The Fading Mythology of the Old China Hand

The term China Hand originally referred to 19th-century merchants in the treaty ports of China, but evolved to reflect anyone with expert knowledge of the language, culture, and people of China. (Wikipedia)

Several of the posts on china/divide thus far have used the term “China Hand,” including mine, so I thought it would be useful to briefly discuss this. The above quote gives you the origins of the term, and it has filtered down to the present to generally refer to a foreigner who is a China expert.

Old School China Hand: Edgar Snow with Zhou Enlai and Deng Yingchao

Often the word “old” is used in conjunction with “China Hand” to denote someone who has many years on the China beat. The time factor seems to be significant when determining whether someone is worthy of the moniker. Usually those many years of expertise are developed “in country,” and your average China Hand has therefore been, or continues to be, a resident of China.

In addition to living over here, other significant factors include language skills, cultural familiarity, and some educational background related to Chinese history, literature, and politics.

OK, this is the part where I change the pace of this by saying that the whole China Hand thing is complete bullshit.

The modern concept of the China Hand is complete bullshit.

I’m glad I got that over with. Now why did I say it?

Look, back in the 19th Century or in the 1930s or 40s, the China Hand was a more specific label. Take a look at the old dudes in the top photo. These 20th Century American legends were U.S. State Department folks and academics. Even adding a few journalists to that group, you were still limited by a small number of people who professed an in-depth knowledge of China. Their expertise was mainly used to: 1) facilitate communication with contacts within China for research purposes (academic, government, news); and 2) be taken seriously by the American government. (Mostly because of the Cold War, the latter didn’t work out all that well, as it turns out.)

The more recent use of  “China Hand” is a much broader concept roughly equivalent to “China expert,” but not necessarily limited to someone who has spent their entire professional career devoted to the study of China. So what exactly does “China expert” mean? Consider someone holding themselves out as an “American” expert. What would you hire that person to do? What skills would that person have?

Colonel David Barrett & Mao Zedong

I’m suggesting that “expert” is much too general, indeed useless, if we want to apply it outside of academia or government, and in fact as China has opened to the West and its economy has developed, general expertise has steadily declined in value as a standalone skill. Just ask your average expat fluent in Chinese (but with no other marketable skills) what sort of jobs are open to them these days. English teacher anyone? Fifteen years ago, that same guy would be working at a Joint Venture, maybe even in a management position.

Think about your average China consultants. When I came to China, they held themselves out to be “business consultants.” A China Hand consultant back then had one major job: hold the hand of the foreign investor, who had never been here and was scared shitless. The investor needed to be told how to exchange his business card, how to drink baijiu, and how to negotiate. These cultural and negotiation issues were central to the consultants’ added value, although the best practitioners had other relevant skills as well. These days consultants specialize in logistics, new media, marketing, HR, etc. They are likely to be experts in a particular industry in addition to being familiar with the language and culture.

My profession has seen a similar progression. The old time China Hand lawyer didn’t even work in China but in Hong Kong. After finally being allowed to work in this country, a lot of these guys were first and foremost Chinese language scholars; their abilities as lawyers were secondary. As time went on, both sets of skills became necessary to compete in the market. From that point onward, no one held themselves out as a “China lawyer,” but an expert in China-based foreign investment and cross-border transactions.

These days, being a generalist isn’t enough. Lawyers in China still do a great deal of FDI work, but they are now M&A, real estate, patent, or tax specialists. My practice focuses on technology and intellectual property. The market demands specialists, not general China Hands.

Faux China Hand: Da Shan Hams It Up As Edgar Snow

The value of cultural and language skills, without other useful business experience, has steadily declined over time. These days that Old China Hand is more likely to be getting blitzed at an aged expat bar, reminiscing about the good old days, than involved in the latest cross-border deal.

At the same time, some people with highly specialized, niche skills, in demand in today’s high-powered and diversified China economy, can even get by without living here, with poor language skills, and without much of a clue about anything — except their field of expertise.

The Old China Hand, once the bedrock of the expat community and the Western version of modern Chinese history, is fast becoming a faded memory of a group of people made obsolete by economic modernization. Have we reached the point when the term itself has ceased to be useful, or is it worth it for the nostalgia value alone?


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  1. Hank

    Good post.

    Generally, the “old China hands” were/are supporters of the Chinese Communist Party.

    Robert S. Elegant, Chinese speaking reporter for the South China Morning Post, in the 1960s, and critic of the CCP, was never given the monicker of “old China hand” but he was prescient in his analysis of China during the “cultural revolution.”

    Today, “OLD CHINA HANDS is a group exclusively limited to those professionals who have been working and living in China for at least 5 years and a platform to discuss China related issues on LinkedIn.”

    I like that word, “exclusively.”

    Your post sums up exactly that the term “old China hand” is obsolete.

