feral sinologues

You’re not allowed to bring guns into the Great Hall of the People. It says so in Chinese, right at the top of the sign at the entrance.
Some of you may be thinking that you could still bring in a handful of ammunition and be all, “Ha, gotcha, suckers! You didn’t say anything about bullets!” But, no, bullets are number two on the list of things you can’t bring in.

One of our classmates from Modern Literature at Beijing University was performing in what we were told was an “international Chinese-as-a-Second-Language speech competition,” and so our whole class, as well as anyone else who wanted to go, got bussed to the Great Hall of the People this afternoon to watch.
Like everything else around Tiananmen Square, the Great Hall of the People is big, really big, designed to dwarf anyone who goes into it and remind them that they’re, like, so insignificant it’s not even funny. You can’t really get an appreciation for how big it is until you go inside it and see (after you clear security) rooms upon rooms upon rooms, high-ceilinged hallways stretching off for a finite but considerable distance in every direction, and the odd security guard standing against a pillar as an indicator of scale. If you go during off-hours and see only a small portion of it, as our class did, it’s even eerier: the hallways are half-lit and empty, waiting for an occasion momentous enough to justify their inhuman capacity.

As it turned out, things had not really been explained to us quite adequately: what we were seeing was not ‘The Second Annual Chinese Speech Competition for Foreign Students of Chinese,” but rather the left-overs of it: the speeches had already been given, in earlier competitions (one in Beijing, two in Shanghai), and so what we saw was the awards ceremony, and afterwards performances – songs, mostly – by the contestants.

This being a ceremony – and a state-sponsored one, with high-ish-ranking government officials present – there were of course speeches, and staggeringly dull ones at that. It turns out that thanks to China’s rapid development and upcoming entry to the WTO, as well as its successful Olympic bid, many foreigners have taken an interest in China and the Chinese language. Some of them are even – gasp! – capable of understanding many aspects of Chinese culture! Amazing!

That summary just saved you an hour.

After the Chinese bigwigs had made their speeches, the emcee introduced an Italian professor of Chinese who’d apparently been working to popularise Chinese language studies back in Italy. The professor in question – an older guy, probably in his early 60s – came up and gave a speech, and it was even more torturous than the previous ones.
This wasn’t because of its content, which was pleasantly bland. It was because the man’s spoken Chinese was atrocious: his tones were all wrong, his pronunciation was hard to decipher, and his speech was slow and stumbling as he struggled to read his notes, which he’d apparently written in Chinese.
Obviously, his understanding of Chinese wasn’t bad – he was literate enough to be able to read his speech, even if he wasn’t reading it at anything approaching natural speed – and obviously advanced; he used a bunch of literary conjunctions and four-character set phrases. But his spoken Chinese was worse than many of the intermediate students in the Beida program, and certainly much worse than that of the students in the competition.

It occurs to me that I’m part of the first generation (or one of the first generations) of Western students in recent history to be able to study Chinese as a living language. I mean, until fairly recently, the only option that foreign students of Mandarin had for immersion was Taiwan; now, anyone who wants to can catch a plane to China and get lost in the biomass. Some of us enroll in universities; some of us go to private language schools; some of us catch a train to the most out-of-the-way one-donkey town we can find; some of us go to the big cities.
Previous generations of students studied for hours in language labs with no real chance to use Chinese outside of their classroom, doomed to be little more than deaf-mutes, able perhaps to read and write, but never really capable of holding a conversation, never able to speak without notes.
We, on the other hand, are a bunch of feral sinologues, comfortable and in love with the language we’re studying, aware of its changes, able to debate the merits of soap opera starlets, chat up punk rockers, name a couple dozen euphemisms for masturbation, and spew curses that would make cab drivers go all pale and woozy.

This isn’t to say that people who studied Chinese without ever going to China are irrelevant. Far from it; scholars like Arthur Waley (who never set foot outside England) still managed to gain an impeccable understanding of Chinese literature and philosophy. But now, for the first time in a long time, there’s a generation of Chinese students who can speak and think in the language, and who experience Chinese not as some dead thing fossilized in a textbook, but as a living, changing, vibrant, fun language.

I think that’s pretty cool.

