Confucianism has been the main foundation of traditional thought that is deeply rooted in Chinese society. Confucianism is ethical teachings rather than a religion as described in Western literatures. Confucianism is widely regarded as the behavioral or moral regulations that are mainly concerned with human relationships, social structures, virtuous behavior and work ethics. In Confucianism, rules are specified for the social behavior of every individual, governing the entire range of interpersonal relations within the society. The core virtues of Confucius basic teaching can be extracted as Ren (Humanity), Yi (Righteousness), Li (Propriety), Zhi (Wisdom) and Xin (Faithfulness).
According to Confucius, each person had a specific place in society, certain rules to follow and certain duties to fulfill. Confucius hoped that if people knew what was expected of them they would behave accordingly. He, therefore, set up Five Cardinal Relations, in which most people are involved, moreover he also laid down the principles for each relation. These can be illustrated as follows:
Basic Human Relations
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Sovereign and subject (master and follower)
Loyalty and duty
Father and son
Love and obedience
Elder and younger brothers
Seniority and modeling subject
Husband and wife
Obligation and submission
Friend and friend
Source: Fan, 2000
All of these five, except the last, involve the authority of one person over another. Power and the right to rule belong to superiors over subordinates. Each person has to give obedience and respect to his/her 'superiors'; the subject to his/her ruler, the wife to her husband, the son to his parents, and the younger brother to the older brother. The 'superior', however, owes loving responsibility to the subordinates.
These relationships are structured to generate optimal benefits for both parties, and the principles are laid to achieve a harmonious society (Fan, 2000). Among these five basic human relations, three are family relations, which show strong family-orientation in the Chinese society. Such a characteristic when applied to organizational management, leads to the birth of a parternalistic management style in Chinese society (Hsiao, et al., 1990). As China is a high context culture (Hall, 1976) and places much emphasis on Confucianism, relationships within the Chinese society have been explained in terms of harmony, hierarchy, and development of morality and kinship (Shenkar and Ronen, 1987).
Under the impact of Confucianism, China is a nation whose social relationships are neither individual-based nor society-based, but typically a relationship-based society (Liang, 1974), in which almost everyone tries to maintain Guanxi. Guanxi, which literally means social relationship or social connection, is a prevalent cultural phenomenon that has strong implications for interpersonal and interorganisational dynamics in Chinese society.
The concept of Guanxi is enormously rich, complex and dynamic (Yang, 2001). In English as well as Chinese, it can be defined at various levels and from different perspectives. Chen and Chen (2004) argue that rather than social networks or interpersonal relationships found in the Western literature, Guanxi should be viewed as an indigenous Chinese construct and should be defined as an informal, particularistic personal connection between two individuals who are bounded by an implicit psychological contract to follow the social norms as maintaining a long-term relationship, mutual commitment, loyalty, and obligation.
The Confucian heritage of Guanxi
The connotations of Guanxi vary greatly in different Chinese societies and may change over time even within a single Chinese society. However, some of the fundamental meanings of Guanxi are still traceable in ancient Chinese philosophical writings, particularly the analects of Confucius (Lau, 1983).
King (1991) was among the first who took a theoretical approach to explore in to Confucianism for the historical and cultural roots of Guanxi. He contended that instead of Guanxi, the word 'Lun' is used in the Confucian classics, which captures some of the most essential aspects of the ancient Chinese social, political and moral philosophy. Expanding the understanding of Lun may shed lights on the historical backgrounds of Guanxi.
First, Lun attaches paramount importance to human relationships.
The Five Cardinal Relationships as a whole, pictures a social system advocated by Confucius to achieve harmony, integration, and development through a hierarchical form. Inside this system Chinese people view themselves interdependent with the surrounding social context, and the "self in relation to others" becomes the focal individual experiences (Luo, 1997). Although the structural framework of relationship evolved since Confucius time, modern Chinese societies, both mainland and overseas still remain relationship-oriented (Redding and Wong, 1986) or in other words 'Guanxi-oriented'.
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Second, Lun stresses social order.
In Confucian society, everyone knows their own place and whom they must defer to. These status differences are regarded as the appropriate way of conducting relationships and are accepted and maintained at all levels of the hierarchy (Bond, 1991). Rights and obligations of the individuals also differ according to each one's position in society.
Third, Lun refers to moral principles in regard to interactive behaviors of related parties.
Confucianism has been a main pillar of current Chinese society for forming individual morality as well as for building harmonious community. Confucian principles put emphasis on self-cultivation and sociopolitical harmony. For example, considering the Confucian sociopolitical norms for the ruler, Confucius suggests that those who want to be rulers have to be ethical leaders having virtuous characters and attitudes. However, just as the relationships are highly differentiated, so are the moral principles. In Confucianism, furthermore, there is no universal moral standard applicable to all human relationships. Instead, each relationship has its own moral principles.
The concept of Guanxi is embedded within the Confucius philosophy and it subtly defines the Chinese moral code and perpetuates its influence in Modern China (King, 1993). Lun in Confucius philosophy is actually a concise description of Guanxi. As a social hierarchical theory, Lun has prompted almost all Chinese rulers to adopt Confucianism as a strategic tool to achieve social stability in the Chinese society (Man and Cheng, 1996).
Characteristics of Guanxi
Chinese people attach great importance to face (Mianzi). Face in Chinese context refers to an intangible form of social currency and personal status, which is affected by one's social position and material wealth (Park and Luo, 2001). Chinese people value the enjoyment of prestige without the loss of face and saving of others' face (Hwang, 1987). Therefore, to cultivate Guanxi and expand the Guanxi network, it is necessary to maintain a certain level of face. Renqing, as elaborated by many scholars (e.g. Luo, 2007) is another Chinese philosophy related to Guanxi. It refers to an informal social obligation to another party as the result of a favor gained from a Guanxi relationship. On the one hand, Chinese people weave Guanxi web in their daily life; on the other hand, they are bound by Renqing obligations. Tsui and Farh (1997) contend that in essence, reciprocity, he/she not only loses his/her own face but also jeopardize his/her Guanxi. Based on its Confucian heritage and those philosophical foundations like face and Renqing, Guanxi in Chinese context is characterized by some principles.
