guanxi (ˌɡwænˈsiː) -n
a Chinese social concept based on the exchange of favours, in which the personal relationships are more important than laws and written agreements.
I started a strings program last week. I have eleven kids in the orchestra, 5 violins, 3 violas, 3 cellos and 1 bass. I’m excited.
To start up a orchestra program anywhere in the world involves a lot of work, a good amount of money, a decent amount of knowledge of what you’re doing and a trusty string shop.
To start up an instrumental program in China though, that takes a bit of guanxi.
As a foreigner working in China, guanxi is something so embedded in the life of the working person that you quickly learn of its importance. Not so easy though is figuring out where you stand in the process of building important relationships with your colleagues, clients and in my case, vendors. Some associate guanxi with corruption, the greasing of palms that gets so much done in the developing world. But guanxi can be positive too, building trust and loyalty in business dealings, which is what I’ll focus on today.
Guanxi involves a fine balance in cultural understanding. It demands an acknowledgement that American working culture is different and a compromise to slow down and focus on the people you’re dealing with rather than the business at hand. Forbes magazine lists in this article, the three most important characteristics for foreign executives, humility, strength and guanxi. The three need to be in constant balance, flux and cultural sensitivity. Building guanxi often entails a meal, cup of tea, a nice chat, or in my case, playing the cello.
I went to the Feanol violin shop near the Sichuan Music Conservatory to buy 11 instruments for my school. I had scouted the shops in the area and found that this shop, which makes its own instruments, does its own repairs and carries decent quality instruments from Northern Beijing. My intention on this Friday morning was to go in, set up my instruments and to leave by noon with a orchestra in a box.
I quickly learned that I’m a silly American who needs to take a seat, have a cup of tea and talk shop a bit. The shop manager, Ricky, and I talked about our backgrounds, shared some stories about students we taught and finally, played for each other in a relationship building informal concert. As I played I couldn’t help but smile at the school children pressing their noses against the glass of the storefront, trying to figure out what the waiguoren was doing there, playing the cello no less.
I can shmooze. I pride myself on that ability sometimes. So I thought I had this guanxi thing down pat. The difficulty I ran into was when I’m supposed to be building guanxi and one of my Chinese colleagues steps in for me. Our purchasing manager was with us on my shopping spree ensuring that my prices were not to high and that I did not get overeager with my strings budget. So here I was shmoozing and she was driving the prices down. And drive down she did.
So maybe I stepped on some toes by being too friendly, too hands on (I replaced the strings to my violas and set-up the fine tuners on the violins myself, as the shop keeper ran around trying to keep up with getting our order straight), or too forward. But I got my orchestra in a box, by 12:30, a cup of tea and I have a shop manager who I know I can turn to for all of my string instrument needs.