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What is Mianzi, and What Can Christians Learn from it?

During my most recent trip to China, I was struck by how many changes there had been from my previous visit five years ago. Then, I was lucky if I saw a blue sky with big, puffy clouds. But this time, for the first two weeks of my trip, we had beautiful blue skies (and sunsets! and stars!) nearly every day! And that wasn’t the only thing.

Beside my in-laws’ house, there was a new lush garden, complete with a water feature. Across the street, a little park had been erected, complete with a public bathroom that was under strict cleaning standards. When my husband was giving my parents the tour of his neighborhood, I was surprised to see new fences, walls, and freshly paved roads that were not there before. Everything looked great! What had happened?

My husband explained that all of this was an effort of a new governmental “beautification project.” Efforts had been made to clean up the air, freshen up rural areas, encourage communal spaces, etc.

“It’s for, y’know, mianzi,” he said with a chuckle. And then I understood.

Mianzi is the Mandarin word for “face,” just like how we in English would say someone can “save face” or “lose face.”

But in honor-based cultures in many countries of the far east–especially China–mianzi is a much deeper concept. One of the best ways to honor someone is to give them mianzi by bragging on them, bringing them gifts (especially expensive ones to show their worth), recognizing their reputation, etc.

Likewise, it’s deeply humiliating when someone takes away your mianzi, maybe by chastising you in front of others, comparing you to someone else, exposing a secret, etc.

It’s also important to maintain your own mianzi, and this is done mainly by appearances; many Chinese people buy expensive things to show they have money, stay away from second-hand clothes or products, and have beautiful entry ways or foyers of their home.

But all too often, mianzi is only skin-deep, and it might come at a cost.

The rise in air quality, for example, is usually because of a big event where a lot of attention might be drawn to a particular area. The Beijing Olympics, the G20 Leadership summit, and the CISM World Military Games are examples of such events, where factories were shut down and efforts were made to clean up the area in preparation of international visitors coming.

When the events were over, everything resumed as normal, and pollution rose again. The garden beside my in-laws’ house was put in after the local government decided my husband’s grandmother’s small mud home was an eyesore that needed to be torn down. The walls and fences in the neighborhood were facades covering ancient family tombs that could be seen from the road. Expensive things are often bought even if they can’t be afforded.

The entry ways may be beautiful, but the living quarters may be ragged.

I’m not saying mianzi is a bad practice; of course these beautification projects do a great service to the community, and they benefit everyone around. Besides, it is a good practice to put on your best face for others. But I have often seen a desire to have mianzi lead to several problems. Of course, these are not just characteristics found in Chinese culture. These are characteristics of human nature, and we are all guilty of it to some extent.

Trying to maintain mianzi can lead to arrogance and manipulation.

In Chinese culture, for example, giving a nice gift often comes with the expectation that the receiver will reciprocate in the future. But, absolutely, this happens with many of us. Even The Office has a scene where Dwight and Andy do each other favors for the sole purpose of one-upping the other. While Paul says in Romans 12:10 to outdo one another in showing honor, I think it’s safe to say such manipulative motives were not the intention of that instruction.

Jesus says in Luke 6 that this is the mindset of sinners and that we should instead do good to others without expectation of return.

It is easy to give for the sake of receiving–or even just to feel good about ourselves. It is harder to give for the sake of giving God glory and to humble ourselves as His servants and, therefore servants of His children.

Keeping up mianzi can also go hand in hand with lying about who we really are.

From the very beginning of time, there has been a connection between sin and concealing: Adam and Eve covered themselves and hid from God after they disobeyed Him by eating the fruit of the forbidden tree. But now, talk to any parent about how often their children lie when they disobey.

Or take a look at social media to see how many people publish only their best pictures, their best words, their best news.

We all have sin, according to Romans 3; we all have things to hide. We try to cover it up and appear like nothing is wrong. We want to appear strong and faultless. But in reality, we are all weak and flawed apart from Christ. Trying to cope on our own while comparing ourselves to others is simply exhausting, but Jesus says in Matthew 11 that He can give us rest.

God says in Jeremiah 16 that our iniquity can never be hidden from Him. Instead, we are taught to confess our sins–not just to God but to each other also, so that everything may be brought to light (James 5 and Proverbs 28).

When we do this, we will not only come clean and find relief, but we will also be forgiven and become totally clean of our filth (1 John 1, Psalm 32, Acts 3).

Many Christians I know in China really seem to understand all this, and I think it’s because of their concept of mianzi. They know how hard it is to try to keep a good face, and they see the deeper value in confession, humility, generosity, grace, mercy, and forgiveness. And what’s more, their efforts of mianzi are often honest and more than skin-deep. They live out Colossians 3 and understand that what they do is not for the approval of man but for service to God.

One of the most important things I’ve come to understand through mianzi is the realization of how the blood of Christ truly does cover us.

Those new roads, buildings, walls, and other efforts of the beautification initiatives in my husband’s hometown were truly out of efforts to make the community better. Inside my own life, I have my own areas that really need to be beautified.

When we are baptized, we are covered by Jesus and His perfection. He washes us clean and covers our flaws so that it’s not even us anymore but Him. (See Romans 3 and 5, Hebrews 9, Ephesians 1, 1 John 1, Revelation 7.)

And in reality, it’s more than just covering–it’s transformation, according to passages like 2 Corinthians 5:17.

Just as I was pleasantly surprised to see the neighborhood looking so refreshed, so should people react when they see someone transformed by Jesus.

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