Is “Chinese whispers” racist?

Here’s something I’ve been pondering recently.

Is the phrase “chinese whispers” racist?

You may not know, because I didn’t know until I looked it up very recently, that the term is a very colonial one (late 19th, early 20th century British empire) and refers to a game which most of the rest of the world knows as “Telephone“.

As far as I have been able to determine, Chinese whispers is derived from another phrase, Chinese fire drill. Chinese firedrill is named after a fire drill done on a ship with Chinese crew who didn’t understand what was going on, the end result being it all got screwed up. It basically got blamed on the Chinese for being stupid.

So when something goes completely wrong due to incompetence or stupidity leading to mass confusion, it got called a Chinese firedrill, the implication being that Chinese are stupid, and they can’t communicate clearly.

I have been using the term “Chinese whispers” all my life (though not often, as I kind of grew out of this game fairly early on) without any thought to its origin. I have never heard the game of Chinese whispers referred to as telephone before so I suspect that most people in UK would be unfamiliar with it also (similar to how we know the song as “okey cokey” but the rest of the world knows it as “hokey pokey”).

114 thoughts on “Is “Chinese whispers” racist?

  1. In the uk Chinese whispers is a game played by children wher they whisper in someone’s ear a phrase and it gets passed around the circle. Due to people not being able to hear or understand, the message gets change and when the last person in the circle says what they heard, it’s usually very different from the original word. This game is in no way racist. Mabey it’s name was racist many years ago. But I grew up playing this game and never linked the word Chinese to confusion. That’s the name of the game and most children think it’s called that because the game was originated from china (I don’t think it was). If a child says hey lets play Chinese Whispers. There is obviously no intention of offending Chinese people. They just want to play a game.

    1. Lilly,

      Your argument appears to be that intent is the determining factor as to whether something is racist or not, i.e. a group of children playing a game they know to be called Chinese Whispers are not being racist if they are not aware of the possible racist origin of the name.

      If that’s the case, I’m afraid this is not a very interesting argument to me. It seems rather obvious that if someone has no idea that they are doing something racist then they by definition are not, because racism requires intent.

      This article doesn’t ask if people playing a game called Chinese Whispers without any knowledge of the origin of the term are being racist. It asks if the term has a racist origin.

      The evidence seems quite strong that the phrase “Chinese Whispers” has a pejorative meaning. At best it seems to suggest that communicating with Chinese people will lead to confusion; it very possibly implies that Chinese people are inferior to colonial-era British people. The rest of the world calls the game “Telephone”. So, knowing all of that, is someone who persists in calling it “Chinese Whispers” being racist?

      As a hypothetical thought experiment, what if I raise a group of children in isolation from the world and teach them a game that I tell them is called “Catch the Nigger” where one of them blacks up their face and is hunted by the others. They will quite possibly have a great time playing the game. They will have no way to know that it would be offensively racist to the wider world. But once they grow up and are sent into the wider world we could not expect them to be able to justify continuing to call their game “Catch the Nigger”, right? It wouldn’t be their fault that they were raised in a society that taught them something so dysfunctional, but once they were educated about it there would be no argument for continuing to use the term.

      1. Chinese Whispers is derived from the Chinese language being unintelligible to non-speakers, it’s origin has nothing to do with any negative judgement of Chinese people themselves. The phrase is similar to “It’s all Greek to me” or “Double Dutch”. It simply means the words in the game Chinese Whispers can’t be understood.

        1. David,

          What is your source for this assertion and why is it correct vs. the other sources which link “Chinese Whispers” to “Chinese Firedrill”?

          1. “The sinophobic name points to the centuries-old tradition in Europe of representing spoken Chinese as an incomprehensible and unpronounceable combination of sounds.”

            As I mentioned, the difficulty of understanding a foreign language is also captured in older idioms, such as “It’s all Greek to me” and “Double Dutch”.

            Reference:

            Ballaster, Rosalind (2005). Fabulous Orients: fictions of the East in England, 1662–1785. Oxford University Press. pp. 202–3. ISBN 0-19-926733-2.

