May 18, 2007

Could Da Shan ever be Chinese?

Filed under: China,culture — Kim @ 7:46 pm

Mr Da Shan tends to provoke mixed reactions amongst expats. Some say best of luck to the guy, he’s put in the hours to learn Chinese etc, but many see sour grapes. Peter “River Town” Hessler’s comment that Da Shan has “more than a touch of the trained monkey” is a bitingly snooty put down from a usually big-hearted guy.

But he gets almost total admiration from the Chinese, and most will say that he speaks better Mandarin than they do.

For what it’s worth I respect the guy and quite warm to his affable and dorky persona, but what I’ve been wondering recently is whether he could “become Chinese” if he so desired. I mean, let’s imagine that Da Shan renounced his Canadian citizenship, became a Chinese national, and nationalist perhaps, and insisted to all and sundry that he was a Chinese. What would be made of that, I wonder?

As far as I can tell, it would be perfectly possible. My online checks told me he could get a Chinese passport should he want to, although I couldn’t find out if there actually are any foreign born ethnic Caucasians who have switched to Chinese nationality. But that’s all beside the point really.

What I am wondering of course is what percentage of Chinese would actually accept him as Chinese, intellectually and sentimentally.

My dad still doesn’t accept that non-white people can be English, although British is OK. Yes, even if someone is totally and utterly English sounding and behaving and has an English passport and will tell you “English” if you ask for his/her nationality, for my dad the skin colour is enough to disqualify them in his eyes from being English. My mum thinks this is annoying tribalistic nonsense, and so do I, but I guess it would be the reaction of let’s say 99.99% of Chinese if faced with a whitey claiming to be Chinese. Even if it was the famous Da Shan himself, I suspect.

I might be way off here though, I’ve only asked 3 Chinese people’s opinion on this!

Anyone else willing to share their guess as to how a Chinese Da Shan would be received, and why? Could anyone else ask their Chinese friends about it?


There is an interesting case over in Japan where a certain Dave Aldwinckle changed his American nationality to Japanese and became Arudou Debito. In a fairly well known and well documented case, he went to a hot springs resort and was refused entrance because the resort was “Japanese Only.” He vigorously objected in his fluent Japanese, but that wasn’t enough. He came back and brought his Japanese passport with him, but that wasn’t enough. The manager claimed that if he allowed whiteys in then he would be bankrupted because his clientele wouldn’t stand for it. He went to court and finally got his way, and was awarded a fair bit of money! The story has another happy ending; Debito and the bathhouse manager are drinking buddies now and the manager is a repentant man. Debito is now fragrant, although I still doubt somehow that many Japanese would accept him as being Japanese.


  1. I think it’s possible for him to be accepted as 中国人 (Chinese national), but not as 华人 (ethnic Chinese).

    Comment by JXie — May 18, 2007 @ 8:10 pm

  2. I don’t see that, or anything like that, happening anytime soon.

    My personal thoughts on Dashan, is that he could do far more with his language skills by making an effort to bridge the cultural gap, rather than building his electronic dictionary empire.

    Sure, he’s on CCTV9 doing that Chinese study thingie (last time I checked), and sure he can do Xiang sheng — but what has he done other than point out that there is ONE exception to the rule that white guys can’t speak Chinese.

    Personally, I’d vote for the Chinesepod crew as China’s Alpha-Laowais instead of Dashan. What they’ve done is has had a far greater impact, in my eyes.

    Comment by Pandapassport — May 19, 2007 @ 2:18 am

  3. I’ve had similar conversations with some of my Chinese friends, though using a different example – could they accept a black or white guy representing China in the Olympics. The answers were mixed, some said yes, some said no. I recently posted a somewhat related question.

    @JXie – of course he couldn’t be ethnically Chinese but that’s part of the problem, should ethnicity play a role in defining nationality? Personally I agree with our host’s mum that it’s “tribalistic nonsense” but I find that many mainland Chinese that I have met think that to be a son/daughter of the dragon you must look like a son/daughter of the dragon. Isn’t there a song by Andy Lau that more or less says this in it’s lyrics?

    @pandapassport – re DaShan, one hundred percent in agreement with you there

    Comment by chinaqanda — May 19, 2007 @ 1:43 pm

  4. @pandapassport – I also think that Da Shan is not as culturally interesting or stimulating as the podcrew. But but but, his Chinese is better. I chose him because he has managed to learn Chinese to the point, it seems, that Chinese could never distinguish him as non-native on his language ability. If they spoke to him on the phone or heard him on the radio, say, then they would assume (and accept?) he was Chinese. But as soon as they saw his face then…

    Which makes him an interesting case I think.

