The Language of Trust; Differences Between the West and China

by Joe

Western businesses trying to build their businesses in China must learn to network the Chinese way.  There are four very important concepts that Western managers must adjust to.  These are captured in the Chinese language as guanxi, yuanfen, renqing and mianzi.  These terms capture some fundamental differences in between the Chinese and Westerners in how each culture establishes trust in business.  Since there can be no business exchange without trust, successfully adapting to these differences can mean success or failure for Westerners who want to do business in China.

Let’s define these terms.  Guanxi is about building a network of mutually beneficial relationships which can be used for personal and business purposes.  In China, it is necessary to spend time getting to know your Chinese counterparts outside the boardroom during tea sessions and dinner banquets.  Guanxi is closely associated with the term yuanfen.  The idea behind yuanfen is that some relationships are predestined, and some people are pulled together by the mysterious forces of the universe. While many younger Chinese only give credence to the romantic implications of yuanfen, older and more traditionally minded Chinese are much more likely to view yuanfen as relevant to all relationships, including business and politics.  With yuanfen as an underlying assumption, you can see that guanxi requires that these relationships people are building are built on affections for each other.  While Americans typically maintain some separation between their personal and professional lives, Chinese tend to establish almost family-like bonds with their business associates.  This distinction between trust from the heart and from the head turned out to be the key to understanding the difference between Chinese and American networks.

One study measured executives’ willingness to do time-consuming favors for each person in their network. The researchers found that the Americans were much more likely to do favors for people who were in a position to be of significant assistance to them. The Chinese executives, on the other hand, were willing to extend themselves to help people who had little to offer in return.

One 2006 MBA study, reported by “Ideas at Work” magazine, focused on willingness to do time-consuming favors within a business network. The researchers found that Americans are much more likely to do favors for people who were in a position to be of significant assistance to them. The Chinese executives, on the other hand, were willing to extend themselves to help people who had little to offer in return.  This is a reflection of the more emotional nature of Chinese business relationships but it also reveals another important cultural distinction between the West and China; mianzi.  Mianzi is the Chinese word for “face”.  The idea is that if you do favors for people in your community, within the circle of people that you interact with, it increases your face — the esteem that the community collectively ascribes to you.

These cultural differences between the West and China are partially explained by differences in the strength of our laws in each nation.  For millennia, China has lacked a strong rule of law. Because the law has not often been able to provide the legal protections which it does in the west, Chinese people needed to develop another means of ensuring trust amongst themselves in personal and business matters.  In the absence of strong rule of law, the Chinese culture developed more organic forms of gaining conformity.

Word 4 Asia specializes in building successful relationships throughout mainland China.  If your organization is looking for assistance in this area, please reach out to us at 714) 769-9114 or email us at

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