First, Guanxi operates in concentric circles, with close family members at the core and with distant relatives, classmates, friends, and acquaintances arranged around the core according to the distance of the relationship and the degree of trust (Yang, 1994). In a preordained relationship, e.g. family, since one's behavior and responsibilities are largely fixed, his/her behavioral expectations and individual desires are heavily suppressed. However, in an external Guanxi network beyond the preordained relationship, one has considerable freedom in deciding whether to enter into voluntarily constructed relations (King, 1991) or not.
Second, Guanxi operates in an exclusive manner. It is network-specific and does not extend to members of other social networks. Many observers have noted that in comparison to Westerners, Chinese have a stronger tendency to divide people into different levels of categories and treat them accordingly in terms of ingroup-outgroup boundary (Triandis, 1989). Guanxi binds people together and defines those who are ingroup and/or outgroup people. Ingroup members are always protected and benefited while outgroup people are walled off and may be rejected (Hui and Graen, 1997). To develop Guanxi is to form the basis for a gradual transition from an outsider to an insider so that a long-term close relationship can be built. Entering such networks ensures trust building, decision-making, and competitive advantages for network members (Haley, Tan & Haley, 1998).
Third, Guanxi is reciprocal. A person will lose his/her face and be viewed untrustworthy if he/she does not follow the rules of reciprocity and refuse to return a favor (Alston, 1989). In Western networks, reciprocity often requires exchanges of roughly equivalent value (Powell, 1990). However, the Chinese Guanxi network is often implicit, without time specifications, and not necessarily equivalent. Guanxi links people of different social ranks, and usually the weaker party can call for special favors from the stronger without reciprocating equally.
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Fourth, Guanxi is utilitarian. It is built on the exchange of favors rather than on sentiment. Guanxi is always utilized as a resource to advance personal goals (Luo, 1997). Although Zhang and Zhang (2006) have classified Guanxi into three different types: obligatory, reciprocal and utilitarian, yet Guanxi in essence is utilitarian (Park and Lau, 2001).
2. Confucius leadership and Guanxi
Leadership as the driving force of organizations is playing an important role in every organization, society and nation. Because of the differences in value orientations across cultures, differences in leadership styles are inevitable. Understanding leadership in a specific culture is necessary according to cultural fit theory, which holds that the cultural fit between the leadership style and societal ethos is a determinant of organizational success (Chemers 1997).
In China, although other philosophies like Taoism, Moism, Legalism and etc. are playing essential and integral roles in forming Chinese mindset, Confucianism forms the principal part of the Chinese culture. Chinese leadership is strongly affected by Confucius thought and teachings. In the Analects of Confucius, the concept of leadership is clarified from "Zheng" (æ”¿), commonly translated as governing, administering government, sociopolitical order, or politics. By teaching his disciples how to be good leaders, Confucius expounded this word with several sociopolitical connotations.
In order to pursue social and political harmony, Confucius first stresses personal cultivation. He advocated, "To govern is to correct. If you set an example by being correct, who would dare to remain incorrect?" (Analects, Lau, 1983: 114-115). Here he emphasizes not only the ethical character and behaviour of a leader but also the rectification of a leader. He also recommends sociopolitical participation. He said, "Ensure that those who are near are pleased and those who are far away are attracted" (Analects, Lau, 1983: 126-127). Based on sociopolitical order, Confucius lays prerequisite conditions and ideal attitudes for the leaders to govern the people. In his view, a good leader should have virtuous characters and attitudes and bring comfort to the people (Analects, Lau, 1983: 146-147), and rule over them with dignity and kindness.
The most important impact that Confucianism brings on current Chinese leadership practice is its ethical principle about the relationship between a ruler and his/her subordinates, notably one of the five aspects in Wu Lun. As discussed earlier, such a principle breeds the Guanxi in leadership practice in the modern Chinese society. In the Analects, Confucius said, "Let the ruler be ruler, the subject a subject â€¦" (Analects, Lau, 1983: 112-113). Confucius also pointed out that the ruler should employ the service of his/her subjects in accordance with rites, whereas the subjects should serve their ruler by doing their best (Analects, Lau, 1983: 19). He advised the ruler to cultivate ethical leadership for governing his/her people, and also taught them to possess the virtue of faithfulness toward the ruler. Confucius assertion on harmoniously interpersonal relations is well manifested in his explanation of leader-subject relationship. Such a relationship is in essence, a reciprocally obligatory relationship on the ground of hierarchical relations (Lee, 2001).
Summarizing Confucius leadership in the Analects, we come to see two main themes: personal order and sociopolitical order. Bothe themes emphasize reciprocally interpersonal relationships (Guanxi) between superiors and subordinates under hierarchically authoritative leadership as well as reciprocally humanitarian leadership (Lee, 2001). Such a dual Confucius leadership does not necessarily match with the four major approaches in Western leadership theories, i.e. power influence, trait, behavior, and contingency, even though it may have some overlapping characteristics. House and Singh (1987) argue that leadership mentioned by Confucius is force of personality that induces not only a high degree of loyalty and devotion to a leader but also a high degree of trust in a leader. In this regard, Confucius leadership adheres to weaving strong Guanxi between leaders and followers, and this Guanxi-orientation has made Chinese leadership unique.