Human Folly & the Paradox of Human Intelligence

Chinese Whispers

Words may confuse, and they may be misunderstood (and exaggerated). The 'butterfly effect' has become a contemporary cliché. The mathematical principle that small, apparently insignificant, effects may in some circumstances build to significantly greater ones is now well known. But this story, which began in Denver Railroad Station in 1899, shows the principle in action long ago, i.e. that the mere flap of a newspaperman’s tongue in Colorado could cause cyclones in Peking...


In the aforementioned railroad station four reporters were waiting around for the arrival of some minor celebrity. Each was irritated by the presence of the others, one from each of the city's other daily newspapers - and all were further annoyed when the celebrity failed to arrive. But they were soon commiserating with each other in the station bar, where they lamented the severe shortage of real news with which to fill their respective newspapers. The conversation soon turned from the problems of finding enough news to that of dressing up stories to make them more interesting, and then on to the whole question of the morality of fabricating news items. After a few drinks they arrived at the general consensus that if a story didn't actually cause harm to anyone, then it might be justified on the basis of its entertainment value, which, they agreed, was what most people wanted from their newspapers - and in any case the majority of news stories were soon forgotten.

After a few more yarns and a few more drinks the group decided to concoct a story of their own to fill the vacancy left by the celebrity's non-appearance. With conspiratorial glee they began to work out the details. It was soon decided that their fake news item should have a foreign angle - making it more difficult to verify - and they picked on China as a suitably remote location. The story they finally settled on involved a group of engineers who had supposedly passed through Denver, stopping over en route to China, where they were going to supervise the demolition of ... the Great Wall! The Chinese government (the story went) had decided to remove the Wall as a symbol of their desire to improve trade relations with the rest of the world.

By the time they had worked this story up into a passable news report it was well into the night. To cover themselves they went to one of the biggest hotels in town and managed to pull the night-duty clerk into their scheme. They signed four fictitious names into the register, and got the clerk to agree that four New Yorkers had indeed spent the night there, and that the local reporters had interviewed them. The conspirators then pledged never to reveal the hoax as long as any of the others were still alive. Later that night they all filed the story (they managed to keep their secret, it was only many years later that the last survivor told the tale).

Their editors all passed the story. The following day it featured on the front pages of all four Denver newspapers. The Denver Times headlines was typical - GREAT CHINESE WALL DOOMED: PEKING SEEKS WORLD TRADE. The reports detailed the Chinese governments intentions, and the involvement of American engineers in this major demolition assignment. The item was duly noted by the citizens of Denver and, as the reporters had predicted, within a few days it was more or less forgotten about. But the story did not disappear. A couple of weeks later it was picked up, and somewhat amplified, by a big New York paper. Their report was accompanied by illustrations of the Great Wall, a thorough analysis of the reason for the Chinese governments historic decision, and quotes from a Chinese Mandarin (who happened to be visiting New York at the time) confirming the plan.

Then the story really took on a life of its own. It appeared in newspapers all over America and was soon being covered in Europe - from there it was conveyed to the rest of the world. Eventually, after having gone through many transformations, the report finally reached China itself. The version that was published in the Chinese language newspapers affirmed the American intention to send a massive force to tear down the Great Wall in order to force the Chinese to accept foreign trade. It was an extraordinary news-item. To any reasonably intelligent Chinese the proposition was utterly ludicrous. Given the massive dimensions of any section of the Wall, that it was some 1,684 miles long, that it was designed to prevent incursions from northern barbarians rather than sea-borne Imperialists, the story made no sense at all.

But it had arrived at a particularly sensitive time, when there was enormous popular resentment against the various foreign powers, who were vying with each other to gain the greatest advantage from China, and generally throwing their weight around in the old Imperialistic way. The French and Germans had recently followed the British example and bullied China into leasing them ports, where they immediately established military and naval bases. The Russians and the British were building railways and laying telephone and electric lines all over the country. These activities were deeply resented by the masses of illiterate peasants, to whom they seemed to offer little tangible benefit and which, for the most part, were simply mysterious and threatening. To add insult to these many injuries the foreign missionaries were greatly increasing their proselytising activities, with their usual insensitive attitudes towards local tradition. Against this background the rumour that the Foreign Devils were about to destroy the greatest of their national monuments appeared as a final, intolerable outrage - particularly to the 'Boxers'.

Missionaries in northern China had first reported the appearance of this movement a year or so earlier (they were named after their dedication to T'ai-Chi Chuan, Chinese boxing). Since then 'The Fists of Righteous Harmony' (as they called themselves) had spread rapidly; they were bitterly opposed to the foreigners and their interfering ways. Their leaders predicted the dawn of a new religious era for the year 1900, which they saw themselves as ushering in, and they gave regular public demonstrations of their power, including their supposed invulnerability to European arms. They wore a red scarf around their heads, red bands around their wrists and ankles, and the inscription Fu (happiness) on their chests. Their ritual displays, which were usually given to large, impressionable crowds of peasants, involved deafening shouts, wild contortions and frenetic displays with swords and lances. The participants were frequently in a state of trance and apparently oblivious to pain or danger. The mood at these events was that of a collective, aggressive hysteria, born out of frustration.

There had recently been a whole crop of disasters, including floods and famine, which the Boxers blamed on the 'scandalous conduct of the Barbarians'. In their view the foreign-built Iron roads with their Iron carriages were seriously interfering with the Earth's beneficial influence, likewise with their great Iron ships that were forever steaming up and down the sacred Chinese rivers. Their deep mines were also an affront, since they too damaged the essential harmony of the landscapes, its feng-shui. The Boxers anger was at first directed against Christian converts, many of whom were attacked and killed in the more remote provinces. But as the movement gathered momentum its followers turned their attention to more obvious symbols of Western influence, the railways, post offices, telegraph wires etc.. By the early months of 1900 their numbers and areas of influence had increased dramatically, and the Boxers had taken to attacking the missionaries as well as their converts, and many had been killed. The Western powers, alarmed by this wave of hostility demanded that the Chinese authorities suppress the troublemakers. But there was widespread sympathy for the Boxers cause, even among government circles. The situation was, to say the least, highly charged.

It was just at this time that the news broke that the Americans were intending to dismantle the Great Wall. The story that had been cooked up by a group of well-oiled hacks in far off Denver was now appearing under screaming headlines, accompanied by the most violently xenophobic editorials. Denials of American involvement fell on deaf ears; the complete unfeasibility of the project went completely by the board. The report provoked an absolute storm of protest, and pushed the anti-foreign movement into a full-scale revolt. Hordes of angry peasants descended on Peking, where they engaged in an orgy of church-burning, the massacre of Chinese Christians, and the destruction or looting of anything that savoured of Western influence (and much else). Most foreigners and their families fled for safety to the compounds of the foreign Legations where they were besieged for weeks.

The Boxer Uprising led to the loss of thousands of lives (the majority of them Chinese), and provoked severe retaliation by the foreign powers. The Siege of the Legations in Peking was relieved on 14th August 1900 by a combined expeditionary force of foreign troops, who went on to complete the devastation of the city begun by the Boxers. The rebellion was soon crushed by the professional armies of the Allies, and its leaders all executed. The western powers then imposed humiliating peace terms on China (the Boxer Protocol), and demanded vast sums in indemnities (which burdened the Chinese state right up to the 1940ies).

The consequences of these events were devastating to the Chinese economy and its political stability, leading to decades of civil war and disorder, and finally to the Communist Revolution of 1945.