Comments (36)

  1. Roddy wrote::

    Very true. And I’m going to have a batch of t-shirts made tomorrow with ‘feral sinologue’ emblazoned across the chest – want one?


    Monday, December 22, 2003 at 11:51 am #
  2. patrick O'Kane wrote::

    Nice entry. Reminds me of the stories of British agents in wartime Greece trying to pass as natives while speaking fluent Classical Greek.


    Tuesday, December 23, 2003 at 7:07 am #
  3. Roddy wrote::

    Oh, there’ll be no profits. We all have to earn one by winning an argument (in Chinese, of course) with a drunk taxi-driver.

    Tuesday, December 23, 2003 at 7:53 am #
  4. donny wrote::

    not only are you guys the first gen speakers, but u’ll likely end up as, in reality, the first gen researchers as well, esp in fields like cultural anthropology and political science. there are notable profs out there that know china, but they’re few and far between (and most of them are at stanford).

    Tuesday, December 23, 2003 at 11:33 am #
  5. Brendan wrote::

    Sure, as long as I get a cut of the profits.

    I’m thinking there should be a picture of Dashan with foam around his mouth.

    Tuesday, December 23, 2003 at 12:04 pm #
  6. gran wrote::

    merry christmas. have a great time with chocolate turkey and cramberry mousse, with wild turkey ob the rocks. congrats on your achievements. luv

    Wednesday, December 24, 2003 at 1:38 am #
  7. Prince Roy wrote::

    I remember we had this whole discussion of the China Hands back on Brainy Smurf. I think I posted about it, too. But as a way of correction, I don’t consider you the first generation of students to learn Chinese as a living language. You are the second or third generation. I think the first are those who began studying in the 1980s, after China opened up. I guess I am part of the first generation, but just at the tail end (1988 is when I started).

    Wednesday, December 24, 2003 at 10:30 am #
  8. Brendan wrote::

    Roy – I’m thinking of the period from the mid-80s on as one group, but it strikes me that it didn’t get really easy to come here and live here until relatively recently.

    Wednesday, December 24, 2003 at 11:24 am #
  9. Wesley Tanaka wrote::

    Hey, I’m going to a small one donkey town (well, not quite). You happen to know other expats in Yunnan?

    Saturday, December 27, 2003 at 3:37 am #
  10. prince roy at large wrote::

    I agree. I think I would draw the dividing line between the first and second generation ferals at about 1997. That’s when most of China really started becoming easy duty. I’m amazed State considers it a hardship tour…

    Saturday, December 27, 2003 at 5:12 am #
  11. De Sade wrote::


    …so, you want to learn Chinese? 写得蛮有趣味。不知你听说过一个小故事叫《施氏食狮史》吗?是中国一位语言大师写的,应该可以给你文中的一些points做个很好的注解。录入如下:



    Saturday, December 27, 2003 at 5:30 am #
  12. Adam wrote::

    I beg to differ. If you think that you can truly integrate yourself into contemporary mainland life, that you can honestly say you can cut through the accreted layers of bullshit and propaganda, you’re kidding yourself. The whole system of Chinese language instruction for foreigners is educational aparthied, from the segregated dorms and instructional facilities to the doctrinaire method of instruction; you can’t isolate your desire to freely immerse yourself in your surroundings from the authoritarian and repressive nature of that very same environment. I recently attended the Taiwanese equivalent of the contest you participated in, the 37th Annual Sun Yat Sen Memorial Speech Competition. Almost three generations of American scholars have been able to freely come and study, proselytize, comment on politics, engage in homoerotic acts on tea plantations, whatever.

    I have the utmost respect for your linguistic ability, I’m sure it’s only gotten better since you started at BeiDa. However, no matter how hard you try, no matter what you say or how you say it, the average Chinese will still look at you through the distorted vision of someone who has been exposed to only one limited way of thinking. No amount of Trivial Persuit worthy pop-culture knowledge or a cabby’s whorde of ZangHua can pierce the thick skin of a people lied to from birth.

    Come to my side of the straits and you’ll see what I’m talking about.


    Tuesday, December 30, 2003 at 4:59 am #
  13. Adam Morris wrote::


    I read this post a few days back and thought it was great.

