The problematic history of ‘Chinese Whispers’
If you were playing ‘Chinese Whispers’ in Victorian Britain, it is likely you would know it by a different name. The game in which a message makes its way around a chain or circle of people, whispered by one player to another and is distorted in the process, was more commonly called ‘Russian Scandal’ in the nineteenth century. But in both of those names – ‘Russian Scandal’ and ‘Chinese Whispers’ – you can hear the same attitude: an almost cartoonish Victorian voice, that somehow manages to be salacious and judgemental at the same time.
‘Russian Scandal’ alludes to largely imagined myths about the sexual lives of the Russian elite. (Think of Catherine the Great and the outrageous stories that her rivals spread after her death). ‘Chinese Whispers’ implies taboo secrets that can’t be said out loud; one must stand intimately or uncomfortably close in order to whisper in another’s ear. And in both ‘Russian’ and ‘Chinese’ we see the brutality of the British Empire: an invading force which actively spread dehumanising stereotypes about the people of other nations in order to justify colonial violence. ‘Chinese Whispers’ carries within it the long-standing sinophobic trope of inscrutability, not to mention wilful incomprehensibility. It isn’t a coincidence that the name ‘Chinese Whispers’, and the racist myths it perpetuated, came to prominence in the decades after the ‘Opium Wars’. The military campaigns waged on China by Britain in the nineteenth century forced the Qing Dynasty to legalise British opium and accept punishing trade arrangements. Phrases such as ‘Chinese Whispers’ help to make it seem as if such brutal treatment was deserved.
It is not exactly clear when, or why, ‘Chinese Whispers’ became the preferred name for the game in the United Kingdom (in the United States, it is known as ‘Telephone’). The Oxford English Dictionary lists the first usage of the phrase in 1964, though at least one earlier example can be found from the nineteenth century. In contrast, the earliest instance of ‘Russian Scandal’ is listed by the OED as 1861. Perhaps it is that racist tropes have a longer half-life than political rumours. Or perhaps the change is reflective of Britain’s shifting relationship with these countries. Either way, the shift in names is a real-life example of how language change mirrors what happens in a game of ‘Chinese Whispers’ – at the end of the game, everyone can see that what came out of one end of the chain isn’t what went in at the other, but few, if anyone, know when, how or why it changed.
In everyday conversation, ‘Chinese Whispers’ is often used as a metaphor for the spreading of false rumours. Here the pejorative meaning of the expression is even more apparent than when it is used purely as a name for a game. You can find ‘Chinese Whispers’ used in the sense of ‘rumour’ in the online pages of broadsheet pages published in the last decade, although in more recent times it tends to appear less frequently. The Guardian and Observer style guide, for instance, instructs journalists to ‘avoid except in quotation marks’. It remains, nevertheless, the best-known name for the game in the United Kingdom; ‘Telephone’ has yet to catch on.
‘Chinese Whispers’ is often played by children who are unlikely to know of the bloody history encoded in the name, even if they have a very personal reason to be viscerally hurt by it. This is how ideological conditioning works: violence and prejudice are made to seem normal through everyday phrases and apparently innocent pastimes. And yet it is often through play and art that violence, prejudice and power can be flipped on their head, and the meaning of a form can be questioned. Take, for instance, the various enhancements that, over the years, have been made to Ivor Roberts-Jones’ twelve-foot statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square. The strip of grass that was placed on his head like a Mohican haircut during the May Day protests of 2000. The words ‘was a racist’ that were written beneath his name during the Black Lives Matter and, separately, the Extinction Rebellion protests of 2020. Regardless of your opinion of Churchill or of the political motivations behind these acts, it is hard to deny that these are creative performances. That is to say, giving a statue a new hairstyle or a new gloss is a deliberate act of transformation, which changes the meaning of the original work of art by changing its form, often in powerfully suggestive and symbolic ways. Witness the response of the UK tabloid press to both of these acts, which was as intense and emotionally charged a reaction as any avant-garde artist could hope to provoke.
This is how the game works: the first person starts the process off and comes up with a message, but as soon as they whisper it into the second person’s ear, they relinquish control of it, and what eventually emerges out of the other end may surprise, confuse, upset or tickle them. It is a strange game: one without a winner, where, paradoxically, the overall purpose is to get things wrong, but not to get things wrong on purpose. Put another way, the game is most fun when the phrase changes in some unpredictable way, but it’s considered bad faith to deliberately change it when it comes round to your turn.
It is in this spirit that Erin Dickson has named her project ‘Chinese Whispers’. The aim in giving it this title is not to reproduce the old lies of the British Empire, nor is it to whitewash them; it is to draw attention to the different ways in which intercultural miscommunication and misinterpretation can be approached. As the name of a Victorian game, it dates back to an era when Britons were encouraged to blame their own failure (or unwillingness) to understand other cultures and languages on ‘devious’ and ‘uncivilised’ ‘foreigners’. But with the ‘Chinese Whispers’ project, Dickson invites us to view misunderstanding through a new prism – one in which it becomes a rich source of play, collaboration and creative possibility. Here the imperfect translation of one artist’s verbal instructions into the language of another artist results in a series of richly suggestive new forms: dolphins are transmuted into fish; eyes sprout seemingly out of nowhere; the outline of each vase shifts with each new iteration. Similarly, an old phrase with bloody and problematic history becomes an invitation to embrace to the joyful mixing and meeting of languages from across the world.
But just as traces of the very first vase can still be seen in later versions created by other artists, so too do the old meanings of ‘Chinese Whispers’ still cling to it. How can this be? How can a phrase serve both as a reminder of a brutal, imperialistic past (that lives on in various ways) and a celebration of cultural and linguistic difference?
One answer to that question can be found in the writing of the Russian thinker, Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975). Unlike many linguists in the early twentieth century, Bakhtin did not see the language of any given country as a stable and orderly system. For Bakhtin, language is a chaotic and crowded battleground. In any place or any time, there are different worldviews and ideologies fighting to impose their own version of reality on language. Look, for instance, at how differently those on the left or right of the political spectrum use words like ‘freedom’, ‘security’ or ‘woke’, and how they encourage others to do the same. Look at differences in how people of different generations, social groups and professions speak. Consider how using a word in one context can produce a completely different reaction than if we use it another. This messy but richly diverse state of affairs Bakhtin calls ‘heteroglossia’. In a ‘heteroglossic’ world, Bakhtin tells us –
...language is not a neutral medium that passes freely and easily into the private property of the speaker’s intentions; it is populated – over-populated with the intentions of others. Expropriating it, forcing it to submit to one’s own intentions and accents, is a difficult and complicated process. (‘Discourse in the Novel’, first published in 1975)
So it is with the phrase ‘Chinese Whispers’. It evokes a racist, imperialistic attitude, one which is still pervasive in the present day. In the United Kingdom, it refers to an anarchic child’s game, in which the demands of everyday communication – that we must always speak clearly and meaningfully – are relaxed, often with hilarious or shocking results. And it is a heteroglossic name for a profoundly heteroglossic glassworks exhibition: one in which differences are celebrated, not stigmatised. Erin Dickson reminds us that our words are not wholly our own, and that their meanings often run away with us. Embracing this chaotic state of affairs can help us to find new ways of creating and communicating with each other.
Department of English, University of Liverpool
Alex Broadhead is a lecturer in English Language and Literature at the University of Liverpool. He is the author of The Language of Robert Burns: Style, Ideology and Identity (Bucknell University Press, 2014) and a forthcoming book on early English dialect literature.