Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on decision making. In this article, we continue to explore the subtle ways in which the Chinese understanding of “guanxi” (relationships) helps to shape and influence the way they make their everyday decisions. 

As an American who has lived in China for over a decade, I have learned the mysterious power of guanxi (关系). Where in America, we generally focus on the independence of the individual, his merit or her personal achievements, in China, guanxi is what makes the world go round. Roughly translated as “connections, relations, and relationships” it is the complex relational web through which all business is conducted and all decisions are made in Chinese society.

For people working with Chinese students, it is of utmost importance to understand the influence of guanxi in students’ lives.  As we seek to understand the way Chinese students make decisions, we must realize that, in their worldview, relationships truly are paramount. Here are some things to keep in mind:

The Weight of Relationship

There is a Chinese proverb that goes, “在家靠父母,在外面靠朋友.” (“When at home, depend on your parents; when away, depend on friends.”) As discussed previously, Chinese students rely heavily on their parent’s advice and perspective for guidance.  As they venture abroad, however, they will begin to look to friends for advice and support more and more.

Over the years as I have worked with students, I have seen the importance of friendships. If you are poor at building these relationships you will probably not see much fruit in their lives, spiritually or otherwise. Your words will not carry any weight. Worse yet, they may just assume you are attempting to manipulate them.  To be truly impactful we, like them, must place a premium on building trusting relationships. To earn the privilege to speak into their lives, our love must first be true, Christ-like and unconditional.

Communicating Decisions

As Chinese students make decisions, it can often be hard to read what they are actually thinking.  In the early stages of relationship, you may find they will often say “yes” to your invitations and that they will do all they can to honor that commitment. Over time, however, there may be a shift. Though a “yes” is still initially given, it may be taken back at a later time. Sometimes, you may not even be informed of their change in plans – they will just mysteriously be absent at an event you expected them to attend.  

What is at work here is a difference of communication styles.  Americans, generally speaking, are straightforward in the ways they communicate. Yes means yes and no means no. Americans value firm handshakes and looking someone in the eye; they inquire directly and accept or decline invitations openly.  In China, however, this is not always the case; Chinese students are more indirect.  In the city I lived in in southern China, if someone needed to ask a friend for a favor, it would often happen over a meal.  The one would invite the other to dinner, pay for everything, and only at the end of the meal ask for what they needed.  It was quite common for me to talk with my Chinese friends for more than thirty minutes and still not know why we were having the conversation.  I knew only that they wanted to ask me for something and that it could take some time for them to ask me.   

For westerners engaging with Chinese students, it is important to understand that even how they choose to communicate (or not communicate) their decisions is influenced by this phenomenon of guanxi. When you have an established relationship with someone, no is something you don’t say to their face. This is not out of deceit, but respect. In order to save your face, a student will not refuse you directly.

In light of this, it is good practice to give students ample space to think through their decision.  This could mean allowing them to respond by text or on social media, instead of in person to give them the ability to communicate more comfortably and honestly. Realize also that it may be difficult for your Chinese friends to ask for things from you directly. Be attentive and pay attention to their more subtle and indirect ways of asking.  

Regarding Faith

One last thing to consider when working with Chinese students is the topic of religion. Faith is an uncomfortable topic for most students. While God is definitely at work creating a curiosity towards Christ among today’s students; in the Chinese worldview, faith is still a topic seldom discussed among friends.  As relationships are built with Chinese students, it is good to be aware of this and to be sensitive to how fast and direct you get into spiritual discussions. Spiritual decisions carry with them a weight that is on a completely different level than “normal” secular decisions. Most students will be unable to make a decision of such magnitude in a relational vacuum, without thinking about how it will affect their family, friends, or even their culture and country.

Thoughts to Ponder

How have you seen the power of guanxi play out in your interactions with Chinese students? How did you first respond to it? How would you respond to it now?

What steps can you make to continue to build good guanxi with the students that you interact with?

How might our concept of “personal” faith carry with it some elements of Western culture? Is it possible to invite a student to a “personal” faith while still respecting the influence and power of “guanxi”?