    Comment by Kim — May 19, 2007 @ 6:47 pm

  5. Have you heard of this guy from Finland who served as an elected official in Kanagawa, Japan? Pretty cool.

    Comment by Jess214 — May 21, 2007 @ 5:58 pm

  6. My British-born Chinese wife and her family refer to themselves as British, but not English. They say English is a race and British is a nationality. (Of course, this wouldn’t work in other places. What are you going to say, “I’m not British Columbian, but I am Canadian”?) So it may be “tribalistic nonsense” to some, but Kim’s dad has allies.

    Oh, how come everyone is talking about Da Shan and not Da Sean? The Chinese would love it if he became Chinese.

    Comment by (Da) Sean — May 22, 2007 @ 8:47 am

  7. Interesting topic, and one that I love having fun with in taxi cabs.

    Having spent 5 years here, I have come to understand that being Chinese is not about where one lives, is raised, or is born. It is about blood.

    I saw this after asking more than 100 people a simple question. If I were born in China, am I Chinese?

    95% of people say no right off.. the other 5% ask me if one of my parents are Chinese.

    Dashan will be accepted as a quasi-diplomat for all people foreign. His impact came much earlier in the game than the folks at Chinesepod, and I think he deserves credit for that.

    But while he may be issued a Chinese ID card and passport, he is still not Chinese.

    Just a citizen of China

    Comment by All Roads — May 22, 2007 @ 9:41 am

  8. My Chinese wife gave her typical response: “I don’t know.” I said ok, but how about OTHER Chinese? Again:”I don’t know!” She seems to do this because it’s much easier to reflect the mirror away than to take a hard look at her culture. Same with the Renyao question you posted about. “Why do so many Chinese think of lady boys in Thailand, darling?” “I….don’t…know!” Very frustrating at times.

    Comment by canrun — May 23, 2007 @ 5:34 am

  9. @ canrun Hmmm, that does sound a bit frustrating. Is your wife curious about other cultures, about your culture? My wife will often give overly simplistic answers to my cultural questions and I have to prod her to get something sensible and detailed out!

    Comment by Kim — May 25, 2007 @ 12:19 pm

  10. The rules are fairly clear on the subject: If you don’t have ‘Chinese Blood’ in you, you are not Chinese. Unless, of course, you are Tibetan, Turkestani, or Genghis Khan.

    For instance, at handover, a great many Hong Kongers were refused citizenship on the grounds that they didn’t have ‘Chinese Blood’, despite that fact that they were 3rd or 4th generation Hongkers.

    Hell, it’s even against the law to have a non-Chinese name, as a Chinese couple found out when they tried to give their newborn son an English name last year.

    Comment by MyLaowai — May 28, 2007 @ 7:33 am

  11. Sorry, meant to add: DaShan is a sell-out, but not because of his language abilities. He’s the guy who was first on the plane to get here after the June 4th ‘incident’, and was perfectly happy to be the Party’s poster boy, in order to show the People how popular the Party was with other countries.

    I can never forgive him for that.

    Comment by MyLaowai — May 28, 2007 @ 7:36 am

  12. don’t know much about this dude aside from cctv bullshit but . . . if he played Edgar Snow in Red Star Over China, he is fully involved in the governments propaganda – Edgar Snow had no idea what was going on. He should join the party.

    Comment by simaskap — May 28, 2007 @ 7:42 am

  13. Agree on the blood thing – you’re not Chinese unless you have Chinese blood. An extension is that if you have Chinese blood then you can speak Chinese.

    Much of Europe is a melting pot and has been for a long time, and so an racial Indian born/raised/emigrated to the UK *IS* British. Japan and especially China haven’t been and are not melting pots, but are closed societies with strong national(istic?) identities. Da Shan, nor me, nor you, will ever be seen as Chinese.

    Comment by Jon — May 28, 2007 @ 11:21 am

  14. @Jon

    Yes, fair points I think, apart from the “ever” bit in the last sentence. Who knows what will be the case in, say, 100 years time. I’m not going all “Imagine” here, I’m thinking more like a kind of “Bladerunner” scenario where everyone’s so mixed up that skin colour/facial features won’t be such an issue for ethnicity. Perhaps.

    Something like this is happening to “English”-ness. I see it as getting slowly seperated from ethnicity, and personally I don’t give a shit. Unimaginable 50 years ago, though. That said, there is still a fair bit of resistance, or whatever, to the idea of a non-white Englishperson.