          2. Thanks! I think that is probably the most useful comment that has ever been offered here, as almost all the others have been of the form “no it’s not” or “stop saying bad things about China”!

            Looking back at the article I said that “Chinese whispers” was derived from “Chinese fire drill”, but I can’t find any strong evidence of that. I think I’d have to agree with you that “whispers” is innocent, especially compared to some of the other terms.

            Looking at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_fire_drill there is a mixture of examples. I suppose it depends upon whether the context would be a Westerner trying to communicate in Chinese and failing, leading to confusion, or whether it is suggesting that Chinese people themselves are inferior.

            It does seem clearer to me now that “whispers” falls into the former category, similar to as you say, “double Dutch” and “it’s all Greek to me.”

          3. The very comment that you say demonstrates the phrase’s innocence labels it as ‘sinophobic’…

          4. @John,

            Sure, I meant “innocent” as in “not intentionally racist” though, when we’re talking about the origin of this term. David was saying it was in the same class as “It’s all Greek to me” or “Double Dutch”. I did miss that though. It would be good to see some more context from the book to see why it labels it as sinophobic.

        2. Thee we funny thing is whom is the Chinese language unintelligible to? Because I’m pretty sure the Chinese understand it quite fine and your argument is saying that the English language must therefore be Intelligible. Because what’s black and white and read all over?
          I couldn’t bear to see the bare bear read the red book amongst the reeds. Apparently he had already read it.

      2. Just come across your thread as in conversation with my 10 year old (half Chinese) son, he told me that “Chinese Whispers” is a racist game. I (Chinese) totally agree, racism requires intent. The Chinese language, any dialect, is incredibly precise in tone and intonation and my English other half trying to repeat anything in Chinese at all, despite his best attempts, makes no sense at all to someone Chinese. My parents wouldn’t even be able to make a guess at what he’s trying to say, even though to his English ears, he is repeating it perfectly.

        To me the name of the game reflects that aspect of language–repeat it exactly as you heard it, end up with something totally different. Nothing racist about acknowledging how complex a language is, at all.

        1. Just read that back, I meant that I totally agree *with the comment that racism requires intent.
          And I don’t feel that the name of the game is racist *at all*, more that it acknowledges how precise Chinese is.

          Personally I’m more likely to be offended by people who get offended on my behalf.

          Hope that makes better sense!

  2. As a child I used rhymes and other songs with clearly racist terms and origins (eeny meeny miney mo comes to mind). We didn’t know those terms were offensive or even what they meant. But they were clearly awful and my mom corrected us to ‘cleaner’ language and explained why. I’m glad she did it might still be casually throwing around some of these terms without realizing I’m offending lots of people.

  3. Can I suggest a better name would be ‘Relayed Whispers’ ?

    I have not heard anyone use this name, but it gives the correct description and is not country specific.
    Party line – does not give the same outcome.
    Telephone whispers – is probably outdated – do people still have ‘telephones’,

    A funny example I remember is the phrase ‘Send Reinforcements! We are going to advance’ being passed from soldiers down the line as ‘Send three and fourpence! We are going to a dance’

  4. An aside is that Mandarin uses words whose meaning depends on intonation. As whispering bypasses intonation, it is very easy to confuse those Mandarin words.
    So it’s not impossible that the name incorporated the fact that Chinese is a language not designed for whispering.

    1. I can speak Chinese and can whisper just fine, intonations and all. Can understand them too. You just don’t know how to speak Chinese properly.

  5. The description you gave of a Chinese Firedrill isn’t how I learned it at all. It has to do with having a car full of people. The driver stops at a red light or stop sign and gets out and runs around the car. Everyone else follows. The objective is for everyone to try to be in a different seat than the one they started in.

    1. I couldn’t edit my comment, so adding here.

      Here is a link to park of the Chinese firedrill Wikipedia entry. It describes the game as I do above. (although i have to say that i’ve never heard of anyone playing the game in a cul-de-sac; just red lights and stop signs only)

        1. A regular fire drill has people file out of a building in an orderly fashion.

          A “Chinese” fire drill is a chaotic mess where everyone leaves a car but just returns in different seats. The one change is that it is “Chinese” — and the result is chaos.

