Zhibo is a weekly column in which Beijing-based American Taylor Hartwell documents his journey down the rabbit hole of Chinese livestreaming app YingKe. If you know nothing about the livestreaming (直播; “zhibo”) phenomenon in China, start here.
Allow me to nip any misconceptions in the bud. No, the column isn’t becoming bi-weekly. No, I haven’t already run out of ideas (in your dreams). No, my zhibo aspirations haven’t been dragged down by reality or common sense just yet.
[If you’re new and have no idea what the hell I’m talking about; it has once again taken two weeks for me to get my weekly article up. I also didn’t do any streaming this past week]
Despite seeing my Yingke messages pile up to the sky, I figured missing a week would, at least, not bother anyone I know personally — so imagine my surprise when my parents (of all people) worriedly messaged to ask about my digital absenteeism. Turns out, they had the brilliant realization that my streaming notifications provide a regular proof of life — like a narcissistic digital heartbeat, if you will. And last week, I flat-lined.
I had to stop streaming because I lost face.
To be clear, I don’t mean I embarrassed myself or disappointed my employer or dropped a glass at a party or something. No, I lost a chunk of my face. Fortunately, it was a pretty small chunk.
worth it for the pun
There’s not really a story to this — more of a recipe. Take a base layer of Beijing traffic, add wet roads, and stir in a motorcycle that must have been trying to be eco-friendly by keeping its lights off. Boom. Just like that, I got to spend the better part of my holiday week getting acquainted with my couch and local purveyors of gauze and painkillers.
Of course, losing face in the non-literal sense is kind of a big deal in China. In fact, it’s just about the biggest deal there is.
Usually, this would be where I’d toss out the obligatory caveat, i.e. obviously every culture has some kind of concept of face and even more obviously there will always be people worried about how other people view them wherever there is human society because that’s how our brains evolved to keep us alive and part of the group and no one likes to have their culture boiled down to one or two particularly noticeable facets and so on and so forth. But in this case, I’m a little less inclined to paint with the cultural relativism brush.
First off, I’m not here to make a normative judgment (am I ever?) about the role of face in Chinese society, just to tell you what I’ve observed and how I think it factors into online life. Secondly, the concept of face is objectively something the Chinese have done a pretty good job of owning or at least pioneering over the years. [Clue #1: the English phrase “to lose face” comes from the Chinese 丢脸 (diūliǎn), 丢meaning “to lose” and 脸 meaning – you guessed it – “face”.]
In my experience, face doesn’t describe some mysterious set of ritualistic customs from the Far Capital-E East — it describes a spectrum we’re all on. That being said, most people in China tend to fall further in whatever direction *more* is. Compliments are a classic example. “In China,” thousands of travel websites or freshman East Asian Studies papers will tell you, “one never accepts a direct compliment. Rather, it is expected that one will deflect all praise to their teacher, parents, employer, or etc.”
Brushing past the point that you should probably question anyone using the word *never* to describe the actions of a billion people, that’s pretty/mostly/generally accurate. I’ve found that when I compliment Chinese people — usually on their English abilities — they tend to reject and/or deflect that praise. But, in America, we all know some people who can’t take a compliment to the point of being annoying about it. There are fewer of them and that’s less normal in our society, but my point is there’s a spectrum. At one end lies the stereotype of a Chinese person refusing to accept the slightest praise, and at the other end is the stereotype of some douchebag named Chad who responds to compliments with “I know, right?”
There are a million other little ways face influences social interactions here. People tend to be (sometimes infuriatingly) indirect, meaning you often need to seek out much-needed honest feedback second-hand and tiptoe when giving your own critiques, even professionally. Uncomfortable questions often result in nervous laughter, which can often snowball into a game of asking an increasingly serious question and getting increasingly frustrated by what seems like a brush-off by someone who just doesn’t want to answer it. When someone offers you food, you’re supposed to take it. When you receive a gift, it almost always has the price tag on it — when you give a gift, the person will usually thank you profusely but not actually open it in front of you. People spend thousands of dollars on name-brand phones, cars, watches, handbags, and other products they can be seen in public with — and yet even the most expensive apartments often have cheap, low-quality home appliances like washing machines because no one ever sees them.
On a more macro level, obsession with face profoundly shapes people’s lives in China. You’re supposed to get a good job, a good car, a good house, a good husband or wife, and produce good kids. Those kids are supposed to go to good schools, get good jobs of their own, and eventually take care of you until you die (cue Circle of Life opening). If you’re 30 and childless, you’ve done something wrong. It doesn’t matter that you’re happy and fulfilled operating China’s first-ever hot-air-balloon tour company or making novelty whalebone chopsticks; you’re upsetting social harmony. Who will take care of you when you’re old? Who will carry on your name? What are you contributing to your clan?
