Three Pillars of Chinese Relationalism:

The Zhongyong Dialectic, Guanxi, and Social Theory

Eli J. Patton

Dec. 21, 2020


Chinese Relationalism is one of the three main branches of international relations (IR) theory in China. Chinese Relationalism is concerned less with material differences among states (balance of power) and more concerned with the relationship between the participants (balance of relationships). Scholars of relational world politics see this system as complementary to existing IR theories, focusing not just on states as single actors but as nodes enmeshed within a network. Unlike many prominent Western theories of IR, Chinese Relationalism also allows for cultural elements to be included. While relational theories are discussed around the world, the Chinese academic Qin Yaqing argues that thousands of years under the Confucian framework has left the people of China predisposed to approaching the puzzle with an entirely different ontology than the mainstream narrative. Let the following work serve as a distilled introduction to Chinese Relationalism as a social theory of IR.

1. Introduction

The history of so-called “Western” IR has been expounded upon and retold by more knowledgeable experts than myself and for which I recommend the intrepid reader see the 2019 Acharya and Buzan work, The Making of Global International Relations. When looking at the core arguments of Kenneth Waltz’s structural realism, Robert Keohane’s neo-liberal institutionalism, and Alexander Wendt’s structural constructivism, one key takeaway is that over the last several decades these theories have evolved and begun to overlap each other. This evolution and merger may accelerate, as connectivity is moving the world into a period that could allow for a more robust and inclusive schema, beyond the “great debates” and toward a “global IR” that is more inclusive.

Nearly eleven years ago now, the Chinese scholar Qin Yaqing opined that despite the field being called International Relations, dominant Western IR theories lacked any focus on the element of “relations” themselves. In the vernacular of chemistry, mainstream theories all seemingly care about the atoms and not the bonds. The core of this argument being that all major strands of realism, liberalism, and constructivism neglect “social interactive processes” that are intrinsic to humanity. Moreover, IR is not merely a system of “billiard balls” pushing forward with their rational, but single-minded, volition. Instead, Qin’s perspective is that IR is made up of interactive processes of relations between friends, enemies, partners, neighbors, families, etc.

Qin points to culture as the root cause in the differences between rationalist and relationalist scholars, saying that since the 1980s the goal of prominent IR authors has been to “produce a universally applicable theory” and this ultimate theory lacks the cultural grounding that is inherent in all humans. Qin and others have lamented that theorists have discounted “local knowledge production” and that cultural elements are still “unfairly marginalized” in IR. To further this case for increasing the status of culture and social theory as a fundamental component of IR, data from the 2014 Project on Teaching, Research, and International Practice (TRIP) implies that IR education in the United States is still Western-centric, specifically what is known as the American School (positivist quantitative data used to identify truisms), and students have little exposure to much else.

In the remainder of this section I will discuss ontology as it is the key distinction that separates Qin’s Chinese Relationalism from other theories. Then, I will introduce other models of relational theory to provide the reader with additional perspectives. In the following sections of the essay, I will expound on the Zhongyong dialectic as described by Qin. After which, I will build upon the core with a direct example by way of the concept of guanxi — a crucial social component in Chinese culture. The third section ties these concepts together and discusses social theory. Finally, adding together the previous three layers of the Zhongyong dialectic, guanxi, and social theory, I present a picture of Chinese Relationalism as modern IR theory.

1.1 Ontology of Things and Ontology of Relations

Qin Yaqing’s “Relational Theory of World Politics” starts with ontology. Calling on the Chinese philosopher Zhao Tingyang, Qin argues that the cultural history of the Eurozone has a baked in predilection for “individuality." This disposition reaches back to Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean which envisions a system of rational actors who make decisions based upon norms and values of society. These rules were universal truths, irrespective of participants’ status or position in relation to one another — good is good and bad is bad. This rational actor is an atomic unit, indivisible and independent, following a formula through the maze-like system that is the world. Action is based on “the logic of consequences." It is the outcome, not the relationship which holds value.

In terms of IR, the Westphalian state takes actions toward other Westphalian states unilaterally, not with other states cooperatively — this system is both unpredictable and anarchic and as a result fear drives the need for power, the need for power leads to competition and conflict, and so on. As Kishore Mahbubani often states, “viewed against the backdrop of two thousand years of world history, …the past two hundred years of Western domination have been a major aberration.” And Amitav Acharya reminds us that “Liberal Hegemony” in reality has been less absolute than the myth. In this sense it is clear to see why Qin argues that there is room for more ontologies to be considered.

