Chinese attack / barrage

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[This is a guest post by Mark Swofford]

I recently stumbled upon a slang term from World War I: "Chinese attack," or sometimes "Chinese barrage." Perhaps LL readers would be interested in this and might even have some info on its origins.

One website on the war gives the following definition of "Chinese attack":

"a faked attack. When a preliminary bombardment ceased, the defending troops would return to their trenches to meet the presumed attack, whereupon the artillery would start firing again and catch the defenders out of their shelters."

The term appears to have been adopted primarily by the British.

I haven't been able to discern, though, why "Chinese" was used, and if this was meant as a compliment or a slur to the Chinese — or perhaps was simply considered neutral.

Here are some examples of the terms in use:

New Zealand Artillery in the Field, 1914-1918, by J. R. Byrne

In preparation for the attack on the 12th the guns commenced to bombard the enemy's defences at 7 a.m. on the previous day, and at quarter past three the same afternoon they opened a Chinese barrage, which, as the name might suggest, reverses the usual procedure by creeping back instead of forward. The enemy evidently read this as the preliminary to an attack, for he instantly replied with a furious barrage, even shelling his own line in his flurry; and at the same time his counter-battery guns commenced to shell the New Zealand batteries. When the attack really was launched at 2.5 p.m. on the following day, innumerable red rockets sent up all along the German line, brought the hostile barrage down five minutes after zero. His fire was, moreover, somewhat below normal, due to the shelling of his batteries by the heavy artillery, and gas-shelling by the 4.5in. howitzers.


America's Munitions 1917-1918, by Benedict Crowell (1919)


The Dijon shop turned out large numbers of silhouettes and dummies. They were drawn from life by artists at Dijon and then cut out from ordinary wall board. Soldiers of the Fortieth Regiment posed as models for these silhouettes. All sorts of postures were employed, but nearly all of them represented soldiers in the act of climbing out of a trench or running, gun in hand, towards the enemy. The uniforms were painted in neutral shades, but the faces and hands were highly colored to be visible at considerable distances during the gray and mist of dawn, when silhouettes were usually employed.

The object of these dummy heads and silhouettes was to draw the fire of the enemy so as to make him reveal his strength and positions. The usual method of use was to place a number of silhouettes, possibly several dozen of them, in shell holes out in front of the trenches. The silhouettes were mounted so that they could be made to stand erect instantly whenever the ropes were pulled from the trenches. At the appointed moment the ropes would all be pulled at once, and the appearance to the enemy would be that of a raiding party starting out at top speed.

The British troops called this operation the Chinese attack. The Germans made no extensive employment of it. The silhouettes nearly always fooled the enemy, as indeed they would deceive anybody in such light and under such circumstances. The British were often amused to read in the German communiques that these Chinese attacks were regarded by the enemy as the real thing. More than one such "repulse" of silhouettes has gone down into the German records as a local success. On one occasion the Germans took a Chinese attack so seriously that they concentrated troops against it with the result that the British were able to gain considerable ground at the points weakened on both sides of the pseudo attack.


The British Campaign in France and Flanders 1917, by Arthur Conan Doyle (1919)

It will be understood that this attack was some miles to the north of the main battle, and that a long section of unbroken Hindenburg Line intervened between the two. Along this line the Fifty-sixth Division kept up a spirited Chinese attack all day. The real advance was upon a frontage of six miles which covered the front from Hermies in the north to Gonnelieu in the south.


Disenchantment, by C. E. (Charles Edward) Montague (1922)

When the Flanders battle of July 31, 1917, was about to be fought, we employed the old ruse of the Chinese attack. We modernised the trick of medieval garrisons which would make a show of getting ready to break out at one gate when a real sally was to be made from another. The enemy was invited to think that a big attack was at hand. But against Lens, and not east of Ypres. Due circumstantial evidence was provided. 


Three Years in France with the Guns: Being Episodes in the Life of a Field Battery, by C. A. Rose (1919)

On several occasions we rendered assistance by putting up what is commonly known as a "Chinese barrage," i.e., the artillery carries out the ordinary programme preceding an attack, but no action follows on the part of the infantry.


