Guanxi and Face

When I first learned that I was moving to China to serve in the Peace Corps, I was told that unlike other locations in Africa or Central America, it wouldn’t be my living conditions that would be a challenge- it would be adapting to the culture.  I assumed that as a friendly, curious person I would be fine.  Of course there would be mistakes along the way, but with a casual smile and a laugh I would get through the awkwardness.  I had no idea how tough it can be.

Talking about the concepts of guānxì and face are hard for me. I’m certainly not an expert, but that’s why I think what I’m about to say is so relevant.  These are the raw experiences that I’ve had on my path to integrate into my conservative Chinese community.  Being a responsible guest in a foreign country comes with a need to understand social norms and these are two that outwardly seem simple but can make life much more complex.



I cringe when I hear foreigners in China speaking about Guānxì 关系 (literally, connections or relationships).  It’s usually the dude at the bar drinking Snow beers while chain smoking with a group of young Chinese women and bragging that he has “mad guānxì” with the owners so they let him drink for free.  What this idiot doesn’t understand is that he’s not there because of his guānxì, he’s there to give the owners face.  We’ll get to that in a minute, but in the meantime, just know that guānxì is an unspoken, reciprocal agreement that helps set parameters for relationships.  My friend said it best when she described it as a web that dictates how people are connected.  In it’s most basic form, it’s getting and repaying favors.  The catch is that you have no control over when or how you’re expected to repay the favor.  If you’re a clueless foreigner like I am, sometimes you don’t even understand when the ask is being made because it can be subtle or come from a third party.

Guānxì effects so many more aspects of Chinese life than most outsiders can understand.  The process of building up good guānxì with strangers takes time, while for family members it’s just assumed. As a foreigner, the process can be confusing- accepting the dinner invitation from my local party leader is obvious, going to the countryside for a weekend with a student’s family isn’t so clear. Guānxì helps young college graduates get jobs, facilitates business deals, and determines which vendors to buy from.

The system is so ingrained that in order to create a more even playing field for poor, rural school children the government implemented the all-important gāo kǎo 高考examination, which is literally the only thing that matters for high schoolers when applying to college.  It’s only offered one day a year, and any student applying to college in China must take it.  If you mention the gāo kǎo to a high school senior, they’ll shudder with fear.  Although it’s generally hated among Chinese students and adults, most do feel it’s the only way to ensure that everyone has a fair chance of getting into the best college possible.  Guānxì isn’t going to get you into college, but it can help with pretty much everything else.

What about you?

What does this mean for you traveling or living in China?  It’s generally best to accept invitations especially if they are coming from government officials, senior members of your company or school or anyone who you may need help from in the future.  If you think that sounds cynical, or as if I’m asking you to essentially fake a relationship for the purpose of your own future benefit, you simply haven’t been in China long enough.  This is how it works. Keep in mind that some of those dreaded banquets with round after round of shots actually can be fun. This is a reality of life for many Chinese, so by participating in the system it’s helping you to better understand the social obligations of your peers.  Plus, you never know when you’ll need a last minute visa extension, help finding new accommodations or run into a problem with the local police.  It’s China- anything can happen.

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Gaining and Losing Face

Face miànzi面子, is another concept that’s difficult for foreigners to fully understand.  Think of it as pride, or looking good in front of others.  For many of us, we were raised by parents that encouraged individualism and told us that it doesn’t matter what other people think.  My Mom is a classic example.  She’d actually scold me if I cared about what others said about me.  It’s considered common American parenting advice, but couldn’t be further from the truth in China.

In a society that’s rooted in Confucianism, it’s important to fit in and know where you stand with others.  This has so many more implications than I can even imagine.  For women, it means looking beautiful by a very narrow set of standards (thin, pale, childlike).  For men, it means being successful at work, owning a home and maybe even a car.  And for kids, it’s all about being respectful to your parents and studying as hard as humanly possible.  When something falls out of its perfect order, it can mean that face is lost, and not just for the person who messed up.  Depending on how public the problem is, the entire family might lose face.

Losing Face with a Foreigner

Losing face can be obvious, but not always.  For example, a student invited me to have dinner with her family.  There were two weeks left in the semester and she didn’t specify a date or time.  I was super busy with exams and grading, but agreed so that she wouldn’t lose face in front of her classmates.  It was a casual invite and I didn’t expect it to come to anything.

