Miànzi, Kèqi and Xiào - Insights into the Chinese business psyche
Volume 4 Number 1 January 2006
Miànzi, Kèqi And Xiào: Insights Into The Chinese
By Andrew M. Williamson, Visiting Tutor, Business School, City College Norwich
Introduction suffering retaliation; and losing the respect of
This article examines how the values of bystanders and everyone else whom the
miànzi (face), kèqi (humility/modesty) and other person tells, all of which will
xiào (filial piety) may influence how the consequently cause you too to lose miànzi. In
Chinese do business with Westerners, the such an event: seek the counsel of a Chinese
key to which, guanxi (special relationship) intermediary as to how to restore miànzi, both
was explored in the previous issue of this of the other person and your own.
bulletin (Williamson, 2005). Thus, to save miànzi, yours and others'; any
Since both articles are based on my book: 'criticism' should be positive; and delivered
'The Chinese Business Puzzle' [How To privately, discreetly and tactfully (i.e. in a
Books, Oxford, 2003], the background and mutually miànzi-saving manner, akin to the
caveat to the first also apply here. Western one minute reprimand), which
makes a veritable minefield of reviewing and
Concept of miànzi disciplining Chinese colleagues.
The concept of the first value, 'face' or
miànzi, differs between distinct languages Case Study 1 - Miànzi
and cultures; and in the context of China has One of my first challenges in China (in 1997)
been variously defined as: was to relocate our territorial head office from
“Self-respect, prestige and reputation." Hong Kong to Beijing and amalgamate it with
(Concise Chinese-English Dictionary our local representative office, hence an
(1986) and New Chinese-English immediately miànzi'-threatening situation for
Dictionary (1996)) our female Chinese Chief Representative in
"Honour, integrity, privilege, respect Beijing who, until then, had been the
and courtesy from others." (Welcome company's most senior executive there.
to China, 2002) To complicate matters: the local authorities
"The regard in which one is held by were slow to legalise my status as Director
others or the light in which one for China, another potentially miànzi-
appears. "(Seligman, 1997, p.50) threatening situation for her should they insist
"An intangible commodity that is vital on re-designating me as Chief
to a person's reputation, dignity and Representative for Beijing and, subsequently,
prestige."(Seligman, 1999, p. 198) relegating her to a lower status.
In other words: miànzi is quite simply a To maintain miànzi, hers and mine, the two-
Chinese person's 'status'; and to lose it, and pronged strategy I successfully adopted was
incur shame, is the worst thing that can befall to:
them. 1. 'Work' alongside and under the tutelage
Whilst this may seem similar to elsewhere in of my Beijing colleague for several days,
the world, what distinguishes miànzi is that it in order to:
can be not only 'lost', 'saved' or 'won', but x Establish my miànzi through personal
also 'given' by others. effort rather than by edict from my
Losing and saving miànzi x Give her miànzi by being willing to
Never treat the Chinese (i.e. friends, learn from her.
colleagues or strangers) in any way that 2. Talk at length and in private with my
would publicly demean them and thus cause colleague, giving miànzi to her by:
them to lose miànzi. Otherwise, you run the x ‘Acknowledging’ her achievements.
very real risk of: losing their co-operation;
26 The Research Centre, City College Norwich
The Research and Development Bulletin
Mercedes, it was remarkable how quickly the
x ‘Confirming’ her existing rank and traffic police made way for me pass through
accountabilities. the milling crowds).
x ‘Agreeing’ future divisions of shared
responsibilities, based on our Giving miànzi
respective strengths. In China (as mentioned above), miànzi may
x ‘Sharing’ my concerns for her miànzi. be given to someone by a third party (e.g.
x ‘Seeking’ her advice on how to when person A praises person B's work to
resolve the issue. the latter's boss). In particular, the Chinese
In other words: to sell, not tell, as a result of lay special store on miànzi given to them by
which, she not only recognised that my role 'foreigners', whom they may consequently
was sufficiently distinct as not to undermine and subsequently regard with particular
her own, but also undertook to present a favour.
case to the competent authority to legalise
my status. Whose miànzi is it anyway?