The History of the 51st (Highland) Division 1914-1918, by Frederick William Bewsher (1921)

On 28th July a Chinese attack was carried out at 5 A.M. by the Divisional artillery. A Chinese attack consists in passing a moving 18-pounder barrage across the enemy's trenches exactly as if an attack had begun, except that no infantry take part. The troops in the frontline make a considerable noise and hoist dummies on to the fire-step. The German sentries then give the alarm, and as soon as the barrage has passed the garrisons leave their shelters and man their fire-steps. The barrage is then suddenly brought back on to the trenches, and is upon the Germans before they have time to regain their shelters. This is excellent medicine, and after he has been treated to a Chinese attack two or three times, the enemy rather hesitates to man his fire-steps immediately the barrage has passed. Thus, when the day of attack arrives, our infantry, if they can keep close on the heels of the barrage, have an excellent opportunity of "chopping him in cover." The exposure of the dummies, which have the appearance of troops mounting the parapet, also compels him to disclose the position of his machine-guns, which he normally keeps secret until an infantry attack has begun.


The Story of the Great War, Volume VIII (of VIII): The Story of Canada in the Great War, edited and compiled by Lieutenant-Colonel John A. Cooper

On the morning of October 8, 1918, the division carried out a "Chinese attack" with a view to ascertaining the enemy's probable action if attacked. Under cover of the barrage, patrols succeeded in enlarging the small bridgehead across the river at Sailly-en-Ostrevent, capturing twenty-four prisoners and two machine guns.


A website presenting a "Glossary of the Great War" offers the following definition:

Chinese attack

a faked attack. When a preliminary bombardment ceased, the defending troops would return to their trenches to meet the presumed attack, whereupon the artillery would start firing again and catch the defenders out of their shelters.


2017 novel: The Chinese Attack: Ypres 1917

By John Bishop


Web forum discussion of "Chinese barrage"


  1. Cervantes said,

    November 16, 2021 @ 12:14 pm

    According to this NPR story:

    Starting around World War I, the descriptor "Chinese" began to be frequently added to phrases to describe situations that were confusing, incomprehensible and messy.

    These included a "Chinese ace," which referred to an incompetent pilot; "Chinese national anthem," to describe an explosion; and "Chinese landing," which was used by pilots to refer to bumpy, dangerous touchdowns because the aircraft had "one wing low" (a cringeworthy joke about what Asian languages sound like that should sound a bit familiar). Interestingly, Chinese landing and the one wing low pun were both so entrenched in military lingo that they were included in the 1944 edition of The Official Guide To The Army Air Forces.

    Note how all of the above phrases refer to things that are negative and inferior in some way. It's also important to remember that anti-Asian sentiments had existed in the United States for decades before World War I and that the United States government did everything it could to keep Chinese and other Asian immigrants off American shores. In fact, the Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional Usage traces the first pejorative use of "Chinese" to around 1880. . . .

    After the two world wars, "Chinese" continued to be used as a descriptor to indicate things that were hasty, cheap or amateur. The late New York Times columnist William Safire noted in his book I Stand Corrected that in the 1940s and '50s "Chinese home runs" referred to home runs that were either high pop-ups or ones that exited the park just along the foul line. And schoolchildren used to play "Chinese whispers" instead of the game Telephone because the messages would quickly become garbled and lost along the way.

  2. KeithB said,

    November 16, 2021 @ 12:22 pm

    And don't forget "Chinese Fire Drill"

  3. Charles in Toronto said,

    November 16, 2021 @ 12:46 pm

    Not just in English… my elderly university French teacher, whenever she heard a phrasing that made no sense in French, would say "c'est du chinois".

  4. Andy Stow said,

    November 16, 2021 @ 12:52 pm

    Often in engineering it refers to things that are backwards or upside-down. e.g. a slide hammer is a "Chinese hammer."

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    November 16, 2021 @ 1:17 pm

    "Chinese whispers" is the only one of these phrases with which I am familiar, and I have always assumed that it refers to the steady distortion of a message as it passes through various intermediaries. Classic example — "Enemy advancing on the left flank : send re-inforcements" -> "Elephants dancing on a wet plank : send three-and-fourpence".

  6. Not a naive speaker said,

    November 16, 2021 @ 1:29 pm

    Sadly Eric Partridge in A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English does not cite any sources:

    Chinese attack 'A lot of noise and activity to delude the enemy that an attack was brewing in that spot, and to distract his attention from the real one' (Eric Partridge, Wilfred Granville, Frank Roberts, A Dictionary of Forces' Slang: 1939-1945, 1948): Army, mostly officers', coll.: WW2.

