The Chinese Dilemma of Mian Zi 面子
Here is where societal norms, tradition and culture clash with reality. In many places in the East saving face is extremely important and affects everyday life from the smallest village to the largest city. No one ever wants to look like a fool and we want to be respected. There needs to be a balance between ‘I made a mistake’ and “I can’t/shouldn’t be wrong”. In a society where few people have any true status, just due to the vast numbers, saving or having face, mian zi (面子) is extremely important in everyday life. This happens to an extreme that most of us westerners can’t understand. It’s not a question of always being right but a matter of not looking like a fool and losing respect. As an example; a close friend of mine was visiting a factory in Japan. The foreman was explaining to an employee in English what a monkey wrench was vs an adjustable wrench. He was holding up the adjustable wrench and saying loudly “This is a monkey wrench and that, the pipe wrench (monkey wrench) is an adjustable wrench.” He was completely wrong and he looked to my friend for validation. Now the dilemma. He was trying to show his superior knowledge to a lesser colleague but he was completely wrong. Now he is asking for validation that he knows American tools and my friend is stuck because he knows the culture. If he corrects him then the foreman looks foolish and loses face. If he doesn’t correct him, he is basically lying and letting the employee take the heat. So, what do you do? Well, the damage he would do to his working relationship with the foreman is more important than the truth here. He can’t damage that, so, he lies and the foreman is happy to be validated. My friend felt quite guilty about having to lie to save his client’s relationship.
One of my jobs entailed a lot of international travel for a client. I had been to Japan and many other places with them but they decided not to travel some of us to a tournament in China. They ended up have a very difficult time. They had a show in Beijing and then in GuangZhou. I asked a production manager what happened. He told me that the show in Beijing went really well but then they went to GuangZhou it went to hell. He said,” We really liked the venue manager in Beijing so we took him with us to….” I stopped him and said, “Oh no”. He said, “Why do you say that”? I said, “You made the venue manager in GuangZhou look incompetent by doing that. What did he do?” Well, he pulled all of his equipment off the job, the entire mobile unit, leaving them with no way to televise the show. They had to scramble to put together a rag tag production. All of this because he did not know the culture and he did not know how to recover from it. Mian zi at its worst incarnation here.
This might be a trivial thing to Westerners but it’s very important in the East. Younger folks are getting away from this somewhat but it’s still an issue. I was at dinner with a Japanese colleague last March and she was talking about doing business in China. She is fluent in Mandarin. I casually asked her “how is it dealing with mian zi?” and she rolled her eyes and explained what a nightmare it is and how it messes up business.
So, how does this effect kung fu/martial arts? Quite deeply unfortunately. In the course of almost anyone’s learning there comes a time when a traditional Asian teacher might show you something that you know really doesn’t work. If you’re in private you can deal with it but if you’re in front of a group, then all bets are off. This fellow believes what he does works and he is in the superior position, he is the “teacher”. To call him out on it in front of everyone is humiliating to him and he will lose face. He will most likely never be open with you again. In demonstration he shows how he handles a hook and you know it’s not going to work. What do you do? Maybe instinctively you don’t pull the punch and tag him, then what? I’ve had this happen and I immediately have said, “my fault, I knew you weren’t ready, cheap shot, do it again, I apologize”. The second time he blocks it and the world is a happy place. Yes, I know this sounds completely dishonest but it’s culturally correct. You don’t go to your niece’s recital and tell her that her singing is terrible, though it be true, you compliment her, right? I hope? Is it a lie, yes, it is culturally correct? What do you think?
You really have to understand the cultural implications of this and not impose your view upon it as absolute truth. If you do you may never really learn what the teacher has to offer. This is especially true when dealing with the older generation who were born in the East. I had an incident many years ago where two fellows were asked if they’d like to meet another teacher that was coming to town. Sure, why not? Well, they didn’t get permission from their teacher, didn’t even think of asking. They met this other teacher and their teacher shows up, BANG, damage done. It looks like they are sneaking behind his back to see this other guy and he is furious and basically disowns them. He has lost face. They had no idea and they are now outcasts. They came to me and asked what they could do. I told them they were not going to like this but there is a way. There is a bow in Chinese culture that is particularly humbling. You bow on the ground in such a way that it is nearly impossible to be threatening or attack. Visitors to the emperors had to do this to prove their fealty. So, I told these guys, not only do you have to do this, but you have to do it publicly, you have to give him face. They showed up at his school, went to the center of the floor and dropped down. He said nothing for a while. He just walked about but everyone saw these guys prostrate themselves in front of him. He milked it and after several minutes told them to get up. After that they were his favorite students. It’s a cultural thing folks, it’s their court.
This causes a dilemma in traditional martial arts because the ‘Master’ does not have accurate feedback on his skill level. Nobody wants him to lose face but that creates a huge falsehood about the technique. I was looking at an old video where I was demonstrating a technique on a student who is truly a good fighter. Now, years later, when I saw it, it was clear the technique did not work, he gave it to me. It really annoyed me and I called him to give him grief for something that happened 15 years ago. He had no recollection of it and I know it was well intentioned but it’s misleading. To him it was an act of kindness not dishonesty. However, it does me no good to work under the illusion it works when it doesn’t and surely misleads students. I don’t care about mian zi, I care about facts but that is not the Eastern way many times.
Bas Rutten once said to me that he was fortunate that he had no ‘masters’ he studied under. I asked why and he explained that he did nothing on faith, just efficacy, and could deconstruct techniques to see what really worked. There was no tradition or hierarchy to contend with or be obeisant to, just the facts. He said they entered the floor on equal grounds and never worried about offending anyone, just learning. I can see the truth in this.
I was in a situation a few years back where I was invited to a class to work with the students and demonstrate. I was blocking the punches of a fellow about 30 years younger than me and much taller. He had about a six-inch reach on me. It was casual, no big deal. He clocked me on the right cheek, so what, it happens, I wasn’t hurt. He freaked out apologizing to the extreme. He felt he had done me some big offence, he hadn’t. I told him to calm down and continue and eventually he did. Later I wondered what his view of it was. Did he lose faith in me because I missed it? Am I supposed to be untouchable? Did he fear retribution? Did he fear I lost face and he hit an older guy? So many scenarios but they don’t matter. We all get hit when practicing. Look at my face, isn’t it obvious? If you never get hit then you need to work out with someone better than you. It is likely in a traditional school that mian zi would come into play and add a whole different dynamic. Giving in to face here would damage the reality of the moment.
The thing to take away from this is the traditional and cultural restraints that some cultures have. They are not meant to be deceptive, it’s just a matter of respect. Ultimately, I fear that this does damage to the martial arts by instilling a false sense of bravado into some things that do not work. There are so many examples of traditional masters losing fights today. They did not know they lived in a fantasy world of their own making. Hopefully they will evolve and grow into today’s standards of fighting.
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