Facelessness

In class we have read and talked about the Chinese tradition of fostering connections through guanxi networks and “keeping face.” But what Ellen Hertz discusses in her article, “Face in the Crowd: The Cultural Construction of Anonymity in Urban China,” is the newfound relationships that emerge by virtue of the new spaces and forums for public interaction found in China’s growing cities. I found this particularly relevant in relation to my own experience in Shanghai given the numerous types of interactions and spaces in which I find myself every day. Examples include dining out, living in a large residence building, and the bar scene at night.

The section of “Face in the Crowd” that was most instrumental in my thinking of these examples stated:

“Anonymity may provoke hostility, provide a context for intimacy, create an arena for public performance, reproduce relations of official elite domination, or place the individual under the collectivity’s spell – but it is never neutral. (Kindle Locations 3761-3762).”

I have found that whenever I go out to a restaurant or street vendor near the Fudan campus, the same person is almost always working there. I can now recognize the baozi lady, the soup dumpling lady, the convenience store lady, and the Japanese food lady. I have felt like I’ve gained a sense of home in a way just by seeing their familiar faces so often. Yet the fact is that I’ve never said anything of substance to them; we’ve only exchanged the usual daily courtesies. This made me think about the kind of relationship created by an urban space, one that suggests intimacy but functions under the pretence of formality. Basically, though we may smile and have moments of genuine kindness, there is still a seemingly impenetrable wall created not by language or culture, but by the roles (server and customer, in this case) that we each assume when entering the public arena. Working off the Hertz quote, the feeling of anonymity I’ve experienced dining out has both provided a context for intimacy and reinforced the existence of official relations.

Living in a large residence building, a now extremely common reality for urban Chinese people, has also given me a perspective on facelessness. In my town in Maine my family essentially knows everyone who lives on our street, which runs about a half mile long. But since living in the dorm, I still can’t tell you anything about who lives in the suite right across the hall. And I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve interacted with one of my suitemates, Michael, for more than two minutes (the other one is a talker, so facelessness isn’t really an issue for us). I assume that this is not an uncommon phenomenon for many Chinese people. Living in a building, though you are much closer to and have more opportunities for interaction with others, seems to create an environment where one can maintain his anonymity even more so than in more spacious or rural settings.

Lastly, the bar scene in Shanghai provides an all-encompassing example of the consequences of facelessness. Though I have not experienced all of Hertz’s examples, I have observed that the environment created by a nightclub can provide a context for conflict, intimacy, public performance, reinforcement of official roles, and collectivity. People are fighting, dancing, ordering drinks, and laughing together. Though bars and nightclubs are seen primarily as a mark of Western influence, their growing popularity in places like Shanghai suggest a desire of the new urban Chinese to experience and explore the many benefits of anonymity in their lives.

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