book review: chinese whispers

In Chinese Whispers, Ben Chu “examines the myths that have come to dominate our view of the world’s most populous nation, forcing us to question everything we thought we knew about it. The result is a penetrating, surprising and provocative insight into China today.” It’s provocative and surprising because it’s so poorly referenced and researched, with significant weighting given to personal anecdata, a significant lack of actual referencing, and an over reliance on stereotypes whilst promising to debunk them.

The task Chu assigns himself is not insignificant; nor is it a wrong task to undertake. There are stereotypes of Chinese people, and they can wear a person down. But the way he goes about it is just as lacking in scientific rigour as the stereotypes he promises to debunk, and in the end the book changes nothing and offers no real insights into anything other than more prejudice and stereotypes.

In ‘Whisper Five: The Chinese Live to Work,’ Chu examines the stereotype of the Chinese work ethic, the myth that Chinese people are industrious, more hard working than westerners, willing to pull 20 hour days because of an innate desire to do so. In this chapter he describes the perceived docility of Chinese men working on railways in the USA, the tales of missionaries in the 1800s of peasants out in the fields from dawn till dusk, and Orwell’s 1984, in which the inhabitants of Eastasia can’t be conquered because of their industriousness and fecundity. Chu also looks at domestic and Chinese cultural elements of this stereotype, such as the chengyu 吃苦耐劳, to eat bitterness and endure labour, and how Mao played on this traditional stereotype in implementing workers villages.

He attempts to debunk this stereotype by highlighting how Mao’s model villages were secretly manufactured; and goes on with further evidence of the youth of today, how the 八零后, those born since the 80s, are lazy little emperors, thereby defeating the myth of Chinese innate industriousness. Chu also mentions an interview in which a Chinese labourer in Italy remains, though he has earned sufficient to go home, because he wants to pay for his son’s education, raising the question: why is one of the myths debunked in this book not the Chinese love of money?

This is the point at which I elected not to finish the book. After five whispers (of seven), frustration at the roundabout construction of the chapters and the lack of referencing and consistency (

And it remains today. We hear complaints that Chinese labour teams sent to Africa by their government to work on infrastructure construction projects…do not patronise local shops, but instead shut themselves off in their fortress-like compounds until their work is done and they can return to China.

Do we? I don’t know, because he doesn’t provide any evidence!), and the clear way the book was written for a white audience with an us versus them dynamic (“Why do we assume China’s culture is immutable?” and the vague implication of racism against white people), I finished the chapter (to see if he took the lazy young people analogy anywhere), and gently closed out of the book.

As a Chinese person, this book does nothing for me. In the context of Australia in the Asian Century, and the constant ebb and flow of Australia working within a Chinese business context, this book does nothing for us. As a non-Chinese person looking to learn more about Chinese traditions and, I suppose, Chinese ways of thinking, this book does nothing for you. Do not read this book. I don’t know what I’m going to do with this terrible copy.


Further notes:

  • Whisper Three, on politics, is called “The Chinese don’t want freedom”, a loaded title.
  • “‘Who has more power, businessmen or politicians?’ I once asked my aunt. ‘Politicians, by far,’ was her unambiguous reply” – offered in chapter 3 with no further discussion, as if this is evidence and not an autobiographical note.
  • Whisper Four, on education, is called “China has the world’s finest education system.”
  • “The episode attracted a million hits on the day it was released,” offered (again, with no references), as evidence of the popularity of satire against the government. In a population of 1.37 billion people, can this truly be called evidence?
  • “One constantly hears that representative democracy would lead to violent chaos.” Oh, does one? One wouldn’t know, because Chu doesn’t deign to offer references!
  • “Indeed, the fact that the forms of constitutional government were kept on, even when they were empty, represented a tacit acknowledgement of their legitimacy, just as hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.” What does this even mean?
  • There is so much more, just ask me, I’ve got pages and pages of notes of my disappointment and dislike.