Sometimes Chinese words simply cannot be translated into English without losing their real meaning. The Oxford English Dictionary has found a solution: simply add it as a new “Chinglish” word and make it official. One of the lucky concepts chosen this year is guanxi.
Guanxi is Mandarin – in Cantonese, it’s gwaan1 hai6 (關係). It literally means connections or relationships, but its true essence is so much more. It is almost impossible to understand Chinese society without understanding guanxi; some may even argue that is one reason why the West will never truly comprehend the East. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, guanxi is “the system of social networks and influential relationships which facilitate business and other dealings,” but the mere mention of guanxi is enough to send many a Western businessmen panicking back home.
If you say “tomahto” and I say “to-may-to”, if you say “potahto” and I say “po-tay-to”, we may still get along in the West, but in China, you better give me the tomato and the potato and I’ll return the favour and honour you with a piece of chicken. Next time we meet, you will up the game and give me some beef, then I will give you some oysters and we will down them with two glasses of sorghum wine (baak3 zau2 百酒). Maybe we’ll empty the bottle just to be sure of our commitment to each other or, nowadays, we’ll order a bottle of Italian Chianti and mix it with Sprite. We will meet again and fight over the bill until finally we will consider each other trustworthy enough to do business with.
Whole books have been written on guanxi so we will not pretend to paint a full picture here. Let’s just say that actions mean more than words or thoughts. When trying to integrate into Chinese society, do not think of yourself as an individual, but behave according to your role in relation to others. That is what Confucius said and what Confucius said shall be followed. It is about loyalty, filial piety, kinship and hierarchy. Respect others and respect the greater good. Chinese society is often about insiders versus outsiders and guanxi is what brings you into the web of insiders.
Beyond familial guanxi, guanxi with outsiders was necessary for building networks and trust where legal frameworks were often missing. Once you have established guanxi with someone they will not take advantage of you because losing face is almost worse than losing money. News travels fast in guanxi networks and one cannot afford to lose their reputation. Guanxi is a high-stakes game for the outsider, but if you maintain it, the rewards are high, break it and you may never fix it again.
Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.