    The referenced book is not in my library.

  7. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 16, 2021 @ 1:47 pm

    This wikipedia piece has some interesting anecdotal data on the timing of the phrase falling out of favor, starting with publicized objections in the 1950's.* But note the variability, a "Chinese attack" is a fake, but a "Chinese home run" counts just as much toward the result of the game as any other home run. It seems to me that "Chinese" meaning "cheap/shoddy" and "Chinese" meaning "confusing/incomprehensible" are two rather different sorts of stereotypes and the WW1 usage may have intended to evoke the latter rather than the former.

    "Chinese fire drill" was certainly current in my own teenage years and I don't recall it being viewed as an even mildly taboo or potentially offensive phrase, although I can't say I recall it being discussed with or used in the presence of the handful of Chinese-American students in our high school. I don't think I've ever heard it said aloud rather than just seen it in writing, but the phrase "harder than Chinese arithmetic" may still be in some use as sexual slang, albeit not in polite circles. The much less vulgar "Chinese wall" (meaning "protocol(s) for ameliorating a conflict-of-interest problem by screening someone off from certain information"*) was still commonly used in lawyer/banker circles back in the '90's when I first moved in those circles, although there was then a slow but decided drift toward the non-ethnic synonym "ethical wall."**

    I recall an extended family gathering maybe 15 years at which an elderly gentleman (since deceased, probably born no later than 1920) used some humorous (or so he thought) "Chinese X" slang phrase from his own youth and one of the younger attendees rolled his eyes and said something to the effect of you know there's a reason people don't talk like that anymore. But I now cannot recall what the X was in the "Chinese X" expression, although I think it was in the "cheap/shoddy" subgenre rather than the "baffling/exotic" subgenre.

    *Note the interesting angle that the nice liberal columnist condemning the phrase as racist in 1981 himself uses the subsequently-skunked ethnonym "oriental."

    **This reference-work piece seems to indicate that the phrase is still in some use although it has been objected to in some circles back to the 1980's. I'm really not sure about the "Great Wall of China" hypothesized etymology, because the notion was that the "wall" was temporary and maybe a teensy bit flimsy — I visualized a traditional Japanese shoji that can be slid in or out of position depending on whether you want two small rooms or one big one, although I don't know if there's an equivalent in traditional Chinese building design.

  8. Ali Soleimani said,

    November 16, 2021 @ 2:22 pm

    There's an older usage I've seen where a "Chinese" or "Chinaman's" demonstration or attack was used to refer to something that was intended to frighten or intimidate the enemy via loud noise, lights, etc. without having real effect. I've seen this particularly in US civil war-era writing. It seems to derive from a belief at that time that Chinese forces operated this way, by making loud noises and shooting off weapons more or less indiscrimately.

  9. Ali Soleimani said,

    November 16, 2021 @ 2:28 pm

    Here's an example, newspaper quoted in Shelby Foote, Civil War vol II, referring to the use of fake artillery to make it look like a position was more strongly held than it was:

    "Our enemies, like the Chinese, have frightened us by the sound of gongs and the wearing of devils' masks."

    Very likely the WWI usage you mention came about from this usage or from the same set of beliefs. So pretty negative, I'd say.

  10. G Lailari said,

    November 16, 2021 @ 4:02 pm

    A book similar to Eric Partridge, Wilfred Granville, Frank Roberts, A Dictionary of Forces' Slang: 1939-1945 is available at (2808 pages):


  11. AntC said,

    November 16, 2021 @ 4:12 pm

    [Louis] Armstrong saw danger in bebop. Its “weird notes” and “Chinese music” was made only for other musicians, he feared, and the consequences would soon come to bear.

    Amongst Jazz musicians, that phrase is usually quoted as "Chinese shit"; indeed the Guardian (and other sources) might be euphemising.

  12. Jim said,

    November 16, 2021 @ 6:16 pm

    "Chinese Auction" is another one:

    This is where you buy tickets and put them in the bins for the prizes you want, which enables you to maximize your chances on a narrower set of results.