    Too bad it looks like shit on Mac IE (but you knew that) …

    … because I just bought a iBook G4!

    (I thought you should be the first to know.)


    Wednesday, December 31, 2003 at 4:53 am #
  14. Adam wrote::

    Dear Prince Roy,

    I’m occassionally prone to hyperbole, the “thick skinned” comment is one that, upon reflection, I didn’t really mean and regret writing. It not only cheapens the relationships I had with people on the mainland, but also fails to reflect the depth of my feelings and admiration for the people of the PRC, considering all that they have accomplished and have to put up with.

    However, I still stand by my point, which I realize I didn’t emphasize enough, which is that Brendan’s vanguardist bragging ignores the fact that Taiwan, for decades, has offered an environment where students can freely integrate themselves into Chinese society. I believe that the depth and scope of immersion that is possible here is simply not available on the mainland.



    Wednesday, December 31, 2003 at 8:10 am #
  15. Prince Roy wrote::


    as one who spent four years on your side of the Straits, and as one who participated in the Sun Yat-sen contest you mention, as well as having spent significant time in the Mainland, I can say you are basically full of beans. You have somewhat of an early 1990s view of the Mainland. Quite outdated to say the least.

    Segregated dorms? Big whoop. If it bothers you that much, just get your own place. I know plenty of foreigners in China who live with Chinese. Anyone who would claim they can’t integrate into Chinese society today, at least in the larger cities, isn’t trying hard enough.

    You may also want to get off your high horse and tone down the arrogance a tad when it comes to the so-called ‘thick skinned’ Mainland Chinese you have to ‘suffer’ with. They are far more knowledgeable and sophisticated than you think.

    But honestly, if this is your true attitude, no doubt it plainly shows, and explains your poor reception among them.

    Wednesday, December 31, 2003 at 11:55 am #
  16. bayibhyap wrote::

    Happened upon this site by accident.
    I am an overseas Chinese and did not learn to speak Mandarin seriously until I was 21. I could speak about 3, maybe 4, dialects though. But English was not a problem. I read Shakespeare, Chaucer, Jane Austen, Wordsworth, Frost, Kafka…. the whole lot and was thoroughly amazed by the pleasure I derived. Funny, I feel strange to hear u talk about being the first gen foreign students who actually understand the clture and think in Chinese (it took me a while to achieve that too). I am happy for u.

    Thursday, January 1, 2004 at 10:33 am #
  17. lucas wrote::

    I agree with Prince Roy.

    Saturday, January 3, 2004 at 9:56 am #
  18. richard wrote::

    I agree with Adam. I’ll never forget studying at Fudan Daxue and being prohibited from entering my friend’s dorm because my eyes were round. All sorts of little things like that remind you that you are “not one of us.” You can meet some amazing people and have a rich, rewarding and wild experience. But real integration, the way exchange students used to be integrated into my high school, or the way I was integrated when I studied at the University of Munich and in El Salvador — maybe it is truly achievable in China, but I am outspokenly and unashamedly sketical. My colleague from New Zealand, my best friend when I worked in Beijing, is married to a Chinese woman and told he’s totally given up on being truly integrated into China in general and her family in particular. (He’s been there 13 years and reads/writes fluently.)

    Sunday, January 4, 2004 at 5:11 am #
  19. Brendan wrote::

    Checking back on this discussion fairly late in the game.

    I think Richard and Adam are right in saying that complete integration is impossible, and that obvious foreigners (i.e., people who don’t look Southeast Asian) will never be regarded as being on the same level as Chinese. That being said, outright segregation of the type Richard mentioned is gradually breaking down. There are, of course, hundreds of “you are not us” reminders every day, but I wasn’t talking about societal integration. I don’t expact that to happen for a long, long time, if ever.

    That said, it is becoming easier and easier to live as a [Chinese-speaking] foreigner in [certain parts of] China. Beijing is not Harbin.

    Wednesday, January 7, 2004 at 4:01 am #
  20. Rillifane wrote::

    This is a fascinating thread.

