Guan Xi Goes Online

Zuhòumén means “in through the back door.” That term encapsulates the survival method used by today's grandparents in China during their younger years. During the days of the political campaigns led by Chairman Mao, the government apparatus controlled all aspects of life, and people who were indebted to you could be called on to help. Guan xi is the Chinese term for this phenomenon. Perhaps the use of a connection and a debt repaid would get you a break in the monthly food ration or continued job security among the ever-watching eyes of the work unit (dan wei).

During the political upheavals of the Cultural Revolution, past affiliations, such as a university education, were kept hidden. Parents exchanged favors with those in positions of influence to keep their children from being sent to the countryside in what were then labor camps in all but name. In the earlier Chinese eras of draconian state control, bypassing bureaucratic intransigence meant using the powers of social connection steeped in trust and obligation. Using guan xi, connections, to go zuhòumén, in through the back door, became the central organizing premise of an informal underground society. Having good guan xi, a vast network of connections to call in favors to, often made the difference in stark survival terms.

Guan xi has always been part of Chinese society. Confucian thought is steeped in the sense of reciprocal obligation in the practice of generosity. The Book of Rites, one ...

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