          And people can’t tell why this term would be considered racist?

  6. Very interesting about intent, because in your original post you, probably quite innocently and without bad intent, use the term “tits up”.
    This same term was used in the headline of a story in the Australian Veterinary Journal (June 2018) and received feedback on it being sexist—derogatory to women— and the journal published an apology for not picking it up and changing it.

    1. Hi Deb,

      Yes, I see your point that the term could be offensive and I’d like to confirm that it was used without any bad intent!

      I don’t regard my blog as being the same as articles in a professional journal — more like social conversation amongst friends — and honestly I’ve never before considered the term “tits up” to be offensive when used in that context.

      But that could just be my own prejudices at play, and although this isn’t a professional venue it is a public one where I don’t know all of the people observing. It isn’t important to keep that term in there so I will remove it. For those reading later, it used to be here:

      So when something goes completely tits-up due to incompetence…

      Maybe there is a wider conversation to be had about this term, since I’m not sure that simply saying “tits” is derogatory. Certainly, I believe gendered insults (bitch, whore, cunt, …) are problematic, but something like “tits up” is just saying “it fell over on its back”. It’s crude language which I definitely agree would have no place in a professional journal, or in a conference speech, but I’m not sure I would agree that in itself it’s derogatory in all contexts.

      Anyway, it’s not a conversation for this post so I think the term is best removed.

  7. In Malaysia, we call it “Telefon Buruk”, which literally translated as “Broken Telephone”. Just knew today that it is called Chinese whispers on the other side of the world. Looked it up, and found it’s a bit racist I guess?

  8. It makes me wonder if the term “chinese fire-drill” was originally intended to be derogatory, since to me, it just sounds like a way to say, “having a fire-drill with a bunch of people who speak a different language than the fire-drill is given in”.

  9. My understanding is that the term “Chinese fire drill” originated from a specific event, an actual fire drill on an English ship. They were employing Chinese sailors who spoke little English and English sailors who spoke little Chinese. They had the Chinese sailors form a bucket brigade, taking buckets of water from one side of the ship down into the hold, where they were pretending to have a fire. Since there wasn’t actually a fire, they tasked other Chinese sailors to form another bucket brigade to take the buckets up out of the hold and dump them over the opposite side of the ship. The Chinese sailors, of course, had no idea what the English were up to with this. There was no fire in the hold and they’d never been told anything beyond “move buckets of water from here to here”. As far as they could tell, the English were just being wildly inefficient about moving water from one side of the ship to the other, so, to be more sensible about it, they simply formed a bucket brigade from one side of the ship to the other, bypassing the hold entirely. The English sailors, not understanding what the Chinese sailors were up to, were now very confused as well. Rather than being about Chinese people being stupid (in fact, the stereotype at the time was more of the “inscrutable Asian”), it was a reference to a situation in which no one understands what’s going on so it’s mass confusion.

    1. Then why not call it an English fire drill, since the English designed and oversaw this situation?

  10. I guess it isn’t a racist, because you just trying to describe something but you had known where it’s coming from. Same as you’re saying greek, it’s derived from Greece

  11. I have been a host family for Chinese students, and the groups always have an end of course party that the hosts were invited to. As usual they wanted to teach us Chinese games, and you guessed it, one of the games that they very proudly said was a Chinese game, was exactly the game that we call “Chinese whispers”. As the students were all English teachers, we did play it using the English language.

  12. Lynn Mann – what did the Chinese students call the game.

    With regards intention there is a Black American family therapist who talks about problems of racism and where the difference lies between intention and consequence. He points out that for the ethics of the privileged group are based on intention as hegemonically they are closer to setting hegemonic norms. The subjugated group’s ethics are more based on dealing with unintentional consequences (the philosopher Hannah Arendt (famous for the phrase Banality of Evil) is good on this in her book Human Condition). So in a sense consequence based ethics are closer to fire-fighting (a term for dealing with dire situations such as poverty) rather than fire-drill. The questions around the ethics of Brer Rabbit are good on them. He is no exemplar of an ideal for an Aristoltean ethics but he is loved for his way of dealing with limited options.

