Chinese whispers?

中国日报网 2013-09-13 13:23



Chinese whispers?Reader question:

Please explain this example sentence, particularly the phrase “Chinese whispers”: As news of Michael Jackson’s death spread like Chinese Whispers on Twitter, more spurious stories sprang up.

My comments:

In his time, Michael Jackson, King of Pop, was biggest star of them all. His death, on June 25, 2009, shocked a lot of fans. It came out of the blue as the singer was preparing for his final concert tour.

The concerts, aptly titled This Is It, would have commenced on July 13, meaning they were barely three weeks away. As news of Jackson’s death spread on Twitter, all sorts of rumors on the cause of his death sprang up. Some say he died of drug overdose. Others suggested suicide. Still others pointed to murder.

In short, people heard others say something and retold that story, missing bits here while adding pieces there and re-hurtle the story online.

Hence the story spread like Chinese Whispers.

Chinese Whispers, of course, is the pass-the-message game people play around the world. In this game, people line up in a straight line. The person at the head of the line whispers a simple story or merely a full sentence to the ear of the person next to him or her. The next person then retells the story to the next person, who in turn passes the story on to the next in line and the next.

In the end, the last person to hear the story will tell what he hears to the whole group – drawing big laughs in return.

Naturally, as you can imagine, the end story will be dramatically different from the original.

I said naturally because, as you can imagine, humans are human and cannot be trusted to always tell a story straight. Sometimes they’re too impatient to hear a story complete. Sometimes they believe what they want to believe no matter what you say to them. Sometimes it is due to forgetfulness. Sometimes… whatever, it doesn’t matter. Stories just become different stories as they are told and retold again.

In short, the phrase “Chinese whispers” stand for rumors being rumors – they are distorted and become more unreliable the wider they spread.

As to why such whispers are called Chinese – says the game used to be called Russian Gossip and is unsure of any good reason for the name change – I cannot find any credible beyond-reasonable-doubt theory as to its origin. A plausible theory may have to do with the fact that the Chinese language is a difficult one. Early Europeans hence might have always suspected that the Chinese were whispering to each other, saying things they didn’t want the foreign devils to hear. Even if this is not the case, it would appear so to the Europeans because the Chinese language sounded quite Greek to their ears at any rate.

Or the Chinese the first European saw might indeed have whispered quite a lot to each other – and usually about how queer the big noses looked, too.

Anyways, use “Chinese whispers” sparingly for the term may appear offensive to some as it may suggest only the Chinese gossip and spread rumors.

That’s certainly not true. All peoples in the world gossip and spread rumors. We are all equal in the spread-them-like-wildfire rumors department and therefore no one race should begrudge another here.

Still, use this phrase with care lest you offend some of your listeners. It is higher human nature to be considerate of others and, once adequately fed and clothed, it is important to for all of us to aim higher.

Nevertheless, let’s read a few media examples of “Chinese whispers” and, at least for now, bear with them:

1. Sam Allardyce slipped into the Newcastle hotseat and swiftly revealed his intention to resolve Michael Owen’s situation as a matter of urgency.

The 52-year-old was unveiled as Glenn Roeder’s successor this afternoon after signing a three-year contract to inherit a job which has assumed the appearance of the proverbial poisoned chalice in recent years.

He did so against the backdrop of intense speculation over the £17million England striker’s future on Tyneside amid claims he could leave for as little as £9million after managing just 14 appearances for the club in two years.

Allardyce met those players who did not have other commitments at the training ground this morning after arriving in the north-east by helicopter, but will speak to the others, principally Owen, as soon as possible....

However, perhaps his more immediate concern will be to quell the unrest in a dressing room which has become increasingly unruly in recent weeks.

Martins’ disappearance, coupled with French midfielder Charles N’Zogbia’s anger at being named only among the substitutes at Watford provided further evidence of unrest, and senior professionals Shay Given and Nicky Butt both later questioned the desire of some of their team-mates.

However, Allardyce insists he will have no qualms about restoring discipline.

He said: ‘I can do that. I have got no problems. If there is any unrest in the dressing room, it will be my job to find out and resolve those problems.

‘The only way the club will get success is by having a team spirit where everybody fights for each other and everybody looks after each other.

‘If we do not get that, it does not matter how good your players are, you will get those factions and you will get those Chinese whispers that can cause a distraction from what the ultimate goal is.

‘Everybody here at Newcastle wants success, so we should all pull the same way to get that.’

- Allardyce keen to keep Owen,, May 15, 2007.

2. Recordings of male humpback whales have shown that their haunting songs spread through the ocean to other whales.

Researchers in Australia listened to hundreds of hours of recordings gathered over more than a decade.

These revealed how a specific song pattern, which originated in Eastern Australia, had passed “like Chinese whispers” to whale populations up to 6,000km away in French Polynesia.

The findings are reported in the journal Current Biology.

The research team, led by Ellen Garland from the University of Queensland, say the findings show the animals transmit such “cultural trends” over huge distances.

“Within a population, all males sing the same song,” Ms Garland explained. “But that song is constantly changing. So we wanted to look at the dynamics of songs throughout an ocean basin.”

To do this, she and her colleagues studied recordings of 775 humpback whale songs, taken by scientists from the South Pacific Whale Research Consortium.

“Lots of different sounds make up each song,” Ms Garland explained.

“There are low frequency moans, groans and growls then higher cries and shrieks and all variations of ascents and descents.”

- Humpback whale song spreads to other whales,, April 14, 2011.

3. For several months the talks of a real life romance between Simbu and Hansika emerged as only Chinese whispers. The two were first seen hand in hand at private parties, later Simbu gave Hansika a special invitation to be a guest at his newly built home in the city and most recently Simbu’s dad, T. Rajendar had openly stated that he is happy with Hansika as his future daughter-in-law.

While all these reports created an outline for the Simbu-Hansika love story, the official word came from each of them at the same time, making it seem like it was well discussed by the two to come out in the open and confess their affection for each other.

Simbu said, “Yes I’m with Hansika and right now she is doing really good and marriage will be decided by our family ... Hope u will respect our privacy”. Hansika duly backed her boy by saying “Been hearing too many rumours about my personal life, so just want to clear. Yes! I’m seeing STR and hence I wouldn’t like to talk about my personal life.”

With Hansika’s mother presently in Chennai accompanying her daughter for shoots, maybe she will find the time to engage with STR’s family and chart out the future course of this love-struck Jodi.

Interestingly, Simbu’s next two films, Vaalu and Vettai Mannan, will feature Hansika as his leading lady so it’s safe to assume that the two will share a great chemistry on screen.

- Simbu and Hansika finally confirm ‘it’ !, July 20, 2013.

Related stories:

A rough and tumble career

Through the revolving door?

Keep his counsel?

Halo effect?

Throwing them a bone?

Smoking gun evidence?

Political horse trading

Go to Zhang Xin's column


About the author:

Zhang Xin(张欣) has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at:, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.

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