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Face revisited--negative face wants in Chinese culture.


Brown and Levinson's (1978, 1987) politeness theory is believed to have received the severest criticism from Asian linguists for the use of the concept of face in explaining polite linguistic usage (Watts, 2003). They argue that the division of face, i.e., positive face and negative face, particularly the notion of negative face, is not appropriate to Far East cultures where an individual is expected to know his/her position in the social structure and is obliged to be able to discern the appropriate features of social interactions (c.f. Matsumoto, 1988, also in Ide, 1989; Gu, 1990; Mao, 1994). In Japanese culture, Fukada and Asato (2004) have re-examined Matsumoto (1988) and Ide's (1989) contentions, and propose that the Japanese linguistic politeness system, including honorifics, can be explained within Brown and Levinson's (1987) framework, thus the validity of its universality. Nevertheless, despite the fact that almost two decades have elapsed, Gu's (1990) and Mao's (1994) grounds on which they argue against the appropriateness of Brown and Levinson's (1987) face model, including the notion of negative face in Chinese culture, have not been reviewed.

In this article, I intend to examine Gu's and Mao's lines of reasoning and explore whether linguistic evidence of negative face wants can be found in Chinese interactional data. The article firstly presents Gu's (1990) and Mao's (1994) arguments, underpinned with my analysis of the flaws in those arguments, and it then goes on to recommend a socio-pragmatic approach to research on Chinese face. In the review of cultural development in China, it is found that negative face wants not only apply to Chinese culture but also constitute an inherent part of Chinese people's ideology from the past to the present. Subsequently, a corpus of spoken Chinese is studied where interlocutors have evident negative face wants, and express and negotiate the wants through various face strategies which can be explained within Brown and Levinson's (1987) framework.

Gu's Argument

Gu (1990) highlights in his proposition that since normative constraints have a significant influence over people's politeness behaviour in Chinese society, Leech's absolute approach to maxims, where one pole of politeness scales is always considered more desirable than the other, serves better for analysing Chinese politeness interactions. In contrast, Brown and Levinson's (1987) model explaining how politeness is employed to redress the performance of face threatening acts (FTAs) in an instrumental way is believed not suitable for Chinese data (Gu, 1990). This proposition is not appropriate. As pointed out by several scholars (e.g., Brown & Levinson, 1987; Fraser, 1990; Spencer-Oatey, 2003; Thomas, 1995), in the current formulation, there is no motivated way to restrict the number of maxims and it would be unacceptable for new maxims to be established every time new regularities are identified in politeness speech acts. In addition, the politeness maxims seem to have "universal valences; in other words, one pole of a given dimension is always taken as being more desirable than the other ... Yet in different cultures, and in different speech contexts ... different options or points on the continuum could be favoured" (Spencer-Oatey, 2003, p. 1635). Therefore, the maxim approach cannot provide a good theoretical framework for formulating Chinese politeness theories as it lacks a flexible and comprehensive representation of the dynamics and cultural varieties underpinning politeness interactions in everyday life.

Moreover, in Gu's four grand Politeness Maxims (c.f. Gu, 1990) formulated specifically for explaining Chinese people's linguistic politeness behaviour, major issues are identified. For example, in line with the Self-denigration Maxim (c.f. Gu, 1990), Gu argues that denigrating self and elevating others by using terms such as [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] (humble job) and [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] (respectable job) are always promoted in Chinese interactions. Nonetheless, it is suggested in this article that careful consideration in the application of the Self-denigration Maxim in everyday interaction is more than necessary as frequent and inappropriate usage may lead to face threats to self being perceived as pretentious by others or face threats to others when a sarcastic effect ensues. In his Address Maxim, Gu highlights the "extended and generalised usage" of "some Chinese kinship terms ... for example, yeye [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] (grandpa), nainai [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] (grandma), shushu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] (uncle), a'yi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] (aunt), etc. ... used to address people who have no familial relation whatever with the addresser" (Gu, 1990). However, it is argued in this article that competent adult members in China are not expected to use these kinship terms to address people with no familial relations in acknowledgement of an addressee's seniority in social status or age. On the contrary, the use of kinship terms must receive careful consideration because an addressee would probably be offended by such terms which could be interpreted in a way that exaggerates the addressee's old looks or age.

