of face in Chinese contexts? To what degree does giving, saving, or losing face in conflict contribute to or hinder reconciliation in this particular culture?

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A theology of face

The concept of face is not bad, negative, or a hindrance, argues Flanders, the American missiologist. Our preoccupation with face is not a result of sin entering the world at the Fall but was present in a positive way pre-Fall, he adds.

God created us in his image (Gen. 1:26–27), which is by nature a reflection of the Trinitarian relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We are hardwired to desire peaceful, joyful, and harmonious connections with others in community.

Face is a gift from God that structures each one’s identity and relationality at a basic level. Giving and receiving acceptance and affirmation of value through the mechanism of face establishes harmony in a communal sense, which is how God intended things to be.

Only when Adam and Eve disobeyed God did they feel afraid and view their nakedness as something shameful to be hidden (Gen. 3:7). Instead of coming to God, confessing their sin, and seeing what God would do, they hid, no longer connecting or getting their “face needs” met through the face of God.

From that point on, people have used negative face-saving strategies, such as avoidance and denial, to respond to situations in which they feel shame, embarrassment, and loss of face.

Based on this understanding of the origin of face and its relational purpose, I argue that we don’t need to get beyond face or get rid of the concept in Chinese Christian contexts. Rather, we need to look to God instead of people to meet our fundamental face needs for love, value affirmation, esteem, honor, and acceptance.

Nevertheless, face remains a fragile concept today since we can gain or lose face at any moment. When people disagree with us, raise concerns, or point out our mistakes or sin, we unconsciously sense that our reputations are in jeopardy. We get defensive and angry. We feel a need to prove our positions or protect ourselves.

Unmasking cultural beliefs

In face-conscious societies, losing face is a serious issue and can affect a person’s ability to function effectively in social settings. While it may sometimes be isolated to only one relationship, the loss of face may also impact a person’s relationship with a whole community. For instance, divorce is often perceived as something shameful that brings dishonor to one’s parents and impacts their esteem in the larger community.

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Face is something that others can give to you, based on your relative positions in your social networks and on how well you conduct yourself in those positions. To give or save face shows respect and boosts one’s self-esteem.

People commonly give face to others through compliments on diligence, status, beauty, wisdom, or elegance and by complying when asked to do something. When critiquing someone’s performance, people save that person’s face by avoiding direct criticism, using tactful or ambiguous words instead. Showing respect for someone’s suggestion or position, even if one does not agree with the person, also saves face.

The common thought is that by saving face for others, one can prevent conflicts, and that by giving face to others, one can enhance interpersonal relationships.

“In Chinese culture, face is very important, especially for men,” explained Li Jie, a math teacher from western China. “A man is supposed to display his position in society, so from those in the very top of the government to the very lowest in the household, men especially want face.

“As a result, face has caused a lot of conflicts. I pretty much have never truly reconciled with someone. Every time, our reconciliation has strictly been to maintain face, meaning that on the surface level, everything looks fine and we are speaking with one another, but in fact, we have not reconciled.”

As Li Jie pointed out, reconciliation is often superficial in a face-oriented culture. Although people may behave politely toward one another after a conflict and cooperate again, their relationship remains distant or broken.

A deeper and truer heart-level reconciliation, where genuine harmony is present or being cultivated, seems less prominent in Chinese contexts. This is when two people hold “positive perceptions of each other” and interact “in a sincere, trustful, active, supportive, accepting, and natural manner,” describes Li-Li Huang, a professor of social and indigenous psychology in Taiwan. Genuine harmony looks like two people who are willing to give each other the benefit of the doubt.

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Building a face-safe community

Relating to each other in this spirit of genuine harmony is meant to be a hallmark of Christian community. Likewise, a face-safe community is intended to be a loving environment in which we can honestly confess sins and discuss grievances instead of ignoring them.

But in Chinese culture, confessing our sins and apologizing to one another is perceived as something that will cause a loss of face. Doing so between people of equal status, such as friends or coworkers, includes some degree of losing face. Yet this is exacerbated between people of superior and inferior status—think father and son, or boss and subordinate. It is thought that someone of superior status should not apologize to someone inferior because of the hierarchical Confucian notions of positional power and authority. The subordinate is to obey and defer to the superior and to stay silent and submit in times of conflict.

Chinese Christians are thus confronted with a big conundrum: Culturally speaking, confession results in face loss, but in God’s kingdom culture, to reconcile is to apologize and confess, no matter your age or position.

After all, God doesn’t give or save face. He doesn’t pretend everything is fine relationally when it is not. God genuinely loves, values, and forgives us. He calls us to acknowledge our mistakes and transgressions (Ps. 32; 103:8–14) and purposefully addresses our innermost issues so we can be transformed (Rom. 12:2; 2 Cor. 3:18).

Apologizing merely to save face does not acknowledge one’s complicity in the situation. It strives to protect the person’s own honor and esteem. In contrast, giving a “confession apology” does not excuse, explain, or defend. Rather, it acknowledges the hurt that the other person feels and takes responsibility for one’s own contribution to the conflict. This might entail losing face, but when done sincerely in face-to-face conversations, we can also gain valuable gifts such as mutual understanding and empathy.

In short, when we don’t fear losing face because our identities are rooted in Christ and not in the eyes of others, our community can turn into a “face-safe” place where hierarchy and power differentials do not impede opportunities to reconcile.

After Chen Meizhen, a counselor in western China, apologized to a subordinate, she discovered that her face was not impacted the way she had feared it would be. “I originally thought that if I, the leader, apologized, I might become lower than my coworker,” Chen said. “I would worry and wonder, Will she look down on me? But after I truly apologized, she didn’t look down on me! She still respected me.”

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Su Lijuan, a woman in marketing and sales in northern China, went so far as to say that genuinely apologizing restores one’s face: “What I knew to be true has been turned upside down. Previously, I thought that any time you apologize, the result will be a loss of face. However, if you can sincerely apologize, you actually restore your own face, your own dignity and honor.”

As people who have had our face needs met in God, we can “image” God’s face to each other. Instead of shaming, scolding, lecturing, or viewing ourselves as inferior when we acknowledge a mistake or confess sin, we can learn to accept, love, forgive, and support one another to “go and sin no more” (John 8:11, NLT).

Amid the cultural pressures to save or give face to preserve superficial harmony, a face-safe community becomes a place where authentic, heart-level reconciliation can occur. The reconciliation process often starts with apologizing but does not end there. Confessing our sin, acknowledging harm, making reparations for damage done, and changing our behavior, together with granting and receiving forgiveness, are ways in which genuine reconciliation can take place. When our fundamental face needs are met first in Christ, we can courageously be kingdom-minded peacemakers in a face-conscious society.

This excerpt was adapted from Changing Normal: Break Through Barriers to Pursuing Peace in Relationships by Jolene Kinser. Copyright © 2024 by Jolene Kinser. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Changing Normal: Break Through Barriers to Pursuing Peace in Relationships
Changing Normal: Break Through Barriers to Pursuing Peace in Relationships
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