China-Hands, China-Watchers, Friends of China and 知华派: What does it mean to understand China?

Buried in the recent controversy over Yanjing Academy at Peking University is a debate about what it means for foreigners to study, research and hopefully understand at least a little bit about China. As tensions between the Peking University administration and the student body about the plans for Yanjing Academy crested in mid-July, Jiang Guohua, 姜国华, head of the General Office of Yanjing College, and Jiang Langlang, 蒋朗朗, spokesperson for Peking University revealed more about the goals of the proposed college as well as some interesting rhetorical choices and terminology about foreigners who study China.

Jiang Guohua, when describing the purpose of the new academy let slip a line unlikely to make it into the institution’s English-language recruitment materials. After stating that Yanjing Academy is in the service of China’s soft-power goals, he went into the specifics of what types of foreigners it hopes to attract and develop: ones who understand China, love China, make a contribution to the world, who know China and are a friend of China: ( “燕京学堂”是培养了解中国的人才,这是我们服务国家战略很重要的一部分,我们希望培养了解中国,热爱中国,奉献世界、知华友华的人.)。

Jiang Langlang supplements this position by saying that Yanjing Academy has two important goals: first, to educate students in Chinese history and culture so they become someone knowledge about and interested in China (比较系统地了解中国历史文化和现实,对中国文化和情况产生浓厚兴趣,将来成为一个对中国有兴趣的知华派). Second, and very much related to the first, he believes Yanjing College will help students think about questions from a Chinese perspective and to recognize the special aspects of each country’s development. (试着从中国文化和中国的角度去观察问题,思考问题,自觉地防止西方中心主义的思维,全面认识人类文明的多样性和各国发展道路的独特性).

It is interesting to note what type of terminology Jiang Guohua and Jiang Langlang use and leave out when discussing the goals of Yanjing Academy. They eschew the familiar Zhongguo tong (中国通), usually translated as China-hand or China-expert and instead go with Zhihua pai (知华派). Jiang Guohua also uses the term friend of China (友华的人). In order to think more about what it means to be a 知华派, it is worthwhile to briefly overview the terminology, in Chinese and English, of the various ways to describe foreigners studying, researching and thinking about China.

Let’s begin with English-language terms that were once common but now are comparatively rare: Orientalist and Sinologist. Except for the names of certain Academic groups (The American Oriental Society) the first term is not used that much.  For fairly obvious reasons of political correctness it is rare for someone to self-identify as an Orientalist. Likewise, not that many people use the term Sinologist to describe themselves. For one thing, the creation, expansion and institutionalization of modern Chinese studies, at least in the United States, meant moving away Sinology, a field that was perceived as antiquarian, irrelevant and, damningly, European. Like so much else of the history of Chinese studies in the United States, the attack on Sinology, as a term and as a field, tied very closely to the attitudes and beliefs of John King Fairbank. He thought Sinology—as he conceived of it, the pouring over of ancient texts to make narrow philological arguments— as a refuge for “nitpickers”[1]; its adherents too often becoming “the servants of the language, if not its bond slaves.”[2] Sinology was on the way out; identifying as a historian or social scientist was on the way in.

China-hand, a term about as far away from Sinologist as possible, solidified in the period before, during and after World War II, and implied more knowledge about the present conditions in China rather than its ancient history, which remained the domain of Sinologists. It ultimately became closely associated State Department officials of the mid-20th century, who were often born in China, the offspring of merchants or missionaries, and though well-versed in Chinese language, culture and history, they used this knowledge to report on and evaluate the strength, weakness and future prospects of the KMT and CCP. They were chiefly concerned with present-day domestic Chinese politics and social conditions rather than, say, Buddhism in the 9th century. Being a China-hand, though, was dangerous, especially in the 1950s, when foreign service officers John Stuart Service and John Payton Davies were purged from the State Department for correctly predicting the triumph of the Communist Party and being viewed as too sympathetic to the Red Cause. Now, it seems the term-China hand appears most frequently in books by and about this group of people.[3]

