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Gareth is an Australian who has lived in JiangSu, SuZhou (Heaven on Earth) for a few years - he is a keen observer of the Chinese people, Chinese culture and the changes that are occurring in China at break-neck speed. He can often be found on his a nightly 'perch' in front of his bar in the famous Bar Street in Suzhou, talking to the locals in his bad Mandarin, teaching the 'flower-selling girls' English, eating street food and smiling at the local chengguan (neighbourhood police). Gareth also has several other businesses in China around Business and English training. His experiences have been varied and interesting and his years in China have taught him to be wary of promises but excited about prospects, not a bad situation to be in!
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Mythical Creatures in China - Guanxi

By Garreth Humphris
20600 Views | 6 Comments | 10/8/2010 10:51:34 PM
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China is home to many beasts and bodies, both real and imaginary. From 9 dragons creating a dynastic empire to giant turtles holding up the Earth, mortals living on the moon and a ghost warrior that eats devils, China's culture is rich, varied and never boring!

In my last blog piece I mentioned some other 'unknowns' to foreigners outside of China (and many inside as well!); those being the concepts of 'face' and 'guanxi'.

Woaizhongguo challenged me to put some thoughts together - and although I touched on the subjects, I am not really sure if I know enough about it! I hope others will be able to share their personal insights as well!

I like to describe my China experience such as entering a traditional Chinese house. Luckily I live in a beautiful city that has many traditional houses so I can see them every day! In this area, the houses are a series of rooms, antechambers and courtyards. In the front of the house, the first room is a 'greeting room' or 'business room'. Very formal and neat in arrangement, displaying some of the family wealth and power (calligraphy from famous poets or leaders) and displays of revered ancestors. It is usually quite bright and airy, with chairs and settings in very formal configurations. The room is a display case, both showing current power and linkages to the past.

If you tour the house, it gets interesting. There are more and more sliding doors, and it gets darker and more obscure. The interior of the house is a little more foreboding, a little darker and the true pathway less obvious as the configuration becomes more complex with hallways, rooms and spaces for family and friends. The relationships between rooms becomes complex, many entries and exits, dead ends and shafts of light!

If you speak to someone who has lived in China for a few years, they can tell you everything about China! But speak to people who are longer on the ground and they will admit they know very little - it is the transition into the house!!!

If you are in the front rooms, the house is open and spacious, opulent and shining - but if you have been open to slide open another few doors, you realize the house is much larger and the inner workings of the household are much more complex than you can ever imagine!!! And this is the paradox of where I choose to live - you really don't have much idea of what is really going on!!

One of these mythical mysteries is the ancient beast of Guanxi - an unwritten code of honor and relationship that transcends time and traditions. It is not a sinister organization like you see in cheesy 70's Hong-Kong movies (although, no doubt these organisations have similar heirachy), but sometimes it feels like it!!!!

So understanding how it flows over everyone and everything in China is an important key to understanding a little about the culture.

In past postings, I have suggested that guanxi is able to move mountains (or at least traffic infringement fines, planning approvals of housing developments and/or permits to run businesses), but of course it isn't as straightforward as knowing someone in a high position and crossing his/her palm with 10 taels of silver.

In essence, the relationship is deeper and richer than this - it is about acceptance into 'family and friendship circles' to the point of 'kindredship'.

It is all a very logical situation - trust only people that you, or those you trust, trust!

If you think back to ancient times, a trader/merchant is more likely to want to do business with people in their family, then maybe their village, and possibly some 'trusted' people they knew a little further away - since there was probably little justice in the area and 'keeping people honest' is more about knowing where they live and how much 'muscle' you could gather!

In more recent times, different turmoils in the country have meant that 'trusted people' are essential because you were never sure who was watching and what their motives may have been!

So Guanxi is this form of ultimate trust - system of 'recommendation and referral' that makes people 'family', but it is also a form or 'honour and obligation', because if your give/receive guanxi then there is invariably some type of 'payback' that may come.

There is a saying in China that means "thieves and policemen come from the same family', and in many ways this is true because some of the guanxi given along many people's paths through life will either be 'black' or 'white' and so everyone turns out a little 'grey' in the process.

How grey depends on the individual - it can be simple things such as offering a law enforcement officer a cigarette to overlook a traffic misdemeanour, to calling up your friend on the telephone in a high office to smooth over a major traffic infringement with multiple police to ... .

If someone is presented to you through a guanxi-gift relationship you are obliged to try to help them - the gift-giver (referrer) is 'passing on' a payback to you that you should receive and despatch accordingly - failure to do so may mean you offend the guanxi-gift-giver as well as the guanxi-gift.

These may sound superficial - but they have far-reaching effects in business and life in China and abroad. I put it too you that a very public withdrawal from China recently may have had more to do with loss of guanxi in high places (with the leaving of a powerful player as CEO a few months before) than with issues of 'information filtering'...but that is just my unsubstantiated conjecture!!! If you don't know what I'm talking about, Google it...sorry, only if you don't live in China!

