According to A Concise Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, edited by Paul Beale, (Macmillan, 1989), this term has been in use since approximately 1910 and is applied to "One who has spent many years in China in the commercial or civil service, or as a missionary."
The dictionary's definition leaves out some important categories of people, particulary the waves of refugees from the conflicts of Europe and elsewhere who found temporary shelter in China, as well as people who served in the military of many nations. It must also be expanded to point out that implicit in the term is the notion of contact between Chinese and non-Chinese cultures. As various groups and individuals from all over the globe took up residence in China, they changed China for good or ill, and China unmistakably changed them. Because of the many nations and cultures from which Old China Hands were drawn, and because of the great variety of circumstances which led to their residence in China, the Old China Hand experience is also very varied and provides many unusual and valuable insights into the nature of China. An Old China Hand might have been an employee of the government of China, a business person, a missionary, in the maritime or military service, a refugee from Nazi Germany or Communist Russia, a civil administrator, a journalist, an adventurer or drifter, a person benign or wicked.
In historic terms, the notion of "Old China Hand," whether or not the term was in common usage, may have begun in the 18th century, or even earlier. Marco Polo and Matteo Ricci may have been among the first Old China Hands. At all events, the identity has been fading since China's change of government in 1949, although a case could be made that China's growing participation in the world economy may be creating a generation of "New Old China Hands."
One striking aspect of the Old China Hands experience is that Old China Hands are almost universally keenly aware of their heritage and take pride in having participated in this distinct and turbulent phase of China's history. Our archive is dedicated to the preservation of their heritage and to assisting in the interpretation of their experience.
One aspect of the preservation of historical materials is that it is difficult for the collector or archivist of today to know which materials may prove of great significance to a researcher several decades from now. The Archive's scope, therefore, is wide-ranging. The following list is not at all exclusive, but is intended only to suggest areas of collection interest:
Donations of materials and funds to support the Old China Hands Archive are tax-deductible.
The Old China Hands Archive is one of the units in the Special Collections and Archives Department of the University Library at California State University, Northridge. As such, it is provided with office space, telephone service, computers, and Library support for acquisition, preservation, and storage of materials, cataloging, postage, publicity, and some student clerical assistance.
However, we depend very much on public support for donation of archival materials such as photographs, documents, and artifacts. Furthermore, since one of the Archive's goals is to build a strong general collection of published literature to support faculty and student research, the involvement of the public through donations makes the collection even more comprehensive.
We invite donations both of materials and money. Both forms of gift are fully tax-deductible. In the case of books, documents, and the like we provide a deed-of-gift form on which the donor is encouraged to place a value for the donation and we certify the gift's receipt. If you wish, we can refer you to a professional appraiser, but we are not permitted to do the appraisal ourselves.
Financial gifts may be made out to the CSUN Foundation with indication that they are destined to the Old China Hands Archive. The Archive's account is used to support the collection.
Your gift can be acknowledged in various ways: large collections of books and other materials can be named for the donor, books receive bookplates naming the donor, and money gifts can be used to establish named collections within the archive. We also welcome donations to name archivist or other staff positions (for example, "John Doe Archivist in the Old China Hands Archive"). It is also possible to arrange for the naming of rooms in the Library in honor of a donor.