Chapter 27: I Don’t Need Your Mianzi

Character for good fortune
I didn't need mianzi from the family of the famous calligrapher, Tang.

Tang, the famous calligrapher and painter, and his wife, Zhang — my next door neighbors — lived a world as intentional as the eccentric style of Tang’s calligraphy scrolls that decorated the walls of their apartment. Tang painted and wrote calligraphy, often for dignitaries, officials, the elite — and they reciprocated lavishly. How did I know? Because Zhang told me, whenever I saw her in the hallway between our doors.

Renjia songde — a gift from others,” she would tell me, her lips pursed smugly as she held up the latest swag — from Amway vitamins to the expensive, first harvest green teas, all from the endless stream of guests that the couple entertained most weekends. Sometimes she would blather on about a free trip somewhere, such as an upcoming visit to Huangshan that included a river cruise.

Personally, I didn’t need Zhang — or even Tang — to talk about all of their gifts or free trips or extra apartments in the city. I already respected Tang as an artist. He was the one who memorialized my first date with John at the West Lake, in a painting. But I suspected Zhang couldn’t help it — as the wife of a famous artist, his fame and glory was all that she had, and all that she could feel proud of. There was a sad, lonely woman behind the swag. So I would stand there, smile and nod, as if I was a parent who knew better, listening to a child.

But I could do more than listen. I was a foreigner. And as much as I hated to admit it, I knew foreigners had a certain cache in China, just like the luxury foreign brands, from Armani to Rolls-Royce, that Chinese aspired to own (like the knockoff Burberry purses and prints so popular all over the country). Chinese people, just like Zhang.

So, when my foreigner friends, Camille and Lawrence, came over for dinner one night, I suggested a visit to Tang and Zhang’s apartment.

It was the usual “Beijing Opera” show, with Zhang floating around their apartment showing off the latest paintings of Tang’s, or swag from fans, all over cups of that first-harvest green tea (the best pick of the season, as Zhang reminded us over and over). Clearly, a few foreign guests had given Zhang a perfect stage for her performance, and she loved it.

After Camille and Lawrence left me that evening, I went back over to visit Zhang. If this was a performance, I couldn’t help but wonder what her review was.

“This was an opportunity for us to give you mianzi.” She smirked, with her arms crossed, as if proud of her accomplishment.

Mianzi? I didn’t need her mianzi.

But sometimes, you don’t always get what you need from a relationship. The more I thought about Zhang, the more I realized — even this gesture was another way of flashing her husband’s fame and swag in front of my foreign face. To Zhang, her family was so famous, so elite, she could even give a foreigner good face.

In the end, I did what I always did: I smiled and nodded, and didn’t argue. While I didn’t need her mianzi, I did need one thing — peaceful relations. And that’s something that still can be had, even without gifts or celebrity status.

Did someone in China give you “mianzi” that you didn’t need?


Memoirs of a Yangxifu in China is the story of love, cultural understanding and eventual marriage between one American woman from the city and one Chinese man from the countryside. To read the full series to date, visit the Memoirs of a Yangxifu archives.

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2 Replies to “Chapter 27: I Don’t Need Your Mianzi”

  1. I don’t think I will ever understand mianzi.
    Zhang reminds me of my mother-in-law. She works 7 days a week and through most public holidays. Her career has cost her a husband and she has become a stranger to her son. She has no real friends but business contacts, employees and their wives. She is bad tempered and lonely – i have seen this by living with her. Most nights she spends watching TV on her own. She only occasionally plays majiang with her employees and then i am sure it is because they dare not refuse her invitation. Yet, when you speak to her she always boasts of how much money she has earnt, expensive things she’s received or bought and places she’s been on business. Everything is so pretentious and she never has the funny little anecdotes to retell like my family would do. A meal with his family is so uncomfortable compared to with my own relaxed easy-going family. I really don’t envy her! I’ve tried to encourage her to find new hobbies and make friends to enrich her life and encourage her to come for meals with me and my boyfriend, for a change of scenery.
    I get the unwanted mianzi a lot when I go to her business banquets. Such contrived behaviour and obsence public displays of affluence. It’s always the fact that she speaks on my behalf that annoys me without really giving opportunity for me to get to know the other people. She’ll tell them what ‘her Danni’ studied, how young she is, how pretty she is (it is sickening to listen to and exhausting to always be modest) and even invites people to visit me in the UK. God forbid any of them ever take up that offer – I would only want the best of my Chinese friends to receive that sort of invitation!

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