    I infer that "Chinese" in many of these cases means "a whole bunch of things going every which way", with a subtext of "looks confusing but it works."

  13. Terry Hunt said,

    November 16, 2021 @ 6:45 pm

    Some of the usages of "Chinese X" I have encountered over the years have referred an unusual but effective variation of a standard tactic, or an alternative solution, practical or metaphorical, outside standard Western thinking but supposedly known to long-established Chinese intellectual tradition (shading towards Andy Stow's example). Respect in military circles for the writings attributed to Sun Tzu might have some bearing on this.

    An example from the game of snooker (invented by British soldiers) is the so-called "Chinese snooker," where the cue ball is played so as to be, not behind a non-object ball that blocks a shot to the required object ball, but immediately in front of said non-object ball, leaving the path of the shot unobstructed but making it almost impossible to strike the cue ball accurately.

    Another is the device known as "Chinese handcuffs" or "the Chinese finger trap," a seemingly insignificant woven bamboo tube that resists forceful efforts to withdraw inserted fingers, but can be removed if the force is relaxed.

    A third is the "Chinese burn," a momentarily painful but non-injurious prank or punishment employed by schoolchildren – it would seem that in the USA this is more often called an "Indian burn."

    Such usages do not particularly imply disrespect, and speaking as an elderly Brit I have never noticed any unusual animosity directed against Chinese people and culture (beyond the usual British low-level xenophobia towards everyone foreign): perhaps there is something of a UK/USA divide here.

  14. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 16, 2021 @ 7:52 pm

    And now the internet tells me that "Chinese checkers" is in fact a game of German origin, although the name supposedly originated with its American marketers in the 1920's. But they presumably thought it was a name that would help them sell the product, so it can't have suggested cheap/shoddy/fake, and can't really have suggested confusing/incomprehensible very much either, although maybe it's a very modest shift from confusing/incomprehensible to "intriguingly different than the boring old checkers you're already used to, so you should want to give us your money to try it out."

    Here's a Taiwanese-American historian making the point that not all "Chinese X" constructions are equally bad by way of praising the "ancient Chinese secret?" laundry-detergent commercials of my childhood.

  15. Jon said,

    November 17, 2021 @ 1:38 am

    From Wiktionary:
    Chinese snooker, noun
    A reverse snooker position where the cue ball is in front of, rather than behind, a ball that is not on, making the shot very difficult because the bridge is hampered and the cueing angle is unnaturally high.

  16. maidhc said,

    November 17, 2021 @ 2:58 am

    As far as the "Chinese attack" term, I wonder if it comes from the Chinese custom of setting off firecrackers, e.g., when celebrating new year. A lot of flashes and bangs and smoke, but it's essentially harmless.

  17. Philip Taylor said,

    November 17, 2021 @ 3:50 am

    Ah yes, "Chinese burns" — now that you mention them, Terry, I do remember them from my childhood. They involved using two hands to counter-rotate the skin of the victims's wrist.

    But as to J W Brewer's « subsequently-skunked ethnonym "oriental" », although "skunked" is not in my idiolect and I can only to guess at its meaning, I can state with complete confidence that "oriental" has no negative connotations in the UK — my wife's hotel serves "contemporary Oriental and Western cuisine", and as she herself is 100% Oriental and happily uses the term, I think that that is reasonably compelling evidence.

  18. anon said,

    November 17, 2021 @ 4:27 am

    In Dutch, the idiom "Chinese vrijwilliger" (Chinese volunteer) refers to someone who does not want to volunteer for a task, but has been selected to do it by some authority because no one responded to an initial call for volunteers.

  19. Peter Taylor said,

    November 17, 2021 @ 5:52 am

    @J.W. Brewer, as I recall from lectures on professional ethics sometime around the year 2000, the phrase "Chinese wall" was supposed to evoke a wall (more accurately, a screen) made of paper: it could easily be broken, so you rely on trust that it will be respected.

  20. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 17, 2021 @ 8:58 am

    @Philip Taylor: the process by which "Oriental" (as applied to human beings rather than rugs) came to be viewed as an outdated and potentially offensive word in American English was, as such things often are, a contingent and fortuitous one, rather than driven by any sort of logical necessity. So there is no particular reason why things should have evolved the same way on the other side of the Atlantic. There are instances going the other way of words that are somewhat taboo in BrEng but not at all impolite in AmEng (e.g. "bloody" and "fanny"). But since "Chinese home run" was a distinctively American (or at least non-British, because relevant to baseball rather than cricket) phrase, pretty much everyone quoted in the wikipedia article as condemning the phrase was American.

