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The author Richard Sennett said that sometimes it helps to see ourselves by stepping into another person’s shoes, that looking at how cultures quite foreign to our own assess social capital and cooperation we can learn far more than what we have been taught. He explained that modern China offers one way to do so; that is have a strong ‘code’ for social cohesion, despite the fact that the country is aggressively capitalist lately, and that this ‘code’ is what the Chinese call guanxi. The systems analyst Yuan Luo describes guanxi as ‘an intricate and pervasive relational network which the Chinese cultivate energetically, subtly, and imaginatively’. The network means a Chinese immigrant feels free to call on a third cousin in a foreign city for a loan, while at home, it is the shared experiences and memories among friends, rather than written contracts or laws, that lay the foundations for trust in business dealings. In families, guanxi has a further reach in the practice common to many non-Western societies of young people sending home whatever they can spare of their usually meagre wages, rather than spending all that they earn on themselves. ‘Duty’ better names these social relations than ‘social capital’. 

So is honour a better name some ask? Well, in a way, yes, Guanxi invokes honour as a key ingredient of social relations. Douglas Guthrie, an American student of Chinese guanxi, explains that it is akin to the old Western business code, ‘My word is my bond.’ You can count on other people in the network, especially when the going gets tough; they are honour-bound to support you rather than take advantage of your weakness. Also, one must keep in mind that Guanxi entails something other than sympathy; people in the network criticise one another, and they nag each other; they may not be nice to one another, but they feel obliged to prove helpful when the occasion arises. And in many ways than one, this code of guanxi is an example of how a social bond can shape economic life and bail one out of the doldrums. To throw some more light on it, guanxi, in essence, as a bond, is informal in character, establishing a network of support outside a rigid circle of established rules and regulations. The bond is a necessity in the fast-changing, often chaotic conditions of China especially today, since many of its official rules are dysfunctional; the informal, personal network helps people go around these, in order, to survive and prosper. 

The value of informal cohesion is not new, it has already appeared to us, in say dialogic exchanges, whether in a conversation or in the community organisation. The West, however, wants to establish the scope of these exchanges in its society, but, the bigger question is: do they have an equal practical value as they do for the Chinese? And the answer lies in two reasons why the West might want to think like the Chinese about cooperation. 

First, if informal, the guanxi network is also meant to be sustainable. Sometime in the future, the one who gets help will give it back in a form neither party may now foresee, but knows will occur. Guanxi is a relationship meant to endure from generation to generation. By the standards of a Western contract, there’s no reality in such an ill-defined expectation; for the Chinese student, government worker or businessman, the expectation itself is solid, because people in the network punish, or shun those, who later prove unresponsive. It is a question for us of holding people accountable in the future for their actions in the present. 

Secondly, people in a guanxi network are not ashamed of dependency. You can establish guanxi with someone who needs you, or whom you need, beneath or above you in the pecking order. The Chinese family, as traditionally in other societies, has been a site of dependency without shame, and shame has become deeply associated in Western culture with self-control; losing control over your body, or your words, has become a source of shame. Modern family life, and, even more, modern business practice, has extended the idea of self-containment: dependency on others is taken to be a sign of weakness, a failure to promote autonomy and self-sufficiency; the autonomous individual appears free. But looked at from the perspective of a different culture, the Chinese or the Asian culture, a person who prides him-or-herself on not asking for help appears a deeply damaged human being; fear of social embeddedness dominates his or her life. 

As you can see, guanxi in itself is congenial in spirit; so too, I suspect, would settlement-house workers and community activists a century ago, who were congenial, and sharing, and giving despite of having to be a part of the Western world. The common thread is an emphasis on the qualities of a social relationship, on the power of duty and honour. A culture can be ferocious. It can be capitalist like it is in China at the moment. By our standards, that fact seems difficult to reconcile with culture practises, still, some Chinese believe that guanxi is beginning to break down as the country more and more comes to resemble the West in its ways of parenting, working and consuming. While all cultures have their pros and cons, it would be nice to know why certain aspects of the Western culture has this corrosive effect on people and thinking. 


The recent epidemic of unprecedented proportions; the Covid-19, or Corona as it is commonly known, has caught us off-guard, and though one is led to feel regret, more so for the ones hit by the economic uncertainty the world over, one wishes, however, that we human beings realise from this strain that the first thing we need to do is to slow down, and maybe attempt to plant a seed and watch it until the flower grows. That the instant gratification culture of ours has nearly ruined all that we hold dear, and until we find meaning in what we say and do, our world will be as chaotic as it was when we were accelerating at the speed of light without the light in sight.