  2. Shannonr

    When you get the “old” part of Old China Hand wrong, it’s hard to take anything else you say particularly seriously. And the “China Hand” part *never* meant “generalist”, either!

    If what you wanted to say was “language skills alone don’t buy anything anymore” then you could have said that, without all the additional havering you indulge in here.

    But even that’s wrong. Language skills alone *never* bought anything. I know genuine “Old China Hands” without any language skills, and I know long-term expats with language skills and little else who work as….conversational English teachers, or horribly underpaid translators, as they always have since they arrived here in the 60s, or 70s, or 80s, or in any decade since.

    Old China Hand simply means “someone who has ‘done well’ in China” and it is the definition of “done well” that has changed, not the definition of Old China Hand, or the specific marketable skills one has always required to become one.

    • I’m not sure how “old” could be wrong. I don’t think I’ve ever met a China expert who was fresh out of school or just got off the boat.

      As to the rest, your comments simply do not square with my experience over the past 12 years. I’m not saying I have a lock on the truth — my post generalizes and stereotypes, so there will be exceptions for everything I’ve said.

      As far as “China Hand” equating to generalist, start with the definition I found. Wikipedia is certainly not canon, but it is some indication. The category absolutely included lots of people whose sole course of study was China. The contrast between someone like that and a China-based specialist today is rather stark.

      The progression towards specialization, which I think was the main thrust of my post, seems undeniable. I’ve seen it in my industry and in many others (my clients).

      Perhaps our experiences in China have been very different.

    • Absolutely correct, it is the idea that people can go to China, learn the language, and with no other skills land a good job that has never been true. The most that these people ever manage is relatively poorly-paid proofreading and translation jobs.

  3. Terry

    I am sort of fond of the term, maybe because I am in the older category and I know many professionals with both the Chinese studies backgrounds in the 60’s, 70’s and maybe the 80’s with specialist skills and broad business backgrounds in greater China. People like Tom Gorman, Andy Andreasen, John Holden and many others are true Old China Hands in my book and they are certainly not English Teachers or translators!!

    A deep understanding of the society that goes beyond just language skills in which one operates is invaluable in business and is often overlooked with the trends in education over the past 30 years towards pre-professionalism and to using University to acquire a nebulous skill. Successful high level bankers and CEO’s of my father’s generation rarely had MBA’s or business education in University.

    I personally worked in Insurance. Financial Services, and Technology marketing mostly in Hong Kong and primarily focused on SE Asia (80’s) before becoming a proudly generalist executive search consultant in Beijing since the mid 90’s. For the most part, my Chinese language skills were not primary factors in those careers but were an added asset when combined with a broader understanding of culture and society.

    I also worry about the worship of greater and deeply narrow levels of specialization as Buckminster Fuller once so succinctly put it “specialization equals obsolescence”. Without context, knowledge can be really quite useless.

    Finally there is an appreciation of China expertise and experience in the Chinese term Lao Zhong Guo Tong which is generally translated as Old China Hand that might be hard to throw out.

    Now I can understand the distastefulness of the term when it is used to self aggrandize, but I am with Shannonr on this one.

    • Trends are what they are, even if we don’t like them. As an old liberal arts/multi-disciplinary type myself, I actually agree with your general point. The people I work with that I most respect are not mere specialists but have broad experience and knowledge. I dislike dealing with narrow-minded technocrats — this is a very common criticism of modern society, though, and certainly nothing new.

  4. Despite what the term meant, if we are open to *re*definitions here, then I am all about making the term more specific to government. That is to say, a China Hand is a government official whose primarily responsibility is policy related to China.

    Perhaps this definition is biased by my contact with these sorts of people in the past whom I had considered — in my own world of lexicon — to be the “China Hands”.

    So, thoughts on this usage?

    • Probably difficult in this day of “revolving door” government. You’d end up with a lot of “ex China Hands” (i.e. out of government) still running around China engaged in private sector activities. Confusing!

      I actually think that when the term was limited to government, academia, and perhaps journalism, it worked pretty well. Once it was expanded by private sector folks post-1978, that’s when you have problems.

      There I go again, blaming the private sector for everything . . .

  5. How about we just start using it the right way?

    A real China hand is someone who:
    -knows something about how to do business in China,
    -has something of an informed higher-level view of what is going on around him
    -Is somewhat more proficient in communications with Chinese people because of cultural and language knowledge.

    In other words, a China Hand is a non-idiot, not-too-specialized expat who has chosen to make a career in China (in something other than English teaching) and has bothered to observe / from the Chinese environment around him (her).

    Now, my thoughts on this are:
    a. The True China Hand has always been rare, and was never the “bedrock” of the expat community.
    b. Most companies who come here make horrible strategic mistakes because they don’t have “China Hands” or even international managers
    c. China Hands (as per my definition above) are very necessary for MMCs, and for China.

