Thursday, March 4, 2010
G is for Guānxi 关系
Today in Mrs. Matlock's class we will be having a cultural lesson.*
G is for Guānxi (关系), a Chinese word meaning "relationships" or "connections."
Guānxi is at the heart of Chinese culture and a bit of a mystery to those outside of it.
"At its most basic, guanxi describes a personal connection between two people in which one is able to prevail upon another to perform a favor or service, or be prevailed upon. The two people need not be of equal social status. Guanxi can also be used to describe a network of contacts, which an individual can call upon when something needs to be done, and through which he or she can exert influence on behalf of another." Wikipedia
"It's often the case that you can't even get (the first thing accomplished) in China without guanxi, and you can do just about anything... - when you have it.... It has everything to do with whom you know and what these people are willing - or obligated - to do for you.
Guanxi is, of course, a reciprocal obligation. You are expected to behave in similar fashion and to deliver favors to those with whom you have guanxi. Nor need the currency of guanxi be cash - it seldom is in fact. You might be asked to procure hard-to-get theater tickets, arrange an appointment with a well-known doctor, introduce someone to a potential business partner, secure a visa for someone, or recommend someone for a trip abroad.
Guanxi often involves going via the houmen (back door)....
The Chinese generally expect foreigners to understand guanxi and behave according to its rules."
Seligman, Scott, , and . Chinese Business Etiquette. New York, NY: Warner Books, Inc, 1999. Print. pp56-57
Closely related to guānxi is reciprocity - the doing of favors and Giving of Gifts. "The economy of favors between two individuals or units is expected to remain in rough balance over a period of time.... A second corollary to this rule is that you should proceed with caution before putting a Chinese in a position in which he or she is totally unable to return a favor. Giving an extremely expensive gift can place the recipient in an uncomfortable situation. If there is no possibility of the person's ever repaying the gift with something of approximately equal value, he or she will always be beholden to the giver - or else lose face."
Seligman, Scott, , and . Chinese Business Etiquette. New York, NY: Warner Books, Inc, 1999. Print. PP 59-60
A current example of this in my life would be my Saturday afternoon tutoring. Our really nice neighbors upstairs asked if I would be willing to help their eleven year old son with his English. They offered to pay me to tutor him once a week. Now in my mind, I am thinking, "These are really nice folks and I would love to get to know them better." Additional thoughts were, "I'm not qualified as a teacher and do not want the pressure of feeling like we couldn't miss a week or change the day & time now and then." So I said yes, but hemmed and hawed about the payment. Finally I let my husband communicate that we appreciated their friendship, that I didn't feel quite comfortable being paid, and that there would surely be help we would need from them in the future. We understood in saying this that, in all probability, the gift giving would begin. And it has... a box of fruit, a New Year's present for our youngest, etc. We really do like them and, generally, I have fun teaching "Jack;" so I would do it for nothing. But that's just not the way here.
As independent Americans, I think we some times feel that we don't need anyone and that we stand on our own two feet or accomplish and achieve things solely through our my own merit. I'm not fond of the pressure or expectations of guānxi or the fact that people are not always rewarded due to talents and hard work, but instead by who they know. But cultivating relationships and being thoughtful is the sunny side of the coin. We do need one another after all. And who doesn't like receiving a gift now and then.
*I'm afraid this lesson is a little long (maybe we should have spread it over two days). I hope you were able to hang in there with me.
Be sure to check out all the Gee posts for this Thursday's class at Jenny Matlock's ...off on my tangent....
The free vintage China images came from imagesofAsia.com.