Producing Guanxi: Sentiment, Self, and Subculture in a North China Village

Producing Guanxi: Sentiment, Self, and Subculture in a North China Village

by Andrew B. Kipnis

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Throughout China the formation of guanxi, or social connections, involves friends, families, colleagues, and acquaintances in complex networks of social support and sentimental attachment. Focusing on this process in one rural north China village, Fengjia, Andrew Kipnis shows what guanxi production reveals about the evolution of village political economy, kinship and gender, and local patterns of subjectivity in Dengist China. His work offers a detailed description of the communicative actions—such as gift giving, being a host or guest, participating in weddings or funerals—that produce, manage, and deny guanxi in a specific time and place. Kipnis also offers a rare comparative analysis of how these practices relate to the varied and variable phenomenon of guanxi throughout China and as it has changed over time.
Producing Guanxi combines the theory of Pierre Bourdieu and the insights of symbolic anthropology to contest past portrayals of guanxi as either a function of Chinese political economics or an unchanging Confucian social structure. In this analysis guanxi emerges as a purposeful human effort that makes use of past cultural logics while generating new ones. By exploring the role of sentiment in the creation of self, Kipnis critiques recent theories of subjectivity for their narrow focus on language and discourse, and contributes to the anthropological discussion of comparative selfhood. Navigating a path between mainstream social science and abstract social theory, Kipnis presents a more nuanced examination of guanxi than has previously been available and contributes generally to our understanding of relationships and human action.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822377689
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 10/01/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 248
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Andrew B. Kipnis teaches at the Contemporary China Centre at Australian National University.

Read an Excerpt

Producing Guanxi

Sentiment, Self, and Subculture in a North China Village

By Andrew B. Kipnis

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1997 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7768-9


Everyday Guanxi Production

In 1988-90 Fengjia, every time one asked for or granted a favor, expressed sympathy, or called on a friend – that is, every time one invoked guanxi to achieve something in the world – one metonymically re-created that guanxi. Thus, in addition to the elaborate organization of guanxi production on ritual occasions, Fengjia residents (re)produced guanxi in their daily lives. Indeed, many of the techniques of ritual guanxi production – labor exchange, the use of kinship names, the embodiment of ganqing – came from everyday activity. After a brief introduction to a local typology of interpersonal relationships, this chapter examines the everyday techniques of guanxi production.

Types of Guanxi

In 1988-90 Fengjia, most residents recognized four basic categories of friendly relationships: family members (benjiaren), relatives (qinqi), fellow villagers (xiangqin) and friends (pengyou). These categories overlapped, and the same person (even within the same relationship) could be seen as a member of several categories, depending on the circumstances. Family members certainly included all those who lived together as one economic unit. Following village administrative categories, I refer to such units as households (hu). Depending on context, members of agnatically related households might also be considered family members. However, such agnates could also count as fellow villagers (xiangqin). The flexibility of the term "family member" and the importance of the category "fellow villager," which included households of different surnames, reflected the near absence of formal lineage organization in 1988-90 Fengjia.

Affines were usually referred to as "relatives" (qinqi), a term embracing three major categories: mother's sister's family (yiyi jia), father's sister's family (gugu jia), and mother's mother's family (laolao jia). Since village kinship was reckoned patrilineally, the last category (laolao jia) additionally included all of the mother's brother's (jiujiu) families. Because of a tendency toward village exogamy, these relatives usually lived in different villages. However, where they had married within the village, they also counted as fellow villagers.

Villagers had friends living in and outside of Fengjia. However, a friend from within the village was usually categorized as a fellow villager. One exception (and an example of the situation specificity of relationships) was at wedding ceremonies, where those who gave "congratulatory gifts" were considered "friends" whether they came from inside or outside the village.

