To Understand China

But how is China to be understood? Who will be her interpreters? … The language alone constitutes an almost hopeless barrier. Can China be understood merely through pidgin English? Is the Old China Hand* to pick up an understanding of the soul of China from his cook and amah (maid)? Or … by reading the correspondence of the North-China Daily News? The proposition is manifestly unfair.

Indeed, the business of trying to understand a foreign nation with a foreign culture, especially one so different from one’s own as China’s, is usually not for the mortal man. For this work there is a need for broad, brotherly feeling, for the feeling of the common bond of humanity and the cheer of good fellowship. One must feel with the pulse of the heart as well as see with the eyes of the mind …

Who then will be her interpreters? The problem is almost an insoluble one. Certainly not the sinologues and librarians abroad who see China only through reflection of the Confucian classics. The true Europeans in China do not speak Chinese, and the true Chinese do not speak English. The Europeans who speak Chinese too well develop certain mental habits akin to the Chinese and are regarded by their compatriots as “queer.” The Chinese who speak English too well and develop Western mental habits are “denationalized,” or they may not even speak Chinese, or speak it with an English accent. So by process of elimination, it would seem that we have to put up with the Old China Hand, and that we have largely to depend upon his understanding of pidgin.

林语堂 (Lín Yǔtáng),
from the prologue to My Country and My People (1935).

footnote – “Old China Hand” is a gracious term bestowed upon foreigners by locals, as if to say “one who knows China.” But it’s mostly used as a nicety. The author here moves on to mercilessly characterize/assassinate the typical “Old China Hand” as an embarrassingly ignorant, culturally-cocooned but self-styled “Old Resident Twenty-five Years in China,” who has the gall to assume expertise in the foreign press regarding China and her people.

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