China Hands

The term China Hand originally referred to 19th-century merchants in the treaty ports of China, but came to be used for anyone with expert knowledge of the language, culture, and people of China. In 1940s America, the term China Hands came to refer to a group of American diplomats, journalists, and soldiers who were known for their knowledge of China and influence on American policy before, during, and after World War II. During and after the Cold War, the term China watcher became popularized: with some overlap, the term sinologist also describes a China expert in English, particularly in academic contexts or in reference to the expert's academic background.

In China now, Zhongguo tong 中國通 (simplified Chinese: 中国通; traditional Chinese: 中國通; pinyin: Zhōngguó tōng; lit. 'China expert') refers to a foreigner who shows a familiarity with, or affinity for, Chinese language and culture.[1]

World War II era US diplomatsEdit

The China Hands during World War II were Foreign Service Officers of the United States Department of State, most of whom had experience in China, some with expertise going back to the 1920s. Since the general expectation was that the war would continue for perhaps another two years and that the invasion of Japan would be based in China, General Joseph Stilwell determined that American interest required liaison with the supposed considerable military force of the communists. At his behest, the Dixie Mission was sent to Yan'an in July 1944. Colonel David Barrett and John S. Service reported favorably on the strength and capabilities of the Chinese Communist Party compared with the Chinese Nationalists. Many China Hands argued that it would be in American national interest to work with the communists if, as many China experts correctly expected, they gained power. Theodore White, correspondent for Time magazine was among the many journalists who visited Yan'an and described the effectiveness of communist political mobilization. This view was opposed by the new U.S. Ambassador to China Patrick Hurley. Hurley, a Republican recruited by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to promote a bipartisan China policy, initially felt there was no more difference between the Chinese Communists and Nationalists than between the Democrats and Republicans in his home state of Oklahoma,[2] but wanted to form a coalition government led by Chiang Kai-shek. He accused Foreign Service Officers such as Service, Davies, and John Emmerson of disloyalty and had them removed from China.[3] Hurley claimed that the Chinese Communists were not real communists.[4]

Nationalist soldiers killed in World War II numbered approximately ten times more than communists killed, according to CPC records.[4] China Burma India Theater Commander Joseph Stilwell repeatedly claimed that communists were doing more than the Kuomintang (KMT, the ruling party before communism) , and sought to cut off all US aid to China.[4][5]

John Service praised the Communists and claimed that the CPC were democratic reformers, likening them to European socialists rather than Soviet communists and claimed that they would preserve levels of capitalism for an extended time until a peaceful transition to a fully realized communist society.[6][7] Service criticized the Nationalist government as "fascist," "undemocratic," and "feudal", while he described the communists as "progressive" and "democratic".[8]

The journalist Edgar Snow and his wife used the 19th century Unequal Treaties' extraterritorial status of foreigners in China to be exempt from Chinese law[9] in order to assist student protest movements; disseminating anti-government materials to the Chinese. They acknowledged that they would have been executed were they not exempted.[10][11] He also admitted that he modified his reports in accordance with the wishes of the communists, to portray them as democratic socialist reformers.[12]

US Ambassador to China Clarence Gauss recommended the United States "pull up the plug and let the whole Chinese Government go down the drain".[4] The US strove to send aid to the Chinese Communists during the war.[13]

Beginning of the Cold WarEdit

After the sudden surrender of Japan in 1945 and the onset of the Cold War, the Communists and the Nationalists locked in a Civil War. The China Hand view was propounded by Harvard professor John Fairbank in his The United States and China (1948) and in the bestselling book Thunder Out of China, published in 1946 by Theodore White and Annalee Jacobee. They hoped that American policy could encourage Chinese nationalism and prevent alignment with Soviet communism. Patrick Hurley testified to Congress that the China Hands had subverted his mission and General Albert Wedemeyer blamed the State Department for failing to act. When the Chinese Communists declared victory in 1949, an immediate outcry by anti-communists asked "Who lost China?" John T. Flynn, Louis F. Budenz, Freda Utley, none of whom had any professional expertise in Chinese history or politics, were among the many who charged that China Hands had undermined Chiang Kai-shek, misled the American public and lost China either through naive ignorance of the true nature of Marxism or even allegiance to the Soviet Union. John Service, they pointed out, had admitted that before he went to Yan'an he had not read the basic texts of Marxism, and the other China Hands were no better informed.[citation needed] Senator Joe McCarthy expanded these accusations to include Owen Lattimore, who had served as personal adviser to Chiang at the beginning of the war. These charges were developed in a series of congressional hearings, including those into the Institute of Pacific Relations. Foreign Service Officers O. Edmund Clubb, John Paton Davies, Jr., John S. Service, and John Carter Vincent were forced out of the Foreign Service, while journalists such as Edgar Snow and Theodore White could not continue their careers in magazine journalism.[14] Career trajectories slowed down for the remaining FSO China Hands, but a few eventually attained ambassadorships: James K. Penfield (Iceland), Philip Sprouse (Cambodia), and Fulton Freeman (Colombia and Mexico)[15]