Two weeks later, the student still hadn’t followed up on the invitation and I was out enjoying the weekend with a friend.  We had already bought movie tickets and her son was so excited to see the new Jurassic Park movie in 3-D (super exciting for a 6 year old!). I got a text from this student telling me that dinner would be at 6 pm.  That was it- no asking if I could still make it or apologizing for the lack of communication or short notice.  I was annoyed, but felt horrible that I couldn’t make it.  I sent her a text back explaining that I already had plans.  She revised the time to 7 pm, but I told her I still couldn’t make it.  A few minutes later I got a series of angry texts back. The shy, quiet girl from my freshman class let out a wave of rage through her broken English texts. She told me that her Dad had already invited all of his friends over to “see the foreigner” and they would all be so disappointed.  I apologized, but nothing helped. I had not only made her lose face, but her family as well.  Not surprisingly, she didn’t show up to class the following day for her final exam and I never saw her again.

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Giving Someone Else Face

Not only can you cause someone to lose face, but you can give someone face too. In one of the few times my friends openly discussed the concept of face with me, they gave me an example that seemed so slight I would have never noticed.  After having lunch in the teacher’s cafeteria, my good friends Jean and Huang Hui took me to get yogurt (not the froyo kind, sadly).  The dairy shop is essentially two coolers in a small storefront, with maybe 10 selections of usually expired options.  We choose three of the few remaining non-curdled bottles and Huang Hui paid for all of us (note: it’s uncommon to ever split a bill in China).  As we turned to leave, Huang Hui spotted two boys from her class and called them over.  In the way of an authoritative Chinese mother, she told them to pick out a bottle of yogurt each.  They happily ran over, excited to get the small luxury that their weekly spending money from their parents couldn’t cover.  In true Chinese style, they didn’t thank Huang Hui, but with their smiles it was assumed.

The three of us turned around again, and this time we made it about five steps down the road before Jean spotted two girls from her gym class.  Jean loudly called them over, and in a voice loud enough for everyone on the busy street to hear, told them to pick a yogurt each.  Again, we headed back into the shop, Huang Hui peeled off 7 yuan, or about $1, and gave it to the shopkeeper.  The girls smiled, and we turned around for the last time and headed back to campus. As we walked Huang Hui whispered to me in English so that Jean couldn’t understand, “That right there, I gave Jean face”.  So, apparently, sometimes all it takes is a simple gesture to make someone look good.

What about you?

So again, what does this mean for you? If you are traveling in lesser- visited parts of China you will most likely encounter people who are curious about you and they’ll probably invite you to a meal.  Chinese hospitality is truly like none other and it’s common for total strangers to ask foreigners to eat with them.  I’ve had many of these impromptu invites and sometimes they completely changed the course of my trip.  Once, a dinner invite turned into me meeting three new travel partners with whom I spent the next week traveling.  But, if you don’t feel comfortable going to someone’s home or you simply don’t have them time (and it might be lengthy- prepare to essentially be kidnapped for the evening unless you really communicate needing to be back at a certain time) be careful how you say no.  In my experience, it’s usually better to give a vague, “maybe” than a straight out no.  If you don’t think they’re getting the picture, give them a believable excuse.  Remember though, if you outright reject them in front of others they will lose face.

Don’t be surprised if, when things are going wrong, the person who is clearly at fault refuses to apologize. In my experience, it’s common for people to just act as if the mistake never happened or blame it on someone with less authority like the secretary or most junior member of a team.  For example, I was communicating via email with a guest house. I had made my initial reservation, but needed to change the dates. The owner was initially responsive, but he didn’t reply to my request to change dates. I sent two more follow-up emails and heard nothing.  When the time came, I went to the guest house and during check-in I tried to explain why my name wasn’t in the reservation book.  I made the mistake of pointing out that I had emailed him several times and hadn’t heard back. Big mistake!  All I got in response was a grunt and he told me there must have been a problem with the email system.

I certainly didn’t make friends with that guy, but I learned a great lesson.  In the future, whenever there was a communication issue I would blame it on something out of our control like the internet, my lack of Chinese, or the email system.  This way no one (including myself) was forced to lose face.

If your time in China is going to be significant, I strongly suggest you invest some time looking into these concepts to better prepare yourself for social interactions.  It can be confusing for us, but it’s best to have an idea of these social norms before jumping into any work or volunteer situation.  And no matter what you do, don’t be the bro in the bar bragging about your guānxì.

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