The problem of Gu's (1990) suggestion on the use of kinship terms in China lies in that they are probably used more by children addressing adults rather than by competent adult members addressing each other in relationship management. In addition, as for the submaxim of "talk initiation" regulated under the Address Maxim, it may not be a unique indexical feature to Chinese culture that an inferior is expected to initiate greetings or talk exchanges by addressing a superior first in an unequal encounter. Such expectation and practice may well be present in a Western culture, for example, the UK, and can be perceived as a positive politeness strategy within Brown and Levinson's framework since failure to do so inevitably induces FTAs to both the talk initiator and the addressee, whatever cultural context it may be. Last but not least, Gu's (1990) revision of Leech's (1983) Tact and Generosity Maxims has not yet been examined or applied by any other scholars. In addition, a more fundamental issue of Gu's (1990) attempt to develop submaxims on various levels, is that there is no motivated way of restricting the number of submaxims and it would be unacceptable to establish new submaxims every time new regularities are identified, which is a flaw inevitably inherited from Leech's (1983) absolute approach to maxims.

On the notion of negative face, Gu (1990) does not offer a clear explanation of why it is not applicable to Chinese culture. He simply notes that illocutions such as requests, offers, invitations and compliments are intrinsically polite in China and do not constitute a face concern. "For example, offering, inviting and promising in Chinese ... will not be considered as threatening H's negative face, i.e., impeding H's freedom ... A Chinese will think that S's act (invitation) is intrinsically polite" (Gu, 1990, p. 242). Gu's (1990) claim is rather absolute because no expression may be considered intrinsically polite, and politeness is a social evaluation dependent on context (Fraser & Nolan, 1981; Spencer-Oatey, 2000, 2008). For example, in the following exchange from the Chinese film Fatal Decision (2000), both interlocutors' (Wu's and Cao's) promises to each other are shown to be perceived as threatening their respective negative face wants.

The context plays an important role in the interpretation of face negotiation in this exchange. Prior to the exchange, the film shows that Cao, a businessman, has been constantly bribing Mayor Li's wife Wu, in an attempt to manipulate Li in the future. This time, Cao sends Wu a case containing [Yen] 300,000 cash. Wu decides to return the case upon finding out its contents. In the exchange, Cao makes a promise (line 3) of the legitimacy of the gift with an observable intention to persuade Wu to accept the gift. Shown in the conversation, the promise impedes on Wu's want to return the money (line 6). In the same vein, Wu's promise of future favours (line 7) constitutes an impediment to Cao's wants of persuading Wu to accept the gift.

Mao's Argument

In his search for a theoretical framework to explain Chinese people's interactions, Mao (1994) bases his conceptualisation of Chinese face on Hu's (1944) definitions and distinctions between lian la and mianzi Mi 2, and highlights in his argument that neither lian nor mianzi signify the negative face notion identified by Brown and Levinson (1987). Departing from this, he claims its inapplicability to Chinese culture. Specifically, according to Hu (1944),

"Lien" is the respect of the group for an individual with a good moral reputation; an individual who will fulfil his/her obligations regardless of the hardships involved, who under all circumstances shows him/herself to be a decent human being.

"Mien-tzu" stands for the kind of prestige ... a reputation achieved through getting on in life, through success and ostentation. This prestige is accumulated by means of personal effort and is dependent at all times on external environment. (p. 45)

This study perceives Hu's (1944) distinctions between mianzi and lian to be rather obsolete and somewhat absolute. It is not difficult to recognise that even the spellings of the two characters (mianzi and lian) signifying the word face in Chinese today are different from Hu's time (Mien-tzu and Lien) in the 1940s. Ho (1975) points out,

The meanings of Lien and Mien-tzu vary according to verbal context and in addition are not completely differentiated from each other in that the terms are interchangeable in some contexts. Consequently ... the distinction between the two sets of criteria for judging face--based on judgments of character and broadly, of the amoral aspects of social performance--cannot be anchored to a linguistic distinction between the two terms, Lien and Mientzu, as proposed by Hu. (p. 868)

It is not possible to examine whether Lien and Mian-tzu did carry clear-cut differentiated connotative meanings in the 1940s as there appears not to have been any second publication touching upon this issue. Moreover, despite Ho's (1975) remark, Hu's (1944) proposition is still adopted by scholars, including Ho (1975) himself, as the basis for the analysis of Chinese face, due to the fact that Hu's (1944) definition, though not perfect, is the only quotable academic reference. In this study, it is believed that it might be worthwhile to re-examine the issue, i.e., the connotative meanings and usage of lian and mianzi in today's social interactions in China as well as their relation to Brown and Levinson's (1987) conceptualisation of face.

