China First Hand

22 February 2006

I’ll Scratch Your Back

Filed under: Culture,Personal — china1sthand @ 2:09 pm

Everything in China is based on relationships. The word describing this is ‘guanxi’ – and though ‘relationship(s)’ is probably the closest translation, it’s not quite right. If you say you have guanxi with a person or an organisation, then you have a contact that will potentially help you. And if you don’t have these sorts of relationships – you won’t see the real China!

Gaunxi is the basis of everything that happens in China. Relationships define if you get a job…successful business deals…anything! It’s whom you know not what you know. To an extent this makes sense – in a huge country you must restrict the people you talk with. There is also corruption everywhere – so official channels can’t be trusted. The most reliable way to do things is to use your own judgements of trust. You must also build trust in others, so everyone understands the need to reciprocate by returning favours.

Obviously you can’t vet every person you may want to help you – so you build a network: A friend of yours is a friend of mine. This is something of which I have been very lucky to be a part. I have benefited from guanxi by having a free home on both trips to China, and most of my work I found using guanxi. All my original students referred me to another. However, due to this network those with no connections will struggle. Power breeds power.

With guanxi, there is no line between business and personal: Your reputation affects everything. This is an excellent idea, because you must genuinely be the person you present! There is no room for untruthful sales banter here! However, it also means that your family is always involved. Family are the most important relationships in China. Your actions reflect on your family, so you are responsible for your family as well as yourself. This is a good way to build commitment and motivation. Often, people want to achieve not for their own satisfaction, but for the positive impact it will have on their family. However, it also means there is a lot at stake in everything you do – and anything your family does affects you also. Life is far more complicated and unpredictable.

A significant difficulty with this way of doing things is that you must invest time into a relationship in order to gain any help. Work experience schemes and asking advice from strangers won’t help you here. For example, how do you get help from a native English speaker? Most Chinese don’t know one – so we are popular people! When I was on a bus, a girl tried to help me by assuming I was lost – just so she could give me her card! On my first trip to China I was lost – and I was suspicious of a guy at a bus stop trying to talk to me. He only wanted my email address so that he could send me lots of emails, with pictures too! As I was speaking with a salesman, you could see him gradually give up his presentation because I knew as much as him! In the end the tables completely turned – and he wanted me to regularly help him with his spoken English! Near the end of my stay I unknowingly told a policeman I had an inappropriate visa. I was convinced he was checking up on me. I stand out so much and I am there so often that I am probably recognised! Rather than be angry, he wanted my contact details – to practice his English! Phew!

I still want to help and stay in touch with some people I met in China. Was it the girl trying to be helpful? Was it the persistence of the emailer? The enjoyable conversations I had with the salesman maybe? Or the excitement of knowing a Chinese policeman?? I wish I had the time for all of these people, but I’m not now in touch with any of them. The people that I am, are those with whom I have developed a 2-way exchange over time – resulting in a trusting relationship. I naturally followed the rules of guanxi. So doesn’t that show that the Chinese way is the best?



  1. […] Man-woman relationships are no exception to this theory of close bonding. Today is Valentine’s Day, and the way I am seeing couples behave today highlights some big differences between China and the West. Chinese culture promotes stories of love and romance, and all youngsters appear to aspire to this ideal. The number one Hollywood film of all time in this country is the love story “Titanic” and my friend used to like watching old black and white love stories on afternoon British TV. When compared with this, the West is rather promiscuous. In China, family is a vital part of life and the West does not present a great record of family commitment. The media does not apparently miss a trick to emphasise these immoral ways. I don’t exactly disagree with these views. My culture has taught me quite a shallow view of relationships with a partner. Today I watch Chinese men have no shame publicly expressing their love for their girlfriend. I hear stories of men serenading women under windows, and waiting outside for them all night. In China, it’s more cuddles than snogs. It’s a lifetime – not one night. […]

    Pingback by You Are The One « China First Hand — 16 September 2006 @ 3:14 pm | Reply

  2. […] My previous 2 articles were on gift-giving and guanxi.  These are interlinked, because in China, I think the reason people exchange gifts is to build guanxi.  A third concept underlying all of this is ‘Face’.  Perhaps this term is not commonly used in the West, but it is very important in China.  ‘Face’ is your self-respect, your pride, your reputation.  Everyone wants to save face and no one wants to lose it. […]

    Pingback by Keep The Face « China First Hand — 16 September 2006 @ 8:50 pm | Reply

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