The Experts

An entry on The 88s entitled America’s China “Experts” has asked:

> Just who are America’s China “experts?” And the question we all really want answered: do any of them actually speak Chinese?

To my dismay, the second question (emphasis mine) was not answered, but it’s an interesting list nonetheless. Well, interesting to me personally in that after some consideration I found that I really didn’t care who most of those people were. But maybe I should? Maybe you could convince me to care? Maybe.

I’ll never be a sinologist.


John Pasden

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


  1. I’m not really sure, in the grand scheme of things, that speaking Chinese is a prerequisite to being an expert on China, although it may add some semblance of credibility to the lofty title. Then again, I’m not sure what a ‘China Expert’ actually is. Is it an expert on the Chinese economy, the legal system, the banking and financial system, grain production, retail industry, IT, Infrastructure and Telecomms, the military or the language itself? How can one person claim to be an expert on something so big and diverse as a nation like China? There are many China experts and many China analysts and none of them can agree on anything so what makes them an expert? >>Just the opinion of someone who speaks really bad ‘Chinese’ and has survived for long enough.

  2. Ah… there’s nothing like taking a whole category of academics and implying they don’t matter to get the day started! And I mean that from the bottom of my heart. I really liked the post you linked to on TTC, too.

    As for the second part, I don’t think being a “sinologist” is relies that much on Chinese speaking abilities. It would be helpful for those doing original research, though. A sinologist who couldn’t speak Chinese would be kind of like a expert on classical Rome who didn’t speak (or read) Latin- slightly handicapped, but not too badly.

  3. Da Xiangchang Says: May 6, 2006 at 2:07 am

    I disagree COMPLETELY with the fact that you can be an expert without knowing the language. Without knowing the language, all your info is filtered and secondhand–i.e., translations of the original document, speech, etc. Everyday conversation with the average folk, surely an invaluable source of info about any country, is impossible. (And I don’t believe you can truly be an expert on ROme without Latin either.) Think of it this way: if some Chinese guy says he’s an expert on America without knowing English, you’d think he’s insane. Why the double standard with China?

    And these “expert” titles are retarded. A more appropriate title might be: “Guys who know more crap about China than the average Westerner.” But surely, these guys’ reputations are inflated. Having lived in America for 20+ years, I can say without any false modesty that I’m FAR MORE knowledgeable about America than these guys are about China. But nobody would call me an “expert on America”!

  4. Sonagi Says: May 6, 2006 at 2:29 am

    A sinologist who was not proficient in Chinese would have to rely on translated documents and secondary sources written presumably by other sinologists, whereas a Chinese speaker would have direct access to oral and written primary sources. Knowledge of Chinese alone is obviously not enough. China is a huge country and a general sinologist who did not have an educational background and specialization in one area like economics, politics, or sociology would be a “多能无能 (jack of all trades and master of none). This is a popular 4-character Sino-Korean saying. Does it work in Chinese, too?

  5. I know a French guy who is an expert on Penguins but he doesn’t speak a single word of Penguinese. Dr. Doolittle being the excpetion, I can’t think of anyone whp can speak with the animals, and those that claim to are looked at strangely. There are people who are so called experts on many dead cultures and have no idea what language they spoke. They have texts that they can translate but still no one can speak the language.

    I’m not taking anything away from those (non-Chinese) that have studied Chinese and can speak with a degree of fluency, but there is a certain portion of that group who regard themselves as superior because of the fact and turn that into a level of snobbishness. Those people may be able to survive better on a day to day basis but China needs Chinese speakers like they need bicycles. Of the many thousands of GM’s of western companies that are pumping billions into China, I know very few that speak anyhing more than very bad Chinese, even some that have been here for 3, 4, 5 years or more, and the ones that have been here that long are paid because they are ‘China experts’ or even worse ‘ZGT’. Still, that’s a whole different argument and for another day.

  6. An expert is one who is paid for their expertness. A sinologist is one who is paid to study China or some aspect of China. The requirements for the Classical sinologist was a thorough knowledge of the history of China and competence in reading classical Chinese. One did not need to speak any of the modern Chinese languages, but one did not to have the ability to pick up any classical Chinese book and be able to read it, expound on it, and make commentary on the language style used.

