Chinese culture has a term that is often described as untranslatable in English, and yet is a crucial part of that culture. In fact, if you live in China (or Taiwan, as I did) and you don’t understand the concept of ‘Guan Xi’ (pron. gwan shee), life can be an exercise in frustration.
Guanxi, for all that it is untranslatable, is translated as ‘connection’ or sometimes ‘relationship.’ The Chinese have a pithy saying for everything, and they have one for guanxi: you guanxi, jiu meiyou guanxi. This can roughly be translated as “If you have guanxi, nothing’s the matter. If you don’t have guanxi, everything matters.”
When I moved to Taiwan, it was predominantly because I could no longer ‘make it’ as an acupuncturist, and my other skills in IT weren’t getting me the kind of jobs I needed to be able to pay my student loans off while supporting my new family. We landed in the small by Taiwan standards town of Hualien, where my wife and I both started teaching English and our son attended the English kindergarten where we taught. One dayI had a new student referred to me who turned out to be a brain surgeon at the local university hospital, a monolithic place that also had a large TCM department as most hospitals in Taiwan do.
During our first private class, John asked me why I was in Taiwan and I explained that I had come hoping to be able to study TCM, but as yet had not made any connections. He didn’t say much to that, but the next day I received a phone call from him. He had just called the head of the TCM department, Dr. Zeng, who was awaiting my phone call. I called Dr. Zeng, and just like that I was invited to come and practice with him in his treatment room where he routinely saw 120 patients a day. We struck up a friendship, and it was my pleasure to train with him for about a year and a half before we moved north to Taipei. Dr. Zeng gave me my first taste of what high volume acupuncture treatments could look like.
I would never have been introduced to Dr. Zeng, if I hadn’t had John the neurosurgeon as a student. That is guanxi in action.
This brings me to how guanxi works in the west, and perhaps a better term to describe it: social capital. Social capital is that indefinable connection we have with others that allows for things to be done that, without it, would not be possible. Social capital is what we accrue when we reach out to our community, offering of ourselves purely with the intention of making someone’s life a little easier. It’s what we gain when we offer acupuncture treatments at prices people can afford, sometimes lowering our own rates below ‘break even’ so that people can just be pain free, and able to move, or breathe, or sleep, just a little better. It isn’t exactly the same as guanxi, because our cultures don’t operate the same, but I’d say that ‘social capital’ comes closest to describing how what we give to others in our community comes back in ways that have nothing to do with money.
Social capital, it needs to be noted, is much more difficult to accrue for a business where profit is a priority. With profit as a priority, people are seen as consumers of our products, and recipients of our advertising campaigns. They are numbers and demographics, and they become something less than people with problems, when profit is the goal.
When we take profit out of the picture as the top priority, it is amazing how social capital can make things happen. In fact, without social capital I’m quite sure that community acupuncture, and POCA itself would not be in the position it is in now, with a growing membership of excited and motivated people who, after all, just want to make a livable wage while contributing to the overall health of their communities.
Social capital makes connections where profit does not. Social profit brings people together, where profit divides in order to conquer. Social capital contributes to open-hearted giving of oneself where profit is the very antithesis of generosity. Having social capital also has no negative impact on others in the way that profit is finite, and having more means others have less. Social capital grows (like a fractal?), expanding outward and touching others.
Best of all no one can steal social capital, and so far no one has found a way to tax it.