Two caveats further complicate this terminology. First is the messy fact that in patrilocal marriages women "change" families. The completeness of this transfer, I will argue, was a constantly negotiated social problem. As a consequence, married women at times referred to their natal relatives as "family members" instead of "relatives." Second, relationships were constituted between households as well as between their individual members. Because the general unit of economic accounting was the household, and because guanxi always involved material obligation, the guanxi of individuals always involved the other members of their households. Though household members might differ over which guanxi were most important, gifts were usually seen as coming from households as units.

Embodying Ganqing

To convey ganqing, it must have a discernible form. Gift giving, toasting, and serving food at banquets, and ritualized decorum like bows and ketou (kowtow) are all methods of materializing ganqing. Here, I would like briefly to describe the generation of ganqing through its direct embodiment in specific human emotions. This embodiment should not be understood as the external representation of an underlying pregiven reality. Rather, it is a claim about what one wants a relationship to be in the future that participates in the reconstitution of future reality. The sentimentality of the present shapes the future rather than representing a static past.

The embodiment of ganqing was important to both ritual and everyday practices of guanxi production. In ritual, such embodiment was orchestrated or at least expected. At funerals there were specific times for women to wail and for xiaozhe (direct patrilineal descendants of the deceased) to weep. The GPCR ban on interclass weeping at funerals was clearly aimed at prohibiting the interclass guanxi production that results from such embodiments of ganqing. At weddings the bride was expected to act embarrassed, the groom's father happy, and the groom ambivalent. At a "dowry party" (song hezi) the bride's parents should be sad (because their daughter is about to leave home). That these ganqing were expected in no sense made them less "authentic." When witnessing such displays, I was always moved by the embodiment of powerful ganqing. However, such orchestration does imply a notion of emotional authenticity different from that typically recognized in American pop psychology. Few in Fengjia would acknowledge a "true" emotional life, where "spontaneous" feelings well up from an utterly individual heart regardless of the surrounding social circumstances.

Though not orchestrated, embodied ganqing played an important role in everyday guanxi production as well. On the few occasions when I was sick in the village, I received a stream of visitors. Though I only wanted to rest by myself, read English novels, and generally pretend I wasn't in Fengjia, I had to deal with well-meaning friends. On one such occasion I must have let my irritation show; one man said, "You should be happy to have so many people embody concern [guanxin]." "Why?" I asked. "Because if they didn't embody concern, they wouldn't be your friends any more."

On another day there was a fire in the cornstarch factory. People throughout the village grabbed buckets and ran over to the factory. There were two faucets near the fire where buckets could be filled. After filling their buckets, these helpers ran them over to men standing on ladders who passed them to others on the roof who doused the fire. There were more people filling buckets than the faucets could accommodate; lines formed behind the faucets; people began pushing and butting. Eventually, the fire was put out without much damage. Afterwards, I asked Teacher Feng why people would butt in line in such a situation. He explained "when a lot of collective equipment is endangered, everyone wants to communicate concern." Embodying concern generates a collective ganqing and helped Fengjia residents manage both their individual guanxi and their guanxi with the village as a whole.

Of course, individuals also embodied ganqing on more mundane occasions. Once a man selling watermelons bicycled into the village loudly hawking his produce. A woman immediately walked out from her courtyard and yelled at him, angrily proclaiming that he had cheated another resident on his last trip. No one bought anything and the hawker went on to the next village. The anger of the woman embodied a ganqing in sympathy with her previously cheated fellow villager that seemingly swayed all those who might otherwise have bought some watermelon. I would not reduce all emotional activity in Fengjia to the single dimension of guanxi production, but I believe that in many contexts the embodiment of emotion is interpreted in precisely this fashion.

Visiting, Exchanging Favors, Helping Out

Visiting, whether to lend a hand or to socialize, was another important practice of guanxi production. In hot weather, those with free time set up stools outside their doors and encouraged friends and relatives to sit and chat. In the winter, friends gathered around stoves and drank tea. At times of special need the visiting of friends and relatives was especially significant. It fulfilled and re-created material obligations, materialized ganqing, and hence metonymically reproduced guanxi.

