Guanxi: The Concept of Relationships in Chinese Culture

Published: 15th April 2010
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This article defines and explores the concept of `guanxi` as it pertains to Chinese culture. Perhaps one of the most difficult concepts for people new to China, understanding how the Chinese view relationships is crucial to understanding Chinese people. Understanding `guanxi` will help one better assimilate into the Chinese culture.

One of the words that foreigners new to the TESOL Course, do not try to translate is `guanxi`. It is such an important part of Chinese life that we all must try to understand it. However, any English translation cannot capture its full meaning because we do not have a concept quite like it.

It is too simple to call guanxi, `relationships`, `networking`, or `connections` because all of these things are basic fibers of the Chinese culture. People rely on them not only for getting things done, but also for protection, security and support. Networks of guanxi can be seen almost as underground tunnels and paths that connect a person to various other locations without the scrutiny of others. These networks serve very important functions for both the individuals and organizations in China. Of course, in its simplest and purest forms, guanxi can also mean friendship, trust and willingness to help each other. However, this is one reason westerners have trouble understanding the line between friendship and guanxi. In China, it is almost impossible for a `true friend` to refuse the request of another `true friend`. Once that level of friendship has been reached, it is taken for granted that the friend will help if asked. The challenge westerners face is determining who is that kind of friend and what is simply a favor that needs to be repaid later. It is also a delicate balance to know when you are imposing on someone and when they will be insulted if you do not ask for their help.

Often the term `friend` is used to mean acquaintance and at other times it is used to express a hope of becoming friends in the future. It is more difficult for foreigners to form close friendships in China because the foreigner is usually seen as temporary. The kind of friendships that form the basis of this network are built over many years and many exchanges of favors. Most westerners would feel very comfortable exchanging favors if the exchange were clearly laid out, I`ll do `X` for you if you do `Y` for me. It doesn`t work that way because `that`s not how friends behave.` Perhaps it is due to the western culture of independence that we feel uncomfortable with an open ended exchange, I`ll do `X` for you and you`ll do something for me later. Or perhaps it is due to a lack of trust, thinking that the favor you offer in exchange will not be a fair trade, but you will be obligated.

A third factor that complicates this is that not all Chinese see them in the same way. I don`t want to make guanxi sound like a kind of currency because that makes the development of friendships seem cold and calculating. For most Chinese, this is not the case. However, to give a better idea of this, I will discuss how different people use their guanxi.

Some Chinese take pride in not being involved in any kind of guanxi exchanges that would result in profit. They see `using` friends to produce profit as a symbol that the person is not a `true friend.` However, even these people use this in many other ways.

Other Chinese will only use guanxi when necessary and are very cautious not to impose on anyone. Usually these people will be more direct and offer an `X` for `Y` exchange if they feel what they are asking is an imposition or that they have not reached a close enough level of friendship yet. They may also ask you what you would like in exchange if they know you are leaving soon and they will therefore not be in a position to repay you later.

A third kind of Chinese are those who try to take advantage of anyone they can, `users`. They tend to only think of their short term benefit. Most Chinese think these people are stupid since they will always lose in the long run. However, they are also the ones who cause foreigners to be cautious about who they become friends with and who they do favors for.

Foreigners enrolled and graduated from a TESOL Course should try to understand as much about guanxi as they can and try to avoid falling into the trap of thinking of guanxi as `using relationships`. Only the `users`, mentioned above, take this attitude. Certainly, there may be times when you attend a dinner or do a small favor for someone because the `relationship` may be useful later. But if you try to begin building guanxi just to use it later, you will likely get burned by it because people will see you as a `user`. Also, never try to use guanxi openly. That is, to use it as a threat, `My guanxi can take your guanxi any day.` Many people will try to help you when they can, even if they are not that close to you, if they can do so without taking sides or hurting themselves. But if you get involved in an open war, they will be taking risks, which they will not want to do.

Whatever the reason, foreigners have difficulty getting used to guanxi and even if they can get a strong grasp of its workings, they can never become fully integrated into its network. Understanding this key cultural insight early in your TESOL Course will go a long way in helping you assimilate into the culture.

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