Social relations (guanxi): A Chinese approach to interpersonal communication

Chen-Lung Ringo Ma

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articlepeer-review


As a multi-dimensional social phenomenon, guanxi has been identified as a key element in Chinese communication (e.g., Chang & Holt, 1991; Hwang, 1997; Kipnis, 1997; Ma, 1991). It is a major theme in many folklore tales and historic events. For example, gandan xiangzhao ("with liver and gall facing each other" or "showing utter devotion to a friend, etc.") as portrayed in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms is highly valued by many Chinese. The idiom denotes a high level of mutual commitment in an extraordinary guanxi. On the other hand, the killing between two guanxi-saturated groups, emperor's in-laws and eunuchs, was blamed for the fall of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 A.D.). In other words, guanxi can be a virtue or vice in the context of Chinese culture. Whether a positive or negative phenomenon, in China's new business environment, as noted by Luo (2000), "guanxi has become more entrenched than ever, heavily influencing Chinese social behavior and business practice" (p. v). Guanxi seems to be a universal phenomenon. People in any culture inevitably depend on guanxi to fulfill various goals but also tend to realize the negative effects associated with the "abuse" of guanxi. In the United States, for example, being able to make connection is regarded as an important skill in one's career development and social life. Americans also complained about unfair personnel decisions by saying, "Who you know is more important than what you know." Then why is guanxi usually considered a Chinese rather than universal phenomenon? Is the term as used in the Chinese culture different from its English counterpart "interpersonal relationships" as used in the U.S.? The purpose of this essay is to explicate why guanxi is regarded as a more significant phenomenon in Chinese culture than in many others and to propose a multi-dimensional approach to assessing the significance of guanxi for cross-cultural comparisons.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)25-33
Number of pages9
JournalChina Media Research
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2011


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