As my own experience demonstrated, illness was an important occasion for visiting and embodying concern. Many considered the ganqing created in illness visits as actively contributing to curing the sick. The temporary misfortunes of the Zhang family can serve as an example. Mr. Zhang's grandson, Ying, had broken his leg. Originally it didn't affect Mr. Zhang too much. There were lots of people visiting his grandson, so he could go out if he needed. However, then Mr. Zhang's wife got sick. He said, "After Ying broke his leg, she worried so much she didn't eat right. Then she got a fever." With two close relatives sick in different households, his visiting burdens were doubled and he couldn't go out any more. Many fellow villagers visited the boy. Mr. Zhang divided his time between Ying and his wife. Mr. Zhang's two daughters, who had long been married and were living in different villages, took turns visiting their mother. They came on alternate days. After two weeks Zhang's wife got better, and he started going out again.

If an old person became seriously ill, friends, relatives, and fellow villagers visited from all around. They often brought gifts of food and were given tea to drink. As mentioned in the introduction, my visit to the family of a stroke victim led to some of my closest field relations. During that visit the house was full of visitors. One of the victim's sons told me that his relatives had come out of filial piety and respect (xiao and zunjing). He said, "Old people's lives haven't been easy, they suffered a lot to bring us up, so we are very happy that everyone could come today." The wife of the stroke victim seemed surprisingly relaxed. I suggested, "This must be worrying for you." She replied, "Why should I worry when so many people have come to visit?" For this woman and her son, the ganqing and guanxi created by so much visiting allowed an otherwise depressing situation to become somewhat positive.

Ellen Judd (1989), who also did research in Shandong Province in the late 1980s, writes of the important "affective and moral ties" (I would say ganqing and guanxi) between a bride and her natal home (niangjia) and argues that a woman's natal home and mother-in-law's home (pojia) make competing claims on their daughter's time and services. This tension was directly relevant to visiting practices. Women often returned to their natal villages to socialize, embody concern for sick parents, participate in rituals, or just help out. Some women took turns working each others' fields so that each would have regular opportunities to return to their natal villages. However, in contrast to Judd's emphasis on the competitive aspect of these relationships, I only once heard a woman complaining that her daughter-in-law was spending too much time at her natal home. More often I heard the calculation that a daughter-in-law's natal visits could improve affinal guanxi.

The larger life projects of house building and marriage provided opportunities for the exchange of favors and guanxi building that were neither matters of daily activity nor formal ritual. Almost all marriages in 1988-90 Fengjia were negotiated through matchmakers (meiren). Households relied heavily on their networks of friends and affinal relations to help find spouses. The successful location of a marriage partner often led to a long-lasting guanxi between the new couple's families and the matchmaker. Villagers also invoked guanxi when undertaking large construction projects (figure 6). For example, one household decided to enlarge the gate to their courtyard so that they could more easily move a newly acquired horse-cart in and out of their yard. The project involved tearing down the old gate and adjacent brick wall and building new ones, including an ornate frontpiece. The family acquired the building materials and informed their friends and neighbors. On the arranged day, scores of young and middle-aged men came over. Households friendly to the family in question all tried to send someone. Some households also sent women who helped serve tea and informal meals when the men took breaks. The project was finished in one afternoon and seemed as much a social occasion as a building project.

Patterns of regular interhousehold help varied extensively among families. Practical needs and abilities dictated the availability of opportunities to exchange favors and create guanxi. However, a few examples can illustrate the more typical sorts of exchange. One childless, elderly widow looked after her neighbors' grandchildren and in turn received help with her fields. A household that ran a commercial vegetable garden took advantage of their frequent market trips to shop for their neighbors. In turn, they asked for help when the labor demands of vegetable gardening exceeded household capacity. Once, I watched an old man spreading his wheat out in the street to dry. A sudden change in the weather threatened to soak his grain, but a half dozen men and women from neighboring households came running over and managed to sweep it up before the rain began in earnest. He told me his son had done the same for his neighbors on other occasions.