Trying times nearly always reveal the true faces: there is no time to put on masks, and likewise, history has taught us, especially from the stories that have emerged from war, that you see a pristine, almost primeval side of compassion when faced with life-threatening situations. These times are no less than war, and it is at this stage that we need to erase the prejudices we may hold towards attitudes and people so that we can collectively work towards the betterment of the community. Let us take hugging for example. It is an intrinsic part of our culture in Asia, and furthermore, as Muslim, we have no qualms in holding hands of our male friends, coiling our arm round our best friend’s neck, wrestling with each other so as to laugh our lungs (and in some cases our guts out), kiss on the cheeks when we greet, and touch our noses like the Arabs do in order to feel a closeness, a connection, togetherness, and it is here that I would like to extend the concept of guanxi to matters of personal dealings rather than keeping it limited merely to business traditions as I explained above. 

None of us, from this side of the world, look at any of the aforementioned human contact with anything else than the feeling of intimacy, whereas, some of them, the newer generation, think that such a behaviour between people of the same gender is unhealthy. When questioned about why they think such behaviour is unhealthy, one hears: I have seen it on the telly, or read an article that any form of touch is not a good touch. We can talk from a distance, civilly, as human beings do, right. Why touch each other? This is where I suspect that parenting is failing us miserably, especially the parenting that has grown on Western principles and does not quite discern the difference between what is acceptable and what is off-limits. Let me throw further light on this with regard to some of the detrimental ways of the West: while in the process of writing this piece, I happened to watch a Spanish television series, where a young man’s grandmother walks into the room when her grandson and his best friend are exchanging a hug before the friend is leaving his friend’s home. The old lady rolls her eyes and states, ‘When two men hug each other, they have to be gay, or actors.’ It was as if this scenario was tailored to help me write on it in this piece; for starters, being a heterosexual male, I was, at once, put off by that very manner of looking at something as beautiful as a hug being coated with something as preposterous as a sexual connotation, and so my next question is:


Why are we letting this unhealthy Western philosophy make room in our hearts? Why are we letting the West inject their unhealthy mind sciences into our healthy minds? When we Asian, Arab, men meet, we do all that I said we did in the preceding paragraphs, and know that what such an act of camaraderie did was make us feel wanted, and loved, and that simple lack of feeling love and the feeling of being wanted was turning the Western populace into touch starved monsters, and such people ended up being depressed, violent or even suicidal. Don’t you think it is time that the West learnt from us Asians, Arabs how to greet and meet and live with each other? And get rid of the ‘I, Me, Myself’ doctrine of behaviour that is killing them? Could they not loosen up so that they would indeed not feel deprived of touch, of love, an essential component of keeping a human being in behaving like a human being - something that is more depressing and lonely than a strain of virus that has left us arrested, and at home, in a state of uncertain lockdown?


An additional, injurious Western concept that we are implementing in our cohesive society is that of nuclear families. The West thinks that to stay with family after a certain age is being less an individual, and they would go any lengths to fight for preserving their individuality. They have failed to understand, most simply, that there is immense power in unity, and that we need the support of our loved ones, just as much as they need us, at any given time of our lives. And the Covid-19 has brought to light examples of this decay that we have willingly subjected ourselves into: nearly everything, in nearly every part of the world, is in a state of suspension, and the jarring psychological, as well as physical impact such an isolation has had on people has devastated them, while the families that lived together have managed to combat loneliness, the management of children, and whatever the rest of the demons were, with much ease. Also, what something like this does, at its basest, is that it teaches us  humility,  tolerance, and compromise, and it renews in us the fact that the only bond that keeps us together is love, and in extreme circumstances, where it is inevitable to live under one roof, one must try and live close to each other so that you can be separate, and yet together, just so that the fine fibre of love remains intact. 

It is not merely about geographical zones, creeds, cultures, or communities. It is not about who is good and who is bad, what is good and what is bad, it is only about the mindset, and adopting the positively best from the various zones, creeds, cultures and communities. Let me put it this way: we love our bodies. We workout and we keep a tab on our diet by treating our bodies like we would do a shrine in order to keep it running efficiently. However, when we are struck with an ailment, we visit the specialist without delay, and get rid of what was limiting us, and this is where I ask, when we do that to our body, couldn’t we apply that mindset to our minds too? 

I would like to end this with something I was reading by Josh Radnor. It said, but it’s the arc of every great fairy tale, right? We leave home (the comfortable, the familiar) to journey into the dark wood. Only there – in the terrifying shadow – are we able to confront our fears and push past our limitations. In that battle we are transformed so that when we return home, we return home changed, upgraded, and bearing gifts for those we love (In a neat twist, our actual homes are the current dark wood.) 

The only way I can get through something like this is to view it in these mythic dimensions, to understand that this supremely odd world-wide moment we are all sharing provides us with a divine opportunity to see what we are really made of. To transform our lives and our world for the better. Or as Francis Weller recently put it, “This is a season of remembering the ancient rhythms of soul. It is a time to become immense.”