As indicated above, the two most frequently used Chinese characters equivalent to the denotative meaning of the word 'face' are mianzi and lian. "Both characters encode connotative meanings, which have to do with reputable, respectable images that individuals can claim for themselves from communities in which they interact, or to which they belong" (Ho, 1975, p. 883). Ho's characterisation of mianzi and lian is based on Hu's (1944) definition. However, Ho (1975) did not inherit Hu's (1944) distinction between mianzi and lian; i.e., Hu's (1944) associating of an individual's moral character with the conceptualisation of lian and an individual's prestige and reputation with mianzi. This study adopts Ho's (1975) conceptualisation and suggests that in most social interactional contexts in China, the connotative meanings and usage between these two characters are interchangeable and therefore no absolute categorisation should be made. In addition, both mianzi and lian have several connotative meanings dependent on the context. This proposition is different from Mao's (1994) in that he faithfully retains Hu's (1944) different underpinnings of mianzi and lian and uses them as the basis for his conceptualisation of Chinese face. For example, Mao (1994) argues that

Lian refers to the respect of the group for a man with a good moral reputation. Lian can only be earned but not given gratis, and it is both a social sanction for moral standards and an internalised sanction. To 'give lian' is not idiomatic in Chinese, but 'to give mianzi' is. (p. 458)

According to [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] (the Contemporary Chinese Dictionary), which is compiled by the Institute of Linguistics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (1978), [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] (shang lian) to 'give lian', is indeed a frequently used idiom and has a similar connotative meaning to [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] (gei mianzi) to 'give mianzi'. The only slight difference lies in the connotative usage: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] (shang lian), to 'give lian' indicates a social status inequality between the addresser and the addressee and is normally used by a subordinate addressing a super-ordinate; while [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] (gei mianzi) to 'give mianzi' is more frequently used between peers or people in more intimate relations. Both lian and mianzi here refer to an addressee's prestige and reputation, and have no associated underpinnings to an addressee's moral character.

For another pair of most commonly used idioms associated with lian and mianzi, i.e., to lose lian and to lose mianzi, Mao (1994) insists that

'To lose lian' is a far more serious act than 'to lose mianzi', since the former amounts ... to a condemnation by the community for ... immoral behaviour or judgment. 'To lose mianzi on the other hand, is to suffer a loss of one's reputation or prestige because of a certain failure or misfortune. (p. 458)

In this case, once again, Mao (1994) explicitly attaches the moral label to lian and the reputation label to mianzi. This distinction cannot stand up to dynamic interactional data scrutiny because it is a prevalent phenomenon in everyday conversational discourse to use 'lose lian' indicating a loss of reputation because of a certain failure or misfortune, e.g., Really lose lian, I did not pass the exam.

The issue with Mao's (1994) proposition is that his conceptualisation of face is narrowly anchored to two Chinese lexcial equivalents of the word face: mianzi and lian. In other words, Mao (1994) confines his research activity on this issue to a merely lexical level. As explained before, mianzi and lian are no more than two Chinese equivalents that bear the same denotative meaning to face. Actually, they are just two nouns that can be collocated with numerous verbs, forming various phrases and idioms that are associated with different connotative meanings and usage. Therefore, such an attempt to encompass a broad social phenomenon of 'face' by dwelling on two lexical equivalents is not really appropriate. Moreover, it cannot be used as a valid argument against the applicability of the concept of negative face to Chinese culture.