  21. /df said,

    November 17, 2021 @ 9:14 am

    In cricket a chinaman is a doubly baffling type of spinning delivery, akin to a googly.

    First, it is in the repertoire of left-arm bowlers who cause the ball to spin with a flick of the wrist instead of by running the ball through the fingers; the typical delivery in this "left-arm unorthodox" style causes the ball to spin *towards* a right-handed batsman whereas an orthodox left-arm spin delivery turns away.

    Second, the chinaman further confounds the batsman as a left-arm unorthodox delivery that, being flicked out of the back of the hand, turns *away* from the right-handed batsman.

    @Philip Taylor may consult the weird musings of the late Edward Said to understand the interpretation of "oriental" as "skunked".

    Despite attempts to link the term to historical players of possible Asian heritage, this seems to be a usage derived from the supposed duplicity of foreigners, like "la perfide Albion". And of course there's a queue of people complaining about the usage (which even in cricketing circles is pretty unusual), yet no-one has come up with a replacement (such people would have written "batter" above). After the HK National Security Law, maybe the heat came off.

  22. /df said,

    November 17, 2021 @ 9:15 am

    Obvs swap the last 2 paras.

  23. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 17, 2021 @ 9:24 am

    Note the amusingly wide range of proposed etymologies offered for this French-Canadian dish: Given the geographical distribution of the substantial percentage of Canadians who are of Chinese ethnicity, it would not surprise me if negative evaluations of "Chinese X / X chinois" phrases are less likely to arise in Francophone circles than Anglophone circles.

  24. chris said,

    November 17, 2021 @ 9:31 am

    On one occasion the Germans took a Chinese attack so seriously that they concentrated troops against it with the result that the British were able to gain considerable ground at the points weakened on both sides of the pseudo attack.

    This part reminded me of a bit from the Art of War about creating an uproar in the east and striking in the west, or something like that. But of course diversionary attacks / feints aren't *exclusively* Chinese, so that could be a coincidence.

  25. Ralph J Hickok said,

    November 17, 2021 @ 9:32 am

    When I was a kid (late '40s to early '50s) a "Chinese home run" was a foul fly ball that went over the screen behind home plate.

  26. Carl said,

    November 17, 2021 @ 10:01 am

    The 1997 episode of The Simpsons has a scene in which Bart sets off fireworks in Chinatown and a Chinese American says "Oh no! Chinese fire drill! Serious this time!" implying that the audience is expected to know what a
    "Chinese fire drill" is.

  27. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 17, 2021 @ 10:03 am

    @RJH: the wikipedia article describes that sense as a "secondary" one, claims that it's limited to New England and adjacent areas (so it would be interesting to know if that is or isn't where you grew up), and offers a dubious-sounding origin story saying it's a corruption of "Chaney's home run."

  28. Not a naive speaker said,

    November 17, 2021 @ 1:01 pm

    Why Chinese? Why French? when something is odd from Slang and Unconventional English

    French drive and Chinese Drive
    A snick through the slips: cricket s., the former Eng., the later Aus.: since late 1940s. The former exemplifies 'the British tendency to ascribe anything irregular to the French' (Peter Sanders), the latter the Aus. tendency to attribute anything odd to the Chinese.

  29. Philip Taylor said,

    November 17, 2021 @ 1:16 pm

    And yet we Briton's don't have "French whispers" or a "French burn" …

  30. Philip Taylor said,

    November 17, 2021 @ 1:17 pm

    Please delete totally illiterate apostrophe in "Briton's". Slip of the brain.

  31. Joe Fineman said,

    November 17, 2021 @ 9:48 pm

    I once saw pomegranates offered for sale on a New York City street under the name "Chinese apples".

  32. Terpomo said,

    November 19, 2021 @ 10:46 pm

    Anon, in English we call that "voluntold"

  33. Philip Taylor said,

    November 20, 2021 @ 5:39 am

    Anon, Terpomo — in British English we simply use the passive voice : "I was volunteered …". Usually with scare quotes around 'volunteered'.

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