Dr. Sam Crane of Williams college has written extensively on US-China cultural, political, and philosophical relations. This blog post focuses on a question posed by Dr. Crane in his book Blogging China in the 21st Century. The question is: can foreigners know China?
I’ve pondered the “can foreigners know China?” question frequently since I first started centering my life around China in 2008. I’m not Chinese, but I believe I understand China reasonably well for a foreigner. I’m fluent in Mandarin, I lived in China for several years, and my wife is Chinese. I even have a master’s degree from one of China’s top universities. Yet, I’ve been told on several occasions that I will never truly understand China.
I acknowledge that China’s society, culture, and history are deeply complex. Modern China is rooted in philosophies and traditions that are literally thousands of years old. However, I disagree entirely with the notion that China is incomprehensible to outsiders.
Why is it “impossible” for foreigners to understand China? The core reasoning behind this line of thinking is that foreigners will always view China through the lens of where they come from. For example, Americans are compelled to see China through a lens embedded in western values such as freedom of speech, standards of human rights, etc. In other words, an observation of China untainted by the cultural values of the outside observer does not exist.
So, if a foreigner’s outlook on China is tainted by some sort of Orientalist lens, then it must be true that outsiders can’t really know China, right? Not necessarily. Obviously, folks who weren’t born and raised in China won’t have the same view of China as someone born and raised there. The same could be said for someone born outside the United States, or Europe, or Mars.
Professor Crane’s core position is that insider knowledge is valuable, yet there is also a great deal of value in outsider interpretations of China. The important thing is to maintain an open dialogue and expression of ideas. Professor Crane puts it best by stating, “the point is that no one perspective, inside or outside of a culture, will yield uniformly valid and reliable knowledge.”
We must collectively and wholeheartedly reject the notion that foreigners cannot understand China. This is not an insider/outsider question. It’s an issue of openness to interpretations and abandoning preconceived ideas of what China is for both insiders and outsiders. However, until US-China relations reach this level of transparency, I will reluctantly accept my place as a permanent (albeit well-informed) outsider.