Understanding China: Confucianism, Guanxi and Face

chinaFrom Thunderbird Knowledge Network.

Many foreigners who come to China on business read about the culture and think they understand, but they misapply key concepts such as Confucianism, guanxi and face. “They misunderstand what they read because they look at it through their own cultural lens, rather than trying to see it through a Chinese cultural lens,” said Frank Neville, Vice President of Global Communications and Public Affairs at Thunderbird School of Global Management. Neville, a 15-year veteran of the U.S. State Department and former spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, speaks Mandarin and continues to visit China on a regular basis. He shared insights on Confucianism, guanxi and face during new student orientation Jan. 17, 2012, in Glendale, Arizona.

Confucianism: Order from chaos

Neville said Westerners in China first need to understand the origins and application of Confucianism. “China’s past conditions its present, and one of the critical components is Confucianism,” Neville said.

Although many people present Confucianism as a religion, Neville said the teachings of the ancient philosopher function more as a way of ordering Chinese society. “China was torn by warfare in Confucius’ era,” Neville said. “What he was trying to do was create a social structure, a social order, to provide some stability in society.”

Building upon the thoughts of others, Confucius codified the proper relationships between the ruler and the ruled, the father and son, the husband and wife, the elder and younger brother, and the teacher and student.

“All have roles and responsibilities in a Confucian system, and they are not equal,” Neville said. This can be a difficult concept for Americans who grow up in a society shaped by the Declaration of Independence.

In many respects, Confucianism substitutes for an independent judiciary that has never really existed in China. “It provides a structure for moderating disputes and deciding who gets what,” Neville said. “That is very different from a Western or an American judicial system, in the sense that its premise is that not everybody is equal. In fact, people are inherently unequal under Confucianism.”

Guanxi: Relationships of Trust

Neville said a basic understanding of Confucianism helps put guanxi into context. This refers to the Chinese emphasis on relationships.

“This is the glue that holds society together,” Neville said. “If you’ve got these unequal relationships, if you have a weak judiciary, it’s the guanxi — your relationships with people — that allows you to function, that provide you protection, that give you an opportunity to advance in your career.”

Neville said guanxi also requires people to understand their own responsibilities in any relationship. “Coming from the outside, you need to develop relationships with people so you can work effectively with them,” he said. “You need to invest in building trust because trust does not exist through the legal structure and your ability to arbitrate a dispute in court.”

Face: Respecting Roles

Guanxi is closely tied to the Chinese concept of face, which involves acknowledging a person’s role in any relationship.

Neville said Chinese managers who understand the importance of face are careful to use people’s titles when addressing them. “You need to show that person that you recognize that role, and you’re going to interact with him based upon that role that he has,” Neville said.

Face also requires people to respect the value of close relationships and to show special courtesy to people within the inner circle of trust. “You owe a relative a lot more than you owe a stranger on the street,” Neville said. “There’s an asymmetry.”

Video: Understanding Confucianism (3:32)

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Video: Understanding Guanxi (3:47)

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Video: Understanding Face (4:04)

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