Is the verb phrase to save face a calque of an Asian idea? The reason I ask is that I'm not aware that the sense of the word face, as its being used there, is used with any other word than save, and I see it nearly always applied towards Oriental peoples. So, then, is it a calque, a word-by-word translation of an Asian idea? If not, the derivation seems a little mysterious to me from the ordinary sense of face — does anyone know if face in the given sense was used before sustained European contact with the East?
To the question whether it's a literal calque, the answer is no, at least according to the OED, since it doesn't exist a 1:1 correspondence with some Chinese expression.
The OED says that it was "originally used by the English community in China, with reference to the continual devices among the Chinese to avoid incurring or inflicting disgrace. The exact phrase appears not to occur in Chinese, but ‘
to lose face’ [tiu lien], and ‘
for the sake of his face’, are common."
I couldn't find any entry for save face in my dictionary and, although this is not the ultimate evidence (it's a free dictionary), it matches with what the OED says and you can find further reference in the block-quote below.
Finally, for your last question, whether this expression has some references in an earlier time or not, I'll paste the particular part you need from this page where there is more info, in case you want to go more in depth:
For the earliest usage examples, the OED gives the following:
Save one's face is recorded in the Westminster Gazette (April 5, 1898): "Unquestionably the process of saving one's face leads to curious results in other countries than China."
Save-face is found in Chambers Journal of Literature, Science and Arts (1917): "The civilian native staff had bolted at the first sign of trouble, 'going to report to the authorities' being their 'save face' for it!"
Face-saving first appears in Enoch A. Bennett's Lilian (1922): "She had been trapped beyond any chance of a face-saving lie."
Face-saver, defined as "something that 'saves one's face', originated in Edgar Snow's Scorched Earth (1941): "As a face-saver, however, Doihara was given enough support, from the Kwantung Army in Manchuria."
Carr (1993:74) notes, "It is significant that the earliest usages for English lose face, save face, save-face and face-saver refer to China, while later ones are more international in application."
By expanding "lose face" into "save face", English developed oppositely from Chinese, which has many "lose face" collocations, but none literally meaning "save face." Yao mianzi 要面子 "eager to gain reputation; be concerned about appearances" is (Hu 1944:58) "the closest Chinese approximation" for "save face."
I wanted to add that the transcription tiu lien, is written using Wade-Giles, the romanization system for Chinese used for most of the 20th Century before it got replaced by Pinyin.
In Pinyin it becomes "diū liǎn" (it took me a bit to find out), 丢脸 in Mandarin, and it means "humiliation/to lose one's credit, face or name", i.e. to lose face.
The Oxford English Dictionary says "face" in this sense was "Originally used by the English trading community in China" based on Chinese usage.