The exchange of ganqing within households likewise depended on particular circumstances. The taking over of certain chores by a family member – say, clothes washing for a daughter-in-law or draught animal care by a grandfather – constituted an interdependence that continually re-created the guanxi of that household. Special care in the performance of more personal duties – preparing bath water for a tired and dirty farm-worker, mending a cherished shirt, or cooking a favorite dish – embodied particular ganqing. Tensions between household members could be alleviated or exacerbated by the manner in which such duties were performed. Perhaps most basically, eating together (both in the sense of consuming the same dishes at the same time and in the sense of utilizing foodstuffs purchased from a collective budget) constituted household relationships. Not only was sharing meals a matter of spending time together and collectively enjoying the fruits of family labor, it also was an occasion for specific contributions to the family economy through frugality. By eating less expensive items or by consuming only what would have otherwise been wasted, particular family members, often older ones, embodied ganqing for (and made claims on) the other members of their household.

Certainly the everyday exchange of favors within and between households has always been a practical matter contextualized in the ever-changing socio-economy of the present. The daily patterns of guanxi production were quite different during the precommunist era of household land tenure and the Maoist era of collectivized farming. They also vary from village to village. Judd (1994:202-212) demonstrates how patterns of interhousehold help in three other Shandong villages during the 1980s varied with each village's economic base. During my 1992 visit to Fengjia, I sensed that an increase in household entrepreneurship was again inducing changes in the patterns of interhousehold exchange. A man building a chicken factory relied on friends and relatives to raise capital and find a construction team, yet he would not directly call on them for labor. He purposely hired an out-of-village construction team to build his factory and paid them cash. Another woman who had just opened a store told me it was wrong to ask friends for help in running a profit-making enterprise. However, she also said that her friends and neighbors were her best customers. These two entrepreneurs both relied on friends, relatives, and fellow villagers in some aspects of their businesses but avoided them as sources of labor. In contrast, the commercial vegetable gardener described above continued in 1992 to call on the labor of his fellow villagers in exchange for shopping services. In brief, the creation of ganqing through the exchange of favors should not be viewed as an unchanging essence of Chinese village life. Especially over the past half century, the types and organization of labor in Fengjia have been changing rapidly.

Kinship Terms and Names

Routine terms of address also constituted an everyday method of guanxi production. When I was in Fengjia, all older relatives were called by relational kinship terms. This form of address was considered respectful and was an acknowledgment of the obligation that junior people owed to their older relatives. Language learning itself started from kinship terms. Small children were constantly being told "call that man shushu" (father's younger brother) or "call her yiyi" (mother's sister) and rewarded if they managed to use the correct form of address. The term ren qin (to recognize or acknowledge relatives) was closely related to kinship terms. When a child began to call a friend of his father's "shushu," the child could be said to have "recognized" (ren) that man as a relative. In Fengjia, the title teacher (laoshi) was also used like a kinship term. One man said, "Once they teach you, you call them laoshi for their whole life." At times, children addressed their parent's teachers with the terms for paternal grandmother or grandfather (nainai, yeye).


Excerpted from Producing Guanxi by Andrew B. Kipnis. Copyright © 1997 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Maps and Figures,
Guanxi and Culture, Guanxi as Practice,
Methodology and Research Situation,
Organization of the Book,
I Practices of Guanxi Production,
1 Everyday Guanxi Production,
2 Guest/Host Etiquette and Banquets,
3 Gift Giving,
4 "Kowtowing",
5 Weddings, Funerals, and Gender,
6 Feeling, Speech, and Nonrepresentational Ethics,
II Guanxi Versions,
7 Guanxi in Fengjia, 1948-90,
8 Guanxi Versions throughout China,
9 Guanxi and Peasant Subculture,
Glossary of Selected Chinese Characters,

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