    This all changed, beginning in the 1950’s (as with much of modern academia), and those requirements were discarded in the new social sciences.

    I myself like the word “sinologist”, but I am not one myself. I am an expert in building buildings, specifically factory buildings. I build these buildings in China. But that does not make me a China expert. I do not study factory buildings in China, nor can I give you a history of the evolution of factory buildings in China, or their social or political impact, etc. If some did, and wrote a book on such, I would buy it. That does not mean that I would not have my own observations on its accuracy, or whether I would question some of its tenets, but that is another subject in itself.

    I admire sinologists. I do not think that many of them are very accurate in their understanding of some aspects of Chinese history or of their conclusions on how to accommodate China in the modern geo-political context.

    Yes, I admire people who are able to get someone else to pay them to study something at all.

  7. To my dismay, the second question (emphasis mine) was not answered

    Well, I’m not sure how to find out the answer to that question short of asking each “expert” directly, so I am also dismayed that I wasn’t able to answer my own question. 😉

    I have to agree with DXC on this one (for once). Being an “expert” in a country (whatever that really means) probably requires that you speak the language. And please note I wasn’t saying that these people are or are not experts — just that they are considered experts on China in the US. Anyway, saying someone is an expert in a culture who doesn’t know the language is like saying someone is an expert in physics who doesn’t know any math. This ‘expert’ would have to be missing something major. Obviously some of those guys are experts in specific aspects of China, like the Chinese economy or foreign policy, so you can differentiate here between a ‘specialist’ and a ‘sinologist’. To me the whole concept of sinologist is comical. This is “China as exotic plant” land. “Let’s study the foreign species!”

    I met a Chinese girl once who called herself an “America expert.” (no joke) She had a Ph.D. in American studies. She then proceeded to tell me how I should treat black people better and stop Jews from controlling the US and so forth. I have a feeling that many “sinologists” sound just as ridiculous to Chinese.

    Finally, to John, I think the only reason anyone should care that these people are considered experts on China (rightly or wrongly) is that they shape Western (or at least American) perceptions of China — politically, culturally, and economically — at the highest levels. They have a direct impact on American policy, and some like Spence have had a wide-ranging impact on perceptions of Chinese history and culture in the west.

  8. Just imagine how bad it would be if we had non-German speaking physicists out there relying on translations and secondary sources rather than reading Einstein’s or Heisenberg’s original notes in German.

  9. As an addendum to my first posting, I would like to remark about the term “China Hand”. Having been raised on a cattle ranch in Nevada, I am acquainted with the term, “cow hand”. It means someone who has worked or is working on a cattle ranch. A “china hand” is someone who has or is living or working in China. The priviledge of being a “china hand”, as it is with being a “cow hand”, is that you are entitled to tell war stories. As a matter of fact, that is one of the hallmarks of being an “hand”. I have noticed that many of those who detest the term “china hand” tell war stories.

  10. Da Xiangchang Says: May 7, 2006 at 2:47 am

    Sinosceptic, Mark:

    You guys are just trying to confuse the issue with tangents. Obviously, penguins are NOT people, and nobody can speak penguinese; therefore, the best researchers of penguins have to make due with what they observe. However, if someone CAN speak penguinese, he would be better off than the non-penguinese-speaking researcher. But such a feat is impossible. And seriously, are you saying Chinese society is as simple as penguin society?

    And studying physics is quite different from studying cultures. Physics is a science, something that is REMOVED from culture and language. An apple falls the same in Peru as it does in Russia. Thus, language is used to describe the phenomenon of physics, yet is utterly APART from it. However, to be an “expert” in China, obviously you have to first KNOW THE LANGUAGE OF CHINA. So much of culture is tied to its language–literature, conversation, idioms, music, etc.–that it is of incredible arrogance to think you can be an “expert” in a country without putting in the necessary time and respect to first learn its language. (For example, I don’t think you can be an expert in America without knowing its dialects–ebonics, midwestern, southern, etc.–or being able to read Huck Finn.)

    To tell you the truth, I think the only reason some laowais think they can be experts without learning Chinese is because either 1) Chinese is beyond their linguistic abilities or 2) they’re not willing to put in the necessary time and effort to learning it. So they delude themselves into arrogantly thinking they can understand China without even being able to have one conversation with a single Chinese person.