    @ simaskap

    Do you think if he joined the party then Chinese would be more ready to accept him as one of them?

    Comment by Kim — May 28, 2007 @ 1:49 pm

  15. Mark put in the hours and then some to master Chinese. My Chinese is not on his level, but with a heavy local accent where I live I can’t be distinguished until you see my face either.

    Which puts me in a position to answer that simple question from my own perspective – without Chinese blood one will never be “Chinese” in the eyes of most.

    Most of my friends are Chinese – a function of location as much as anything else. Part of my education was in Chinese, and my classmate and my position as a 同學/學弟/學長 will remain forever as part of that. I own my home. I have even spoken on policy issues and precedents relating from one region to another to gov’t and regulatory bodies. Some friends even joke that “If you want to check something about Chinese or history, as him…” to Chinese friends.

    But you will never be Chinese.

    One of my Chinese friends was shocked to find out that his family also had Manchu blood. Given that he’s 189cm, that shouldn’t have been a surprise. Still, it shocked him to find out that he had “non-Han blood” and provoked a heavy night of drinking to discuss the ramifications.

    It’s a race much more than a nationality.

    Remember that Chiang Kai-Shek’s son, Chiang Ching-kuo, married a Russian. She was accepted as first lady in Taiwan and played her role to the hilt, but it was his illegitimate son with a Chinese who took the role in politics later on.

    I can go on and on and on with various mixes etc, but 漢人 is a much more important concept than 中國人.

    Comment by Ex-classmade — January 23, 2008 @ 3:21 am

  16. personally, i was wondering what happened to the black american fellow that handled the travel in China stuff, he spoke Chinese and think why not have a few more Dashans instead of just one, using different western types not just spaghetti without tomato sauce ones. Get my drift. That would be Travelogue on cctv 9 i believe.

    Comment by art buonamia — February 21, 2008 @ 1:41 am

  17. is the above the same art, or arthur, buonamia that longs for the good old days of the political gulag?

    please see …

    Comment by gary jones — March 23, 2008 @ 8:16 am

  18. they could accept him as a national but they will NEVER look at him as a chinese person, not in this lifetime. I’m black and i lived in china for 2 years working and teaaching. There wasn’t a time that i went outside without being starred at. The chinese are very friendly but they react differently to foreingers. Their very intersted in us , and treat us differently and ask many questions. Even with people i was good freinds with, they still always saw me as their “foreign freind” as opposed to a regular person. Maybe some years in the future things in china will change , but for now he will always be looked at as that special person. Da shan is famous all around china but really any foreinger in china is famous wherever they go, especially in smaller towns. Although the attention does get to you and bother you sometimes , they still are very friendly people, and wheither we can be chinese one day or not really doesn’t make a differance to me 🙂

    Comment by niajha — July 10, 2008 @ 4:16 am

  19. I’ve been living in Yunnan for nearly a decade and the Yunnanese have a much looser definition of Chineseness than in other parts of the country given that there are so many ethnic minorities here.

    I’m often asked what ethnicity 民族 I am and as a fun reply, I reply that I’m 洋族 样鬼子的‘洋’. Literally this means the ‘ocean’ ethnicity but is the character used for foreigners and the example of the character I use is Chinese for ‘foreign devil’. It usually gets a chuckle and those who don’t laugh think I’m serious and that it is an actual ethnicity.

    As for Dashan, there were old commie’s who joined the revolution and had been living in Beijing since ’49 (Jan Wong wrote about them once). They are, presumably citizens, as they are party members and one prerequisite of membership is citizenship.

    There are also white Chinese in the form of ethnic Russians who got stuck on the wrong side of the Amur River (Heilongjiang in Chinese) as well as descendants of White Russians (as in opposed to Red, bolshevics) that fled to the Altay regions of Xinjiang after the October Revolution and are Chinese citizens today. As a question of ethnicity, there’s seems to be nothing barring Dashan from becoming a Chinese citizen and he would be 华人 but not 汉族。

    Comment by ezzerdamoose — August 11, 2008 @ 8:48 am

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    Comment by John Blackburn — November 12, 2008 @ 9:36 pm

  21. […] Chinese does not come naturally to us foreigners and this is where the problems occur.  You will never be Chinese no matter how good your Mandarin is. We will still be direct, process oriented, and more concerned about quality then “saving […]

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    Pingback by Apologize and I will give you the photo - more on dealing with local suppliers — December 26, 2008 @ 4:06 am

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