During the latter part of the 20th century, the term China-watcher slowly came to prominence in American discourse. The verb “watch” is key. From 1949 to the late 1970s, Americans could not go to China, the best they could do was to “watch” it through various means at their disposal: reading The People’s Daily, trying to say in touch with old contacts, gathering whatever they could from outposts in Taiwan and Hong Kong. The job of a China-watcher was (and is) to read the tea leves of Zhongnanhai and try to figure out what is going on; they are likely be wrong more often than right.  The term was a creature of the Cold-War. A google ngram shows the phrase taking off after 1960, peaking in 1974 and falling steadily since then. This Cold War legacy and the idea that China-watching involves looking into things one shouldn’t is very clear in UCLA political scientist Richard Baum’s delightfully titled memoir: China Watcher, Confessions of a Peking Tom. 

By comparison the phrase, Zhongguo tong, roughly translated as China expert, gets thrown around a fair bit, especially to individual foreigners who impress locals with their knowledge of the language. After a brief conversation, even a fairly modest command of Chinese language might win the compliment that you are a Zhongguo tong. However, at an official level, a much more charged terms dominates current discourse: a friend of China.

Compared to the phrase Zhongguo tong, being a “friend of China” is a much more overtly political phrase. A “friend of China” is an identity that can be conferred by China, self-proclaimed or both. On his recent trip to Venezuela, Xi Jinping hailed the country’s former leader Hugo Chavez as a “great friend to the Chinese people.” A Chinese diplomat visiting India called Narenda Mondi, the recently elected Prime Minister, “an old friend of China.” Henry Kissinger, perhaps one of the oldest friends of China, professes to the appellation and Chinese officials confirm he is just that. One can be a Zhongguo tong but not a “friend of China,” as official discourse defines it (think Perry Link and Andrew Nathan) and a “friend of China” but not a Zhongguo tong.

How does one become a “friend of China,” at least form the Chinese point of view? The minimum requirement is not doing or saying anything that might “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.” This club is also a diverse one: including Angelina Jolie, any national leader who meets with the Dali Lama and, as a wonderful Danwei map illustrates, entire countries.
Here we get much closer to the political nature behind the “friend of China” discourse. Hurting someone’s feelings is not what a friend does. Uttering the wrong opinion at the wrong time means you hurt the feelings of the Chinese people and are not a friend of China.

The question, then, is where the term 知华派 stands in relation to being a “friend of China,” or a Zhongguo tong. Compared with the latter two terms, Zhihua pai is a newer one. In Chinese it appears the nomenclature originally referred to Japanese government officials who had spent time in China. The term grew beyond its original scope. A Chinese article from several years ago indentifies three generations of 知华派 in the United States: the first-generation of John Fairbank, A. Doak Barnett and Ezra Vogel, the second generation of Michael Oksenberg, Ken Liberthal and David Lampton, the third-generation of Elizabeth Economy and Susan Shirk.

A few things stand out about these groupings. They are all academics though a number of them maintain or maintained government of think-tank positions. Next, and significantly, at one time or another, a lot of them have said or written things that while not overtly critical to the point of being accused of “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people,” they also might not be referred to as a great “friend of China.” Being a Zhihua pai, then, is perhaps a middle ground between these charged discourses. However, the use the character 知 in 知华派 implies a kind of certainty that is always and necessarily lacking when it comes to researching and writing about Chinese politics and society. Perhaps the most important attribute of someone who is named or self-indentifies as a Zhihua pai is always remembering how much about China they do not know.

Its also hopefully an attribute the “next generation of global leaders” who study at Peking University’s Yanjing Academy and as Schwartzman Scholars at Qinghua Univeristy will be able to cultivate.

[1] John Fairbank, China Watch (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1987), 41.

[2] Paul Evans, John Fairbank and the American Understanding of Modern China, (New York: Basil Blackwell, 1988), 62.

[3]See, for example John Payton Davies China Hand: An Autobiography (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012); Lilley, James R. Lilley and Jeffrey Lilley, China Hands: Nine Decades Of Adventure, Espionage, And Diplomacy In Asia. (New York: Public Affairs, 2004). A google ngram shows that the term peaked in the 1930s and 1940s but fell off quite quickly after that.




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