Michael KeevakOct 21, 2022
On Saving Face
A Brief History of Western Appropriation
Hong Kong University Press 2022
In On Saving Face: A Brief History of Western Appropriation (Hong Kong UP, 2022), Michael Keevak traces the Western reception of the Chinese concept of “face” during the past two hundred years, arguing that it has always been linked to nineteenth-century colonialism. “Lose face” and “save face” have become so normalized in modern European languages that most users do not even realize that they are of Chinese origin. “Face” is an extremely complex and varied notion in all East Asian cultures. It involves proper behavior and the avoidance of conflict, encompassing every aspect of one’s place in society as well as one’s relationships with other people. One can “give face,” “get face,” “fight for face,” “tear up face,” and a host of other expressions. But when it began to become known to the Western trading community in China beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century, it was distorted and reduced to two phrases only, “lose face” and “save face,” both of which were used to suggest distinctly Western ideas of humiliation, embarrassment, honor, and reputation. The Chinese were judged as a race obsessed with the fear of “losing (their) face,” and they constantly resorted to vain attempts to “save” it in the face of Western correction. “Lose face” may be an authentic Chinese expression but “save face” is different. “Save face” was actually a Western invention.
Michael Keevak is a professor in the Department of Foreign Languages at National Taiwan University. His books include Embassies to China: Diplomacy and Cultural Encounters Before the Opium Wars (2017), Becoming Yellow: A Short History of Racial Thinking (2011), The Story of a Stele: China’s Nestorian Monument and Its Reception in the West, 1625–1916 (HKUP, 2008), The Pretended Asian: George Psalmanazar’s Eighteenth-Century Formosan Hoax (2004), and Sexual Shakespeare: Forgery, Authorship, Portraiture (2001).
Li-Ping Chen is Postdoctoral Scholar and Teaching Fellow in the East Asian Studies Center at the University of Southern California. Her research interests include literary translingualism, diaspora, and nativism in Sinophone, inter-Asian, and transpacific contexts.