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Reviewed by:
  • Guanxi: How China Works by Yanjie Bian
  • Jack Barbalet (bio)
Yanjie Bian. Guanxi: How China Works. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2019. xviii, 258 pp. Hardcover $64.95, isbn 978-1-5095-0039-0.

With this publication Polity's "China Today" series attains its twenty-eighth title. This book not only adds to Polity's successful and growing series of China-related texts but also makes an important contribution to the social science literature on Chinese social connections or guanxi. While [End Page 183] anthropologists since the late 1970s and sociologists since the 1980s have published books and articles on guanxi, over the last decade and a half there has been an explosion of interest in guanxi among business, management, and marketing scholars (see Liu and Mei 2015). An elemental aspect of Guanxi: How China Works (hereafter GHCW) is that while firmly based in sociology it draws on business studies and pays homage to anthropological sources, more or less proportionate to their respective disciplinary contributions to the field as a whole.

Polity was very wise to recruit Yanjie Bian for a book on guanxi. Bian is possibly the best known of the "Nankai-generation" of young students who in the early 1980s were drawn from across China to study sociology in special classes at Nankai University in Tianjin, taught by American and American-trained Chinese sociologists. Sociology ceased to exist in China from 1952, but by 1980 China faced a number of challenges for which the solutions required reliable data concerning population size and movements, among other things. The Ministry of Education was tasked by the Party to reintroduce into China a sociology with American characteristics, technically sophisticated and teachable at both undergraduate and graduate levels. As part of this continuing process, Bian went to Albany, New York in 1985 to undertake a PhD on social network analysis with Nan Lin, who was one of those who had taught the Nankai classes. This was effectively the beginning of a brilliant career for Bian, who is concurrently Professor of Sociology at the University of Minnesota, Dean of Social Sciences at Xi'an Jiaotong University, and the author of a number of highly regarded studies on guanxi and related aspects of social networks and social capital, some of which are reported in the book under review.

GHCW consists of seven chapters. The first, "What is Guanxi?" provides an introduction to the notion of guanxi and its practice as well as summaries of more or less historically sequential theoretical models of guanxi, finishing with social network analysis. The working definition of guanxi offered by Bian is that it is "a dyadic, particular, and sentimental tie that has the potential for facilitating the exchange of favors between the two parties connected by the tie" (p. 6). This statement is expanded and qualified in various ways throughout the discussion in GHCW. The theoretical models elaborated in this chapter are guanxi as a social extension of familial ties, guanxi as instrumental particular ties, and guanxi as ties of asymmetric social exchange. The first of these was developed in the late-Republican period in a sociologization of Confucian thought, associated with Liang Shumin and especially Fei Xiaotong, not in the latter's village study of the late 1930s which established his reputation but in a work first published in 1947, Xiangtu Zhongguo, translated into English as From the Soil: The Foundations of Chinese Society (Fei 1992). In many ways Fei's book is a benchmark text for Bian and he returns to it many [End Page 184] times in GHCW. Guanxi as instrumental particular ties comes out of Mao and post-Mao developments in China and the mobilization of guanxi for achievement of purposive advantage, while the third approach, guanxi as ties of asymmetric social exchange, refers to Nan Lin's synthesizing apprehension of these earlier traditions in the development of a more sophisticated sociological framing of guanxi. Finally, the brief presentation of a social network analysis (SNA) approach to guanxi introduces key concepts that are used in the remaining chapters of the book.

Chapters 2 and 3, "Guanxi and Network Building" and "Guanxi and Jobs," are solid introductions to both guanxi as a significant aspect of...


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