Negative Face Wants in Chinese Culture--A Sociopragmatic Perspective

It is proposed in this article that the research on Chinese face and the suitability of applying the concept of negative face to Chinese culture should go beyond the lexical and translational level and be lifted to a socio-pragmatic realm, using culture as an explanatory variable (Spencer-Oatey, 2003). I wish to propose from the outset that Brown and Levinson's (1987) facework notion is applicable to present Chinese culture. Although it is important to acknowledge that one prominent feature of Chinese culture, through history to today, is the endorsement of normative constraints on individuals (Gu, 1990), individual desire of freedom to act from imposition or a focus on self-aspect has indeed co-existed with social norms like two sides of a coin and has played its own significant part in influencing people's thoughts and behaviour. To better understand this, it is necessary to have a historical review of the development of Chinese culture.

In the 5th century B.C., Confucius established a systematic formulation of normative standards regulating each individual's behaviour, which was for the first time adopted by the ruler in that era. He strongly advocated restoring Li ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]), the "social hierarchy and order of the slavery system of the Zhou Dynasty (dating back to 1100 BC), which was regarded as an ideal model of any society" (Gu, 1990, p.238). On the content of Li ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]), Confucius articulated that each individual has indispensable obligations associated with his/her role and position in the social hierarchy and he also defined what desirable moral behaviour "benevolence" --is.

[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] Confucius said: "When out in the world, you should serve your ruler and ministers. At home you should serve your father and elder brothers. Never dare to take funerals lightly and never get into trouble with alcohol. What problems could you then possibly have?" (Confucius, translated by Watson 2007, p.35)

[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] Zi gong asked how to be benevolent. Confucius said: "if a craftsman wants to produce good work, he has to sharpen his tools first. When you live in a country, you should serve those wise officers with integrity and make friends with kind people" (ibid).

Such behavioural norms with desirable valence at one end of the scale served as a good function of establishing and consolidating a stably structured social hierarchy with pre-identified relations among the members. However, what Gu (1990) does not mention in his argument on the social ideology at that time, the existence of which is crucial to the understanding of the advancement of individual wants in that period, is the Hundred Schools of Thought. This term refers to an era of great cultural and intellectual expansion in China that lasted from 770 to 222B.C, during which various schools of thought and their representative philosophers contended with each other and produced classic texts that have had profound influence on Chinese lifestyle and social consciousness (Graham, 1989). Besides Confucianism, Taoism is another highly significant stream of thought at the time, represented by Lao Zi who has been honoured as the prime patriarch of the school, and Zhuang Zi as a later disciple. The focus of Taoism is on the individual within the natural realm rather than the individual within society (Watson, 1996). Taoism provided an alternative to Confucianism. The Taoist has no concern for affairs of the state, for mundane or quotidian matters of administration, or for elaborate ritual; rather Taoism encourages avoiding public engagement in order to search for a vision of the transcendental world of the self (Hooker, 19963). Zhuang zi, in his work, through imaginative descriptions, conveyed an unconquerable desire to go beyond any mundane affairs, interactions and constraints, in order to pursue an absolute self freedom (cf. Zhuang zi's "A Happy Excursion"). Actually, in its self-aspect, Taoism has gone much farther than any Western conceptualisations. It explicitly dissuades people from acting in line with their social attributes, disengaging from public duties.

The Taoists were inclined to oscillate between the two extremes of affirming man's value as an individual and denying his value as a member of society; but they came to reject utterly the Confucian doctrine of family with all that it implied of social duties, ethical beliefs and decorous behaviour. (Balazs 1964, p. 234)

Taoism provides the best evidence that even in feudal times, the ideology that focuses on the self rather than one's dependence on the group does play an important role in influencing individual behaviour in Far East cultures as the influence of Taoism has spread far beyond China.

At the beginning of the 20th century, China witnessed a decline in the dominance of feudalism. The new capitalist ideology and the revolutionary movement led by Dr. Sun Yat-sen ushered China into a new era. Regarding the social status quo at that time, some Western critics described the Chinese people "as such a primitive people that we do not have even the elementary concept of liberty" (Sun, 1924, p. 285, translated by Shihlien) while others compared the Chinese people to scattered sands. Sun argues that

Briefly speaking, freedom means that one may act according to his own will. The closest Chinese expression is fang tang pu chi, i.e., loosely acting without restraint. When the individual members of a group are fang tang pu chi, that group must be unintegrated like scattered sands and the members must have the greatest possible freedom ... Since the Chinese people have had the greatest possible freedom for thousands of years, it has not been necessary to pay much attention to the theory of liberty. Consequently in our language there is not even the term 'liberty' ... the Chinese people do not realise the importance of liberty, because in China it is as abundant as air. (Sun, 1924, pp. 294-295, translated by Shihlien)

From Sun's comment, we can see his definition of freedom (liberty) is very similar to Brown and Levinson's (1987) negative face wants of freedom of action and free from imposition. According to him, it is clear that the Chinese people in the 20th century were enjoying the greatest satisfaction of their desire for autonomy.

