Chinese Whispers: An appropriate idiom for the 21st Century?

Having grown up in the 1980s and the 1990s, living in country with a predominantly Chinese population (as a minority) and having immersed myself in the global world of English Literature – plays by Shakespeare, novels by Charles Dickinson, works of contemporary literature writers that were up and upcoming, like Arundhati Roy & Wally Lamb – I was surprised that I had never heard the idiomatic expression “Chinese Whispers”?

What was even more difficult for me to admit was that I had learnt of this idiom from “The Real Housewives of Melbourne”!  There, I said it. I have turned into a reality show junkie and although I understood its meaning from the context of the episode, this tedious and dissatisfied mind of mine wanted to get to the bottom of where this idiomatic expression came from and why the use of the race “Chinese”, although personally, I’m not one.

Where did it originate from? What were the connotations linked to the idiom and most of all, why had I not known about it? Impossible!

After some research, I discovered that this idiomatic phrase alluded to the game “telephone”, a game children play by passing on a message to the next person in queue, without referring to the first message from the first player, or the ‘gamekeeper’ or ‘referee’, if you must. The message is to be passed down to the second player, then to the third and so forth. The last player would have to announce to the rest, the message he had received, which would inevitably be quite different from the original message passed from the ‘gamekeeper’ or the first person in queue.

But why the use of “Chinese whispers” as opposed to “Indian whispers”, ‘British whispers” and so on? You get my drift.

After some researching, I stumbled upon some answers. We can trace its origins back to the era when Europeans colonized Asian countries. One explanation given was that the Chinese were confused or did not have the capacity to comprehend the intricacies of the English language, therefore passing mixed or wrong messages from their European masters to their fellow Chinese workers.

Another explanation was that the Chinese loved gossip and they would deliberately change messages until the last to receive it was simply fooled into believing what had been passed on to him, often getting him into trouble! The connotation of this explanation was that the Chinese were simply not trustworthy.

Surprisingly, at least to me, was that this idiomatic expression is still so common amongst certain groups of people, when most of us believe that ‘racism’ in any form is not acceptable in our quickly expanding, growing global village.

I, for one, would not use this idiom, despite being trained as a linguist and sociologist, especially understanding where such generalizations sprout from. Others however some have told me that they have no problems using this idiom, for after all, it did stem from some history.

Readers, I ponder what your thoughts might be?

 

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