    However were you to bring up Telephone in a pub conversation the question of being understood comes up. We know the n-word has racist connotations so Eeny meanie is easily changed to ‘squirrel without any loss. But I taught cybernetics once using the game and even though I explained the problem of the racist connotations of the game at the beginning of the workshop precisely because the point with regards information systems required habitual knowledge I had to keep the name. A consequence ethic. The workshop being on putting ‘the machine into the machine’. That is first I played the game with any old phrase. The game played as expected and a different phrase came out the end. Then I put ‘Chinese whispers’ in at the beginning and, yes, the phrase came out intact at the end. You can compare that to MichaeltheLibrarian’s explanation of Chinese fire drill if you like. With regards information systems it is a relevant underlying structure.

    1. Ha! Do you really use “squirrel” in the eeny meeny miny mo chant? I learned it as “catch a tiger by the toe” when I was very small in the mid 1950s. I knew there was a “bad” version but my parents wouldn’t tell me what the bad word was in the bad version, so I didn’t learn it until I was much older. I was raised to essentially never say or even be aware of the n-word.

      When I first came across the game “Chinese whispers” in British books/TV/movies I automatically thought it sounded racist and very, very old fashioned.

      1. In the (Northern) UK we used ‘nipper’ when i was growing up 80s/90s. Nipper being a term for a child.

  13. I feel this is humorous, a bunch of non-chinese talking that they don’t think it’s racist 🙂
    I see people talking racist as if you have intent, I don’t want to escalate this to racist, I just want to simply say as a Chinese, i am not comfortable.

    Remember, It’s not your intent that matters. It’s the way it’s perceived by the other party!
    You may not intend offence, but you are accountable for the way you conduct yourself
    Remember, it starts with respect.

    1. I think that the players do not speak the referenced language is the main point, in this case non-Chinese speakers. The game was known as Russian whispers before Chinese whispers became popular. Interestingly Russian itself is a very different sounding language with its own script/alphabet to western European languages.
      The inability to understand is the key component. Though I understand the discomfort from seeming to be singled out as it were.

      Another Chinese person above thought that it reflected the tonality and tonal precision required in the Chinese language, and juxtapostioned against the English language speakers, who really struggle with it, doesn’t feel it to be offensive.
      In terms of the names suitability where does this leave us?

  14. I have a Chinese background. To me, intent is not binary. ie not knowing, doesn’t mean it’s not bad but having bad intent makes it worse. Just because you don’t have negative intent doesn’t stop it being racist. It just implies ignorance. In law “ignorance is not an excuse”. It also perpetuates unconscious bias to continue to have racist values as ok. It’s not.

  15. I was in a quite a large business meeting today and one of my senior managers used this term to describe a situation we needed to avoid.
    I immediately felt targeted and slightly humiliated however the meeting was at its end so everyone moved on.
    After coming away from that and thinking ‘why did she do that, knowing full well I was the only Chinese person there’. (Racist)
    Then I thought.. actually what other term can you use to describe the situation she was explaining and I never knew Double Dutch or Telephone was a substitute and even so not everyone understands them as such.

    So all in all I don’t think they were being racist because they could have used one of the alternative terms but that might have left people wondering what she meant.
    And then I asked myself how do people like me in similar situations to me ( the one I just described) stop feeling offended as soon as you hear the phrase because it’s only natural. I felt and still feel I was being singled out.. which I wasn’t and I guess.. it’s having thick skin and realising everything has context.

    And although next time I hear that phrase in a similar situation, I will probably feel the same way… there’s not much I can do about it but blame my ancestors for inventing the game.

    And I guess to top it off even if my manager was referring to me using that phrase, that’s not racist either when we get down to it because at the end of the day.. I am actually Chinese and explained that’s the origin of the phrase

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