The term I would like to introduce is the Chinese word for this use of intermediaries – guan-xi (pronounced goo-an shee) – literally, “connections”. I use the Chinese term because I have not discovered a satisfactory English equivalent. is a set of mutual obligations. One’s guan-xi that is the number of and quality of his connections is an important factor in the individual’s social status. Guan-xi rules are designed for relationships between individuals known to one another, and do not apply to the public at large. As with face behavior, guan-xi relationships are small group relationships, that is, face to face. Guan-xi, like face behavior, are obligations between individuals for the purpose of maintenance of group integrity.
Most western business people become irritated at the prolonged tea drinking rituals that go on when we are trying to engage in some sort of business with the Chinese. We keep thinking, let’s get on with it; let’s get down to business. Well, the Chinese is already down to business. That is, he is evaluating you to see whether you are worthwhile. Relationships are made slowly and cautiously with the Chinese because once made, they are very difficult to break. So, while you are fuming and are restless at the Chinese with his chit-chat and tea drinking, he is sizing you up. He is sizing you up to see how much guan-xi you have, how much status, how well connected you are, or to be cynical, how much you can do for him – except the cynicism is ours, not his. It is not considered exploitation by the Chinese.
Chinese rules are: one simply does not get involved with people who are not worthwhile and their definition of worthwhile comes from a measure of the other person’s connections, status, guan-xi or his amount of face. Like face behavior situations, the guan-xi obligations or demands may be initiated from the top or the bottom of the hierarchy, but of course the top man has more power. The only way to find how much power a man has is to find out with whom he has guan-xi relationships, that is mutually obligatory connections. Once a guan-xi relationship is established, either party may make demands on the other without warning, and without prior discussion.
I have often heard many western business people complain that the Chinese will promise anything and deliver nothing. If this happens, it means that you did not have the right to ask the question or to make the request in the first place.