"old China hand"

Rick Kennerly rick at MOUSEHERDER.COM
Sat May 11 11:55:38 UTC 2002

When we visit family in the south Texas ranch country we still hear "hand" a
lot, usually referring to a hired person, as in "a good hand to have
around", "he's a good hand," or just "he's a hired hand."  But it is also
used to imply skill or dexterity  as in "he's a good hand with horses,"
"she's good at whatever she puts (or turns) her hand to" or  "it takes a
fine hand".  John Ford westerns are replete with uses of hand in both these
senses, usually uttered by John Wayne.

Specifically about OCH, however, in my readings it seems to have been used
chiefly by the British to describe expatriate living and working in China,
particularly Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Taiwan just before WWII and who were
interned by the invading Japanese.  But there are other shades of usage.

Spy Business.
In the US CIA and it's predecessor the OSS, Old China Hand was used to
describe operatives placed in China during or after WWII but before the
official formation of the CIA.  These OCHs monitored and reported on the
Communist uprising and supported the Nationalists.  This type of OCH pops up
frequently in post war spy thrillers, including the writings of Ian Fleming
and, later, Richard Condon.   Within the CIA, many Old China Hands were
recalled to help form the agency, so for many years in the Asia section
there was a bright line of distinction between OCHs (the founding fathers)
and the new hires.

Double Meaning.
Interestingly, there is a subset of Old China Hand in the radio world that
gives the term a double meaning.  I'm a Ham radio operator and when I was on
Guam I frequently chatted with elderly Hams on Taiwan and Hong Kong who
counted themselves among the few remaining Old China Hands radio operators,
a subset of the spy crowd.  These OCHs were friendly radio operators,
usually Chinese Nationalists, who helped with communications for the cloak &
dagger set of Old China Hands.   In this sense HAND is also part of a
descriptive used during the Morse Code days as in "he's got a smooth hand
[on the Morse key]" or "worst hand I ever copied," giving the term a double

Finally, a few weeks ago I noticed in the International Herald Tribune where
OCH is making a come back in international business.  This time, however, it
is being used as a pejorative by Americans of Asian heritage who are in the
business consultant field and is used to describe Westerners claiming to
have vast experience and contacts in China but who can't deliver (from an ad
in the IHT--two pix side by side, one an older tweedy but tired-looking
western male with walrus mustache, a curved pipe stem in the bottom of the
frame, and the other a young, engaging, fashion-forward Asian female.  Tag
line was something along the lines of: which Old China Hand do you think can
deliver today's China?).

In your translation business, I'd imagine OCH would have vastly different
cultural meanings, depending not only on the age of your audience but also
on whether your audience was British or Nationalist or Communist Chinese.


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