    I’m an Anglo-Chinese racial mix who has never spoken the language with any fluency and can’t read worth a damn. I don’t pretend to understand modern China (or China at any time for that matter.) So I acknowledge that you are likely light years ahead of me.

    I have an Anglo friend who spoke the language impeccably and spent his whole life absorbed with things Chinese while working as a translator for the CIA. My (Chinese) mother often said that while his language skills were beyond criticism and his knowledge of China superb that he could never, not even for a millisecond, pass for Chinese even if his physical appearance were somehow concealed. Perhaps this is just some sort of ethnic chauvinism on her part.

    Perhaps China has changed fundamentally in the last few years, I haven’t been there for a while. My first visit was in 1974. But I found the Chinese (and remember these are, to an extent “my” people) to be some of the most racist and xenophobic folks I’ve ever met (and this is from a veteran of the American civil rights struggle).

    I wonder to what extent “foreign” students are being lulled by the outward forms of polite acceptance. Didn’t that Italian that is cited above probably think he was doing a good job? Might he not think that he has done well in becoming conversant with the language and familiar with the people?

    How can you really know?

    Saturday, January 10, 2004 at 4:06 am #
  21. John wrote::

    I have obviously many miles to go in my studies. At least I know that I am not alone in my desire to throw my Pimselur CDs out the window every now and then.

    Saturday, January 10, 2004 at 6:09 am #
  22. Alaric wrote::

    Hi Brendan! I hear from Prince Roy that we might get a chance to meet with you in the DC area soon. Just wanted to let you know that I’m looking forward to it!

    Saturday, January 10, 2004 at 11:50 am #
  23. Prince Roy wrote::

    complete integration is practically impossible no matter where you are talking about unless the person moves to the country early in life. I doubt most first generation Chinese immigrants to the US ever feel fully integrated. And we’re not even talking about foreigners immigrating to China, but about those who go there for a few years, usually.

    a lot of Chinese students I know in the States make exactly the same kinds of arguments that Americans ‘don’t accept them’. In my experience, foreigners usually do a far better job of integrating socially into China/Taiwan (at least those who make an honest attempt) than like-situated Chinese students do here.

    Saturday, January 10, 2004 at 12:24 pm #
  24. Adam Morris wrote::

    You guys will be meeting up without me? Damn it!

    Does this mean we’re off for the Spring Festival get together?

    Monday, January 12, 2004 at 11:28 am #
  25. Brendan wrote::

    The above commenter is either crazy or some kind of mad comedic genius.
    Sir, I salute you.

    Friday, January 16, 2004 at 1:43 am #
  26. xxxx wrote::

    Dear Brendan,

    You have a beautiful site which I may have read the majority of your wonderful writings from the time you were in Philadelphia which I read in retrospect and part of the very joyous comments you never fail to bring. In late 1997 and again especially in late 2000 I was in Philadelphia twice, which strikes me as the most developed city after New York and I have been to Houston, Chicago, Cleveland, and St. Louis, and driving by Atlanta which is such a shame. It started in 1992 when I was trying to get accepted into University of Illinois in Evansville and I honestly forget what it is good for. A US scholar I med shortly after that reminds me that there are many Evansvilles in US and that he is not sure the one I applied for is in IL. And my excellent English extrange teacher inadventantly hinted Houston and I did get into Rice later. But where I failed horrably when I left Town to Cleveland four years later to find a job except that I have my immigration status solved. After that I cannot wait to have the most attractive lady mechanic on this world to fix my car, and went to Cleveland again in the most horrably bad shape. Did not eat for the majority of the day while on wheel and had only half a nights sleep the night before. Was about to passed out when I went to a nicest black lady and a black gentleman I have ever met. The black lady drawed a detailed map for me to a closeby restaurant, where I was able to get to, had a dinner, and walk to a motel afterwards. Worked in Cleveland in various restaurant for several months in disgust and worked in Chinese restaurants in Chicago, New York, and St. Louis. I left St. Louis only four days ago to Beijing, Fucked three beautiful beautiful Chinese Hostesses from China Oriental Airline on the flight in nine holes, give the most beautiful one I fucked my address and she gives me her phone number and her last name is 易, which means easy in Chinese. It is a fuck I tell you man, especially on the flight. Could I fuck you too? Kun? I think I will enjoy you.

