If you happened to anchor in one of China’s ports during the 19th century often enough to pick up the language, or manned posts on Chinese soil while working as a Foreign Service Officer during the ridiculously complicated years surrounding the Chinese Civil War, then you may have been a China Hand—中国通.
As a foreigner, being called or recognized as a bona fide China Hand by a Chinese person is about the highest compliment there is. Doing business here, teaching English, or even marrying a national doesn’t qualify you as one. Reciting Tang Dynasty poets like Li Bai, Du Fu, Bai Juyi, or Wang Wei won’t get you the moniker, either.
As with any term steeped in culture and history, it changes and evolves with the times. Just like the common address for a young man today in China, Handsome Guy, shuai ge—帅哥. It’s the modern watered-down distillation of a word with a very different original meaning. Yuan Shuai used to refer to a military position of some rank. A soldier at this rank undoubtedly possessed some stellar qualities—probably admirable and honorable to boot. It’s not too hard to see how the title got commandeered and repurposed to describe particularly handsome guys. Knowing the history doesn’t make it any less annoying when people flit around calling everyone shuai ge.
I digress—China Hands! This distinguished nickname now gets toted out and tossed around whenever a witty comment or an insight into Chinese history is made. In a culture where exaggeration of worth and value is expected toward strangers and acquaintances but nit-picking and denigration is par for the course within families or tight circles mixed signals abound for those new to China.
Any expat making even the flimsiest attempts at Mandarin will be complimented as soon as they utter Ni Hao. Mention Mao Zedong, throw out an idiom, or even talk about any one of the two dozen holidays on the calendar (lunar, of course), and someone will call you a China Hand. That seem contradictory to what I already wrote? It’s not-ish. Because you probably don’t really know the person you’re talking to when you hear it. They may be a merchant, a co-worker, a prospective business contact, or even your weekly A Yi. What I’m saying is that chances are, they don’t view you as a family member or even as one of their inner circle. Those expats that are fortunate enough to make it into these close-knit relationships can get the honest answers, the honest compliments. And 99% of expats here are not China Hands.
I don’t know any of the merchants from two hundred years back, but I know a little about the guys that hung around China seventy years ago. John S. Service, Owen Lattimore, John K. Fairbank, John Paton Davies, Jr, and my father-in-law’s favorite that he likes to bring up whenever we talk about modern Chinese history, journalist Edgar Snow—these are the 中国通 that got caught up in one of the most pivotal times in Chinese history.
If anyone deserves to be called 中国通 it’s them. They mingled with the top brass in China—both sides. Chiang Kai-Shek and his beautiful wife Soong Mei-Ling, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai…These China Hands saw history unfold and often influenced its outcomes in various ways, sometimes not always for the best. China Hands like these folks just don’t come around all that often because they are frequently a product of tumultuous times themselves, thrust into positions because of necessity and duty. Thankfully, things are a lot more stable these days, but the idea of the China Hand is still very present among the people.
Why am I bringing any of this up? Well, it’s because I just had my Five Year China Anniversary. I say that like it’s a thing, I know. For me it is. All of this was originally supposed to be a One Year Stint. And then it became more.
My father-in-law constantly brings up the idea of me being a China Hand. He wants me to study Mandarin and modern history without pause. Xiao Ming is more practical about it all. She’s flat out told me that no one can become a 中国通 in less than 10 years. So, I’ve got time. No rush. Who knows if I’ll ever actually make it…
Regardless, it’s a hell of a life. That’s the big thing for this year, that realization. China was an experiment for me. It was something that I’d check out. Spend a year looking around and then go home. Move on. If I’d gone home after a year, two years, maybe even if I went home at the three-year mark, that’s all it would have remained—an experience. But now that it’s five years and a day, and with all that’s changed and happened, it’s clear that the China Experiment is over and the China Life is what it’s become. My China Life. Life.
Maybe my wife is right, she usually is, and I have five more years and a day before I can be counted among the China Hands. It’s not like one day you wake up and they give you a card or anything. But how cool would that be?
Speaking of official documents, a Time Out Shanghai article recently shed light on a topic I’ve heard rumors about. The visa hurdles here in place are not to be taken lightly, but China has a plan. A new ABC ranking system where they categorize foreigners working here as either top talent (A), professional talent (B), or unskilled worker (C) is being implemented.
Reading this article (http://www.timeoutshanghai.com/features/Blog-Shanghai_news/39148/ID-cards-and-talent-ranking-for-foreigners-in-work-permit-reforms.html ) also got me onto the topic of China Hands because of a few lines where they mention some of the criteria that the Chinese Govt will use to make their determinations. The Global Times is quoted in the article as saying “…factors such as salary, educational background, time spent in China, Chinese language proficiency and where the foreigner has worked in China (with work in less developed regions being rewarded)” will be a part of the decision-making process.
As the roll out date is this April, I wonder how this will affect me and others like me. Are they going to actually test expats with Mandarin exams? Will they give preference to those that have been here for a long time? Married into a family? They promise to provide “helpful guides” to foreigners, so I guess I’ll wait in line for those?
Anyway—Five Years has been great.
I do, in fact, know a bit about one of the merchants from way back. John O’Donnell was the first merchant to ship China-made goods to Baltimore. After amassing a fortune from this trade business and becoming one of the big names in Baltimore, he named his plantation Canton. This name comes from Guangzhou, China and is how it appeared on maps for many years. Well, I’m from Canton, the one in Ohio, not Maryland. Turns out that the surveyor (of the Ohio Canton) admired O’Donnell so much that he borrowed the O’Donnell plantation name for my hometown. It’s random. It’s true. Look it up.
I guess sometime soon I should write about Malaysia, Singapore, going back home, DC, SC, Xinjiang, Gansu, and getting back into the swing of school again. Maybe later.