“On Saving Face: A Brief History of Western Appropriation” by Michael Keevak

From the OED, 1910, reproduced in On Saving face From the OED, 1910, reproduced in On Saving face

It may come as a surprise, but probably shouldn’t, that the seemingly well-worn concepts of “losing” and “saving face” are relatively modern and their wide usages in English date from the period of 19th-century imperialism. In his new (and refreshingly brief) book On Saving Face: A Brief History of Western Appropriation, Michael Keevak claims the terms’ wide acceptance can be quite precisely traced to a publication of the last decade of the 19th century.


The Chinese concept of “face” was almost singlehandedly brought into Western consciousness through the work of the late-nineteenth-century American missionary Arthur H Smith. Although the term had occasionally appeared in other works before him, this was the first time that anyone had really tried to isolate it and to describe it for a foreign audience.


People who live in East Asia are for the most part aware that the terms originated out here and probably assume that they are of Chinese origin, something Keevak notes is only partially true: “lose face” derives, via Pidgin English, from the Chinese diu lian or diu mianzi. This is what is known as a “calque” or perhaps more commonly a “loan translation”; other examples in English are “blue blood” (a direct translation of the Spanish sangre azul) and “flea market” (from the French marché aux puces), both so common that the foreign origins have for the most part been forgotten. Other cases of loan translation from Chinese are “no can do” and “long time no see”.

But the expression “save face”, which is Keevak’s focus, has no identifiable Chinese antecedent, but was a “foreign invention”, seemingly created in English by analogy, a fact recognized in editions of the Oxford English Dictionary of the period (which noted that “the exact phrase appears to not occur in Chinese”). Insofar as the phrase is used in Chinese, it seems to have been adapted back:


If we can see Chinese writers beginning to focus on “face” and “saving face” in the early decades of the twentieth century … it was just as much a response to Western discourse as it was any sort of direct borrowing.


 On Saving Face: A Brief History of Western Appropriation, Michael Keevak HKU Press, June 2022)
On Saving Face: A Brief History of Western Appropriation, Michael Keevak, (HKU Press, June 2022)

The linguistic history Keevak provides is interesting—he pushes usage of “save face” back to before mind-century—and he includes further background on the development of Pidgin, the history of Western views (as far back as Pliny the Elder) of Chinese social etiquette and behavior before going on to discuss how the term intersected with imperialism, missionary work and diplomacy. Keevak links the  usage to  none-too-complimentary Western views of China and the Chinese generally:


“Face,” like so many other “Chinese characteristics,” could thus very easily become a means of humiliation and control. Once translated into its English “equivalent,” or recorded in a Pidgin English “conversation,” it could then be held up as one more example—or even as the prime example—of just how far China remained from Western colonial norms.


That Western commentators would use language for political and propagandistic ends is hardly surprising, nor is it surprising that a “Chinese concept” would get “appropriated”—to use Keevak’s term—into English, simplified and then redeployed as a way to define something with potentially noxious overtones as being inherently Chinese: “tributary system” has undergone similar treatment in recent years.

But the relationship between language and opinion is complicated by the fact that “save face” need not now have any Chinese referent at all. Keevak himself points out that it was almost immediately


absorbed into Western languages as a concept that could be applied to any diplomatic situation at all … The Times declared about Britain in 1898 that “the process of saving one’s face leads to curious results in other countries than China”… Or as a Guardian editorial complained the following month, in this case regarding Russia, “few things to our thinking are more pernicious than the assumption that in diplomacy nothing matters as long as a man ‘saves his face’” …


Indeed, Keevak notes,


“Lose face” and “save face” have become so normalized in modern Western languages that most speakers probably do not even realize that the idioms are of Chinese origin.


So much so, it seems to me, that the loss of the possessive pronoun in front of face in “save his face” no longer seems ungrammatical but correct: “face” is not here an actual body part but a noncount, abstract noun. “The Chinese wish to save their faces” sounds macabre. “Face-saving” is in particular now an adjective in general use with no connotation of anything Chinese at all.

The relationship between language and thought is complex and words and phrases change their meanings over time. Whatever its origins, “save face” is now seen as a useful term and concept which has mostly outgrown its origins, as unfortunate as they may be.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.