Book Review: On the Story of “Saving Face”


The original meaning of the term was to avoid humiliation, but Westerners made it a way to humiliate the Chinese.

  • By Bradley Winterton / Contributing Journalist

Michael Keevak is an American scholar who has spent most of his professional life at National Taiwan University. He has published several books, all concise and precise. They rarely contain Chinese characters (this new one is an exception). A book explained how the idea of ​​being “yellow”, referring to the people of East Asia, came about. Now he’s delving into the supposedly Chinese concept of “saving face.”

I once wrote to 13 literary scholars asking for help on what the poet WB Yeats meant by “the sea tormented by the gong” in his poem Byzantium. Twelve responded, but only one response was really helpful, without fully answering the question. This answer was from Michael Keevak, who referred me to a 1940s article written by someone who had had access to Yeats’s library after his death and noted passages he had penciled in the margin . Several gongs featured in modern Istanbul. I was expecting, I must admit, a connection with China.

The earliest example of “saving face” in English that Keevak says he could find was in 1839, when a writer at a newspaper in China suggested that the British turn over a small amount of opium to the Chinese authorities in the person of a viceroy sent by the Emperor to suppress the trade. As a result, the Viceroy might be able to “save face”.

But the person who did the most to popularize the term was a certain Arthur Smith, an American missionary and later a popular writer. “Losing face” and “saving face” became buzzwords at the end of the 19th century.

The original meaning was to avoid humiliation, but, according to Keevak, Westerners made it a way to humiliate the Chinese, saying “saving face” was a way of deception.


This was important in Confucian culture because a person’s status depended on how others perceived you. No, said the Westerners. It’s just a cover for Chinese duplicity in business dealings. Corruption was hiding behind politeness.

The “face” had been appropriated by Westerners who made it a despicable aspect of Chinese culture. This, in a nutshell, is Keevak’s theme.

That’s not the end of the story, however. If the Chinese were able to employ underhanded business practices under the guise of “saving face”, then the British and other foreigners had a right to exercise their divine right to speak what they presented as the truth, and to hold on against winds and tides. high water.

This continued during the period when British and French forces helped China put down the Taiping Rebellion (1850 to 1864). Despite their collaboration, the foreigners remained convinced that the Chinese were still trying to hide something. The Chinese “face” was ultimately a false face, in other words.

Keevak then turns to the “face” in the centuries before the 19th, concluding that Chinese culture had become, in part, “little more than appearance, and so ‘saving face’ was necessarily deception as well”.

“Beautiful face,” Keevak notes, meant corruption.

The distinctions Keevak makes between the various uses of “face,” Chinese, Western, and even Japanese, can get complicated, but the reader should persevere.

After examining what missionaries to China in the 18th century and earlier might have thought of “face” and then “face” in the realm of international politics and diplomacy, Keevak writes two concluding chapters, Chinese “Face” Revisited and Sociological “Face”. ”.

The first collects various anecdotes involving the “face”, such as a joke about a man being chased by his tailor for payment who tells the tailor that if he loses face with the girl he is in love with, they will both be out of pocket . because she is very rich. He then adds some anecdotes from the post-1911 era about officials of the new Republican government trying to “save face” following their misdeeds.

Lu Xun’s (魯迅) essay “On Face” also returns, as do references to the same author’s “face” in his short story The True Story of Ah Q.

Books with titles like What’s Wrong with China and Is China Mad?, both published in 1926, are mentioned, Keevak noting that the former is a statement, not a question.


In Sociological “Face,” Keevak tracks the growing popularity of the word “face” among writers in general, not necessarily sinologists. He asks, incidentally, why “shamefaced” is rarely included in variants. The phrase “saving face” has, unsurprisingly, resurfaced in modern anti-China discourse, especially in America.

It is therefore an extremely comprehensive book. It focuses without digression on its subject and must rank as the most impressive – and probably the most influential – of Keevak’s output (six books, including this one, to date).

So what conclusion should we come to? My feeling is that saving face is a universal phenomenon. You see it all the time in politicians, and I see myself using this tactic regularly. It is no more a Chinese habit than any other, simply that Chinese insight ensured that they were the ones who identified it first, if not as accurately as Westerners would have us believe. We use devices to boost our own self-esteem as well as to impress others.

Saving face is undoubtedly a characteristic of human beings. Not so with animals, it seems. You can’t imagine a dog or a lion saving face, whatever the countless images of them on Facebook might mean. But people do it all the time, and probably all over the world. I am what I seek to imply that I am because there is nothing else to take its place. Thus, the 19th century conflict between the Chinese and foreign expatriates was only a sideshow in what is actually a universal phenomenon. But trust Michael Keevak for identifying an intriguing historical moment.

ON SAVING FACE: A Brief History of Western Appropriation

By Michael Keevak

Hong Kong University Press


Asia, Softcover

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