These kinds of questions put enormous pressure on young Chinese people trying to decide whether to pursue something other than the standard and *correct* path. But again — the idea that society questions young adults with no kids or puts pressure on people to be *normal* isn’t a special Chinese invention. There’s just a more extreme reaction to deviance from the norm in this culture, and that more extreme reaction is more effective at guiding young people’s decisions.
Knowing all this, it’s fascinating to see how the ancient idea of face factors into modern online life. The internet is infamous, after all, for its de-civilizing influence on human interaction (see: any comment section on any YouTube video that has ever existed). The ability to anonymously comment frees people from a lot of social norms, and China is quite the social pressure cooker. Of course, the internet here isn’t quite the *anything goes* forum for discussion we’re all used to, and… actually, that’s enough about that (case in point). But people still yell nonsense on the internet, and when my 直播间 (streaming room) gets full enough, some people yell stuff at me and each other there that I’ve certainly never heard in real life in China.
The power of face, however, is strong — even on Yingke. When a troll starts telling me to go home, or yelling about foreign invaders, or bragging about imaginary sexual exploits with various people’s family members (it is still the internet, after all), there’s always the same response.
First, people tell me I can blacklist the offenders. I say that it’s more fun to make fun of them (over-feed the trolls to bursting, as it were), and that splits fans. People who know me decently well or have a good sense of humor tend to like this, and seem entertained by it. But a decent faction of well-meaning folks start sending messages to the trolls along the lines of “stop it, you are making us lose face in front of the foreigner!”
That’s not something I’ve paraphrased for the sake of topical relevance, that’s a fairly literal translation of a message I’ve seen a hundred times. Even when I’m just walking down the street shooting the breeze with thousands of people as I do almost every day, the idea that I might get a bad impression of China matters enough to some people to make them start policing the streaming room.
And the crazy thing is, it works. The trolls usually either leave the room or shut up because someone told them to (when it comes to the non-Chinese internet, I believe the Catholic Church accepts a troll being successfully shamed into shutting up as qualifying for miracle status). Seeing this happen over and over really drives home the fact that even online, China isn’t just America with a red coat of paint.
There are other little things. People are already asking en masse why I haven’t bought an iPhone 8 or X yet. People ask what my rent is, what floor I live on, what neighborhood I’m in (possibly for stalker purposes, but mostly for face-evaluating purposes). As I’ve mentioned before, people constantly ask (or order) me to teach them some English, and my first reaction is always “ok, so type your message in English and we can chat in English!”
But just like in real life, the vast majority of people shy away from that, citing their poor English skills. My assurances that a. the point is simply comprehension and I’ll still understand a badly mangled sentence, b. native speakers don’t exactly do so hot when it comes to typing online messages in fluent English, and c. who the heck cares, you’re a name on a phone screen rarely changes a lot of minds. No one in the world wants to be seen making a mistake — but when you’re way on the end of the face-saving spectrum, you’re a whole lot less likely to take the risk.
But as the Chinese are also very fond of saying, there is balance in all things; and the modernizing, bringin’-us-all-culturally-closer effects of the internet can’t be denied. When I say that it’s silly to think a single troll could possibly represent all of China or influence my opinion of the country, plenty of people voice their agreement. When I joke about tossing my perfectly good phone into a river and running to pick up an iPhone X, plenty of people think the joke is funny and get why the premise is absurd. As discussed in an earlier post, there’s more than a few young people who in the safety of internet anonymity are happy to tell me how they wish they could be single and free and not have to obsess over starting a family at such a young age.
And lest this ring a bit too one-sided, there are things about China’s face-obsessed culture that have really rubbed off on me. I like being in a country where direct physical confrontation isn’t the default response to the slightest little thing. I’ve never been good at taking compliments and I love being expected to deflect them. I like the idea of a default level of respect between colleagues even if I don’t like the mindless deference that often results. Thankfully, as a foreigner, I’m spared from the worst of the expectations — no one’s expecting me to buy a black Audi and an apartment in the Beijing housing market.
Even he won’t be able to afford that until his deep end hits 100 ft.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go find out how much face I’m gonna lose for my lost piece of face.
We highlight our top stories each week in an email newsletter that goes out every Monday - hot, fresh, and straight to your inbox.
Don't worry, we don't spam
Thousands of earthlings have signed up for our newsletter, and you should do the same