人 要 脸，树 要 皮
rén yào lǐan, shù yào pí
person needs face, tree needs bark
A person needs a face; a tree needs bark.
My informant immigrated to the United States about 30 years ago. Before he moved to the US, he was well educated in Taiwan. While in college in Taiwan, he learned many proverbs that he still remembers to this day. Whenever he comes over to my house, I hear his profuse use of proverbs during conversations with my parents.
Michael uses “a person needs a face; a tree needs bark” to describe actions made by other people. When he witnesses or hears about someone doing something wrong or shameful, he uses this perfect opportunity to say the proverb. Instead of saying what everyone else would say, like expressing their thoughts on the wrongdoings of a person, Michael would use the proverb to describe his opinion. Also, he would tell this proverb to his children whenever they broke rules. He believes that words can be a very powerful form of punishment. Leaving his children with this proverb, his children would contemplate the meaning of it and learn that they need to save face and act with dignity.
Michael believes that using proverbs as part of his vocabulary is valuable. Not only do proverbs connect people to the past, but they also reveal knowledge that a person has. Because Michael is from Taiwan, he has the traditional belief that people need to save face. People need to have a good reputation and be respected by people. Just like a tree and bark, a person cannot endure life without a face, both literally and metaphorically. When people aren’t respected and admired, they live a less cherished life.
Proverbs can be very powerful, and I think that using this type of proverb to teach children is very effective. Words can hurt more than actions, and with this proverb, words are more important than punishing through grounding. This proverb reveals values that Chinese people hold. As Michael said, the Chinese treasure respect and honor. “A person needs a face; a tree needs bark” perfectly describes Chinese beliefs without coming out to say it directly.