Nixon eraEdit

Not until the opening of relations between the People's Republic of China and the United States under the initiative of President Richard M. Nixon in the 1970s did public opinion change towards the China Hands. Notable was the invitation to the surviving China Hands to testify to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in 1971. The Chairman, Senator J. William Fulbright, remarked to John Paton Davies on how the China Hands who had "reported honestly about conditions were so persecuted because [they] were honest. This is a strange thing to occur in what is called a civilized country."[16]

Recognized China HandsEdit


  1. ^ John DeFrancis ABC Chinese-English Dictionary (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1996), p. 800.
  2. ^ Russel D. Buhite, Patrick J. Hurley and American Foreign Policy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell U Press, 1973), pp. 160–162.
  3. ^ Kahn, China Hands, pp. 135–160.
  4. ^ a b c d Taylor, Jay (209). Stilwell's The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China. Harvard University Press. p. 297,298. ISBN 0674054717.
  5. ^ Wesley Marvin Bagby, The Eagle-Dragon Alliance: America's Relations with China in World War II, p. 96.
  6. ^ John Service, Report No. 5, 8 March 1944, to Commanding General Fwd. Ech., USAF – CBI, APO 879. "The Communist Policy Towards the Kuomintang." State Department, NARA, RG 59.
  7. ^ U.S. Congress. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee to Investigate the Administration of the Internal Security Act and the Other Internal Security Laws. The Amerasia Papers: A Clue to the Catastrophe of China. Vol. 1 (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1970), pp. 406–407.
  8. ^ Senate Internal Security Committee, The Amerasia Papers: A Clue to the Catastrophe of China, January 26, 1970, pp. 406, 410, 577, 579, 589, 592, 1014, 1015.
  9. ^ XML file authors: Harvard Heath, Lisa Lyons Van Tassell, and Taylor M. Dix (2004). "Register of the Helen Foster Snow (1907-1997) Collection: Biographical History". Prepared for the L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Provo, UT. Retrieved September 19, 2016.
  10. ^ Thomas, S. Bernard (1996). Season of High Adventure: Edgar Snow in China. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  11. ^ Cao, (Katy) Xinquan (2002). Helen Foster Snow: A Journalist in the Chinese Revolution in the 1930s. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University.
  12. ^ Brady, Anne-Marie (2003). Making the Foreign Serve China: Managing Foreigners in the People's Republic. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. pp. 46–47. doi:10.25911/5d5fccdac8aba. hdl:1885/147629. ISBN 0742518612.
  13. ^ Fenby, Jonathan: Chiang Kai-shek China's Generalissimo and the Nation He Lost, New York: Carrol & Graf, 2004 p. 424.
  14. ^ Kahn, pp. 212–243.
  15. ^ "Diplomatic List". United States Department of State. Retrieved 2020-08-24.
  16. ^ Artes Liberales, University of Wisconsin article on Davies Archived 2005-10-26 at the Wayback Machine
  17. ^ "O. Edmund Clubb, 88, 'China Hand,' Dies". The Washington Post. May 12, 1989. Archived from the original on October 21, 2012. Retrieved 2008-08-13. O. Edmund Clubb, 88, one of the dedicated and brilliant "China Hands" of the State Department's Foreign Service whose characters were attacked and careers destroyed by McCarthyism in the early 1950s, died May 9 at a hospital in New York City. He had Parkinson's disease.
  18. ^ Kaufman, Michael T. (24 December 1999). "John Paton Davies, Diplomat Who Ran Afoul of McCarthy Over China, Dies at 91 John Paton Davies, Diplomat Who Ran Afoul of McCarthy Over China, Dies at 91". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-08-15. John Paton Davies, a leading diplomat who was among the old China hands driven from the State Department after Senator Joseph McCarthy questioned their loyalty and labeled them Communist sympathizers in the 1950s, died yesterday at his home in Asheville, N.C. He was 91.
  19. ^ Gonzalez, David (September 16, 1991). "John K. Fairbank, China Scholar Of Wide Influence, Is Dead at 84". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-08-14. John K. Fairbank, the Harvard history professor who was widely credited with creating the field of modern Chinese studies in the United States and was a leading advocate of diplomatic recognition of the People's Republic of China, died Saturday in Cambridge, Mass. He was 84 years old. He died of a heart attack, said Roderick MacFarquhar, a colleague.
  20. ^ "It takes one to know one". December 6, 1999. Retrieved 2008-08-13. Weisberg still describes Lattimore as "the China hand absurdly named as the ...
  21. ^ Kifner, John (February 4, 1999). "John Service, a Purged 'China Hand,' Dies at 89". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-08-13. John S. Service, the first of the old China hands purged from the State Department in the McCarthy era, died yesterday in Oakland, Calif. He was 89.
  22. ^ "John Carter Vincent Dies. Specialist on China Policy. Diplomat Was Dismissed Despite Loyalty Report". The New York Times. December 5, 1972. Retrieved 2008-08-15. John Carter Vincent, a China specialist and former director of the State Department's Office of Far Eastern Affairs, died Sun- day ...

Further readingEdit