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[AtoZ into Korean mind] ‘Chemyeon’: the role of 'face' in shaping Korea's cultural dynamics

Fear of losing face, desire to appear significant are powerful motivations at personal, family and even national levels

Feb. 11, 2024 - 16:01 By Shin Ji-hye
Everybody puts on a different face in social settings, yet for South Koreans, the emphasis on "face," stands guides a wide range of life decisions. (123rf)

Lee Jung-ah, 36, recently ended her yearlong relationship with her boyfriend, mainly due to her parents’ opposition.

They told her they disapproved of him because he did not match up to her professional and educational background. They worried that they would lose face in front of their relatives and acquaintances if she married him.

Now, Lee is hoping to find someone who can uphold the "chemyeon" of her father, who is a university professor, although she believes the chances of finding such a person are slim.

Just like Lee, numerous South Koreans give up their true desires out of fear of damaging their chemyeon, or social standing.

They worry about losing their standing in the eyes of others when making all sorts of decisions -- from choosing a life partner to selecting clothing, food or a means of transportation, extending even to their choices of friends to hang out with, schools to attend and neighborhoods to live in.

"Koreans assess a person’s success or failure based on how important they look on the surface, rather than their inner side," said Han Seong-yeul, an emeritus professor of psychology at Korea University, discussing the influence of chemyeon, one's outward facade, on the decisions of many South Koreans.

Chemyeon, the Korean 'face'

Chemyeon places a greater emphasis on formality and superficiality to the extent that Koreans sometimes maintain this facade even at a financial loss. (123rf)

The concept of "face" -- one’s public image and social standing -- is not exclusive to Korea. It is a universal human tendency to want to appear respectful to others and to be respected.

Canadian-American sociologist Erving Goffman defined face as the positive public image one seeks to establish in social interactions.

In China, the concept of “mianzi” is intricately linked with preventing a loss of social respect and avoiding embarrassment in social contexts. Similarly, in Japan, there is the notion of “tatemae,” the practice of not expressing one’s true thoughts explicitly, but rather prioritizing how others might feel or react to those thoughts.

Contrasting with Goffman's definition of face, which often centers around personal self-image and individuality, however, Korean chemyeon extends beyond the individual to encompass family, colleagues, the company and other in-group associations. Korean chemyeon also places a greater emphasis on formality and superficiality than the equivalent in other Asian societies to the extent that Koreans sometimes maintain this facade even at a financial loss.

“Koreans tend to buy luxurious or large cars instead of what is convenient for their lives,” said Han, adding that chemyeon focuses more on observable actions or rituals, emphasizing "formality and appearance" over "practicality and authenticity."

“They prefer larger apartments if possible and strive to live in neighborhoods that are recognized and respected by others, even if it means overstretching themselves."

South Koreans are the world’s biggest spenders on luxury goods. According to Morgan Stanley, South Koreans' spending on luxury goods saw a 24 percent increase in 2022 to $16.8 billion, or about $325 per capita. That is far more than the $55 and $280 per capita spent by Chinese and American nationals, respectively.

Last year, 1 in 3 imported cars sold here cost over 100 million won ($74,649).

"The worse the economy, the better high-end cars tend to sell," an official from a luxury carmaker said.

In 2022, the country with the highest sales of German luxury car Maybach worldwide, following China, was South Korea.

Powered by shame

The concept of chemyeon can be traced back to the Joseon era (1392-1910), which was divided into four classes and based on neo-Confucian ideals and rituals, as evidenced by Korean proverbs.

An old proverb, “Even if a yangban falls into water, he does not doggy-paddle,” suggests that a yangban would avoid doing anything undignified or unrefined, even in a dire situation. The yangban were the aristocratic, scholarly class in Korea during the Joseon era.

Another proverb goes, “Even if a yangban is freezing to death, they will not warm themselves with a fire of rice husks.” Burning rice husks was something poor commoners would do to overcome the midwinter cold.

In contemporary Korea, while the same four Joseon-era social classes no longer exist, there is an invisible social class system based on one's wealth, education and occupation. People often strive to be perceived as rich and socially important, sometimes even resorting to exaggeration to maintain such an image.

“Even in modern society, the culture that values chemyeon has not changed much,” said Kwak Keum-joo, a professor of psychology at Seoul National University. “This is because the collectivist culture still remains strong, meaning individuals are highly conscious of others’ perceptions and opinions,” she said.

“They are expected to hold a college degree, marry a suitable partner and secure a job that is esteemed by others,” she said. “They should wear clothes that are perceived as appropriate by societal standards, rather than opting for comfort."