I know from my own business experience that supply contracts have disappeared, previously un-necessary protocol has suddenly become essential and business relationships have changed dramatically with changes in personnel in other companies I have dealt with. Long-term partners become distant and previously reliable supply sources have become unreliable with the demise of the purchasing officer and replacement with a new one. This is not to say it doesn't happen in other places around the world, but it is very pronounced in China.

On a personal note - I am able to illegally ride a bicycle in my street because I 'know' the local traffic police. Having shared a cigarette and a few private jokes, I am able to place tables and chairs outside my business on the public street and my neighbour cannot! This 'neighbourhood guanxi' extends to taxi-drivers and other business people on the street. It is more than being 'identified', it is being 'local' and maybe even being 'family'.

I am able to use connections with others to visit and ask the opinions of higher-ranked government officials, recieve invitations to meetings and gain acceptance of ideas and work I would like to do - of course, with any relationships they are precarious - taking years to foster and grow and minutes to set on fire! Along with the phoenix, the guanxi beast can also become fire in your hands, but it rarely regrows itself!

It is another important thing to note that it is also possible to gain huge advantages with the rise of people you know and have guanxi-credits with. So fostering strong relationships in business and politics is also a good way to obtain guanxi-credits!

So where does that put a foreigner coming to China seeking a bride? Well, how complicated can it get? You might need to think of the woman's guanxi status. In my previous posting, I joked that I wanted a partner with lots of guanxi-status!!! Through current family, through previous marriage ties, through business association and through 'cultural standing' of ancestors. Why? It would certainly 'smooth' my life in many ways!

The other effect is that it is possible that your partner is obliged to do things and be places that you do not necessarily understand or want them to do/be at. Or sometimes you may be the 'token' foreigner in an event as well - supporting someone through 'guanxi-connection'.

In these cases, it's pointless to fight!! You have to grin and bear it!!

The other key thing to remember is it's a bit like candy - if you have some in your pocket, you will want to gobble it up quickly. But you really know it is best to save it for a rainy day!!!

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(Showing 1 to 6 of 6) 1
#2010-10-08 23:33:00 by JohnAbbot @JohnAbbot

Over my time in China I've developed a pretty good but internalized feeling for, and appreciation of, the concept of "Guangxi", but I've never seen it described so well and in such detail before. This really brings it out of the vague gut feeling type of understanding and gives it a clear intellectual definition for me. And understanding Guangxi is perhaps the single most important thing for thriving, or even surviving, in China.

#2010-10-11 18:30:16 by aussieghump @aussieghump

Thanks John - as you know this is also a gut feeling for me, since there are no real 'guidebooks' about who and what to do!!!
I have read many 'corny' articles that say you should 'do this' or should 'do that' in China but to me, they are superficial and down-right dangerous in most cases - assuming someone is one thing when they are not!!

For me, the following points have gained most success (anywhere in the world);
1) being honest to yourself and to others,
2) being humble and respectful and
3) 'asking' rather than 'telling' and
4) be warily watchful of people, but assume they are working in your interests (rather than assuming they are out to kill you!)

I would welcome other people's ideas on this since, as you say, it is mostly 'gut feel' and 'instinct'!

#2010-10-11 22:52:48 by woaizhongguo @woaizhongguo

Great article and a must read for anyone entering the waters of Chinese culture. During Peace Corps training we had sessions devoted specifically to the topic, and I or any Peace Corps China volunteer could tell you numerou guanxi tales. Some would dismiss guanxi, saying it is no different than the "I scratch your back,you'll scratch mine" attitude found around the world. While in a sense this is true, as your article points out (and John confirms) the truth is much more complicated and there is a sense in which there is no parallel--at least in the U.S.--to guanxi in China. I especially like the notion of guanxi as mythical. For while many think myths are false, they are in fact larger metaphors essential to understanding the culture. And this is certainly the case with guanxi in China.

#2010-10-12 17:35:09 by aussieghump @aussieghump

Hi woaizhongguo - thanks for the support in exploring the idea.
I had an experience a few years ago where a government official helped me with a very difficult process by referring me to others that I should talk to - a long chain of 'pre-organised meetings' where I would humbly ask my request.
Over dinner, he explained that the way forward in China examine how the Chinese eat compared to foreigners - foreigners had a method of eating a meal starting at soup, then entree, then main meal, then dessert etc. but that Chinese throw all the food into a big bowl of boiling soup, pick up a morsel of food and if cooked, they will eat it and if not cooked, they will throw it back! Eventually you get all the food, but you might need to pick up a few times.. a great analogy!! I use it daily!

#2011-07-09 11:20:25 by tanshui @tanshui

Very interesting and thoughtful explanation of "Guangxi".

Great food for thought.

#2015-07-07 10:29:03 by williamallman @williamallman

@aussieghump I think the concept of guanxi is difficult for Westerners to understand because we are not accustomed to thinking in terms of Dao. Everything is related, connected, part of the whole. Like the concept of yin/yang--to Westerners it means opposites (white/black, positive/negative, etc.) but in Asian minds it is two parts of the same thing. It boils down to a basic difference of perception. Guanxi typifies the focus of Asian thought on the relationship of people and things to other people and things, the idea that we are not separate from each other but rather part of the whole.

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