In theory: based on the Confucian Golden
Case Study 2 Rule of 'reciprocity', the Chinese try to protect
Shortly afterwards, on moving into brand new miànzi; each others' as well as their own. In
premises which she had helped to choose, I practice, however, miànzi is so important to
had to resolve the miànzi-challenging them that some may care far more about
problem of allocating the private offices, their own than that of foreigners and try to
including that next to mine which, based on save the former at the expense of the latter,
the concept of xiào, described below, she even their boss (laoban). In such an event, I
assumed would be hers when, in fact, I had have found that the best (i.e. mutually miànzi-
different ideas for operational reasons. saving) defence is to invoke miànzi by proxy,
To maintain miànzi, hers and mine, the two-
stage strategy successfully adopted was to:
Miànzi by proxy
x 'Initially': I gave her the office next to
mine and designated the one where I In the same way as your personal guanxi (i.e.
eventually wished to locate her as relationship) with someone also represents
reserved for my Guangzhou-based the guanxi between your and their
Chinese Deputy Director during his organisation (Williamson, 2005), so your own
weekly visits to Beijing. miànzi is also your employer's miànzi, and
vice-versa. Thus, in certain circumstances,
x 'Later', when the latter's role diminished: I
the miànzi that you win or lose may reflect
offered her, as the next most senior
vicariously on your known or close associates
member of staff, the Deputy's vacant
and/or employer by basking in reflected glory
office, and re-assigned the office next-
or cowering in reflected shame, such as
door to an expatriate, in order to avoid
experienced by the members of a winning or
appearing to show favouritism amongst
losing work team, respectively.
the Chinese staff.
This is where miànzi meets guanxi and
In other words: 'slowly, slowly catchy
collectivism: since the actions of individuals
reflect not only on themselves, but also on all
of their immediate group and close
Gaining miànzi associates, your being linked to others' failure
Whilst losing or saving miànzi implies the could undermine your own guanxi, as no-one
active involvement of a third-party (as wants to be tainted by failure, albeit vicarious
described above), gaining miànzi is (Williamson, 2005).
something that you can independently On the other hand, sharing in 'others'
instigate, typically by acquiring status success' may not necessarily build your
symbols (e.g. when I was fortuitously the first guanxi (e.g. shortly after I took delivery of a
person in Beijing to own a new E-Class new Mercedes, mentioned above, my driver
The Research Centre, City College Norwich 27
Volume 4 Number 1 January 2006
invited me to his village house outside Harmony
Beijing, where I was royally entertained, Although the last tactic may appear
whilst he stood outside proudly guarding the underhand by Western standards, it could
car where all his neighbours could see it). equally be a case of a dishonourable means
justifying an honourable end, such as:
Saying "No" sparing the other person's miànzi. Indeed,
A sure-fire way of scuppering your dealings unlike in the West, the Chinese do not
with the Chinese is for you to say, or put consider 'lying' to be wholly dishonourable if
them in a situation where they are compelled used to 'avoid conflict' and 'preserve
to say, a bald 'No' (e.g. when responding to harmony' in personal relations, which
or asking for an 'impossible favour', transcend each party's peculiar version of the
respectively). truth, whatever that may be. As a general
Not only will this cause a mutual loss of rule, in such cases, the greater good of the
miànzi, with the attendant risks mentioned other outweighs the interests of self, another
above; but also shut the door to further instance of miànzi meeting guanxi and
discussion, since 'no' means 'no' to the collectivism.
Chinese, for whom any later change of mind
or heart would be a sign of weakness and, Case Study 3
thus, a further loss of miànzi. In mid-1997, a number of European
'No' is the antithesis of guanxi: once broken, governments publicly criticised China's record
a relationship is hard to re-establish. You on human rights just as I was supposed to
should, therefore, leave yourself a way out accompany our international Chief Executive
and forward by taking a leaf out their book on Officer (CEO) to a series of pre-arranged
tactics for saying 'no', described below, meetings in Beijing with some very senior
based on their preferring 'circumlocution' to Chinese government officials. As a result, we
'blunt speaking', a fault they perceive in, and ran the real miànzi'-losing risk that, by way of
for which they criticise, Western reprisal and/or out of embarrassment, the
entrepreneurs and negotiators. Chinese might decide to cancel the meetings
and/or field less senior officials.
