China is a nation that values tradition. Of the many aspects of tradition, the concept of guānxi is a deep-seated ideal that still holds a place in the daily lives of the Chinese (and overseas Chinese), whether in business, marriage or even making friends.
Interesting, while guanxi is an eastern philosophy, it is also increasing being adapted by American business models as opportunities in China continue to grow in number and magnitude. The U.S.’s tango with the concept of guanxi is detailed in Luo’s Guanxi and Business.
What is guanxi?
Guanxi roughly translates as ‘relationship’. The actual definition is much more complicated. Guanxi involves any interaction between two or more people and the complex dynamic of emotion, the maintenance of the relationship, and the mutual ‘face’ (miàn), or respect, provided to all parties involved in the relationship – a living testament to the ability for Chinese to condense a wealth of meaning into a few number of characters.
When I was studying in Nanjing, I noticed that college graduates looking for a job after graduation would sometimes turn to their parents or relatives. In turn, the parents would go through their contacts to help them obtain a job. Chinese parents will sometimes build an extensive, extended network of contacts that they can reach out to when tackling a problem. When finding a job for one’s child is a top priority, the maintenance of contacts is very important.
When a favor is performed for someone, the party receiving the favor reciprocates in some form. Contacts will dine together for a meal, in which one person picks up the check for the entire party present (Going dutch? That’s unheard of!). Such forms of reciprocation are common in dimsum events and formal dinner engagments, and they are believed to generate positive feelings and preserve guanxi relations.
While the Chinese generally believe that guanxi is inherently good and put it to use in their daily lives, critics of guanxi say that it promotes nepotism and cronyism. From the American perspective, merit is often the main assessment criterion for hiring (a huge contrast to the tenets of guanxi).
That said, coming from a business school like Baruch, it is hoped that we can embrace the advantages of both types of thinking in the business setting. The American twist on guanxi will probably always be an omnipresent fixture in the Asian American lifestyle. The takeaway message is simple and effective – treat others with kindness and they will help you in return. In some sense, guanxi may even be considered as a way to network and to build meaningful relationships with others.
Have you seen guanxi in practice in your neighborhood? Do you utilize guanxi in your own life? Tell us your guanxi stories in the comments section below.
Until next time – 再見!
Did this article get you interested in further reading? Try these!