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15 Jul

“A different kind of classification, applied mostly to foreigners studying China rather than studying in China, is the second of the terms included in the title of this paper 中国通: literally one whose knowledge of China is 通 ‘thorough-going’, ‘complete’ or ‘comprehensive’. Many an (ex-)留学生 will have had the experience of this term being flatteringly or jokingly applied to them—often in situations where it functions as a polite nothing, largely equivalent to its linguistic counterpart 你中文说得不错 ‘Your Chinese is very good’— in both of which cases the compliment is often far from warranted on the basis of any actually demonstrated knowledge or skill! (In both cases the expected response is a modest 哪里哪里 ‘not at all’ or 还差得远 ‘far from it’.)

A quick search of the Chinese search engine Baidu reveals that the term中国通 is normally understood as having a number of connotations:

  • It refers to a foreigner familiar with Chinese conditions, a scholar or commentator who studies China and its government: also known as ‘specialist on Chinese issues’.
  • Of these the more proficient are also known as ‘Sinologists’ (汉学家), China watchers (知华派) or Panda huggers (拥抱熊猫派)

The representative example given here is a certain 陆克文, better known outside China under his original English label of Kevin Rudd. I discuss below Rudd’s positioning of himself in relation to China, in particular his strategic employment of the discourse of 诤友 or ‘true friend’ (literally a ‘critical friend’), and suggest this shows him to be a functioning sinophone rather than (merely) a 中国通. To conclude its explication of the latter term, Baidu provides a couple of further definitions which specifically contrast knowledge of China with proficiency in Chinese:

  • In the broad sense, it refers to an expert on China’s ethnic languages and customs, cultural background etc
  • In the narrow sense, it now commonly refers to a foreigner who can speak fluent Chinese

After this brief trawl through the most commonly-used expressions for foreigners involved with China, we might sum up the main assumptions of the current classifications as follows:

  • they tend to assume a clear and unambiguous distinction between ‘Chinese’ and ‘foreign’
  • for the most part they assume that the interaction is unidirectional, whether from Chinese to foreign or vice versa, without the essential identity of either being changed in the process
  • they are largely conceptualised in terms of an accumulation of knowledge about China and / or of a repertoire of Chinese language

I would like to suggest that not only do such cut-and-dried categories fail to reflect the dynamic exchange and self- and other-transformation that are now increasingly taking place, they also place restrictions on the conceptualization of China-foreign interactions that will prove counterproductive to any genuine and long-term engagement. I will do this in the first instance by contrasting these two terms: sinophone and中国通.

My initial context for bringing these two concepts together was an informal discussion with Professor Gao Yihong 高一虹, Director of the new Research Centre for Linguistics and Applied Linguistics in the School of Foreign Languages at Peking University, and some of her postgraduate students, to whom I had shown the Introduction to my forthcoming book. In discussing this new term ‘sinophone’ in the sense I am using it in my book, they raised the question of whether its Chinese equivalent should be 中国通. The following analysis draws on that discussion, as well as on some follow-up email exchanges between Professor Gao and her students that were sparked by it.

My feeling was that the two were not equivalent: that 中国通, if not simply an empty compliment, as if in surprised acknowledgement that a foreigner should know anything about China at all, but rather applied in a substantive sense, still had very different connotations and indicated a quite different emphasis from sinophone. To sum up what I see as their main difference, 中国通 is above all a knowledge-based notion, it emphasises the accumulation and mastery of knowledge; sinophone, on the other hand, while including knowledge of language and culture as an essential component, is above all a pragmatically-oriented notion, it emphasises the ability to enter into Chinese-speaking societies—in short it is a contrast between 通 ‘cognitive understanding’ and 顺 ‘behavioural accomodation’. As summed up by one of the participants:

To become sinophone [foreigners] must certainly understand something about Chinese customs and interpersonal relationships, but that is only to help them understand the ways of using the language, not to be expert on Chinese culture as such.

The same participant suggested that sinophone had very much an instrumental emphasis, and that the question of what kind of identity such foreigners possessed was much more of an issue for their Chinese ‘hosts’ than for the foreigners themselves:

Sinophone is not necessarily an identity, although foreigners (老外) getting by (混) in China must face the issue of identity—this issue is perhaps more one raised by Chinese, and doesn’t really exist as an issue for the person who really wants to become sinophone. Sinophone has a stronger implication of ability.

Another participant suggested that the earlier classification中国通 was a product of a historical set of circumstances that no longer applied:

‘中国通’ arose in a situation where the cultures of the world were cut off from each other, at that time ‘通’ was an amazing thing. Now ‘通’ is gradually becoming a trend, what Lao Ma [my Chinese moniker] is talking about is actually just in certain areas 通而不同 ‘understand but not be the same’, to maintain your own viewpoint, standpoint, lifestyle, and refuse assimilation.

In an article published in the same collection as Orton’s quoted from above, Gao comments on the complexities of becoming part of another culture through learning the language, drawing on French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of habitus, that system of dispositions, of lasting acquired schemes of perception, thought and action which provide the basic meaningful context for the individual to make sense of his or her experience, a system in which language of course plays a key role:

The learning of a foreign language involves acquiring a habitus that may be perceived to clash with the learner’s first language habitus, and . . . this has generated prolonged identity anxiety among Chinese involved in learning English. The solution to easing this anxiety has been to nominate Western learning as yong (utility) only and thus to focus on the economic value of the language as capital. Yet, because there is always cultural ti (essence) embedded in linguistichabitus, attempts to separate yong from ti in the learning of English and other languages have not solved the problem. Instead, there has been a recurring ti-yong tension, which has highlighted the fundamental identity dilemmas in China’s English language education. Furthermore, in contemporary China, where English language education itself has developed into a semi-autonomous field in the context of globalisation, the persistent ti-yong dilemma has acquired increased intensity and complexity.”[28]

[28] Gao Yihong ‘Sociocultural Contexts and English in China: Retaining and Reforming the Cultural Habitus’ in Joseph Lo Bianco, Jane Orton & Gao Yihong, eds, China and English: Globalisation and the Dilemmas of Identity, Bristol: Multilingual Matters, 2009, pp.56-78

From McDonald, Edward (2011), The ‘中国通’ or the ‘Sinophone’? Towards a political economy of Chinese language teachingChina Heritage Quarterly 25.

The “Sinophone” is a great neologism, one that deserves adaptation for many as yet unacknowledged language communities (Korean, Japanese, and doubtless several others). Edward McDonald has been prominent in introducing the term to the general – or at least academic – lexicon, as has Shu-mei Shih in books like Visuality and Identity: Sinophone Articulations across the Pacific (McDonald claims in the above article that the word “seems to have been coined separately and simultaneously on both sides of the Pacific” in 2005, by Geremie Barmé (Australia National University) and Shih (UCLA).