    My name is cock.

    Friday, January 16, 2004 at 10:24 am #
  27. Robert wrote::

    Gosh, Mr. Cock is really wordy! I was reading and scrolled down half and saw the word ‘fuck’, so I just HAD to read it… Anyway Brendan, I was the guy who commented on ‘good good study’ regarding the Chinese font utility… Don’t you need to install a program inorder to type out the characters?

    E.g. Mr. Cock up there typed out that person’s last name, how did he do that? [a smarty cock!] Any[more] input from on this subject would be great… I live in the US, doesn’t that have anything to do with it? DOH!

    PS. Your blog comes in Chinese, too? Damn… AND this is the 27th comments? DAMN, you’re a busy boi! :o)

    Saturday, January 17, 2004 at 10:32 am #
  28. Robert wrote::

    Damn, I just re-read my comment up directly above… I can’t type schitt! ugh…

    Saturday, January 17, 2004 at 10:33 am #
  29. jorge wrote::

    hello. just tripped over your website looking for a cheap room in harbin. only read a few of your thoughts cause i’m in the middle of writing a sars paper, but i will read more once this fatty is complete. anyway, can i get some harbin travel advice? i’m having trouble finding places using a computer and am about to resort to the phone. so, any places i should try first? i just want cheap and not too out of the way. is that too much to ask? i’ll be there for six or seven days and don’t have as much money as i thought; hong kong broke the bank. to all out there, happy new year. any help is greatly appreciated. cheers.

    Wednesday, January 21, 2004 at 12:26 pm #
  30. Jen wrote::


    Good job! Excellent writing!

    I first discovered your site via a link from Andres Gentry’s site; I wouldn’t have found his site if I hadn’t been searching the web for “Gongxi facai”. I was trying to find the proper way to convey happy new year wishes in Chinese. A friend from Sinapore had mentioned something like “Gongxi facai”, but I couldn’t remember how to write it in pinyin, and I sure didn’t know how to write it in Chinese characters.

    Is this how the Chinese wish each other a happy new year? If you would be so kind, please write it in pinyin with the right tones. I cannot read Chinese characters.

    I will not bore you with the long story now; mine is not nearly as interesting as yours. I have a very good friend arriving (here in Houston) from Beijing tomorrow, and I would like to wish her a happy new year properly. She is a native Chinese person, born somewhere in the province of He Nan.

    I am a technical instructor and training coordinator of sorts at one of the well-known companies in the energy industry. My job allows me to meet and work with people from China on a pretty regular basis. My students have taught me a little Chinese and a little about the Chinese culture. I have a lot of friends in China now and hope to venture there one day even if my company never sends me. Some of my most recent students mentioned that I should move to China and teach English. I said that I do not know Chinese well enough, and they said it doesn’t matter. They said I would have no trouble finding a job teaching English and that I would learn Chinese fast enough. What do you think? Is there any truth to what they have told me?

    Do you have any advice and/or suggestions? Thanks. Keep up the good writing. I have bookmarked your site and am looking forward to showing it to my friend from Beijing. Good luck with your studies, and have fun!

    P.S. Kun’s site is also very good. It reminds me of “Good, good study; day, day up.” I used to know the pinyin by heart, but I can’t quite recall it now. That’s my fault for not practicing.

    Sunday, January 25, 2004 at 1:24 am #
  31. leowang wrote::

    to Jen,
    nice to know :you want to come to China , welcome , you know what ? as soon as you get off the airplane , one thing is good to know is you are minority ,

    I am a Chinese ,what if i come to states to teach chinese ? that’s a good idea? probably not , but you can do that here i mean mainland China , I will NOT doubt your wish to be a teacher in China ,but i have to tell you one thing : not every foreigners can be a good teacher here , i have a teacher he is a brit, he taught us one phrase ” as far as i am concerned …..” in the whole morning , but that ‘s insufferably fun to learn one thing from him he told us you can’t say “as far as i am concerned in the intonation of ….you have to say it in a falling -ring tone , is that deadly funny ?