In the case of China, Qin and Nordin argue that thousands of years of Confucian cultural frameworks, as in some other cultures, have reinforced through society that each person must act according to discrete relationships (“family, friend, country, world”). This system favors the relationship as the unit of measurement instead of the actor, and recognizes that actors are participants along with other actors who also have volition. Therefore the relationship first dictates rationality, and not the reverse. If Rationalist IR theory relies upon an “ontology of things,” then Chinese Relationalism approaches IR theory with an “ontology of relations.”

1.2 Flavors of Relationality

Referring to the seminal work by Jackson and Nexon (1999) “Relations Before States,” Qin highlights that various scholars have previously postulated relations as the base unit of measurement in IR; so while Qin’s theory is Chinese, relationalism does not belong to one culture. Professor Emilian Kavalski adds that Waltz in 1979 eluded to “unobservable relations of things.” Below I introduce the four “models of relationality” identified by Nordin and Smith. They argue that these strands of relationality imply a relationship between the self and the other. Their four relationality models are: aporetic, role, hierarchical, and dialectic. Qin’s theory is dialectic and will be addressed in the next section.

Aporetic Relationality: In this model, the self recognizes the otherness of the other and a self/other dialectic forms the basis of relationships. Much of the discussion offered by Nordin and Graham refers to Dillion and Derrida. Their argument maintains that self is always self and other is always other. The “aporia” paradox “destabilizes or undermines the very terms and context that established it.” In short, attempts at turning the other into the self only reinforce the otherness of the other and self of the self, resulting in failure.

RoIe Relationality: In this model, there is no other, only self. The example referenced by Nordin and Smith is Alexander Wendt’s rendition of the meeting of Cortes and Montezuma. When these two historical figures first met they were both entirely alien to one another. Both sides relied upon their own cultural background to guide the relationship. In this way each was not only “ego” but also “alter” and thus not truly alter, but only alter ego. And ultimately both ego and alter ego are self.

Hierarchical Relationality: Zhao Tingyang sees a system of voluntary hierarchical conformity where there is “no outside (wuwai 无外),” there are only positions within a whole. Other is not other, but a lesser self yet to be rectified. This model presupposes unity cannot last forever, so hierarchy provides stability. While this system provides harmony for Tianxia (天下), or “all under heaven,” Nordin and Smith remind the reader that this smacks of inequality, with William A. Callahan warning it could lead to discrimination.

2. The Zhongyong dialectic

Mustafa Emirbayer’s 1997 “Manifesto for a Relational Sociology” brought to light the schism between “substantialism” and “relationalism." Qin agrees and relays that substantialism “holds that an actor is independent, discrete and rational, able to take self-action of his own free will.” Then he goes on to echo Emirbayer’s conclusion that the “process itself [is] a significant unit for analysis.” To this, Nordin and Smith add an analogy from sociologist Fei Xiaotong whereby in the West individuals are like “bundles of rice straw tied together by social contract and institutions” On the other hand, in China civil society is more akin to “continuous circles that ripple outwards from a pebble dropped on the surface of water” with countless points of contact (relationships) between ripples.

The difference is not about the outcome, but how one arrives at the outcome and this is paramount. Qin’s world is holistic, we are “embedded in a social system” and we merely occupy a role. Each participant is aware that their actions are not one-way, but co-created. Thus, decisions are dynamic and dependent upon the situation in which a relationship occurs and the position of our role within a relationship. This “relational rationality” is the core of the Zhongyong dialectic which has been enshrined in Chinese society for millenia. Qin names three principles for the actors in his Zhongyong dialectic: co-existence, relational identities, and habitual shared interest.

2.1 Coexistence

Emilian Kavalski channels Confucius as saying “unless there are at least two human beings there are no human beings.” Or, “Co-existence comes before self-existence” so that “‘self’ and ‘other’ are immanently dependent on each other for their existence.” One could argue that this mindset is not far removed from George Berkeley’s esse est percipi. As Qin takes processes and agents to be symbiotic and “‘inter-constitutive’ in an intermingled practice of socialization.” Qin uses the Daoist concept of yin yang to demonstrate this point. Each side is within the other so that they are both a reflection of self, or “mutually co-constituted.” This is in stark contrast to the dichotomous Hegelian dialectic of “thesis vs. anti-thesis."

