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How to: Understand Guanxi

Whenever you read or hear about China you cannot get around the Chinese word guanxi (关系).

For non-Chinese it is difficult to understand what this little word really stands for. The original meaning is “relationship”. But most dictionaries mention that it can also mean “concerning something”, “condition” or “involvement”. And that is where most foreigners have trouble understanding how relationship can also mean “condition”.

Guanxi is used as a term for a personal network. Those networks influence almost all decisions made in China while contracts and agreements are seen as guidelines, which can be questioned or changed. Most foreigners find it hard to believe that guanxi is not a synonym for the Western term “corruption”. In China they use the word Huilu (贿赂) for this illegal process.

So what is guanxi, if it doesn´t mean corruption?

Guanxi-Relationships are unlike corruption, not based on unions, groups or institutions but are concerning the link between two individual persons. From there on the network can be expanded to the people the other one has guanxi with. The dangerous thing about introducing other people to the people you have guanxi with, is that you could lose your face (honor, credibility) in case the introduced person is not trustworthy or reliable.

This kind of relationship needs a long time to be built up but when established it can be on a very high level. Some of the relationships are based on living together in the same village or because two people were studying in the same university.

But unlike the western definition of friendship or companionship, guanxi can only exist if the help one gives to the other is equal to the received favor. Eventually you have to “pay back” your guanxi-Partners. In general, foreigners who understand the global meaning of guanxi use this meaning to their own direction. Only Chinese individuals are really aware of the deepness of guanxi.

Time and consistence play an important role in this process, which involves work and care-taking. It could be compared to a fire. You have to put wood into the flames to keep it going. People you have good guanxi with, have the skill to know when to get new wood and when it is time to use the fire. That’s why it is very important for Chinese to categorize people as family, friends or foes.

All this is normally unnoticeable for foreigners who are most of the time outside of this very Chinese network. Although it is possible for foreigners to build guanxi, it remains extremely difficult to get a connection. Even if the foreigner speaks Mandarin, there are still family links needed to be close to a Chinese group.

Interesting enough “mei guanxi” which could be wrongly translated as “no relationship” means actually “don´t worry”, “never mind” or “doesn´t matter. So don´t be insulted if someone on the street appears to tell you “We have no relationship”.

1 Comment
  • David
    Posted at 15:41h, 05 February Reply

    This analysis is correct, except the fact that guanxi makes much more time and efforts to build for foreigners in China than locals of course. The guanxi connection for foreigner has to pass by family links which somehow is the only way for a foreigner to be really close to Chinese people, or at least a group of people, even if he speaks fluent Chinese. To end up with that guanxi stuff, only Chinese individuals are really aware of the deepness as well as the nuance of the meaning of guanxi, if you help them or build a good business they won’t forget and they’ll be liable to that. On the opposite, foreigners most of the time even if they understand the global meaning of it they will be less liable, they will use this meaning only to their own direction, help me but it doesn’t mean I’ll help you the day you’ll need it. I am a foreigner living long enough in China to notice those cultural details.

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