I’ve known about this enigmatic concept of “guanxi” since I taught English in Harbin, China back in 1986-88. I haven’t thought much about this term while teaching English in Ukraine and Kazakhstan and elsewhere since my China experience. However, this word came up again this summer in the textbooks our Chinese students were using as they oriented to American university life in a communications class. The following is a laudable paper written by an 18 year old female Chinese student explaining what guanxi really is.
Chinese communication of the social dinner
“Communication is an important part of the human life, especially in modern society. Through it, people have a chance to express themselves and get the information they want. It is a normal social activity and communication can happen everywhere. But it still has some important differences in China and the most remarkable condition happens at the dining table.
In Chinese adult society, people can solve many problems at the dinner table. Sometimes in China, the relationship can be even more important than the rule. The demand of solving problems are too difficult to settle by one’s own power, people need to show their deepest respect to someone who is in the authority of position or someone they trust can help them. Therefore, they may have the chance to get help from these powerful people.
So the dinner is not as easy as we take into consideration what is “normal” when there are essential people for you. The words you use should be more impersonal so that you do not say anything that will make others feel displeased, such as, you must address others respectfully. And the pleasant intonation and the smooth speed of talking are also not to be neglected. You need to find the topic you can join in and let your decent speech and demeanor be noticed by others, especially that one rule is the most important. In the meantime, you should also take care of others’ feelings so that you make a whole good impression. A perfect impression is a huge wealth for interpersonal activities, because it will let people trust you and let that important man believe you are a person who is worthy to receive his help.
Non-verbal communication is a very important part in China, because Chinese are always veiled so that they need some unspoken Chinese to express their mind. Showing the good Chinese table manners is an effective way to evince your respect. Another rule is the seat which is the farthest from the door is considered the most honorable place. You should let the most important person sit there. When food comes, you should let that person get the food first and you always need to drink much wine to show your sincerity. During the dinner time, you need to let that person feel good about you from beginning to end. It demands you to be very careful and polite to treat others, because “non-verbal cues in China are often more subtle than in the West.” (Eagan & Weiner, 2007, p. 218)
The appearance of these situations in China is known as GUANXI. Guanxi is “the way to get ahead is to know someone who can help provide a better opportunity. Through the advent of Communism, the best way to create an opportunity for yourself was to know someone in a position of power willing to help you (Eagan & Weiner, 2007, p.63)”. This is a very important keyword for Chinese because they need to build the guanxi when they are in contact with others. It’s different from American values about individualism, which is “a key European, American (and Canadian and Australian) value, places importance on the individual rather than the family or work team or other group (Nakayama Martin, 2011, p.15-16)”. Because primarily guanxi reflects that Chinese always think more about gregariousness and cooperation.
In conclusion, a dinner party has special meaning in China because it is a channel for people to find effective help in a relaxing environment. This kind of social intercourse is based on Chinese cultural background, because of Chinese cautious character but also the favorable opinion of guanxi. Through your cultivated style of conversation and behavior, you can leave a nice impression on the person who can potentially help you. Build the relationship with him and let it become the social resource for you, so that you can get the help from him. And it also means you obtain the success on the table today.”