2.2 Relational Identity

Qin advances his case by introducing relational identities. In each relationship we play a role or take on an identity (father, sister, president, friend, competitor, client, etc.). The identity is pre-defined by the roles in the relationship and not by the actors — boss/subordinate, teacher/student, strong state/weak state. What is appropriate in one relationship may not be so in another, even if the actors remain the same. Qin and Nordin use the game Go, in Chinese Weiqi (围棋), to illustrate. In Go each piece is the same, a simple stone, and when it is placed on the board it is the relationship of where it is placed and the nearby stones and gaps that determine the roles between the stones (attacking/defending/etc.). Identity is fluid, but the system of relationships is immutable.

2.3 Habitual Shared Interest

The third principle, and core of Zhongyong dialectics, is harmony. Relations are not zero-sum when both parties recognize that “self-interest and other-interest are shared.” By practicing proper roles the participant can expect a measure of stability in an otherwise chaotic existence and together they gain utility from harmony. In essence, engaging in relationalism is beneficial for the actor, but also reinforces the health of the system itself, which also benefits the actors — although perhaps some benefit more than others. Qin says this reciprocity alone is justification enough to “challenge the primacy” of mainstream IR theories and their “independent self-interest.” This is opposite the core goal of states in realism, liberalism, and constructivism, which all hold that power, institutions, and culture are determined by the self and for the self, without regard to the other.

3. On the Study of Applied Guanxi

In recent years, a number of scholars have discovered it is possible to remove a layer of abstraction from Zhongyong dialectics with the Chinese cultural phenomenon of “guanxi” (关系). Professor of communications, Wenshan Jia, defines guanxi as a “connection across barriers” or a means to “get connected” to the group. A more actionable definition could be: “the establishment and maintenance of ‘an intricate and pervasive relational network’ engendered by the practice of unlimited exchange of favours between its members and bound by reciprocal obligation, assurance, and mutuality.” For those who have studied or been to Greater China, the concept guanxi is well known and immediately recognizable as pervasive throughout society.

In modern times the word has been taken to mean the measure of successful networking ability, but also because there are some bad actors with good guanxi, the word also has derogatory meaning for the systemic corruption that has perennially plagued China from at least the middle of the Qing dynasty until now. And as Kavalski aptly testifies, guanxi is half of what makes up the Chinese word for international relations, guoji guanxi (国际关系), or international guanxi. This is a telling example of how the Chinese see the world. As with Qin’s three principles of the Zhongyong dialectic above, I will mirror those with three elements of guanxi as described in the works of Emelian Kavalski.

3.1 Role Occupants

Similar to the ontology of relations as explained above, “participants in a guanxi perceive each other to be ‘role occupants rather than individuals,’” their “roles are circumstantial” and they “are borne out of the process of interactions.” A role “cannot be removed from the context in which it arises.” And each instance of guanxi relations could prescribe a different role for the role-occupants, regardless of who the occupants may be, thus “roles are exogenous to the actor.” Unlike in Western IR theories where identity is solid, here the self is “not a static structure but a dynamic process” that evolves through socialization in a “complex relational web.” To illustrate this, on page 166 of his book, Qin Yaqing provides an image of what at first glance looks like three spiral galaxies colliding from different angles and orientations.

3.2 From Roles to Rites

In classical Confucianism the five cardinal relationships are: ruler/ruled, father/son, husband/wife, brother/brother, friend/friend. These relationships are a “mutual obligation” for all. Paired with these roles are the four ideal Confucian virtues of benevolence, appropriateness, propriety, and wisdom — among these Nordin and Smith point to the benevolence as the most important. The written form of this word in Chinese contains both the glyph for “person” and the glyph for the number two, (仁 = 人 + 二). Confucianism places emphasis on rite and ritual as a method for maintaining participation in guanxi roles. When practiced over a lifetime, roles should become an automatic function of life, requiring no thought.

3.3 Forging Reputation

Ultimately, the goal of guanxi is to gain reputation as a trustworthy role-participant and in doing so, raise one’s station in life — the means justify and create the condition for the ends. In other words, there is value in “meeting the expectations of others,” or “strategic receptivity." Here, Kavalksi refers to Jack Barbalet’s work saying, “reputational standing is a social and not an economic resource” — the cultivation of reputation is a form of currency. Role-participants exist entangled “at the center of numerous, concentric, relational circles that indicate the self’s relationships with others.” The closer a relationship is to the center of an actor’s web, the more intimate and important that relationship becomes. Thus guanxi becomes woven into the very fabric of society.

