Fanju (China)

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Fanju 🇨🇳
China map.png
Location: China
Definition: Socializing in banquets to celebrate, build social networks and exchange interests between the host and guests
Keywords: China East Asia Getting things done Mutual help Sociability Network Ties Personal connections Food Hospitality Celebration Bribe Public service
Clusters: Instrumentality of sociability Economies of favours Lock-in effect
Author: Lang Liu
Affiliation: Alumna, Department of Political Science & School of Public Policy, University College London, UK

By Lang Liu, Alumna, Department of Political Science & School of Public Policy, University College London, UK

Fanju is a goal-oriented way to communicate, build social networks, strengthen social ties and transfer interests between individuals or interest groups by throwing a banquet. The Chinese word ‘fanju’ (饭局) has two parts. ‘Fan’ translates to ‘meal’ and refers to a large group of people eating and drinking together. ‘Ju’ translates to ʻgamblingʼ or ʻtrapʼ and refers to the banquet's instrumental function. In a fanju, people of the same social class, family, interest or professional groups gather together to strengthen social ties, to transfer benefits or ask for favours that will benefit them personally.

Fanju is common in all walks of life and regions of China (Li 2017). Chinese people typically participate in some form of fanju several times a week. On weekdays, it is customary to share a meal with a colleague or business partner to sustain and improve relationships and to conduct business negotiations. On the weekends, people have fanju with family and friends, or they might host or attend a more instrumental fanju to solve problems that may not be dealt with through official channels (Wu 2011: 11-4). Government officials are often invited to banquets to solicit a promotion or negotiate a reduction or annulment of corporate violation fines (Zhang 2007).

A wedding fanju in Nantong, Jiangsu, China. Source: Author. © Lang Liu.

Fanju has two categories: ritualised and non-ritualised. Ritualised fanju refers to a celebration banquet with an institutionalised form, such as a wedding (hun yan) or the full moon celebration that accompanies the arrival of a baby (manyue jiu). Fanju host rents a restaurant or private room (baoxiang) on such an occasion and the guests bring a red envelope (hongbao) or a gift. The status and esteem of the host as well as relationships between guests and hosts are openly displayed. The number of guests at a ritual fanju reflects the host family’s overall level of social relations and signifies their social capital. Guests usually have an emotional connection to the host. Invitees without a close relationship will send the gift envelope ahead of the celebration banquet without attending it.

Attending a ritualized fanju fulfills social or moral obligations. Traditional moral rules require people to participate in institutionalized ritualized fanju, to maintain specific social relationships, e.g. between colleagues and managers, or between unfamiliar distant relatives, even when they dislike one another. It means that a number of Chinese citizens are in the system of fanju involuntarily (Wu 2011).

Chinese generally divide non-ritualised fanju into two kinds: sociable (such as a family gathering during the holidays) and instrumental. In practice, however, fanju with a single characteristic is rare; both sociability and instrumentality are present in different proportions. Instrumental fanju refers to a banquet hosted with the purpose of allowing people who have no existing relationships, or those who have weak ties, to expand their social networks and build new guanxi (关系) connections with powerful officials (Wu 2011). The instrumental non-ritualized fanju has two common purposes. First, it can serve as an indirect means of conveying and affirming one’s loyalty. Accepting invitation to fanju can be an informal way to express approval of the host's goal or exchange expectations. For instance, the host in need of a favour first identifies those in his social network with the ability to help, then invites the guests to attend this type of fanju for a formal occasion, such as the Mid-Autumn Festival gathering or Chinese National Day Celebration, where they can ask agree on exchanging favours in an informal way. Attending the fanju is a signal that the attendees are likely to provide the favour that the host expects. This type of fanju can also be used for bargaining, especially where there exists a difference in social status between the two parties, for instance, where the invitees have a stronger influence than the host in some specific field. This type of fanju maintains the instrumental relationship and does not require the invitees' immediate return of the favour to the hosts (Wu 2011).

Fanju is one of the most important strategies for building, maintaining, and expanding an instrumental or sociable guanxi and quanzi relationships (Osburg 2013; Zhang 2007; Wu 2011). Guanxi关系 ) is the practice of exchanging favours. Quanzi is the Chinese social culture and a product of social interaction. Quanzi (圈子) is the cultural preference for working, living, and socialising with people with similar social attributes and values satisfies a sense of belonging and leads people to form small groups, also called quanzi. The quanzi culture provides an open and common space for finding assistance and cooperation (see also yongo in South Korea, joro in Kyrgyzstan and ahbap-çavuş ilişkisi in Turkey). Although there are many different types and scales of quanzi, including quanzi of colleagues, quanzi of friends, and quanzi of students, the common structure of the quanzi is – similar to an institution – built around one or more individuals who have power or money. The new people who share their value orientation gradually join them for mutual benefits. Quanzi culture is extremely exclusive; quanzi members will refuse to communicate, socialize, and offer favours to those outside of the quanzi (Zhang 2018; Xie 2018).

Fanju is regarded as a crucial socializing method that quanzi members use to maintain and expand their social network and emotional connections (Tian 2011; Xie 2018), specifically the non-ritualized fanju, which is initiated by individuals or groups of members. Often, the sole purpose of a fanju is just to exchange 'good feelings' (rengqing, 人情) or show caring and moral concern. Yet sometimes fanju serves the exchange of specific interests and because quanzi relies on a symbiotic relationship between people with varying levels of power, it is easy to induce corruption. Corruption in the government usually emerges in a quanzi of civil servants who use large amounts of public funds to hold fanju in rotation (Zhang 2018; Xie 2018).

Similar practices to fanju can be observed in Japan and South Korea. In Japan, nomikai is an informal business meeting, often organised at a casual drinking place (izakaya) after work. Since Japanese companies have strict boundaries between the communication between upper and lower corporate levels, nomikai is the only opportunity where these can be crossed (Li 2005). In South Korea, hoesik is a universal company and organisational subculture of eating and drinking together after work (In 2018). Hoesik helps employees relax, knit stronger ties, and resolve workplace conflicts, but can also result in undesirable effects such as excessive drinking, forced drinking, gossip, and sexual harassment (Sim 2017).

The origins of fanju can be traced back two thousand years ago, to the Feast at Hong Gate, a banquet held by Xiang Yu, a rebel leader who launched the anti-Qin movement (209-206 BC). The original purpose of the fanju was to plot the murder of another rebel leader, Liu Bang (Li 2007). However, Liu Bang escaped this fate through bargaining during the fanju. Fanju did not become a target of sustained academic and political focus until the end of the twentieth century when it began to be treated as an ‘open secretʼ (Ledeneva 2011) and developed an association with corruption. The Chinese government has made efforts to limit the use of fanju as a platform for money laundering deals and political clientelism after President Xi Jinping launched the anti-corruption campaign in 2012 (Shu and Zhang 2018).

Fanju’s complex functionality means that its effects on Chinese politics, the economy, and society are ambivalent. It can promote integration of social groups, yet it is also susceptible to the abuse of power, particularly when groups use public funds for their private benefit. In 2012, China Net (2014) reported that about 300 million yuan of public funds were spent on fanju annually; an average of more than 820,000 yuan per day. Such high expenses mean that fanju costs incurred by officials significantly support the restaurant and entertainment industry; fanju is generally held in luxury restaurant with high-end wines and expensive food menus (Zhang 2007). The launch of the anti-corruption campaign in 2012—while curtailing corruption—has dramatically reduced the turnover of luxury restaurants and entertainment venues, by 35 percent in Beijing and 20 percent in Shanghai. Several venues have gone bankrupt as a result (China Net 2014).


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