  11. It takes a long time to truly become a Chinese expert. The problem for many people is they think familiarity equals knowledge. Someone studying the Chinese political system overseas is going to know a lot more about it than someone simply living in China. But living in China for a long time is certainly a prerequisite.

    Just think of all the extensive nonsense that a not insignificant number of Europeans think about the U.S, as opposed to the simplistic nonsense Americans think about Europe. The Europeans I’ve met that “get” America have lived there for an extended period of time.

    Americans I meet in the U.S. ask questions like, “what’s china like?” “do they eat dogs?” They have no idea. They’re ignorant, but they know it. Take that person and put them in Beijing for 3 months, and I’ll show you someone slightly less ignorant, but far more stupid, because now they think they aren’t ignorant.

  12. Chinese very offen call those foreigners who once lived here for more than 4 years and spoke the mandarin the chinese expert. it doesn’t mean you are really an expert! it just means you are familiar with the situation there in China and you will have less problems there.

    As we know the world/country is so diversified, so it’s impossible to be an expert in every field. As far as I am concerned, it’s quite difficult for even a Chinese to do business here in China, not to say a foreigner.

  13. Well, there may be some “Chinese experts” that don’t read Chinese, but I bet they are disdained by their colleagues.

    Spence for one is renowned for his Chinese ability, translating difficult and complex texts from original manuscripts that very few people–Chinese or Western–are even able to read. We’re not talking about just recognizing 4000 or 5000 characters here… “Baihua” is really easy compared to Sima Qian or Kangxi or Zhang Dai. Even though Spence came of intellectual age during a time when access to Mainland China was restricted, he would have spent enough long stints doing research at National Taiwan University to become functional in oral Mandarin, though I’m not sure spoken Chinese is really necessary for his work.

    As for whether you should care about, say, Spence… Well, as a graduate student in applied linguistics, I suppose you ought to care about the history and politics of China because they form part of the sociocultural context in which the Chinese language is spoken.

    On the other side, there are plenty of people who are not interested in history and politics. I would even commend this disinterest as good for your health. But I’m not sure it earns you bragging rights. 🙂

  14. Wow. I’m in strong agreement with Da Xiangchang two posts in a row. There is still a tremendous amount of disinformation about Empress Cixi and the late Qing dynasty simply because people are still reading Edmund Backhouse directly or indirectly.

  15. DXC, I’m not trying to confuse anybody. My point was just that top notch research can be and has been conducted from secondary sources and translated materials. I chose an example from physics at random, but it just as easily could have been from philosophy, literature or any of a dozen other pursuits.

    However, to be an “expert” in China, obviously you have to first KNOW THE LANGUAGE OF CHINA.

    Ah, but that’s the pinch. China doesn’t have, and never has had just one langauge. How many languages do you require your sinologists to know? If your answer is “just Mandarin”, then why?

  16. Edmund Backhouse was conversant in Chinese. He also a fraud, so perhaps his skill in Chinese was also a fraud, but he went native at a time when doing so would be extremely difficult without being conversant in Chinese.

    Both ‘Sinologue’ and ‘China hand’ are classifications. Therefor, if you study for a living, and your study is focused on China, then you are a sinologist. Therefor, if John becomes a professional linguist, that is, one who study languages as a profession; and his focus in on Chinese, then he is by definition a Sinologist (whether he can speak Chinese or not). A ‘China hand’ is someone who has lived and worked in China. We old China hands, if we have any inkling of larcenary in our hearts, will attempt to leverage our ‘China handness’ into something personally advantageous (in jobs, business, politics, or literary or such). No matter, the old dictum, caveat emptor applies.

  17. Things I cannot believe:

    1) I am agreeing with DXC.

    2) Mark and Sinosceptic. Come on, guys, you can’t seriously believe this. Studying penguins but not speaking Penguin/studying Einsteinian physics without speaking German are such obviously flawed arguments: penguins don’t have history, nations, language, literature, politics, or any notable skills beyond eating fish and looking snazzy; physics, belonging as it does to the sciences rather than the liberal arts, is by definition a universal science not dependent upon culture/language/etc.

