I'm a zhongguo tong, dammit (and proud of it!)


Last week, the Wall Street Journal published an essay by Daniel Bell, a noted scholar of Chinese philosophy who teaches at Tsinghua University in Beijing. The essay came with the intriguing title “Why Anyone can be Chinese”. Now I call this going down the rabbit hole of identity politics. To do so is like stepping onto a minefield, and Dr. Bell bravely if somewhat naively did so when publicly expressing his wish to be considered Chinese. Dr. Bell is Canadian by nationality and as his name suggests, he is not of Chinese let alone Asian familial heritage. All you need do is peruse the readers’ comments that accompany his essay on the WSJ website to find out what people thought of this idea.

Daniel Bell’s situation as described in his essay is one familiar to me and to many other foreigners who have made China their long-term home (note that I am speaking here of Mainland China, not Hong Kong or Taiwan, which have their own identity issues.) We are Mandarin Chinese speakers, and in some cases, we speak or at least understand local or regional dialects as well. Some of us have spent a great amount of time and effort learning the written language and are able to read stories, novels, essays and poems in modern and even Classical Chinese, though it is extremely rare for a foreigner to write in eloquent Chinese (lord knows I’ve tried!) Some of us can hold deep conversations and even even give public speeches in Mandarin Chinese about subjects ranging widely from history and philosophy to music to food. We are familiar with Chinese food and drinking culture in its many regional and local varieties, and we are extremely well-traveled in China. We understand many social and cultural nuances. We have seen dozens if not hundreds of Chinese films and (more rarely) TV shows. We count among our mates, dear colleagues, and long-term companions many Chinese people of different backgrounds. Chinese language and other symbols and elements (temples, mountains, cities) inhabit our dreams as well as our daily lives.

Many of us are partnered with or married to Chinese nationals. Those of us with Chinese wives or husbands have children who are known in Chinese as 混血儿 hunxue’er “mixed blood kids”. As in the case of my own two daughters, they are completely culturally nativized, having grown up in Shanghai with their Chinese mother and grandparents and other relatives and having attended kindergartens and grammar schools with almost entirely Chinese teachers and students. Most if not all of their friends are Chinese. They can read and write in English and Chinese. They are familiar with hundreds or thousands of Chinese characters, and they know all the stories, songs, poems, etc. taught to Chinese children drawn from the deep reservoir of Chinese history. They have a deep intuitive understanding of Chinese cultural norms. In other words, they basically possess all of the cultural and linguistic skills, knowledge, and references that a Chinese child learns while growing up here in China. Not that they are Chinese themselves—like I just mentioned, they are usually identified by Chinese people as “mixed blood kids” and as foreigners. 

It is worth noting that in my daughters’ case, even though they have spent most if not all of their lives in China and are completely steeped in Chinese language and culture, both of them lay a strong claim to being American. My eldest daughter was actually born in Australia, which complicates matters slightly, but both see themselves fundamentally as Americans. They are fluent not only in English but in idiomatic American English, and they are obsessed with the lingo spoken by other Americans their age. They love American culture in the form of TV shows, movies, and pop songs and they are always excited to visit America and maybe even hope to settle there eventually. Perhaps there is also the feeling that no matter how much they live and learn here in China, they will never be considered Chinese, so why not embrace their American identity? (That said, they also watch plenty of Chinese cartoons and TV shows!)

Getting back to our own question of identity—that is, mine and Daniel Bell’s and many others whom I am fortunate to count as dear colleagues and friends—the Chinese have already given us a name. They call us 中国通 zhongguo tong, which means something like “one who knows China”. This is a term reserved for foreigners obviously, but it is not a term that is easily given out. It is usually granted to foreigners who know many things about China and who speak Mandarin Chinese (or dialects like Cantonese) with a certain degree of ease and fluency. It goes without saying that this is not an official title, but rather one that is given generously and graciously and with the best of intentions by Chinese friends and associates, or sometimes even by 老百姓 laobaixing “old hundred names” or common folk whom you might encounter in a taxi or in a shop.

There are times when my Chinese relatives, friends, and colleagues will jokingly say things like “Andrew is Chinese,” or “Andrew is half Chinese” or “Andrew must have been Chinese in a previous life.” I always take these sorts of jests as a high compliment. But they are just that. Nobody, least of all me, would ever take seriously the notion that I could ever be Chinese.

Let's not go down the rabbit hole of what constitutes "Chinese", which many leading scholars in my field of Chinese studies have written numerous articles and books about. As for this concept of zhongguo tong, there are many levels and layers and nuances even to this identity, and books could also be written about it by leading sociologists in our field (hint hint James Farrer).

We are a tribe of sorts. I count many zhongguo tong among my dearest friends, and when I meet other zhongguo tong for the first time, or even read their essays and blogs online or see their Facebook posts, I feel a sense of一见如故 yi jian ru gu (“at first glance I feel we are old friends”). We have an instant bond and a deep mutual understanding. It doesn’t matter where we came from. It suffices that over many years of strenuous continual effort and struggle and personal sacrifice, we learned Chinese language(s), history, literature, culture, geography etc. and that we have made that knowledge part of our core identity as human beings. 

And so, let us be satisfied with our unofficial honorific title. And maybe someday we can earn the even more coveted official title “Friend of China.” But to be seriously considered Chinese? Surely you jest, Dr. Bell.