So you want to make a difference in China?

Good luck. ;)

Here are four quotes from three different centuries. The first three come from Jonathan Spence‘s To Change China: Western Advisers in China 1620-1960 (1969).

Jonathan Spence on education in 19th century China:

It was particularly hard for a foreigner to enter the educational sector. To the Chinese, education was the key to social harmony and political stability: from the Confucian Classics, hallowed by a tradition reaching back over two thousand years, the young learned obedience, morality, and the norms of acceptable behaviour. On the basis of their study of the Classics, they participated in ascending levels of examinations for the civil service. Success in these examinations opened up prospects for a career in government, the major source of wealth and power. To introduce new subjects — such as Western philosophy, languages, or natural science — was to threaten the basis of the Chinese state. Innovation, accordingly, was vigorously resisted. [Spence, 129]

John Fryer, missionary/educator/translator employed by the Qing dynasty, on learning Chinese:

It was all a question of time and tenacity: “Most foreigners who come to China have the notion that in a year they will master the language. They get a teacher, and pound away vigorously for a week or perhaps a month and then give up in disgust.” Accordingly, they made ludicrous mistakes which negated all their endeavors. He told his cousin of hearing a missionary in Shanghai trying to tell his Chinese audience that “Jesus is here also”; the missionary, muddling his tones and aspirates, succeeded only in assuring the puzzled listeners that “Jesus is inside shaving his head.” “If I could have my way, not a single missionary should say one word in public till he had lived with the people and studied the local dialect of his mission station at least five years, and passed an examination. Just imagine the ridicule which such people bring to Christianity.” [Spence, 145]

Mikhail Borodin, “Stalin’s man in China,” on his failure:

I came to China to fight for an idea. The dream of accomplishing world revolution by freeing the people of the East brought me here. But China itself, with its age-old history, its countless millions, its vast social problems, its infinite capacities, astounded and overwhelmed me, and my thoughts of world revolution and the fight for freedom, in China became an end in itself, and no longer a means to an end. My task was to grasp the situation, to start the great wheel moving, and as time has passed it has carried me along with it. I myself have become only a cog in the great machine. [Spence, 202]

BBC commentator Martin Jacques on understanding China (quoted by Dr. Brent Fulton of

Last year Martin Jacques, a BBC commentator, put it well when he said, “The great task facing the West over the next century will be to make sense of China – not in our terms but in theirs. We have to understand China as it is and as it has been, not project our own history, culture, institutions and values onto it. It will always fail that test. In truth such a mentality tells us more about our own arrogance and lack of curiosity than anything about China.”

(And of course we have lots more quotes and reviews of China Books and DVDs.)

Leave a Reply