Chinese tactics for saying "No" Fortunately the CEO had just broken his leg,
Rather than: The Chinese prefer to: which gave him a miànzi-saving pre-emptive
reason for postponing our flight to China on
the advice of his doctor. To dispel any doubt,
Bluntly saying "no" Employ polite excuses he hosted a pre-arranged dinner for the
of the "/ will get back to Chinese ambassador a few days later with
you on that' type (such
his leg in plaster. In this way, he saved
as: "so-and-so is
everyone's miànzi, ours and the Chinese.
discussed or under
consideration") Making mistakes
The Chinese will use identical tactics to hide
Blatantly Proffer counter-
or disown 'mistakes'.
disagreeing suggestions of the
"alternatively, have you
thought of so-and-so?" Case Study 4
type In late 2002, I briefed a very senior UK civil
servant prior to his leading a delegation to
Saying anything Prefer to suck in air
China to re-negotiate a Memorandum of
through clenched teeth,
Understanding (MOU) with the Chinese
to give you time to think
During the negotiations, the leader of the UK
Giving up or failing Tell an abject or white delegation invited his Chinese counterpart to
lie visit a government research facility in Britain
and asked whether he had been there before,
28 The Research Centre, City College Norwich
The Research and Development Bulletin
to which the latter replied: 'Yes' when, in fact, Chinese colleague whose sphere of guanxi
he had not. Shortly afterwards, the second- was such that:
ranking Chinese took aside the leader of the x Antagonising him might result in his bad-
UK delegation and puzzled him for some five mouthing me in local government.
minutes explaining how and why the Chinese x Not dismissing him could throw doubt on
do not always say what they mean before my credibility and integrity in business
eventually reaching the inevitable miànzi- circles.
saving conclusion that when his boss had To ensure a satisfactory outcome for all
said: 'Yes' what he actually meant was 'No'. parties, my successful strategy was to:
In other words, his 'Yes' was in response to
x 'Win' the support of my Chinese Deputy,
the invitation (i.e. 'Yes, I would like to come')
whom the colleague and I trusted and
rather than to the question as in: 'Yes, I have
x 'Ask' him to act as a go-between,
In this way miànzi was maintained. The
suggesting to the colleague that he
Chinese host had neither made a mistake nor
consider retiring early.
misunderstood the exchange. His answer
was still the same: it just needed to be x 'Agree' subsequently to meet the
clarified, to ensure the meaning was colleague to agree terms.
unambiguous. x 'Inform' other staff that their colleague had
indeed taken early retirement.
In accordance with the Confucian model of Rules of miànzi
how the Superior Man should behave From research as well as personal
(Confucius, no date, 16:10), the Chinese are experience, the main advice that I normally
conditioned to control their emotions to such give to Westerners regarding the rules of
an extent that Westerners consider them miànzi may be summarised as follows:
inscrutable; surprisingly, the feeling is mutual. Always:
Thus, as intimated above, losing your temper x Avoid conflict and preserve harmony.
is miànzi-losing behaviour and, hence, not x Resolve conflicts privately, discreetly,
acceptable in China. Indeed, it may tactfully and using positive criticism.
exacerbate the situation, by making your x Ask sensitive questions in private.
opponent even more determined not to grant x Respect rank and title.
your request, as well as losing respect for
x Give miànzi.
Instead, you should: x Offer a miànzi-saving way out.
x State your annoyance and reasons
objectively. x Reprimand, criticise, embarrass, insult,
make insulting remarks about, offend,
x Allow the other person a miànzi- saving
lose your temper with, shout at, behave
disrespectfully towards, prove wrong
One such method is to use a mutually
anyone in public.
acceptable intermediary to convey bad news
which, in China, is not a cop out under such x Say 'no'.
circumstances, but an acceptable mutually
miànzi-saving form of mediation. Concept of kèqi
This is especially true when a foreigner The Chinese consider it impolite to be
needs to give bad news to a Chinese, to arrogant and brag about yourself or your
avoid the added indignation of losing miànzi guanxi. Rather, they espouse the opposing,
to a foreign devil. second value of kèqi, which not only means
considerate, polite and well-mannered
Case Study 5 behaviour, but also represents humbleness
Unfortunately, I had to dismiss a senior
The Research Centre, City College Norwich 29
Volume 4 Number 1 January 2006
and modesty. The expression is most often famous steamed pork and preserved
used in the negative, as in 'buyao kèqi’ vegetable dish, which she always
meaning: 'you shouldn't be so kind and polite served with special pride. "Ai! This
to me1 or 'you're welcome1 (Travel Essentials dish not salty enough, no flavour," she
(2002). complained, after tasting a small bite.
