Recognizing Face: Revisiting Face in the Faceless Urban

I’m sure that we’ve all witnessed it, “their” clandestine operations, always launched by impromptu “open shop,” and concluded with untimely closings. Well, if you have not, this consists of the daily routines of Shanghai’s evasive street merchants who lack both hours of operation and a general consistency. One could characterize all of this as a facet of urban facelessness, but there is something more substantial, more personable, maybe more recognizable that transcends the presumed discretion and anonymity.

One might suggests that I am simply more cognizant of and sensitive to their presence after having worked briefly with the famed Baozi Lady (and husband), but even those specifics propose something of the sort. Neglecting the fact that I am a regular customer at their establishment, we do not share a robust relationship – especially without a common language.

Yet, she welcomed me with a universal smile into her circle that seems only reserved in the Chinese society for those with Face. And surprisingly, in a society that relies so heavily on the idea on face, I’ve seemed to have connected on a more genuine level with every humble street merchant than with those in passing or in the growing consumer marketed enterprises. I even saw my roommate conversing jeeringly with a street merchant and after those interactions I concluded that there is more to this face-faceless paradigm than is initial presumed.

Before I established a rapport with the Baozi Lady and Husband, I was immediately gravitated to their inviting spirits, and I know that others within the group felt the same way. Dan highlighted in the first blog, when describing the characteristics of both face and facelessness, the intimate connection he shared with the Baozi Lady juxtaposed to the city’s backdrop of anonymity. Although he accepts this as one if the many, random consequence of anonymity in Shanghai, I contend the antithesis and that the dichotomy of face and facelessness is actually a continuum that adds depth and variability to the traditional understandings of its two extremes. One of my main reasons suggests that this is due to the level of humility that is present on the streets and within these merchants. And this discussion seems to lack depth, so I was intrigued to delve into it.

The one thing that we’ve ALL noticed (at least) is the culturally accepted rude behavior that permeates Chinese society. Ellen Hertz, in her Face in the Crowd article, attributes this seemingly uncivil behavior to the anonymity/facelessness of the urban (loc. 3611). However, she equally asserts that the opposite -face – is a concept that Chinese societies are predisposed to and the country’s “vision of…collectivity, [is] modeled on the Gemeinschaft, a bounded community for which the ‘rural’ serves as exemplar,” (loc. 3539). The idea of the rural community, architect of “face”, is most interesting because of its intricate connection to humility. Whether the relationship is cause-and-effect or not, popular belief has always connected humility with rurality. If this is well founded, then it would seem that rurality is a sufficient condition for humility, albeit not a necessity for Face, Rurality and Humility then must have an intertwined destiny. The mathematical property of association explains it well: Face = Rurality ≈ Humility. So then, Humility ≈ Face.  With all of this in mind, it follows to conclude that these humble street merchants, who exude noticeable humility are then more inclined to open up face-like relations than the remaining urbanizing populace.

All of this, however, is just idle speculation that I still believe deserves some in depth research. I don’t claim to know the answers, but this is just an observation, addressing the complexities of face and facelessness here in China. I know that In the heat of understanding the trends of Urbanization, Globalization and Consumerism, we have inaptly categorized the face and the facelessness (as moralities) of China as either black or white. Although very neat, the categories create overcast on and obscure these subtleties, the possible depths to such concepts, like Face and Facelessness in the Urban.