4. IR Is Social

In Qin Yaqing’s acclaimed 2007 article “Why is there no Chinese international relations theory?” he describes what is required for a hypothesis to become a theory. He pinpoints Imre Lakatos’s argument that a social theory requires a “hard core” that is “distinct from that of any other research program.” A hard core is “based on empirical experience at a particular point of time and space.” These are the things we take as universal truths or facts. Qin, however, argues that the nucleus of a social theory requires not only a hard core but also a metaphysical layer. Humans are social and view existence through our own cultural lens, or metaphysical component, which informs how we interpret the hard core we encounter.

Where the hard core represents the first order qualities of reality (material world), the metaphysical represents the second order realm (how we comprehend). Cultural distinctions form over long periods of time by accretion, this attenuates the “background knowledge” of the cultural participants. You say orange, I say tangerine. Invoking Searle, Qin likens this to “an invisible hand making the intentional possible and orienting people’s minds and deeds… generated in, by, and through practice.” Diversity of cultures, renders a universal metaphysical impossible. Although, Qin says when society accepts that the metaphysical component also “explicitly penetrates” the hard core, we may be able to achieve a sort of “bounded universality."

4.1 Metaphysical as Representational Knowledge

Representational knowledge can be demonstrated with the question of why the Tribute System sprung from Asia and why “balance-of-power” theory from Europe, the answer is in the metaphysical. For Qin, the hard core is substantive, “receiving signals from selected ‘out-there's’” while the metaphysical “explains, understands, and interprets” — this, in turn, creates “representational knowledge." These two types of knowledge are not opposed but complementary, background knowledge (hard core) acts as the soil for representational knowledge (metaphysical) which, in turn, nourishes the soil. Because humans are social creatures, social science, and indeed IR theory, is based upon representational knowledge and as such has not only a hard core but also a metaphysical aspect.

4.2 Community of Practice

It is the community of practice that shapes and is shaped by the clash between differing sets of representational knowledge. To bolster this argument, Qin and Nordin give the example of the academic community itself: as meetings are convened, speeches made, and arguments hashed, even though each scholar has obtained an indelible background knowledge from their cultural mindset and a representational knowledge that is developed by the practice of knowledge production, in the end, some will walk out of an academic conference with different ideas than when they walked in. This potential for domain re-alignment represents a mechanism to broaden IR theory. This agency is derived from the relationships within and surrounding the community of practice.

4.3 Dynamic Processual Construction

The entire network of relations is itself evolving over time. As new norms become institutionalized, behaviors change. The surface structure, direction, and velocity of the social web is constantly being reformed — in this way, the system itself has a manner of volition. Relations shape roles, the totality of the roles shapes the system, which then shapes the relations. This is dynamic “processual construction." At the same time, not all actors within the system share the same goals or norms, thus the future state of relations and orientation of the system is unknown. This could be similar to what LMH Ling referred to as a reality with “multiple worlds,” as different cultures undergo different processes of processual construction.

5. Conclusion

With substantialism as the foundation, the ontology of self and things has essentialized the base unit of measurement as the rational individual, and therefore states are the unit of analysis in IR. Qin views this background knowledge as a “cultural birthmark” of Western civilization. Together with Astrid H.M. Nordin, he argues that it is a lack of cultural relativism coupled with an overabundance of cultural exceptionalism that has caused mainstream social scientists to take their own metaphysical view for granted as universal. The growing call for a “global IR” has reflected back alternative ontologies, cultural norms, and social processes. This is post-Western IR in the sense that it is opening IR to inclusivity, burgeoning and yoking, no need for “great debates,” no core and no periphery.

As for the implications of Zhongyong, guanxi, and Chinese Relationalism in IR, when the world is inclusive and the relationships are complementary, then harmony is achievable. Wendt said that “states are people too” which impregnates the concept of IR with the human condition. In Chinese, the word for everyone is dajia (大家), which translates to “big family” and Confucius related the family to the state. States, like families, have members and rank. Feng Zhang identifies a literal representation of this in the practice of the Tribute System in pre-modern China. The Tribute System was a political system where all is one, but one’s position from the center determines their place in the hierarchy. From Emelian Kavalski, this was not a system of actors and balance of power, but one of “the logic of relationships” with a goal of equilibrium.

This is the Zhongyong dialectic, it is guanxi, and it is a Chinese social theory that explains how the world works. I plan to expand on this essay as part of my dissertation research, along with Tianxia and Moral Realism.