Chinese idea of face vs. the politeness theory

Shengwen Xu

In our textbook, the politeness theory is introduced. Brown and Levinson’s politeness theory (1987) analyzes how we deal with each other’s face wants. They divide people’s face wants into two types, negative and positive. Negative face is “the want of every competent adult member of a community that their actions be unimpeded by others”; while positive face is “the want of every member that their wants be desirable to at least some others.” (Brown & Levinson 1987:62) They assume not only that these operate in almost all languages and cultures, but also that the need to protect alter’s negative face and to defend ego’s positive face are important functions of politeness in all languages and cultures. (Nwoye, B. G., 1992)

China is a country that values politeness very much or even people are proud of the long history and traditional practice of politeness. Among the core concepts of Confucianism, benevolence, righteousness, courtesy, wisdom and sincerity are the five most essential virtues. Therefore, politeness has deeply rooted in Chinese culture and Chinese people have developed detailed criteria and rules for language use and behaviors to define politeness. Another important term related to politeness is face, which is actually a word borrowed by English from Chinese. In a YouTube video, the concept of face for Chinese people is vividly described: “The concept of face can be loosely described as someone’s social status or reputation in the eyes of others. Throughout a Chinese person’s life it must be maintained and enhanced through giving to and receiving from others in both words and actions. It may be something as small as who gets in the lift first to the awarding of multi-million dollar contracts. But without it you will have very little power or influence. To make someone lose face or even unknowingly, is a huge offence and could mean the end of a relationship.”

Brown and Levinson have tried to create a model that is of universality and can explain politeness phenomena in all different cultures. However, there have been arguments. Brown and Levinson’s idea of politeness and face is more about an individual, as the terms used are “wants” and “desires” concerning the self image of an individual; while the Chinese concept of politeness and face tend to focus more on the community. A frequent used term is harmony, so the Chinese concept of politeness and face is closely connected to the views of the community and to the community’s judgement. Another difference lies in the content of face. When one obtains face in Chinese, one wins a recognition not so much of one’s claim to freedom of action as of one’s claim to the respect or prestige of the community. (Mao, 1994) The Chinese concept of face reflects the Chinese culture, whose basic entity is a community rather than an individual, therefore, it is often advocated the subordination of an individual to a community. As the core concepts differ in several ways, the model proposed by Brown and Levinson’s politeness theory may not explain very well the idea of politeness and face in Chinese culture.


Mao, L. M. R. (January 01, 1994). Beyond politeness theory: ‘Face’ revisited and renewed. Journal of Pragmatics, 21, 5, 451-486.

Nwoye, O. G. (January 01, 1992). Linguistic politeness and socio-cultural variations of the notion of face. Journal of Pragmatics, 18, 4, 309-328.

Van, H. G. (2012). What is sociolinguistics. Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Youtube video. Retrieved from


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