Where did “Chinese Wall” come from?

The meaning of the term “Chinese wall” is clear. It’s a virtual partition meant to keep potentially conflicted interests apart. What’s not clear, at least to me, is where the term came from. This post at WhatIs.com quotes Wikipedia, this way:

Chinese wall is usually said to be a reference to the Great Wall of China, erected over 2000 years ago to protect inhabitants from invaders. However, other theories exist. In a Wikipedia entry, for example, the author argues that the term probably derives from a diplomatic contrivance of the Late Imperial period in China: “…if a junior mandarin saw a senior mandarin on the road he was expected to bow and present his compliments. In Beijing this tended to happen quite a lot and so traffic was frequently blocked. Instead mandarins came up with a method of pretending they did not see each other on the road by the clever placing of a retainer with an umbrella. Because they did not “see” each other, they were not obliged to stop.”

Meanwhile Wikipedia’s Chinese wall article now lacks that passage, so that’s a dead end. I recall “Chinese wall” meaning a thin one: You can hear what’s happening on the other side, but can pretend not to notice. Still, not good enough. So I’m hoping one of you can point me to a source I can cite in the book I’m writing.

And if you’re wondering why I’m posting less these days, it’s because my nose is on the book’s grindstone.

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7 comments

  1. Benoit Felten’s avatar

    The Wall so thin that you can ignore what’s happening but still hear it strikes me more as a “japanese wall”. I’ve never heard Chinese Wall used in that sense. But I’m not native, so that might skew things…

  2. Baylink’s avatar

    You might want to toss that question at the Language Loggers; they tend to have fairly good references for etymology, even on slang, and they have at least 2 people who speak Chinese pretty cluently. (That was a typo, but seeing it’s you, it’s funny, so I’m claiming the coinage. :-)

  3. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Right, Benoit. That’s why I always thought it odd to call it a “Chinese wall” rather than a Japanese one.

    And Baylink, thanks. Good idea.

  4. Michael Slattery’s avatar

    Here’s yet another explanation (from http://en.academic.ru/dic.nsf/enwiki/258690 ):

    “The term originates from a reference to Chinese standing screens which allow for the temporary installation of a wall in a room lacking the permanent architectural feature.”

    Also, I’ve seen several claims that the term originated in about 1900, which contradicts the common assertion that it was born after the financial crisis of 1929.

  5. Dan Guy’s avatar

    They’re named for the moveable, wood-framed paper wall dividers, those free-standing screens, like you see the moll changing behind in old movies.

  6. Ian Falconer’s avatar

    In The City of London a Chinese Wall is a theoretical division within a financial company through which sensitive information does not flow. However individuals may work on both sides of a Chinese Wall, meaning that the wall itself is a metaphor for trust rather than a physical object.

    That said the paper walls and screens mentioned above are probably the best guess for an original etymology.

    PS The Chinese had paper walls too as any chop socky fan will know and I cite Bruce Lee on that ;)

  7. Geoff’s avatar

    I always thought it referred to the thin paper screens as well. Over here (When I’m home that is) in England we have Chinese whispers as well http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_whispers

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