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May 17, 2010 关系 guānxi - Relationship in China

This morning I got a letter from a young student friend, lamenting the fact that he has no 关系 guānxi, and explaining that Chinese society works on relationship.  He wrote: "One of my friend's uncle is a high ranking official in the army, so my friend joins the army after junior high school. Now he has been promoted to high official. Lots of my friends have been working in factory by his connections. I know it is unfair but i have to accept it. I have no guanxi so i have to work hard on my own."

Here's my response to his letter:

Dear _______

Guān xi is not limited to China.  In the West we have "the old boys club", meaning that if you went to the right university, joined the right fraternity, or became famous in the right way you will be welcomed into the social elite and your life becomes very easy.  This is why men who went to Harvard want their sons to go to Harvard, so that they can join the club.

There are different attitudes toward this.  My culture, the Protestant work ethic culture, despises the old boys club.  We don't respect a person who got their position through influence.
     Many people think that using their position to help a son or daughter will only make them weak, and will make them lose motivation and ability.  Many business people in my culture will refuse to use influence to help a relative get ahead, even if helping would be easy and painless for all involved.  They want a society that is a meritocracy, a society where a person gets a promotion because he or she deserves it.
     Usually this does not mean that a rich person won't help a relative get a loan, or solve a financial problem.  (My ex-wife and I helped our son buy his first house, for example.) But using influence to get a relative a promotion, or a job, is considered immoral.  It's called nepotism, and we don't like it.

People from another culture might look at such a person and wonder how they could be so heartless.  Don't they love their family?

I must say that I much prefer to live in a meritocracy, and think that nepotism and racism are wrong.  But this is wired into our DNA, and we're not going to get rid of it.  So this means that a person without guanxi must work harder and smarter than those who think they were born lucky.

____________, I know in my heart that lacking guānxi is actually a great advantage.  When you have a success, you will know that it is yours, and that you don't really owe it to anybody.  Imagine how you would feel if you had to credit every success to a relative, and feel that you didn't really deserve anything you got.  Would that make you happy?

And success is still possible, even without guan xi.  Your talents and abilities will be recognized by those who value people for what they are, not for who they have in their family.  So take heart.  Don't be bitter.  Pity the poor kid who thinks he has it made because his father has influence.  Someday he'll be a bloated and burned out alcoholic, and you will be a man who is proud of all his achievements.

Warmest regards

David

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