Social concept
Guanxi (social relationship/social connections) refers to a whole complex of social practices, strategies and ethics of the exchange and reciprocity of gifts, favours and banquets. For most Chinese growing up in socialist China, the social practice of Guanxi is a taken-for-granted part of everyday life. Guanxixue (the art of Guanxi or Guanxiology) is what one needs to learn in order to conduct oneself appropriately in social relations, live up to obligations to one’s circle of kin, friends, superiors and acquaintances, and also to enhance one’s chances in life, obtain hard-to-find goods or get around the bureaucracy. Guanxi is about building a network of close social ties of obligation and mutual help, as well as a pragmatic reliance on social connections to obtain anything from imported colour TVs to rare medicines to train tickets to access to good doctors to entry into a good school for one’s children to obtaining raw materials for one’s factory. It is thought to have developed after the initial revolutionary zeal of the 1950s, when universalistic values of socialism started to decline, and especially during the chaotic and scarce years of the Cultural Revolution. Studies show that in much of the countryside, Guanxi takes a different form. There are less incidences of explicit instrumental Guanxi, and instead one finds the total social phenomenon of the exchange and circulation of gifts and mutual aid in life-cycle rituals (which is called renqing) between families, with emphasis on proper social form and general social obligations.
It was not until China opened up to the outside (Western) world that China scholars from abroad, especially anthropologists and sociologists based in the USA and Western Europe, started to thematize Guanxi for academic scrutiny. From the perspective of Western observers coming from a capitalist individualistic market society, the pervasive reliance on one’s Guanxi network and the drawing on social obligation and debt to get things accomplished provided a novel and sharp contrast. While Guanxi had evident roots in traditional Chinese culture, with its emphasis on proper Confucian ritual form, on kinship obligations, and on principles of renqing (human feeling) and reciprocity, in Taiwan, Guanxi practice was not as pervasive or central.
This can be seen in the fact that in Taiwan, the phrase Guanxixue (the art of Guanxi) did not exist, and there was not an elaborated self-conscious discourse and vocabulary of Guanxi. Thus, scholars have emphasized not the continuity of an essential Chinese culture, but the importance of social institutions and historical process as the context for the production of Guanxi. Scholars of state socialist society in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe have observed similar forms of reliance on social reciprocity and social networks to get things accomplished, such as blat in Russia. Despite their considerable cultural differences with China, Soviet societies shared very similar social institutions and state socialist political-economic and bureaucratic orders.
In the mid 1990s, as the market economy provided more goods and social services obtainable with money, and many bureaucratic hurdles were removed, the need and uses for Guanxi for ordinary people underwent a change. Guanxi was less involved in obtaining consumer goods, but became important among entrepreneurs in gaining official approval to establish new business ventures, and in obtaining tax breaks, market information and wholesale supplies. Thus, Guanxi has increasingly moved into the intersection between the business and official worlds, where its ablest practitioners are found, and increasingly becomes synonymous with corruption.
Bian, Yanji (1994). ‘Guanxi and the Allocation of Urban Jobs in China’. China Quarterly 140: 971–99.
Kipnis, Andrew (1997). Producing Guanxi: Sentiment, Self, and Subculture in a North China Village. Durham: Duke University Press.
Yan, Yunxiang (1994). The Flow of Gifts: Reciprocity and Social Networks in a Chinese Village. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Yang, Mayfair Mei-hui (1996). Gifts, Favors, and Banquets: The Art of Social Relationships in China. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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