"It is too bad to eat." This was our
Application of kèqi family's cue to eat some and proclaim
As one of the virtues expected of the it the best she had ever made. But
Confucian Superior Man, kèqi has evolved before we could do so, Rich said, "You
into a series of public displays of modesty, know, all it needs is a little soy sauce."
such as: And he proceeded to pour a riverful of
When: The Chinese may the salty black stuff on the platter, right
say: before my mother's horrified
eyes."(Tan, 1989, p. 197).
They serve you a "/ hope you like our
sumptuous and simple food! We are
magnificent home- very poor and
cooked banquet unadventurous cooks" One purpose of kèqi is ritually to cede
superiority to others by praising them and
You compliment "You flatter me! I took deprecating oneself, in accordance with the
them on their so little care and practice of hierarchism, explained below.
handiwork (for m a d e so many However, although ritualistic, such displays
example: painting or mistakes, that I was are not necessarily always false modesty or
model-making) going to throw it away
hollow flattery as some sceptics might think.
because it's so bad"
The mere fact that the Chinese bother to
You compliment "You're too kind: I observe their code of gentlemanly behaviour
their s o n ' s don't think anybody when dealing with unequal foreign devils is in
achievement (for else turned up for the itself a sufficient demonstration of genuine
example: acting, or audition or applied for respect.
promotion) the job". That is not to say, however, that the Chinese
Not to mention the ritual three-fold refusal of do not use false modesty or hollow flattery,
gifts (outside the scope of this paper), which they may do to put you in your place.
normally followed by acceptance. For example:
As Chairman Mao said: When you, in halting Chinese, compliment
"We should be modest and prudent, their genuinely excellent command of your
guard against arrogance and rashness language and they reply "But not as good as
and serve the Chinese people with your spoken Chinese" or "your Chinese
heart and soul". (Mao, 1945, p. 253) calligraphy makes mine look like a child's
Foreigners should follow suit. For example: scrawl": do not be fooled, but check your ego.
when complimented on your spoken In fact, they may really mean the opposite
Chinese, you should reply along the lines of: and be just trying it on in line with the
"Thank you, but my grammar and Western saying that: 'flattery will get you
pronunciation are very bad", rather than anywhere'.
boast about having a first-class degree in the
language from an ivy-league University. For Concept of xiào
example: The concept of the third and last value, xiào
"The worst was when Rich criticised or 'filial piety', is fundamental to Confucianism
my mother's cooking, and he didn't and expressed as:
even know what he had done. As is "In serving his parents, a son may
the Chinese cook's custom, my remonstrate with them, but gently;
mother always made disparaging when he sees that they do not incline
remarks about her own cooking. That to follow his advice, he shows an
night she chose to direct it toward her increased degree of reverence, but
30 The Research Centre, City College Norwich
The Research and Development Bulletin
does not abandon his purpose; and long after the work relationship has ended, as
should they punish him, he does not a means of giving miànzi (e.g. my Chinese
allow himself to murmur". (Confucius, ex-Personal Assistant (PA) still occasionally
no date, 4:18) addresses me in English as 'my boss').
Consequently, the Chinese are conditioned to
respect social order and in particular, are Rules of laobanism
taught to respect age and seniority and defer In my experience as one, the laoban always
to authority, age and rank. expects and is expected to:
x Never make mistakes, but be right every
Dead men's shoes time, if only by virtue of being older, even
In the past, one way in which respect for age when obviously wrong: that is why (s)he
and seniority traditionally manifested itself is the boss, otherwise (s)he would not be.
was the dead men's shoes method of x Because infallible, never change his/her
promotion, (i.e. you rise through the ranks to mind, nor openly be challenged, which
fill the gaps left by your elders). In other would be a loss of miànzi.
words: experience and advancement are a x Make every decision - the Chinese
function of age not competence. In the future, workers' means of upward delegation.
however, this practice may change in
x Arrive last and leave first, and certainly
accordance with the eighth of Jiang Zemin's
no-one should leave until (s)he has done
Eight Dos and Don'ts. when Head of State in
2002 (Zemin, 2002).