    If you want to make the point that competence in a language doesn’t make one a sinologist, I’ll be right behind you, and even throw in the freebie corollary that speaking English does not make one a good English teacher. But the notion that it’s somehow elitist to expect someone studying history (or literature, or Qing-dynasty railroad development) to be familiar with the language in which the documents he’s studying are written, or the idea that, say, a classicist without any Latin or Greek under his belt wouldn’t be more or less hobbled — give me a break.

    Note also that I said the language in which things are ‘written.’ Obviously, someone with spoken proficiency in a Chinese language is going to be better off in they’re studying modern China, and just as obviously, someone speaking the most common Chinese language, viz., Mandarin, is going to be better able to conduct first-hand research than someone who can’t. Hakka, Hokkien, &c. are all proud and noble languages with a great tradition behind them etc. etc., but they will cut you absolutely zero ice in most places. There’s also the fact that it’s more similar (in terms of both grammar and vocabulary) to written Chinese than other Chinese languages tend to be.

    There’s an argument to be made, I guess, that someone studying ancient texts could just learn the characters without having to learn any form of spoken Chinese, but in practice, I think there’s enough of a punning, rhyme, and similarly sound-based aspect to many old Chinese texts – even in cases where the pronunciation has changed – that it would still be a very serious handicap.

  18. Sonagi Says: May 8, 2006 at 8:10 pm

    @sinsceptic: “I know a French guy who is an expert on Penguins but he doesn’t speak a single word of Penguinese. Dr. Doolittle being the excpetion, I can’t think of anyone whp can speak with the animals, and those that claim to are looked at strangely.”

    Actually, animal experts like the late Dian Fossey, do understand animal language, the sounds and gestures animals use to communicate with each other.

    @Mark: “Ah, but that’s the pinch. China doesn’t have, and never has had just one langauge. How many languages do you require your sinologists to know? If your answer is “just Mandarin”, then why”

    It depends on your area of specialization and research. I knew Western researchers who spoke both standard Mandarin and the dialect of the area where they were doing research. Government and military documents and economic reports are written in Mandarin, so a researcher wishing to work with primary sources could get along with a reading knowledge of Mandarin.

  19. I just read through all the comments and:
    1) You guys are all pretty smart. Good points both ways.
    2) All you really need to read to be a Sinologist is “Riding the Iron Rooster”. Well, that and actually do something with your life.

  20. Learning a country’s language is essential for fully understanding its people, but learning a language on its own is definitely not nearly enough.

  21. I’ll just say one more thing and then I’m done on this thread.

    1) Yes, Brendan, I really do believe what I’m saying. As I said above, physicists are far from the only people to do quality work in translation. I can give you conrete examples of historians, philosophers and others working in the humanities who have done so.

    2) Yes, I agree that somebody has to translate documents. Sombody has to excavate ruins, too. However, there’s nothing saying that the same person must do both, or that historians (or sinologists in this case) have to do either. Actually, the amount of work being done from translated sources has steadily been increasing over the last century and more and more quality translations are becoming available, especially English ones.

    3) Anybody using PRC government and military documents as primary sources is nuts. I can tell you the result now- China has a glorious history and culture which has continued unbroken for over 5000 years, including a dynasty that’s considered mythical to any western sinologists, and this great culture which extended to every territory to which the government currently lays claim has never been equaled in all of human civilization.

  22. Mark- you seem to be confusing “sinologists” with “China-watchers.” My understanding of the former is that it’s used more for classical/literary/linguistic research, a la Arthur Waley, Bernhard Karlgren, David Hawkes, etc. For stuff like this, a solid knowledge of the language is obviously a requirement.

    China-watchers, on the other hand, stick to modern China, and tend to focus on fields like political science, legal reforms, economics, and other areas where knowledge of the language is indeed not strictly necessary. I know several poli sci people who have much better grasps of Chinese politics than pretty much anyone else, despite Chinese somewhere around the second-year student level. But they’re not sinologists.

  23. Sonagi Says: May 9, 2006 at 8:09 pm


    “2) Yes, I agree that somebody has to translate documents. Sombody has to excavate ruins, too. However, there’s nothing saying that the same person must do both, or that historians (or sinologists in this case) have to do either.”

