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China Expert? Far from it!

Whenever I'm in Beijing, riding around the city in a taxi, I usually end up having a conversation with a taxi driver that goes like this:

He: Where are you from?

Me: America.

He: Your Chinese is good.  How long have you been in China?

Me: More than 20 years. 

He: Ah! You're a zhongguo tong (a China hand)

Me: Nali, nail! (Far from it.) 

The Chinese dictionary app Pleco gives the following as definitions of zhongguo tong: China watcher; an expert on China; an old China hand. 

But is there really such a thing as a China expert? 

David Wolf recently raised (and answered) this question on his blog Silicon Hutong in a post titled "No China Experts." After declaring that he is not a China expert (never mind his working in China for nearly 20 years), he states emphatically "there is no such thing as a China expert." Futhermore, he says, 

Anyone who comes to you claiming to be a "China expert" is either deluded (and thus to be pitied), lying (and thus suspect), or out to separate you from your money (and thus to be avoided).

One of my favorite longer attempts at explaining the phenomenon of the "old China hand," or the "China expert," is in a chapter of the wonderful book published in 1992 called Getting Along with the Chinese for Fun and Profit, by Fred Schneiter. (It was later published under the title The Joy of Getting Along with the Chinese.) In the chapter titled "Old China Hands Won't Admit it" he writes that there are no China experts, and those that actually know something about China and the culture (what Wolf might call "specialists") know enough to deflect any attempts at being labeled as such: 

If Chinese comment on a foreigner's expertise, a foreigner who understands how the Chinese see things is conditioned to deflect the suggestion with vigor, not from modesty, but because to do otherwise would simply make the foreigner appear foolish. The Chinese know there are no China experts. Don't be misled by the fact that they may sometimes use the English or Chinese word for "expert" in referring to your particular knowledge specialty. There are few things you can do which make you appear more foolish than to have the word "expert" on your business card or to give anyone the idea that you think you are quite something. While Chinese develop a special regard for foreigners who work at trying to learn China's ways, they appreciate a foreigner being cultured enough to be modest about it. I often suspect that in sizing up a new foreign acquaintance, Chinese occasionally are inclined to toss out the "China expert" line simply to see if the foreign is savvy enough to know how to handle it. (p. 77)

Perhaps Wolf says it best, then:

China is too large, too old, and too complex to be sufficiently understood by a single individual. At the very most, we can be "specialists." We can never be experts. 

Amen to that!

By the way, even though Getting Along with the Chinese for Fun and Profit was written in the early 1990’s, it really is a must-read. I’ve been re-reading it this week, and am being reminded of how much my thinking and understanding of China and Chinese culture was shaped by this book.

And, besides being helpful, it is really quite funny. The writing style of Schneiter will have you chuckling the whole way through.


Image credit: China Welcomes the World, by Gideon, via Flickr
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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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