After the establishment of the People's Republic of China, particularly since the opening policy was adopted, China has gradually been integrated into a global cultural environment and has been influenced by Western cultures to an unprecedented extent. The focus on the individual, which was never an alien concept to the Chinese in line with the above analysis, has become more prominent. This article will use an example from Spencer-Oatey's (2000) data to investigate the notion of negative face in contemporary Chinese culture, though Spencer-Oatey analyses the data solely from the rapport management perspective.

Example (4) 2

One morning, a British teacher of English as a Foreign Language was observing a reading class at a university in China. The teacher of the reading class was an experienced Chinese member of staff, and the students were all in-service teachers of English. It was the Chinese teacher's first lesson with the class. During the course of the lesson, she asked the students in turn to read part of a passage aloud and to answer the questions she posed. If students tried to query her feedback to their answers, she avoided any discussion and simply moved on to the next student. The class became increasingly uncomfortable with this style of teaching and eventually one student challenged the teacher, asking "Why do we have to read the passage aloud? And why don't you discuss our queries? What you're doing is not at all useful for us!' Both the teacher and the students were shocked by the remarks, and the atmosphere was extremely strained for the rest of the lesson. (Spencer-Oatey 2000, p. 11)

This example illustrates the crucial importance of face and the individual's strong desire to act according to personal will and free from imposition. The Chinese teacher demonstrated her unchallengeable will to teach the class in a way that she might have been used to for years regardless of the specific needs of the students. This negative face want was supported by the power derived from her identity as a teacher. In addition, because of cultural underpinnings, in China, teachers are not normally questioned and challenged by students regarding their teaching style. Thus in this case, the face loss was particularly salient. On the other hand, the student seemed to be very determined in reminding the teacher of the students' needs and challenging her to change her style. The bald-on-record utterance 'What you're doing is not at all useful for us!' entailed an extremely strong face threatening act. Despite the constraints of social norms, the Chinese student still delivered his/her message in a most direct way without any redressive action.

From the above analysis of the development in China of the concept describing an individual's desire for free actions without constraints, I argue that Brown and Levinson's (1987) negative face notion not only applies to Chinese culture, but also constitutes an inherent part of Chinese people's ideology from ancient times to today. This provides important theoretical support to the proposition that Brown and Levinson's (1987) face model is suitable to unpackage people's politeness interactions in Chinese culture, and there is no need to treat Chinese face separately via establishing maxims as Gu (1990) attempts to, or via conceptualisations departing from the differences between Lian and Mianzi as Mao (1994) does.

A common issue of Far East scholars' criticism of the notion of negative face is that they seem to deny the suitability of the notion by highlighting the normative feature of Far East cultures. It is argued in this article that the normative aspect of Far East societies in itself does not forbid or eliminate the existence of an individual's wants of freedom of action and free from imposition. Instead, it produces an influence over people's assessment of contextual factors and choice of politeness strategies, hence their manner of negotiating the wants. This actually demonstrates the impact of cultural variables on interlocutors' face negotiation in Far East cultures rather than providing evidence for the argument that negative face notion is not applicable to those cultures. To further illustrate this, it would be helpful to break down the normative aspect into specific factors so that we can examine how they impact on people's face negotiation patterns in Far East cultures. Schwartz et al.'s (2001) conceptualisation of value constructs across cultures could shed light on how to unpackage the normative aspect of Far East cultures.

The social psychologist, Shalom Schwarts has developed a universal framework of value constructs that has been empirically validated across cultures. In the study, he found 10 different value constructs that emerged in the majority of cultures. Table 1 explains the meaning of each value construct and lists associated illustrative value items.