    • friendo

      China doesn’t “need” “foreigners” (i.e white people). They can use them, but they don’t need them.

      On the other hand, without China, the West would collapse entirely.

  6. Stella

    But the colloquial definition of “old China Hand” is an older (more than fifty) white male who has lived in China for many years, adopted Chinese culture, has a Chinese wife and/or girlfriends, has a dislike of western people and walks around flapping his sandals like a bloated Marlon Brando speaking loudly in Chinese or English at times.

    I don’t have good connotations about this word, simply from its usage.

  7. King Tubby

    Geat op ed and a suitable obituary. RIP and hopefully they left their grandchildren with an abundance of war stories before finally sliding off the bar stool.

  8. Kathy

    Great piece! I lived in China until 2005 and saw this starting to happen even then.

  9. yangrouchuan

    Edgar Snow and lesser known China hands fell in love with the country even when it crapped on them. Snow was imprisoned and sent down under suspicion of being a spy even as he worked to persuade the US to appease Beijing. Thus, there was little if any real expertise and more rose colored glasses and a heavily biased opinion. You’d get as much useful information about business in China from an educated Korean, Japanese or Vietnamese.

    And that was when China was still very backwards and very, very closed. In the past 30 years, there have been few if any real “China hands”, more like “hand-jobs”. People who go to China out of curiosity and end up playing the white card to bed as many girls as possible and get as many favors due to the many claims of knowing “the right” foreigners. Then turning around and milking the foreigners for money, IP, positions in the company because of all of the “high officials” that the old hand-jobs claim to know. How many of the readers of this blog heard some decaying middle aged to outright elderly guy (with his 20 year old local gf on his arm) proclaim “I’VE SHAKEN HANDS WITH THE MAYOR/PARTY SECRETARY/GENERAL of ______”?

    When in reality those guys just love having foreigners line up to kiss their asses and practice english? And taking pictures with foreigners enhances their standing among peers and superiors.

    Just remember kids, behind, off to the side, under or in front of (on all fours) every old, decaying “china hand” is a sleeping dictionary who answers all of his questions, does all of his work and gets alot of english practice.

  10. LongTian

    I don’t see why we need to exclude English teachers specifically. I see a lot of stereotyping here regarding that position, as if every English teacher in China is either a 20 year old tourist, or a 50 year old pedophile. Like it or not, teaching English is the best way to learn the language and culture, while climbing the ladder of in-country experience. I know at least a few English teachers (usually with advanced degrees from reputable universities) who move up into business positions or start their own companies after 5 years or so. Personally, I have an electrical engineering degree, an electronics engineering technology degree, and an MBA in international business. I’ve been teaching English in China for almost 4 years now, and am finally gaining enough experience and language ability to pursue other options. All of that aside, tell me what other job in China someone can get easily that pays 15,000 yuan a month? I have a friend earning 25,000 a month as an expat teacher. When I go to companies to teach, I usually discover that I make more than everyone up to director/VP level, excluding any expat engineers who still earn foreign wages (and those wages are falling now that the Chinese staff are getting better and replacing them). Even foreigners who move on higher-paying careers still tend to teach a bit on the side, just because it pays so well. 300/hr tax free is nothing to laugh at, even in America. It all comes down to supply and demand.

    • Hi,

      I must admit that I’m guilty of the same prejudice. In truth, not only is there nothing wrong with being an English Teacher in China, but I think its fair to say that English Teachers form some of the back-bone of the success of MMCs in China by helping the local staff gain proficiency in English skills.

      However, on the other hand, we all meet idiots who take the English Teacher job because they are escaping from something in their lives, instead of facing their problems in their own country(s). And we all have met some of these idiots who pass themselves off as China-domain management experts, even though they have never been managers and have no specific domain experience.

      Speaking for myself, another aspect of English Teaching in China which I do not like is that itss often little more than entertainment. The English Teacher is the foreign white-face clown. This bothers me a lot more than, say, teachers coming to China and dating 5 students a week. And the problem is not with the English Teachers themselves… they are just performing to expectations.

      • King Tubby

        Depends who you are teaching. Teaching private adults is usually pretty satisfying for both parties. They have life experiences and are goal driven. If you have a good relationship, they are very open and frank: you can learn a lot about things in China which interests you. I was fortunate in that regard with a property developer (who, believe it or not, wanted to be a poet…but elder son responsibilties) a number of law officers and similar.

        Colleges and unis. Cut and paste, plagiarisation…..try teaching referencing and bibliographies. If it wasnt for the fact that the staff room was like something out of Monty Python, I would have lost all perspective.

  11. lolz

    For some reason when I reading this article I was thinking of the term “Old Pimp Hand” rather than “Old China Hand”..