US/China Trade Delegation meeting July, 2019
The Asian concept of “FACE” is seldom understood by the western world; more often, it is misunderstood. I don’t know the origin of how FACE became a mainstream aspect of Asian culture. I guess it is a byproduct of Confucianism that was the playbook of how Chinese and many Asian cultures relate to each other, i.e., respect, honor, courtesy, subtlety, non-confrontational, etc. This is in direct opposition to the approach of Western cultures when communicating with one another.
The action of “giving FACE” is an essential component of building relationships, likewise actions and words that cause “loss of FACE” a way to damage relationships.
Subtlety is important, and Asians are sensitive to how FACE is handled, especially when dealing with conflicting views. Many Asians would rather avoid losing FACE instead of resolving a conflict when communicating with Westerners. You probably have heard of Asians replying with a “YES” when asked a somewhat confrontational question, when what they mean is “Yes, I understand your question,” NOT “Yes, I agree.” It can be frustrating to Westerners when this happens.
When the U.S. delegation visited China for trade negotiations in July of 2019, former president Trump’s confrontational and insulting comments prior to the meeting, unfortunately, set the stage for an unproductive meeting (causing loss of FACE). The Chinese’s response was quite intriguing and illustrative of how they responded to this insult and loss of FACE. Here is what they did:
The meeting took place in a conference room specially decorated with a wall with Chinese calligraphy that the U.S. delegation thought was a nice decoration; the flags of China and the U.S. were put in front of the wall. The calligraphy display was actually a Chinese poem written in the Yuen Dynasty (1279–1368). Few would understand it as it was written in an ancient script that only scholars could read. Here is the translation of the poem:
Cloud and Mountain
When cloud appear and cover our mountain
Our mountain remains beautiful and unchanged.
And after the cloud depart from our mountain
The views from our mountain remain beautiful.
Our mountain when covered by cloud
Caused us to look dark mixed with brightness.
Cloud and Mountain are equal in strength
I stand on the mountain awaiting the cloud
Looking back at my home village
Now substitute “cloud” with U.S.A., “mountain” with China…Subtle…but sends the message.
I hope President Biden’s diplomats understand and apply the concept of FACE when strategizing and negotiating with our largest trading partner. There is much to gain and much to be lost.