In the framework, the value constructs of tradition, conformity and security underpin the normative aspect of a social culture which is argued to be the dominant feature of Far East cultures. Hence, in these cultures, an individual is expected, in negotiating his/her wants, to take into account cultural traditions, social norms and harmony and stability in relationships with others, which inevitably impact on the individual's use of linguistic politeness strategies. To further examine how these cultural values influence people in their choice of strategies, we use three exchanges from the Chinese film The Story of Qiuju (1992) as the data.

Data: Impact of Normative Cultural Values on People's Use of Politeness Strategies

The film depicts a strong-willed Chinese village woman, Qiuju, who defies social prejudice and is determined to fulfil her wants of having the village chief apologise for kicking her husband. Qiuju refuses to accept the mediation settlement from the village, the district and the city police forces and insists on an apology from the village chief in person, which constitutes a salient negative face want. However, the normative aspect of Chinese culture promotes that an individual, when resolving interpersonal conflicts with others, is expected to demonstrate the value constructs of 'tradition', 'conformity' and 'security', i.e., to accept the customs, to conform to the social norms and to maintain harmony in relationships with others. Hence, in such a context, Qiujuis obliged to acknowledge those values at least at a linguistic level when negotiating her wants. The following conversation takes place between Qiuju and police officer Li who is in charge of resolving the dispute. She explains that she and her husband intended to build some sheds on the land for growing chillies but the village chief keeps refusing their applications. In the exchange re-produced in the following table, ftl (he) refers to the village chief.

In the exchange, both Qiuju and Li's utterances demonstrate their acknowledgement of the value constructs of 'tradition', 'conformity' and 'security' and indicate their willingness to negotiate within these governing values. For example, Qiuju implies, in line 2, her intention to conform to the legal stipulation, using a mitigating particle [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] which is often applied by village people in eliciting the hearer's agreement and sympathy. Qiuju then goes on to stress the village chief's behaviour (in line 3) as violating the value of 'tradition' , because in line with the tradition and his professional duty, he is expected to disseminate legal rules among his village people. Qiuju also seems to believe that the village chief is not upholding the social value of 'security', according to which he is expected to maintain a stable relationship with the people in the village. Qiuju's account of the village chief's behaviour that contradicts the social values forms an off-record FTA to his positive face of being perceived as a competent, reasonable and considerate head of the village. In the same vein, when indicating his standpoint, Li also refers to the 'traditional' function of the land and implies the grave consequence of breaking the 'tradition' in a rhetorical question to avoid a direct FTA to Qiuju' s negative face. In persisting with her position, Qiujureverts to the values of 'conformity' and 'security' (line 6), employing the particle [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] (5) to highlight the obvious reasonableness of the off-record FTA in her utterance since the FTA merely constitutes a traditional rule of no fighting. Qiuju then initiates a bald-on-record FTA to the village chief' s face (line 7), preceding it with a negative politeness acknowledging an unscripted 'tradition' in her village, i.e., sometimes the village chief may give his village men a few non-harmful punches in disputes, and Qiuju, like the other village people, considers it acceptable and is ready to 'conform'. This negative politeness strategy also serves to protect her own face, i.e., Qiuju demonstrates that she accepts the village tradition, and her negative face wants do not fundamentally contradict the normative aspect of the social culture.

Shown in the film, through Li's mediation settlement, the village chief agrees to pay the compensation but he refuses to apologise and insults Qiuju when she goes to take the money. Qiuju brings the case to the district police who judge to maintain Li's mediation settlement. Li communicates the verdict to the village chief (Wang) and the following conversation ensues between Li and Wang.

In the interaction, since Li is in charge of resolving the dispute in the village and communicating the district verdict to Wang and Qiuju, he holds significant judicial power over them. Hence, he is in a position to use bald-on-record utterances when trying to persuade Wang to conform to the district and his judicial decision (lines 1, 3 and 4). Wang, on the other hand, in defending his position, stresses that Qiuju' s behaviour has violated the values of 'tradition' (line 8), i.e., Qiuju taking the dispute up to the district instead of resolving it in the village and 'security' (line 9), i.e., her smearing Wang's reputation in the district as he perceives. Moreover, Wang falls back on the tradition in the village to legitimise his negative face wants of not apologising, i.e., in tradition, the head of a village is a government official and represents the government, so he holds the absolute authority over his village people and is always right; should the tradition be broken, he would lose his authority in running the village (lines 11-12). Maybe encouraged by a moral righteousness in his view, Wang insists his negative face want of not apologising in an off-record way (line 15) despite Li's judicial power and bald-on-record orders.

