Losing face in Chinese society: A sincere apology hard to find

It is difficult for most Chinese to admit they were wrong. To apologize is thought to bring shame to one's family. Photo: A sincere apology

WASHINGTON, November 18, 2013 — Culturally, it is difficult for most Chinese to admit a wrong and apologize. To apologize is to loss face thus bringing shame to one’s family/clan. It takes a man of great moral fortitude to seek an apology.

In 279 BC, the king of Ch’in invited the king of Tsao to a meeting at Mian-Chi, a scenic retreat in the Ch’in kingdom. The royal Tsao court was afraid that the invitation was a trap, but refusal could lead to war with the more powerful Ch’in. At the advice of his counselors, the king of Tsao agreed to the meeting; however, he authorized the crown prince to ascend to the throne should the king not return within thirty days. Lin Xiang Ju, a wise courtier would attend the meeting with the Tsao king; while, General Lien Poh guarded the border with his army to forestall any Ch’in treachery.

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At Mian-Chi, the king of Ch’in hosted a party to welcome his guests. Under the pretext of drunken revelry, the king of Ch’in leaned toward his Tsao counterpart, “Sir, I understand you are a musician; please do show us your talent.” With reluctance, the Tsao king played a tune on the ser, a 25 stringed instrument. After the performance, the king of Ch’in summoned the court historian, “Annotate this. On this date, the king of Ch’in met the king of Tsao at Mian-Chi; at the order of the king of Ch’in, the king of Tsao played a tune on the ser.”

Lin Xiang Ju stepped forward to the host, “Sir, the king of Tsao had heard that you are versed in the Ch’in musical instruments. Please allow me to provide a bowl for you strike a note for the entertainment of all.” He knelt and presented a terracotta urn to the king. When the king refused, Lin Xiang Ju declared, “If you refuse to beat this bowl, we are near enough that I can spill my blood on your royal person.” The king’s guards sought to kill the courtier, but Lin Xiang Ju glared and shouted them back. Reluctantly, the king reached out and gave the urn a tap. Lin Xiang Je turned toward the Tsao court historian, “Note that on this date the king of Ch’in strummed a bowl for the king of Tsao.”

In the ensuing lull, a Ch’in courtier spoke up, “I suggest that the king of Tsao give fifteen cities to the king of Ch’in as birthday present.”

Lin Xiang Ju responded, “Please give the Ch’in Capital of Xian-Yang to the king of Tsao as birthday present.”

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Lin Xiang Ju successfully forestalled the ceding of any advantage to the Ch’in people at Mian-Chi, while Lien Poh’s army guarded against a surprise attack against that country. Upon his return home, a very grateful king of Tsao promoted Lin Xiang Ju to be the Prime Minister.”

The promotion irked General Lien Poh, who bristled at being subordinate to Lin Xiang Ju. The general made known his intention to confront the prime minister over the inequity of their positions. But, the expected face off did not take place. Lin Xiang Ju took great pains to avoid meeting the general. One day, when Lin Xiang Ju saw the general riding toward the prime minister’s carriage, he ordered the driver to back away and steer clear of the general; even though the prime minister’s rank entitled him to the right of way.

Lin Xiang Ju’s assistants complained about the submissive behavior toward the general. The Tsao prime minister responded, “Which person is more to be feared, General Lien Poh or the king of Ch’in?” The assistants all agreed that the king of Ch’in was more dangerous than the general. “If I dared to berate the king of Ch’in and insult his courtiers, do you think I would be afraid of our valiant general?

“I avoided confronting the general because our country is threatened by the powerful Ch’in, and both of us are needed to protect the nation. In times of peril, we need to place the nation’s interest above that of the individual.”

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Next day, the prime minister found at the entrance to his residence, a very contrite general kneeling bare-chested, wearing a thorn branch across his back and begging to be punished for his selfishness. Lin Xiang Ju removed the thorn branch and they became best of friends.

The two men were lauded as ideal politicians to be emulated. Where are such men in our modern times?


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Tang Long

William Tang is a research analyst. Born in Taiwan, he is fluent in three dialects of Chinese and Spanish, plus survival level German and Japanese. He is a graduate of the Officers Advance Course at the General Political Warfare College, Taipei, Taiwan.

He lectures on Chinese history and culture and has two books in publication: “Tales of the Dragon – The Book of Lore,” an anthology of Chinese legends, fables, and historical anecdotes; and “Pets Only,” which recounts a pets operated eating establishment in northern Virginia. He lives with Shadow (Lab), Taz (Boxer) and Foxy Lady (Japanese Shiba Inu) in Fredericksburg, VA. He writes under the penname of TANG Long.

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