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on March 22, 2006 at 7:33:34 am

Welcome to the Guanxi wiki (talk about cross-cultural!) where we are defining a term that has evolved over the decades and is used both positively and negatively!


Useful Links

Negative Implications




Guanxi is a Chinese term, generally translated as "networks" or "connections," that is increasing discussed in Western business circles and among academics studying such aspects of community as affective networks and social capital. Although guanxi is often characterized as uniquely Chinese, similar relationships occur in other nations, especially in East Asia. In China guanxi has become especially significant in the last fifty years because it provides individuals with a patterned, structured set of relationships that to some extent replace the social networks of family, village, and clan that are more difficult to maintain in the face of population relocations, urbanization, and Westernization. Guanxi is a mechanism for dealing with social uncertainty in a complex social environment.


Guanxi has been a significant element in Chinese business relationships for several hundred years, "an intricate and pervasive relational network which Chinese cultivate energetically, subtly, and imaginatively" (Luo 1997, 43). Wide webs of guanxi tie Chinese businessmen and Chinese firms into a cohesive and functioning economy. The success and even survival of many businesses rests on the establishment and maintenance of guanxi. For Western businesspeople, the idea of guanxi is a useful reminder that trust, understanding, and personal knowledge can be vital components of economic relationships. The development of guanxi is not something that takes place instantly, and this can be one of the frustrating aspects of doing business in China for non-Asians who are accustomed to striking a deal and moving on.


Most guanxi relationships are based on individuals' having something in common, a phenomenon called tong in Chinese. The commonalities may be the fact of having attended or graduated from the same school, having the same place of employment, working in the same industry, or coming from the same village or region. In addition, guanxi relationships may sometimes be established through gift giving or personal favors. They can even be arranged by an intermediary. Guanxi relationships often have a strong emotional element, something easily overlooked by outsiders.


The essence of guanxi is that each relationship carries with it a set of expectations and obligations for each participant. A guanxi relationship may lead a person to feel obligated to help someone get a job or a promotion, or, conversely, may lead a person to have the expectation that a connection will help with a job search or a promotion. Similar obligations or expectations can be held with regard to gaining entrance to a school or university, meeting with an influential official, getting access to a desired material good, or receiving (or offering) help to family and friends. Those who meet these obligations gain face and status and expand their guanxi network. Refusing to help is a sign of inhumanity and can bring disgrace.


Thus, in addition to the instrumental and emotional components noted above, guanxi also involves the notion of honor and respect, two core values in Chinese society.

Guanxi is of interest not only to Western businesspeople, but also to Western sociologists and network analysts. Pressing research issues among Western scholars and analysts include the content of guanxi ties, what types of ties and networks tend to go together, and the relationship between guanxi networks and other sorts of ties. Those studying online network building are particularly interested in whether electronic media and global connections can allow the development of the kind of intricate human bonds the Chinese call guanxi. Some people call the Internet and the other communication technologies of the twentieth century guanxi enablers. They point out that e-mail address books and speed dial lists make it quicker, easier, and more affordable to make contacts and keep those contacts fresh. There are in fact a variety of customs and practices in the West that reflect concepts similar to those used to explain guanxi, concepts and rules that define the relationship between individuals and groups.


For example, traditionally European etiquette required a person to be introduced by a mutual acquaintance, never simply to strike up a conversation with a stranger, even at a private event. Western practices that are intended to build extended personal networks include school and college placements, high school foreign exchange programs, college programs of study abroad, internships, and traineeships in different companies or different departments within a business. These programs are intended to expand the individual's personal connections on a lasting basis, not just to provide or enhance an abstract understanding of other people and cultures.

Western businesspeople appear to see guanxi as a kind of capital to be accumulated. Nonetheless, in the West ties tend to be less strong, less structured, and less based on expectations. Old or distant relationships are also less important in the West than they are in China. For those reasons some experts argue that it is a stretch to label as guanxi relationships such as those formed during foreign exchange programs or traineeships. It may be that the elusiveness of the concept is what makes guanxi appealing to people in the West. It provides a useful way to corral a wide variety of human connections under one term and to see that networks of relationships have a kind of life of their own.


From "Guanxi" by Karen Christensen and David Levinson in the Encyclopedia of Community (Sage 2004).




Further Reading

Gold, T., Guthrie, D., & Wank, D. (Eds.). (2002). Social connections in China: Institutions, culture, and the changing nature of guanxi. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Heberer, T. (2002). Guanxi. In D. Levinson and K. Christensen (Eds.), Encyclopedia of modern Asia (Vol. 2, pp. 457458). New York: Scribners.

Luo, Y. (1997). Guanxi: principles, philosophies, and implications. Human systems management, 16(1), 43.

Luo, Y. (2000). Guanxi and business. River Edge, NJ: World Scientific Publishing Co.

Yang, M. M.-H. (1994). Gifts, banquets, and the art of social relationships in China. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.


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