Unsatisfied with the district's verdict, Qiujufinally takes the dispute up to the city police. Then, her husband Qinglai starts to question the appropriateness of her persistence. He voices his concern of how they may be thought of by the fellow villagers and treated by the chief in the future. Qiuju demonstrates her disdain towards his concerns.

In the exchange, Qinglai's utterance reflects the influence of social 'conformity' and 'security' on his face concerns. In response, Qiuju expresses her defiance for power (lines 1-2) and no intention to conform (line 4) in a bald-on-record manner before she declares her negative face wants in a most direct and determined way.


In this article, I reviewed Gu's (1990) and Mao's (1994) criticism of Brown and Levinson's (1987) face notion. It is found that Gu's (1990) politeness maxims prescribed for regulating Chinese interactions are flawed and lack a descriptive capacity in unpackaging dynamic face interactions in Chinese culture. Moreover, he does not explain why Brown and Levinson's (1987) negative face notion is not applicable to Chinese culture, despite the claim. It is also discovered in the review that Mao (1994) confines his conceptualisation of Chinese face to a lexical level by dwelling on Hu's (1994) distinction of Lian and Mianzi which lacks accuracy and cannot stand the test of dynamic interactional data. It is proposed, in this article, to lift the research on Chinese face to a socio-pragmatic realm and use culture as the explanatory variable. Through a historical review of the development of Chinese culture, it is found that wants of freedom of action and free from imposition do constitute an inherent part of Chinese people's ideology from the past to the present. Hence, it is argued that Brown and Levinson's face notion and face model can be applied to explain Chinese face interactions and there is no need to treat Chinese face separately in politeness research. I also point out that the normative feature of Far East cultures demonstrates the impact of cultural variables on interlocutors' face negotiation rather than provides evidence for the inapplicability of the negative face notion to those cultures which underpins Far East scholars' criticism of the notion. Three exchanges from the Chinese film provide valid data showing that Chinese people do have negative face wants and their use of linguistic strategies for negotiating the negative face wants is influenced by the normative feature of the social culture.


(1.) The exchange is transcribed into a tabulated format for the ease of reading. Word-for-word translation of the utterances into English is provided in the normal font while idiomatic translation in italics. The Arabic numerals indicate the order of utterances and are used in the analysis to represent the corresponding utterance.

(2.) "Face"--the English translation of the Chinese terms lian [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] and mianzi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]--was first introduced by Arthur Smith in his book entitled Chinese Characteristics published in 1894. (Hu, 1944, p.48)

(3.) Hooker, R., 2006. Chinese Philosophy: Taoism. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 10 March2008].

(4.) This example is from Spencer-Oatey's (2000) personal experience.

(5.) In face effect, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] has a similar function to that of the negative politeness strategy of "stating the FTA as a general rule" (Brown and Levinson, 1987, p. 206) in that both of them communicate S's intention not to impinge and the FTA merely constitutes some reasonable act, objective fact or general obligation that has to be carried out.


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Schwartz, S. H. et al. (2001). Extending the Cross-Cultural Validity of the Theory of Basic Human Values with a Different Method of Measurement. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 32(5), 51942.

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Correspondence to:

Dr. Yuan Xiaohui

C49 School of Cultures, Languages and Area Studies

University of Nottingham

University Park


Example (1) 1

        But this gift, sent too heavy. Who too receive not can.
        But this gift is too much. Who can accept it?

        Oh, this is you and Mayor Li half year dividend.
        Oh, this is the dividend for you and Mayor Li
        for the half year.

        You then drop heart accept it. Not will burn hand.
        Don't worry. There will not be troubles.

        Dividend? 300,000all is dividend?
        Dividend? Is all 300,000 dividend?

        Correct. As long as is Tegaote's directors,
        all have dividend.
        Yes. All Tegaote's directors have dividend.

        Cao Mr. this money we not can take.
        Mr. Cao, we can't accept the money.

        If later you have matters, we will help.
        We will help in the future if necessary.

        But now this do to everyone not good.
        But doing this does no good to anyone.

