Supporting Article

Preparing for China?

What to Know before You Go

What you need to know before going to China will, of course, depend a lot on your purpose and length of stay.  For a short-term trip, where more experienced hands are already there to help, a good attitude, a learner’s curiosity, and a humble spirit will take you a long way.  But even short-termers will find their effectiveness greatly enhanced by focused preparation. The better the preparation, the greater your potential for strategic impact.  Here is some start-up information and a few suggestions.

Spiritual Discipline

Your most important preparation will be a living relationship with the living God.  If you do not have good habits of prayer, Bible reading, a pattern of growth toward Christlikeness and experience in trusting God in hardship, that’s the place to concentrate your efforts.  Engaging a mentor and accountability partner who has been to China and evidenced spiritual maturity could be invaluable. Even if you have no access to someone with China experience, you should be able to find a mature Christian who will disciple you in areas of need.

Connecting with an Organization

It is highly advisable that someone going to China for the first time go under the guidance of a credible sending agency with experience in China.  If the culture and language are new and you have no one in China with clout to plead your case, you could be setting yourself up for unnecessary hardship.  Also, you need a credible reason for being in the country, which a job (or student status) and official connections afford.  A good agency will have official contacts, obtain a position and negotiate a contract for you, help you with medical insurance and potential emergencies, as well as link you with a network of professionals to enhance your effectiveness and remove some of the logistical and administrative burden.  Every good organization will also help you with some amount of training.  In addition, a good agency will have asked their Chinese hosts what their needs are and how we as guests can meet those needs.

General Background

China is a country that values history to a high degree, especially its own. China as a subject can be overwhelming, still, you can learn a lot in a short time, and not only will your understanding of the host culture deepen, but your Chinese hosts will appreciate your interest in their country.  The same is true for learning even a little of the language.


Everyone should know a few key elements of Chinese culture.  First, it’s relational.  What you can get or get by with often depends on the strength of your relationships with your clients or students, your supervisors (those responsible to the university or agency and hence to the government for your welfare and influence), and the connections of your friends.  The focus on relationships also means that Chinese make great friends; they are easy to love and very open.  An important part of developing relationships is giving favors (using your position or connections to help someone get something done) and giving gifts.  Gifts need not be lavish in ordinary friendships.

Second, avoid causing a Chinese person to “lose face” by forcing an unnecessary confrontation or admission of guilt. Chinese are more likely to respond to an indirect approach and will often use third party intermediaries.  If you have a need, you may get better results by presenting your problem and asking for suggestions than by asking for a needed item directly.  The necessity for indirection will likely diminish with those who deal routinely with Westerners. If teaching, a little indirection goes a long way.  Use literature, American religious holidays like Christmas and Easter, or American culture and history to present Christian concepts, then let people ask questions or come to you privately.  Directly approaching a group with the suggestion that they need Christ may get you expelled.


You will find the common person eager for friendship with Americans (and Canadians), anxious to practice English (they study it in school from age 5), and admiring of the status of the U.S. as the most advanced country in the world. This means some will feign friendship in the hope of favors. In the big well-traveled cities the Chinese are used to seeing foreigners, and you may pass on the street with little notice.  But in more remote cities, you will likely be something of a curiosity and will need to be prepared for staring out of simple curiosity, especially if you have blond or red hair and blue eyes. Use this as an occasion for generating good will and meaningful contacts.  Choose not to be offended.

From the government’s point of view, if you are there for business, education, or making some other valued contribution, you will be welcome for what you bring—but suspect.  It’s best to have a paying job since the Chinese don’t understand volunteerism and may suspect an ulterior motive.  And while the common person may be eager for friendship with Americans, the government maintains a long-standing distrust of foreigners, seeing the U.S. as a bully on the world stage and a nuisance for meddling in Chinese policy, from human rights concerns to support for Taiwan.

Yet there are greater freedoms than at any time in Chinese history.  For visitors, this means unparalleled access combined with a hierarchy that is nervous about perceived threats.  Any large, organized group that has strong allegiances and/or ties to the outside (such as the Christian church) is seen as a threat. Avoid politically sensitive subjects and expect surveillance.  These are the hot buttons:  June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square “Event” (the Chinese euphemism preferred over “demonstrations” or “massacre;” Falungong (object of the government’s most recent crack-down, involving everything from exercise to meditation and the demonic); independence for Taiwan; the Dalai Lama; criticism of the one-child policy; criticism of any government leaders; spying in the US; the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. With all of these, proceed with great caution, even in private conversations.  Also, expect to be monitored.  Phones may be tapped, you may be followed, and you will be reported on.  As an experienced China hand once commented, “There are no secrets in China.”

