Studies of rural tourism in China often refer to the concept of guanxi in discussing traditional cultural and special social phenomena. However, guanxi mainly refers to a unilateral, 'request-offer' relationship, while the reality in rural destinations of China is far more complicated and where social relations may involve bilateral, trilateral or even more intricate interactions. In this case study of Xidi, a World Cultural Heritage village in Anhui Province, China, the patron-client concept is introduced to better describe asymmetric exchange of resources and opportunities between unequal individuals or groups. The patrons in this case consist of experts, central government, local government, mass media and local officials, while the clients involve the village autonomous organization, the tourism company, the community leaders and the company managers. Patterns and impacts of the patron-client ties are analysed in detail and the model of a tourism-orientated path-dependence is discussed.