        To whom not good? Me? He he...
        To whom? To me? He he... (sneering)

        I am a businessman. Not matter.
        I am a businessman. It doesn't matter.

Table 1. Schwartz et al.'s value constructs and their associated
qualities (based on Schwartz et al., 2001, p.270)

Value construct    Explanation

Power              social status and prestige, control or
                   dominance over people and resources

Achievement        personal success through demonstrating
                   competence according to social standards

Hedonism           pleasure and sensuous gratification for oneself

Stimulation        excitement, novelty and challenge in life

Self-direction     independent thought and creating, exploring

Universalism       understanding, appreciation, tolerance and
                   protection for the welfare of all people and
                   for nature

Benevolence        preservation and enhancement of the welfare of
                   people with whom one is in frequent personal

Tradition          respect, commitment and acceptance of the
                   customs and ideas that traditional culture of
                   religion provide the self

Conformity         restraint of actions, inclinations and impulse
                   likely to upset or harm others and violate
                   social expectations or norms

Security           safety, harmony and stability of society,
                   relationship and of self

Value construct    Illustrative component values

Power              social power authority wealth

Achievement        Success, competence, accomplishment

Hedonism           Pleasure, self-indulgence

Stimulation        variety daring adventurous

Self-direction     freedom, independence, creativity

Universalism       equality, harmony, justice

Benevolence        helpfulness, loyalty, responsibility

Tradition          humility, respect for tradition

Conformity         obedience, self-discipline, proper
                   behaviour, respect for elders

Security           health and security for the family
                   and the nation

Example 3

         he says there is some document
         He said 'there is a legal document'.

         I say you have document OK, you have document give me look
         I said 'if you have a legal document, that's fine,
         show it to me'.

         he says no use show me look document, he says he is document
         He said 'I don't need to show you the document.
         I am the document.'

         this you not say, really there is this document.
         Mind you, there is indeed such a legal document.

         land is growing crops, all in land grow chillies, we eat what
         The land is for growing crops. If we all grow chillies on
         the land, how could we have crops?

         then document not write beating people this rule.
         There is no rule in the document allowing to beat someone up.

         he is village chief, just beat twice nothing, he not can
         randomly fatal part kick.
         He is the village chief. It's OK if he just throws a few
         punches. He can't just kick someone's groin if he wants.

Example 4

       I to you say, this time you listen to me, ok?
       I tell you, this time you follow what I say.


       return give Qiuju couple say some Mianzi word
       When you go back to your village, say some nice words to
       Qiuju and her husband, even just for face sake.

       this matter then end, ok?
       Then, that is it, ok?

       Mianzi word, Mianzi word how say?
       Nice words, how to say nice words?

       you see, you see, everyone all busy, for this matter I
       have run good several times
       You know, everyone is busy. I have been to your village
       quite a few times to settle this matter.

       you see this, just now district verdict you saw you
       listened, you not lose face?
       You see, you have already heard and read the verdict from
       the district yourself, don't you feel you are losing face?

       officer Li, you say, what matter our village resolve not?
       You see, Office Li, what matter cannot be resolved in
       our village?

       rely what to district to smear my reputation.
       Why on earth she thinks she can smear my reputation
       in the district.

       for god's sake, she is not wanting to do what to you...
       For God's sake, it is not that she wants to smear you...

       again say, I big small to is an official
       Moreover, I am more or less an official.

       I in village today after not can work
       How can I run the village in the future!

       she too not want do what to you, she just want a justice.
       She does not want to smear you. She just wants an apology.

       you return give her a justice. OK?
       You go back and give her an apology, OK?

       money I give, justice.. justice I whatever think not through.
       I am willing to give money. Apology... apology, I just
       cannot get this straight in my head.

Example 5

           he village chief what
           He is the village chief, so what?

           he village chief carelessly to people lower body kick?
           He can kick a man's groin and not care about the
           consequence just because he is the village chief?

           again this do, other people all fell we not good
           deal people
           If we continue to persist like this, others willl feel
           that we are not easy to get along with.

           other not other people I not care.
           I don't care what others think.

           I exactly want a justice.
           I am going to ask for an apology.
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Author:Yuan, Xiaohui
Publication:China Media Research
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Jan 1, 2013
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