Guanxi is an important word in China. It includes a lot of information for history, culture and relationships among people. The Chinese think guanxi is so powerful that it can help them to get a lot of unfinished things accomplished. First of all, a definition of “guanxi” according to Eagan and Weiner (2007) is the following: “…a way to get ahead is to know someone who can help provide a better opportunity…to know someone in a position of power willing to help you.” (p. 63) Perhaps Americans hold to a similar concept of “networking” where we try to meet as many people as possible to maybe help land a job. Maybe for the more outgoing and gregarious, Americans like to have many acquaintances and “friends.”
Over twenty-five years ago, as an unsuspecting American, I had never experienced the power of the word “guanxi.” After living in China in the late 1980s, it was interesting for me to learn more about it. I believe most westerners may have an idea about what it is like, perhaps akin to “I’ll scratch your back, if you scratch mine.” However, as I learned from my living and teaching in China for two years that it was much more powerful a concept than a random scratch to an occasional itch. I will provide several examples of when guanxi was used in my experience and how maybe we as Americans might have something similar in principle or practice while being totally unaware of it.
At the time, I did not know why Carolyn (her English name) who was one of my Chinese students, knitted a beautiful green, cabled wool sweater for me. I bought the sufficient amount of skeins of yarn at the store and she did the rest. Harbin, in the northeastern part of China is known to be very cold and she knew I needed to wear something warm for the oncoming winter. I do not know that I did anything for her except have her over to practice English. Later I found out that perhaps I was supposed to help her gain entrance to a university in the U.S. I wonder about Carolyn these many years later. Every time I had put on that sweater I thought good thoughts about her.
Another instance of how guanxi was used in my case was when Stephen (English name) wanted to practice doing an oil painting portrait of me. I still have the painting today but I don’t recall doing anything for Stephen except sitting and posing for him for several hours. He told me through his friend that he wanted to practice painting western noses (Dai Baize = BIG nose) Stephen, as an artist, had been sent out to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution and so he had not learned how to speak English. He had been penalized for his talent. Fortunately we were able to communicate through his Chinese friend who was one of my engineering students. So maybe Stephen wanted to be close to the power structure of my university at Ha Gong Da. I also still wonder why Stephen went to Dalian with me and my sister and another student to help transport my 3 meter by 4 meter carpet for me that was put in a crate that was about the size of a coffin. I was never able to repay Stephen for his service mentality of helping me. I never got him a job or found him other people he could paint for profit.
My young Chinese friends, Carolyn and Stephen’s expectations were that I help improve their lives in some way. According to what Eagan and Weiner (2011), they claim with the beginning of communism, people of authority may not have been paid much in high salaries, but they had prestige and authority given them. With these privileges of helping others, the senior ranking government officials could amass more power by gaining respect and trust of others under them.
I believe that Americans may be confused by this concept of “guanxi” because we have a different value orientation in place where westerners may do acts of kindness for others without any expectation of it being reciprocated. The following anecdote is what one of my Chinese students wrote about his experiences in China concerning this:
“I have seen many examples of how Chinese depend totally on “GUAN XI”. I have a friend who hadn’t high enough scores to study in high school. And his father found an officer who is a manager in education. Now my friend studies in a famous high school. Also I met a businessman who was ready to apply for a project but he had many opponents. He had a friend who is in the management for this project. Obviously, he got this project at the end.”