Blog Entries

In Exile—Outside the Wall

From the series Outside the Wall—In Exile


Years ago (in the 1990s) I remember standing in the train station in Qinhuangdao, a coastal city on the line between Beijing and Harbin. I was there to purchase a ticket back to Changchun, where I was studying Chinese at a local university. My Chinese level was still quite low, but I always relished the opportunity to practice my character reading by studying signs. Train stations were particularly helpful because there were giant signs in the ticket hall listing out the names of all of the cities to which tickets could be purchased. It was a great test; how many cities could I recognize?

One thing I noticed was that the list of cities was divided into two groups, one group labeled guanwai (关外) and one group labeled guannei (关内). As is often the case when reading Chinese characters, I knew each of the characters independently, but when put together in this particular context I had no idea what they meant.

When I got back to Changchun I asked my tutor about it and she told me that it was a cultural reference to geographical regions beyond China, specifically those to the northeast, with the boundary marker being the Great Wall. All transportation from China proper to the northeast went through a gate in the Wall at Shanhaiguan, the place where it meets the sea. Regions to the south of the Wall, inside China proper, were broadly defined as guannei.

In the context of the cavernous railway hall, then, the cities on the line going north were on the guanwai list and the cities along the line going south and west were on the guannei list. Just as in ancient time, you could travel to places outside the Wall or inside the Wall.

I’ve been thinking about that distinction a lot lately as I have heard from and about numerous China expats who packed up their suitcases in January for two-week vacations to Southeast Asia or to their home countries, and found themselves outside of China when the borders were closed at the beginning of the pandemic in the spring.

Trapped.

Guanwai.

Outside the Wall.

In exile, so to speak.

Even though their work or study permits are still valid, permission to enter the country has been denied to almost all foreigners since March. Many have continued their work as best they can, using online platforms to study, teach, and run their businesses.

We thought it would be interesting to hear from these exiled expats to learn more about what it’s like to be in exile from their lives and work in China. To that end, we are starting a series of posts that will give us a chance to hear from a few of these “exiles” about how where they have landed, how they have continued their work from a distance, and what God has been teaching them during through this season.

Watch for the first installment next week.

Image credit: Prince Roy, via Flickr.
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


Are you enjoying a cup of good coffee or fragrant tea while reading the latest ChinaSource post? Consider donating the cost of that “cuppa” to support our content so we can continue to serve you with the latest on Christianity in China.

Donate