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Home  /  Inside China  /  Guanxi and Guanxixue: The Advantage of Personal Connections in Modern China
Guanxi and Guanxixue: The Advantage of Personal Connections in Modern China print version
What is the difference between guanxi 关系 and simple personal ties? What is the difference between guanxi and guanxixue and is it a myth that the two carry an essential role in both traditional and present Chinese culture?
Guanxi 关系 means ‘relation' or ‘relationship' but is often used to signify useful personal connections. A person who has guanxi is one who is assisted by many people in informal manners, hence one will claim to have guanxi in a certain institute, for example, if the staff or managers are familiar with him and could give him a special treatment. To the Western eye guanxi may possess a corrupted flavor, though guanxi is also about aiding a familiar person, especially if one who comes from the same family, same village, same district, etc.

Most sinologists claim the concept of guanxi derives from the Confucianist tradition and the 5 classic ties emphasized by it (emperor-subjectsן, father-son, husband-wife, older brother-younger brother, two friends). Although in common usage guanxi doesn't necessarily imply a relationship based on favors, nor does it necessarily refer to an asymmetric tie, guanxi carries a hierarchic motif from its origin which is strongly present in ‘modern' guanxi as well.

Nowadays a person can create guanxi with someone seating near him on the train for a short ride, but perhaps the use of guanxi is more permanent in situations where dependence or mutual assistance is required. Within a certain danwei (work unit) guanxi could enable workers to take care of each others' necessities, during the cultural revolution guanxi could mean mutual protection and keeping each others' secrets and so on.

It is true that many Chinese strongly object corruption and a reality in which personal ties can promote someone to a job instead of professional skills, can allow someone to avoid a fine by local official, etc. The use of guanxi in order to advance oneself through the ‘backdoor' is referred as guanxixue 关系学 (literally - the ‘art' or ‘knowledge' of guanxi), a term which carries a negative sense in China's popular discourse.

So what's the big deal about guanxi, isn't this term parallel to the word ‘connections' in English and other words used in different languages, aren't personal connection after all important in every existing culture?!

A research conducted by Douglas Guthrie, already more than 12 yrs ago, shows that Chinese managers of enterprises and factories strongly object the practice of guanxixue, and choose their workers based on skills only. Even if we remain cynic-free, and believe the honesty of the interviewed managers, we can still ask whether the more common use of guanxi isn't still quite different than the practice of human ties outside China.

Guanxixue is a relatively new term, while guanxi is almost timeless. The former has been brought into public attention to warn against the excessive use of guanxi, only because the latter is so widespread in the Chinese society. While some Chinese scholars consider guanxixue as an obstacle in China's progress towards modernity and a symbol of the backwardness of tradition, it is important to mention the fact that Confucianist value and guanxi are nowadays efficiently realized within modernization processes in China (click here for more on this theme), in a manner very distinct from past modernization accomplishments in Western nations.

Stating cross cultural differences should always be done in a subtle manner, still it is quite evident that with less importance give to individual space in China, compared to the West and the long cultural traditions in Chinese communities (outside China as well), the informal practice of guanxi should be acknowledged and accepted as an integral part of social customs in China.

Assisting source:  Guthrie, Douglas. 1998. "The Declining Significance of Guanxi in China's Economic Transition". The China Quarterly, No. 154 (1998), pp. 254-282.

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