The word 中国通 (zhongguo tong) means “China hand” or “China watcher” in Mandarin. It’s a combination of 中国 (zhongguo – China) and 通 (tong – to know well). The three characters, when combined together, create the meaning of one who knows China well, i.e. a “China hand”.
Today it’s still used to describe foreigners in China who have a high degree of language skills and cultural knowledge. However, there is a certain mystique about the word. In many ways, it refers to a time gone by, when the amount of foreigners in China was very small and knowledge about the country was scarce.
Traditionally the Chinese government has worked very hard to keep non-Chinese out of the country, and by all accounts seemed to have been successful in doing so. During and before the 20th century, those who lived in the country inevitably held very niche jobs in government, trading companies, or Christian missions.
Those interested in China today tend to romanticize the work and lives of these foreigners. Certainly their jobs were probably interesting enough. They came as parts of government delegations for international diplomacy. They came to build railways. Some even tried to sell railcars.
But perhaps most importantly, they were 中国通 in China before it was “cool”. Now it seems like everyone has an opinion or some connection to the middle kingdom.
In fact, there are many foreigners living in China today in comparison to the past. The economy has been growing from anywhere between 7-10% over the past thirty years and there are plenty of opportunities, either commercial or non-monetary. The crime rate is low, the cost of living is affordable, and the internet has made it easier than ever to stay in touch with friends and family back home.
There are many compelling reasons to live in China, at least for a period of time.
So, as foreigners in China become more and more common, the question then becomes if this group of expatriates can really call themselves 中国通? Or has the world lost it’s original power as the country modernizes?