On writing about China

TalkTalkChina recently had a post about sinologists. I found bigdog’s comment especially amusing:

> A prof I had at B-school once described it like this (or something like this):

> In China for a week, you can write an essay on it.

> In China for a month, you can write a paragraph on it.

> In China for a year, you can write a sentence on it.

> In China for longer, nothing you can say.

This totally makes sense, and I’d like to agree… but then, what am I doing???


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. In China for longer? You can write an insightful blog on it but never get to the bottom of it?

  2. [clever silence]

  3. Oh, I should post that for the people who’ve been nagging me to update bokane.org .

  4. I have listened that sentence many times, but I still don’t know who was the first who wrote it. Many books about China in my country were written by people who only was in China one week, and they are a holy crap.

    Somebody can help me? I live in Beijing, want to make a blog, but seems that I cannot use Blogger (from Google). What other options are? (considering I have absolutely no idea about making webs)

  5. Yeah, I’ve read similar comments several times before. Some people who write articles on China use it as an introduction, seemingly unaware of the irony. But what does it actually mean? At first I thought it meant that after a week in China people think they understand the country, but if they stay longer they realise how little they actually understand it. Now, however, I have a slightly different explanation. I think people who have just arrived in China are apt to notice things that they consider odd and proceed to make sweeping generalisations about Chinese culture: giving a talk to a room of Chinese students is enough for them to write a paper on the differences between Chinese and Western education. However, the longer they stay, the better they understand China…and the less able they are to write about it, because they realise that the generalisations they originally made are not really valid. Whereas after a week they could write “Chinese people are X”, after a year they would have to write “Some Chinese are X, while some are Y, others are Z, and still others are none of the above”. Which is more accurate, but completely useless for any purpose.

  6. I basically agree with the quote – but to my mind, it’s not different than if a foreigner moved to Mozambique or Italy. Most travel writing relies on pointing out the differences between the familiar territory and the new country. At first the differences are obvious, but it doesn’t take long before these differences become second nature.

    I don’t think most people come to China stereotyping “all Chinese are this way,” and if they do, they probably keep at it their whole lives.

  7. Da Xiangchang Says: November 21, 2005 at 6:18 am

    Those are ostensibly clever sentences but silly and counterintuitive. Obviously, the longer you stay somewhere, you’ll be able to write more about it. If they’re saying, “The more you know, the less you can generalize about it,” that’s fine; why not just say that instead of resorting to pseudo-clever pretentious sentences to impress people but actually are just plain wrong? “In China for longer [than a year], nothing you can say”? Well, I’ve been in China much longer than a year, and I can say a lot of things about it that are absolutely true. Here are 3:

    1) China has more people than Des Moines, Iowa.
    2) China is bigger than my underwear.
    3) China is smaller than the planet Uranus.

    How about that? I’ve just proven this comment wrong. I personally hate witticisms that are superficially insightful but once you think about them, they’re totally stupid.

  8. What is that expression?… “the more that you know, the more that you know you don’t know”…

  9. Stavros Mavropoulos Says: November 21, 2005 at 12:20 pm

    Be sure to whisper this into the ear of a foreign correspondent who has made China their beat. They don’t seem to have any shortage of things to say about China.

  10. i used to believe that to be true for years 4 to 15 in China. now i’m just generally pissed off and can’t stop telling people about china, the good, the bad and the 醜

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