Still, China is very safe for a foreigner, and the worst that would likely happen is expulsion. The greater concern is for our Chinese friends who must stay behind and take the consequences for our mistakes or for the organization whose mission we may compromise.

 Social and Economic Conditions

Develop an awareness of China’s social and economic problems.  According to an article in the August 1999 Atlantic Monthly, China’s population may now be 1.5 billion.  This means insufficient farm land causing migration to cities where the influx has resulted in over 100 million unemployed and increased crime. The government is pressured by the newly rich wanting more power and personal freedom, and by the huge, poorlypaid working class wanting in on the prosperity.  Pollution is the worst among modern nations, and two-thirds of the population live in flood zones.  Given these situations, governing China is no easy task.


Even though the Chinese constitution officially allows private individuals freedom of religion, in the wake of the recent Falungong crack-down, the government has reaffirmed its insistence on atheism and philosophical materialism as the party line.  Since the late Deng Xiaoping proclaimed, “To get rich is glorious,” many are now caught up in the pursuit of wealth.  To be in the government, Communist party, or army, one must be officially atheist—though there are obviously some who are either quietly religious or too important to punish at the moment.  China allows citizens in non-sensitive positions to join the “Three Self” government-monitored Christian church, which numbers about 14 million. The actual number of Christians, including the larger “house church,” may approach 100 million.  In addition, the last two decades have witnessed the rise of many cults, in part due to a lack of trained Christian leadership.

In general, the northwest of China is Muslim, the southwest Buddhist.  Although not nearly the force they once were, it is still useful to know something about Confucianism and Daoism—which some nationalists are pushing in an attempt to weaken Western ties and reconnect China with its ancient past.

Within limits, you will likely be allowed a number of Christian books for personal use as long as you have no more than two copies of any title.  Any more than that should be carefully evaluated in concert with leaders of your organization who know local officials and current customs practices.  A letter from a Chinese official documenting the need for the materials may help (for example, Bibles for a pre-approved class in the Bible as Literature).

Personal and Professional

China is modernizing at a dizzying pace.  Many things are readily available in large cities that were scarce only a few years ago.  Still, you will need to take careful stock of what is available in services and goods at your proposed workplace. Whenever possible, find out the specifics about the place you are going to from people who have been there.  Who has succeeded?  Who failed or had to leave and why? What approaches have worked best?  Can you do the same thing with a different approach and succeed?  What supplies will enhance the mission? If you are teaching, even promised books may be unavailable when you arrive.  Be prepared for surprises and have a back-up plan. While this all sounds formidable both in the amount to know and the number of cautions, remember that you do not have to know everything at once.  When Nita and I went to China for the first time in 1989, we had much to learn, but today we look back on that time with much satisfaction and great thanksgiving to God.

Some Recommended Reading

Wild Swans, Jung Chang (New York: Doubleday, 1991). Providing a grand sweep of Chinese history for the last hundred years, this biographical narrative focuses on the lives of three generations of Chinese women.  This factual account, that reads like a novel, will take you from the warlord days when women had their feet bound through the Communist era ruled by Mao to within a decade of the present.

The Search for Modern China, 2nd Edition, Jonathan Spence (New York: Norton, 1999). This book expertly chronicles China’s emergence onto the world scene.

China: Alive in the Bitter Sea, Fox Butterfield (New York: Bantam, 1982). Butterfield elaborates the system of control that gripped China during the height of Maoism.  This is updated to the present decade in Kenneth Lieberthal’s Governing China: From Revolution Through Reform (New York: Norton, 1995).

Living in China, Revised Edition, Rebecca Weiner, et al. (San Francisco: China Books & Periodicals, 1977).  Reviewed in The Connection, Fall 1998. Though it is written especially for teachers, everyone would benefit from reading the first 110 pages.

China Wakes, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wu Dunn (New York: Random, 1994). Good insights into contemporary culture and social issues.

The Resurrection of the Chinese Church, Revised Edition, Tony Lambert (Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw, 1994).  This work, along with Lambert’s China Insight (OMF, Littleton, CO.), discusses issues concerning the church in China.

Dr. Wayne Martindale is Associate Professor of English at Wheaton College (IL).  He and his wife Nita, an ESL teacher for World Relief, taught in China in 1989 and 1995.  Jewel Schroder has been living in China for nine years teaching graduate students ESL.

Image credit: Wu Xi Airport China by C Foulger via Flickr.

Wayne Martindale

Dr. Wayne Martindale, professor of English at Wheaton College, has taught in China with his wife, Nita, five times since 1989. He is co-editor of The Quotable Lewis and author of Beyond the Shadowlands: C. S. Lewis on Heaven and Hell. View Full Bio