When the laoban is foreign and does not
Thus, the implications of xiào for business
understand the Chinese ways, the result may
may be that:
be disastrous. For example: as intimated
x 'Rank' should correlate to 'age1. For earlier, the Chinese staff may stand by and
example, bosses may (be) expect(ed) to watch the laoban make all the mistakes in
be older than their staff and the leader of the book and lose miànzi, whilst ensuring
a delegation older than its members. they do not lose their own.
x 'Remuneration' should also correlate to
age. For example, older colleagues may Case Study 6
(be) expect(ed) to earn more than During my first few months in China, I was
younger ones, even if the former are
most impressed by the dedication of the
performing identically or worse in the
Chinese staff to a company few had heard of
same or a smaller job. when applying for jobs, and whose
x Foreign 'high flyers' who are too young for international Head Office was half-way round
their seniority by Chinese standards (e.g. the globe in a country they might never visit.
say, under 50) and thus insufficiently For example: their attendance was
experienced in Chinese eyes, may at best exemplary, not only never arriving late nor
not be taken seriously and at worst be leaving early, but also, when preparing to
misconstrued as an insult by the home receive delegations from that Head Office,
office for not appointing someone of arriving early, staying as long as needed and
sufficient gravitas; an indication of the even working the odd weekend, all
apparent lack of importance that the voluntarily and unpaid. Thus, in an effort to
home office attributes to China. practise what I preach, I gave them miànzi by
praising their efforts in writing to the
Laobanism international board.
'Laobanism' is the term coined by me, as far Shortly afterwards, however, following a
as I am aware, to describe the blind discussion with my Chinese bi-lingual PA, it
obedience of subordinates to their laoban or dawned on me that perhaps the staff felt
boss, or the subjugation of truth to hierarchy, obliged to arrive before and leave after I did.
which is rife in China. Thus, it is not unusual Hence, I called them together informally to
for laoban to be addressed as such, even explain that I stayed late on certain days only
The Research Centre, City College Norwich 31
Volume 4 Number 1 January 2006
because my driver and I were waiting for my change of mind as laoban.
wife whose contract with the British Council This was the beginning of my coaching the
was outside normal office hours. So, please, Chinese management team to develop a
it was perfectly all right for them to go home culture where they could make mistakes and
on time. change their minds, without losing miànzi in
For the next few days, they did as they were the eyes of their subordinates.
bid; but gradually slipped back into their old
ways, despite my emerging from my office at Business hierarchy
closing-time to encourage them to leave. In business, hierarchical distinctions (i.e. rank
Eventually, I had to resign myself to the and status) are important to the Chinese and
situation - after all I was getting real value for at the root of China's bureaucratic structures.
money - but tried to compromise by leaving Thus, to save miànzi, yours and others, you
earlier when I could, and celebrating success should interact with people of similar rank
with a staff meal or outing when appropriate. and, therefore, 'age'. Otherwise, you may
detract from the miànzi of a more senior or
Changing your mind much older person, or lose miànzi when
If, for the average person, 'changing your dealing with a more junior or much younger
mind' is a loss of miànzi, then, for the laoban one.
it can be mistaken for a lack of ability or show
of weakness when, in fact, the opposite may Rules of business hierarchy
be true. In practice, however, such behaviour is
wholly impractical, especially in the quest for
Case Study 7 guanxi, for which reason I recommend that:
As mentioned above (Case Study 1), one of When dealing with You should behave:
my first tasks in China was to re-locate the people of:
Head Office from Hong Kong to Beijing and Higher Rank Respectfully (i.e.
amalgamate it with the Beijing deferentially and
Representative Office, which move inevitably diffidently, even
involved reviewing staffing issues. flattering the other and
Following Western management practice, deprecating yourself)
therefore, as well as being new to China, I
Lower Rank Neither as if you
decided to consult senior colleagues (i.e.