    i ‘d like to say something about teacher as a Chinese student here , if you cant’ be a good teacher ,pls go out to find another job , teacher is different from other jobs in the earth , you might influence a person ‘s life by saying one sentence , maybe you don’t even know that.

    anyway , in my opinon , I like the foreign teacher who is not only funny but also can represent his orher country and culture , and one thing is indispensible , that’s Tolerance , coz you are minority , not in your own country , be tolerant doesn’t mean you have to put up with everything ,you can be very strict ,but meanwhile getting along with people around you ,

    anyway ,good luck and welcome to China , it’s a beautiful country , i am sure you will enjoy being here


    Tuesday, January 27, 2004 at 11:30 am #
  32. Jen wrote::

    To Leowang,

    Thanks for your comment. I will take it all into consideration. It’s a lot to think about, that’s for sure. I would feel more confident if I knew more Chinese. I don’t know if I can really be of any help to Chinese people who are trying to learn English. I would only do it if I thought I could help people. For me, that’s what it’s all about. Of course, I also long to see my friends in China, but I would only teach there if I thought I could make a difference.

    Thanks for your kind wishes. If I do come over, I will let you know.

    What do you do? Are you a student? I’d like to hear more about you.

    Best Wishes,


    Thursday, January 29, 2004 at 11:15 am #
  33. leowang wrote::

    to Jen

    I am very happy to see your reply , I am not a student but i was , I like the foreign teacher i had before , they are great teacher as well as great people , most of them came from a non-profit organisation called ‘ELIC”(I think in Chinese is “美国英语学会” they arrange almost everything if anyone is qualified to come to china to be a ESL teacher , their website is http://WWW.ELIC.org. you can log on their website and might find something useful if you do make your decision , I personally know a officer from ELIC he is my good friend , he is from Ohio , He is the personnel officer who is in charge of something related to the personnel stuff, and he has stayed in China for several years , and he is a real beaver .i can tell you his eamil address if you feel necessary to talk some details with him , but i dont’ want to tell you here , can you drop me a mail if you do need , my email is “wangwang108@sina.com,”
    Now I Work only my part time jobs in one of kind of middle city in China , i don’t have full time job right now but i am looking forward to finding a job relate to English , i have taken a test called ” International Chinese teacher certificate “( you probablyhaven’t heared this test before ” but you may ask Kun or the people who write this blog they may know more about this test than me , coz i am taking this test just for fun .

    i am not pushing you to make your decision to come to China ,but i do want to tell you :China is a great place to live and to broaden your experience , it may change your life , but i still have one more suggestion for you :if you go to china to be a teacher , you ‘d better choose a average city first i mean not Beijing ,shanghai you know , they are all the same , like newyork london , etc . choose a small like the city i live and work now , although it ‘s small but it ‘s still very convenient , and the people their pace of life usually are slower than some big big cities ,besides it’s more quiet !! blue sky , in my city , i can smell the spring without stepping out my apartment , the foreign guest house most of my foreign teacher they live is a very old building i belive older than my age . one thing all my foreign teacher they can’t bear in China is ” every morning they have to hear the same “melody “over and over and again . so every coin has the two sides ( what a cliche :), you will definetely enjoy the hospitality of Chinese people but maybe you can’t bear us sometimes , but that’s life all about

    ok that’s all

    again very nice to know you
    i am looking forward to hearing from you .



    Monday, February 2, 2004 at 11:27 am #
  34. leowang wrote::

    BTW : I want to start writing my own blog in English in 2004 , i am 25 years old , is that too old for me to begin this adventure coz i know very little about computer , so anyone here can give me a hand ? thank you in advance .

    Monday, February 2, 2004 at 11:34 am #
  35. Matt wrote::

    That’s not only pretty cool, it’s VERY cool.

    You’re a lucky guy to be able to what you do, and I wish you the best.

    Wednesday, February 4, 2004 at 4:53 am #
  36. politics wrote::


    Thursday, February 19, 2004 at 3:52 am #

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    今天在网上看看外国人眼里的中国。发现汗颜~ 一个中文用得太纯熟了,赫赫《喜爱学中文的美国老外》。要是没有看到这句“我们三个美国男人都会讲中国话”,我还真不敢相信这是不是中�…