Recently, I came across a confusing expression in my Chinese textbook: 一个好汉三个帮 (yí ge hǎo hàn sān ge bāng) – literally, “one good guy, three helps”. When I asked my teacher about it, he told me it means that no matter how capable you are, you’ll always need other people to help you achieve things.
This phrase describes life in China perfectly. While in the West we value succeeding on your own and tend to solve problems using contracts or the law, in China people see their interpersonal networks as one of their most important tools for getting things done, and a crucial factor determining success or failure.
Learn how to ask for help in Chinese here
The key to understanding how this works, and what makes social and business life tick in China, is the uniquely Chinese concept of 关系 (guān xi) .
What Does 关系 (guān xi) Actually Mean?
In English, 关系 (guān xi) is usually translated as “relationship” or “connections”, but it’s actually a lot deeper and more complicated. A person’s 关系 (guān xi) is their unique interpersonal network, built up and maintained over a lifetime. It’s also the balance of favors they’ve done for the people within that network, and the “debts” they owe to people who have done favors for them.
For example, a must-have luxury for middle-class Chinese parents – including my Professors at university – is a native speaking English tutor for their kids. But, instead of turning to a tutoring company, they’d much rather ask me if I can suggest a native English speaking friend. In China, a personal recommendation is much more important than finding someone with qualifications that look good on paper.
And, if I can help them out with a great tutor, in the future I’ll be able to call in a return favor (for example, getting a seat at an event I wouldn’t usually be invited to, or a the chance to go dinner with an important visiting guest).
Why Is 关系 (guān xi) So Important?
Building and using 关系 (guān xi) affects every aspect of life in China, from business deals to what schools kids can attend. To understand why 关系 (guān xi) matters so much, we have to go all the way back to 孔子 (kǒng zǐ) – Confucius, China’s most important ancient philosopher.
Confucius lived from 551-479 BC (around 2,500 years ago) but his philosophy is still hugely important in modern Chinese life.
According to Confucius, people are fundamentally social, and a person’s identity comes from their relationships to others, not from inside the person themselves. For example, it is a person’s status as a father, sister, or friend that defines who they are, not their individual character traits or abilities.
These ideas about the importance of relationships lie at the heart of 关系 (guān xi) , and explain why it is a much deeper concept than Western forms of networking.
关系 (guān xi) In Modern China
After explaining “一个好汉三个帮 (yí ge hǎo hàn sān ge bāng)” to me, my Chinese teacher quickly added “but that’s not so true in modern Shanghai these days anyway”.
According to my teacher, Shanghainese used to be able to use 关系 (guān xi) to sort out any problem. Even being caught by the police could be solved with a quick phone call, if you had the right connections.
And it’s certainly the case that as China develops, 关系 (guān xi) is less and less important, especially in the major coastal cities. A good friend of mine told me that one of the reasons she wanted to move from her home, a small town in China’s Jiangsu province to the major southern port of Guangzhou is because she likes the way that 关系 (guān xi) is much less important in Guangzhou.
But, the same friend’s boss in Guangzhou (the leader of a market research firm) told me he spends 40 to 50 percent of his working time building 关系 (guān xi) through meetings, dinners, and outings with clients and officials.
So, while 关系 (guān xi) will no longer get you out of a problem with the police, it’s still super important for getting ahead in business, and not to be underestimated!
Top Tips for Building Your Own 关系 (guān xi)
Having read about how important 关系 (guān xi) was before I came to China, I was a little worried that as a foreigner I’d struggle with building and maintaining it. I was especially worried that I’d fail in banquet or meeting etiquette, and wreck my chances.
It’s true that reading up on some etiquette rules, such as taking business cards with both hands, or not giving clocks as gifts, is useful.
Tips for gift giving in China here!
But, in my experience the etiquette aspects of 关系 (guān xi) are not as important as people usually think. As a foreigner, minor faux pas are easily forgiven, especially if you’ve not been in China long.
Instead, what really matters is whether or not you can do or give something valuable to the person you want to build 关系 (guān xi) . Finding someone a great tutor, or using my language skills to help translate something, is much more important in building a long term relationship than having perfect table manners or remembering to use 您 (nín) – the polite form of 你 (nǐ) – you.
So, if you want to build 关系 (guān xi) with someone, work out what they need and use your unique skills (or your existing connections!) to help them out.
Do you have any experience with building 关系 (guān xi)? What’s your opinion about the importance of 关系 (guān xi) in China? We’d love to hear from you in the comments section!