Face is perhaps the most misunderstood general concept in China. In fact, if you assume that everything I am about to write is actually the opposite of reality, you probably won't be an farther from the truth than if you accept it as is.
We are concerned about this idea of "face" in America as well, but our concern differs in both degree and aspect. For example, most Americans don't often work hard to protect other people from losing face. There are examples of when people will do so, but they are generally more extreme circumstances. After failing a test in America one might feel disappointed, a situation that might be regarded in China as a loss of face. This might also include loss of face for the family. In China, people who are part of the "in group" are likely to try to prevent this loss of face. The sibling of the child with the low mark might recommend that they throw the paper away before showing it to the family. The result of losing face will be a backlash against the child, who will need to study harder, focus more intently, and generally balance this loss of face with future successes.
The degree to which the Chinese concern themselves with face is very high and, consequently, somewhat ridiculous (to me, at least). If a student corrects me in class, I have "lost face." The class will become silent and awkward. If I say something that is culturally taboo, I might also lose face. Luckily these are the only two examples I know (there are actually thousands of ways). If I knew all of the ways I might feel embarrassed a lot more often. This way I can obliviously stomp through my daily life like an elephant (an elephant from a different culture, of course), losing face and making people lose face as I obliviously march ahead. I am a face taking machine. My students probably wonder if I will ever be civilized enough to understand face. I know that I won't.
If I were to create a loose definition of face, I wouldn't say that is is, "The front part of a person's head from the forehead to the chin, or the corresponding part in an animal."
Actually, it would be more like, "the credibility, respectability, and overall goodness of a person." I would probably include more random words to make the definition sound scientific, but right now I have limited time.
Tonight I lost face when I made one of my freshmen girls cry. She wanted to take her pronunciation test again, and I told her it was a risk: if she scored lower than her original test, I would give her the new, lower score. She agreed and took the test, receiving a lower score than the original.
She didn't want me to include the new score as part of her grade - she wanted the old score to stand. I finally agreed and added, "I'm too nice," sort of as a joke. She began to cry.
By the way, did I mention that this entire scene was being witnessed by 6 of my best students, who had been waiting for me in the office? So I lost some face because I wasn't careful about the situation. "Oh stop looking at me like that, I didn't want her to get upset," I told them jokingly after the girl left. So I lost some face because I was too direct about what just happened.
My existence is loss of face. I'm a face losing fool. It's too bad I can't donate it, because I never seem to have much face anyway. It's not that I don't care, I do. It's just that I don't really understand.