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Bu Tai Qingchu

I am currently reading a wonderful book called A Village With My Name: A Family History of China’s Opening to the World, by Scott Tong. During his time in China as a correspondent for Marketplace, Scott had the opportunity to explore his family heritage. As he searched for villages and relatives, Scott came face to face with how the momentous changes of the 20th century affected individuals in his family. I highly recommend the book.

In the opening chapter, he relates his initial attempt at finding what might be left of the village of his ancestors, Fu Ma Ying. At a bus stop near the Grand Canal, he approaches a local “middle-aged man with a crewcut” (those of you who’ve spent time in China no doubt know this guy!) to ask if he’s heard of an old village with that name.

After a diversion into the obligatory questions that must be put to every American (Where are you from? Are you married? How many children?) and comments about Shanghai being a city crowded with snobs, Scott presses in again to the question at hand.

“So, Fu Ma Ying? Can you help me find it?”

The man with the crewcut pauses and says, “Bu tai qingchu.”

At that point I chuckled because I too have had conversations brought to a dead stop by the dreaded “bu tai qingchu.”

Ruminating on the phrase, Scott writes:

I move on. I’ve lived in greater China off and on for more than a dozen years. I have taken years of Mandarin lessons. I can recite a Tang dynasty poem. Occasionally I drink bubble tea. But my understanding of China ends at bu tai qingchu.

In a literal sense, the phrase does mean “not very clear.” But it has a linguistic flexibility. Each time I grasp a new context for bu tai qingchu, it turns up in a new way. It means at least these things: I can’t help you. I will not help you. I don’t want to tell you. I’ll get in trouble. You don’t deserve to know. I’m moving on now. A great paradox of China is, people make declaratory statements with absolute certainty, yet at crucial moments reach into their pockets and pull out bu tai qingchu.

This roundabout exchange has eaten up twenty minutes I’ll never get back, but this is how things work. Chinese civilization goes back five thousand years, the saying goes. My people have time. (p. 5)

It seems like a lot of things about China are bu tai qingchu these days.

When will COVID-Zero policies end and the borders re-open? Bu tai qingchu.

Will the environment for religious life improve or deteriorate in the coming years? Bu tai qingchu.

But lest we be tempted to despair about the uncertainties of China or our personal involvement there, here’s something that is not bu tai qingchu:

God’s faithfulness to his church.

For a ChinaSource review of Scott Tong’s book check out: A Village with My Name by Beth Forshee.

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Image credit: Pham Trung Kien from Pixabay.
Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University …View Full Bio

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