Chinese and expatriate) individually before
more important than
convening a collective brain-storming session
the other person, nor
to finalise and agree details. For the older
Chinese staff, with an average age then of
mid-40s, this was probably a new and
unheard-of method of working, albeit most Practice of business hierarchy
welcome, despite their predilection for Within the workplace, junior staff will often
consensus (Williamson, 2005). ask senior staff to sound out the laoban on
Half-way through the brain-storm, during a their behalf, rather than making a direct
coffee-break, my Chinese Deputy told me approach (e.g. drivers spend more time with
something of which I was previously the laoban than many of the staff do, as a
unaware. Consequently, on re-convening result of which it is common practice for
after the coffee break, I announced that, on employees to ask the driver to bend the
the basis of this new information, I wanted laoban's ear in the car or to eavesdrop on in-
the team to back-track and re-consider some car conversations).
of their decisions, which they did, in order to
reach better ones. Exercising Authority
Afterwards, one of my senior Chinese As a corollary of being conditioned to respect
colleagues (a female ex-Red guard) privately their elders and betters, those Chinese who
expressed to me her total shock at my fall into this category expect natural respect
32 The Research Centre, City College Norwich
The Research and Development Bulletin
in the exercise of their authority, and, Case Study 8
consequently, may feel threatened by those Shortly after arriving in China (1997), I took
Western management practices such as the opportunity to review our market entry
Empowerment and Self-Directed Team strategy in consultation with senior Chinese
working, that would turn Chinese business colleagues, a new but welcome experience
hierarchies upside down to cast the laoban in for them, as intimated above, and was
the role of facilitator with responsibilities subsequently able to present a revised
rather than of leader with privileges. Similarly, strategic plan to my international board with
some Chinese staff may at best be confused their full backing, which undoubtedly
by, and at worst lose respect for, a foreign contributed to its acceptance. Later, as a
laoban who tries to be one of the boys. miànzi-giving means of giving credit where
credit was due, I invited them to meet the
Deferring to Authority international General Manager (GM), during
Self-deprecation and deferring to authority his visit to Beijing and present their
must be interpreted in the afore-mentioned contribution to him so that he might commend
contexts. On occasions, therefore, the them.
Chinese may fail to recognise and hence take When it came to the turn of a senior middle-
genuine opportunities that you offer to them aged male colleague, he immediately
to behave otherwise in their best interests. deferred to my Chinese Deputy as his line
For example, it was not uncommon for my manager and asked him to speak on his
middle-aged Chinese colleagues to present behalf. If this surprised and disappointed us,
me with a problem and expect me to solve it imagine how much more surprised but
for them, however, they were not normally pleased we were when another colleague of
averse to suggesting a solution, once asked. equal rank but younger challenged the same
line manager by taking issue with something
Paternalism he had said as being inaccurate. The former
Such exercise of or deference to authority is missed the opportunity to impress the GM:
not always limited to work-related issues. the latter did so without even realising.
Thus, the paternalistic nature of the
relationship between employees and the Social Hierarchy
laoban, flowing from the Confucian concept When discussing jobs and careers, do not be
of xiào, means that the latter may freely surprised by an apparently inverted social
advise, or be consulted by, the former about hierarchy, in Western terms, left over from
their personal matters, a practice that Maoism (e.g. whilst practising conversational
contradicts those Western management Chinese with my first driver, I struggled to
traditions that advocate keeping personal explain that my father had been a doctor,
problems out of the workplace. However, in only to be trounced by the driver who replied,
China, a good laoban is one who looks after with obvious pride and superiority, that his
his employees' general welfare, not out of father was a peasant).
altruism, but for the collective good of the
whole staff, since a happy worker is a References
productive one. Bond, M. J. (1991). Beyond the Chinese Face:
Insights from Psychology. Bond, Oxford University
Conformity and Disagreement Press.
From the foregoing, it will come as no Concise Chinese-English Dictionary (1986).
surprise to learn that the basic rule is 'Honor Concise Chinese-English Dictionary. Oxford
the hierarchy first, your vision of the truth
Confucius (no date). The Analects.
second' (Bond, 1991, p.83). Since the
Tiananmen incident of 1989, however, there cts.html [accessed 20.12.05].
is less reserve amongst younger Chinese to
challenge authority as described in Case
The Research Centre, City College Norwich 33