What lends power to chemyeon is the mechanism of shame, according to the late Choi Sang-jin, a former psychology professor at Chung-Ang University and a pioneer in deciphering the Korean collective psyche.

In his book, he detailed some of the things a dented chemyeon and the ensuing shame can lead to: students who fail university entrance exams and their parents avoiding social situations; people of lower social status feeling reluctant to attend school reunions where more successful peers are likely to be; and numerous Koreans experiencing shame in various circumstances, such as when their partners have weaker educational backgrounds than they do.

Chemyeon’s influence extends beyond individuals to include the groups they belong to and even the nation as a whole.

When news reports disclosed this month that lawmaker Bae Hyun-jin was attacked with a brick by a teenager from Daecheong Middle School in the affluent Daechi-dong area of Gangnam, a student vice-chair of the school immediately took to Instagram to protect the school’s reputation.

He posted, “I shared this story to prevent our school’s reputation from being tarnished by the actions of one individual, and I hope reporters will direct their questions here.”

In 2007, a devastating shooting occurred at Virginia Tech in the United States, resulting in 32 fatalities and 29 injuries. The perpetrator was identified as 23-year-old Cho Seung-hui, a US permanent resident who had emigrated from Korea at the age of 8. He killed himself after carrying out the massacre.

Koreans both here and in the United States experienced a collective sense of shame upon learning that the gunman had been Korean.

Immediately after the tragedy, Koreans and Korean government officials issued public apologies for Cho's crime. The Korean ambassador to the US even urged members of a Korean church in the Washington area to undertake a 32-day fast as a gesture of repentance.

The response from Koreans here, which linked the actions of an individual to the reputation of the nation, was met with surprise by Americans, who come from a more individualistic culture, said Seol Dong-hoon, a professor of sociology at Jeonbuk National University.

"Korean people often use the term 'kukkyeok,' a combination of 'kuk' (nation) and 'kyeok' (level of dignity), to express the belief that a nation, like an individual, should possess a certain level of dignity to the outside world,” Seol said. “Consequently, Koreans seem to uphold a certain ethical standard of responsibility for their nation."

Positive side of chemyeon

Although chemyeon often carries a negative connotation, scholars assert that chemyeon itself cannot be described as either 100 percent negative or positive.

“It cannot be definitively said that a culture which places great importance on chemyeon is entirely positive or negative,” said Lim Tae-seop, a professor of communication from the University of Wisconsin, who wrote “Jeong, Chemyeon, Connections and Korean Interpersonal Relationships,” in 1995.

“The very existence of consciousness about face or social standing reflects the fact that humans are social animals,” Lim said. “A society without such consciousness of face would inevitably degenerate into a more animalistic society.”

Lim said chemyeon is composed of appearing dignified, one's socially proven capabilities, the quality of one's personal character, one's maturity and autonomy as an adult and how much one's behavior adheres to social norms. The crux lies in which elements of chemyeon are emphasized and which are overlooked.

“If a society prioritizes appearing dignified and one's socially proven capabilities but neglects the quality of one's character, one's maturity or how one's behavior adheres to social norms, it becomes a society where material aspects are considered more important than spiritual or moral values,” he said.

“Conversely, if the quality of one's personal character, one's maturity and autonomy and how one's behavior adheres to social norms are valued more than appearing dignified and one's socially proven capabilities, that is likely to lead to a healthier society.”

Korea University professor Han asserted that chemyeon even played a role in Korea’s rise from poverty into prosperity within a single generation.

“Behind Korea’s remarkable development in such a short time lies the underlying desire not to be disregarded by others and to ensure a better life for children by their parents,” he said.

In the 1950s, after having gone through Japanese colonization and the Korean War, the majority of Koreans were illiterate. But they worked relentlessly and devoted themselves to their children's education, hoping to spare them from the shame of ignorance and to secure them a decent life.

Despite lacking in natural resources, a hard-working, well-educated workforce set Korea on a path to fast economic growth. Its nominal gross domestic product surged from 47.7 billion in 1953 to 2,170 trillion won in 2022, marking an approximately 45,000-fold increase.

“That generation of parents, despite their lack of educational opportunities, worked diligently to educate their children. They believed that their children’s success would not only improve their lives but also raise the chemyeon of the family," Han said.

"A to Z into the Korean mind" traverses the complexities of the Korean psyche, examining an array of mental and emotional phenomena and their cultural nuances through keywords in alphabetical order. – Ed.