    Translating does not pay very well, so you’re not going to see armies of bilingual English-Chinese speakers fighting over each other to turn whole Chinese archives into English. Who would pay for that anyway? East Asian departments in US universities are not well-funded and get by on grants from folks like the Ford Foundation and Fulbright. It’s more likely that a researcher would choose to translate documents they found relevant in their research.

    “3) Anybody using PRC government and military documents as primary sources is nuts.”

    Consider, for example, the 2005 policy advocating the use of military force to “defend” Taiwan from secessionists. An official English version was published, but as any translator knows, it is impossible to maintain 100% the meaning and tone of a text. That’s why bilingual contracts usually specify that one language version is the original and will be used in any legal disputes. When this policy was first announced, analysts did indeed compare the original Chinese and the English translation, paying special attention to word choices in order to determine if this new policy was indeed new or just restating a policy that had been in place for awhile.

  24. In my view the comparison to physicists is definitely flawed. A “sinologist” illiterate in the language is more equivalent to a physicist not understanding mathematics. Yeah, that’s the true analogy as math is the real language for physics and people in that field can more easily rely on (getting by with) translation because although translation may be poor (in a sense, no translation is not poor!) the common language of math is always precise.

  25. What worries me is what kind of seems like knee-jerk anti-intellectualism.

    Because of the enormous amount of energy and time it takes to master Mandarin, people who become fluent in the language are justifiably proud. This is perhaps especially true for people who have lived in China and who are more or less self-taught, like me. There are dark sides to this pride, one of which is a tendency to feel a little like we are entering uncharted waters just because the ocean is big and the ships few.

    But a lot of the China experts really deserve respect for their amazing linguistic achievements. There is a prof at Berkeley who got a masters in classical Chinese at Bei Da in 1992. That’s pretty hard-core, don’t you think? Old school. And don’t forget the economist Rick Harbaugh who completed the Zhongwen Zipu dictionary ( “as a distraction from his master’s studies” (in Chinese) at National Taiwan university. If anyone ever asks whether or not Rick Harbaugh speaks Chinese, I’m going to laugh out loud.

    Though I wouldn’t be surprised if there are plenty of grad students and perhaps even profs in the United States and Europe who may to some extent have to hide certain deficiencies in their abilities with this amazingly difficult language, I would say that people like Harbaugh and the aforementioned Berkeley prof are the rule for the stars in the field.

    (As a footnote, I’m standing by my statement that Chinese is amazingly difficult. I’ve studied German, Arabic, ancient Icelandic…. Chinese tops them all in the sheer energy that you need to invest–except for maybe Arabic–especially if you are going for comprehensive fluency in Chinese and you want to read pre-contemporary literature.)

  26. Language is the base of a culture. Without understanding the language how can one understand the culture? It’s like claiming to be an expert in chess, without knowing the rules of the game.

  27. trevelyan Says: May 18, 2006 at 3:48 pm

    China-watchers, on the other hand, stick to modern China, and tend to focus on fields like political science, legal reforms, economics, and other areas where knowledge of the language is indeed not strictly necessary.

    I know that comments on this thread are almost closed, but I disagree with Brendan here. I’ve read a large amount of writing on China in political science and economics, and it is not difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff (read: the stuff written by people who know Chinese from that written by people who don’t).

    It would be a useful exercise to start a list of China-Watchers who do not speak the language. I would imagine that the list would either be relatively short, or would have to include corporate analysts who are in a position to pay people to translate and do research for them. Otherwise, the only other way to stay current and not know Chinese is to focus on an area where a lot of materials are being translated into English by virtue of widespread corporate interest: like the high tech economy.

    But pick any of these articles and you’re more than likely to get completely blind-sided by the prejudices of the press. As examples I’ll proffer up the almost universally awful state of english language writing on WAPI, TD-SCDMA, 3G and linux in China, or about such things about the oil and gas industry. And volume is not quality either. Once you start tracking the quotations in many of these pieces it’s hard not to notice that English language materials basically all references the China Daily and a few other sources.

    The inability of most non-Chinese speakers to differentiate between people who know their stuff and people who don’t does not make people who do not understand Chinese good Sinologists any more than my ability to lecture about penguins makes me a biologist.

    Cheers to all,

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