Stupid Question ™
Nov. 18, 1999
By John Ruch
Q: Was there ever a real Chinese water torture? If not, where did the idea come from?
A: The supposed torture of having water slowly dripped onto a victim’s forehead, driving him or her mad, has no basis in Chinese history, law or culture as far as I can determine.
Where it does turn up is in the Inquisition-era writings of 16th-century Italian lawyer Hippolytus de Marsiliis, who supposedly invented and used this torture method. Various water tortures were common in the Inquisition, and this seems to be a refinement of the well-known method of pouring a steady stream over a victim’s head, causing choking and annoyance.
So how does Inquisition lore combine with Chinese imagery and spread through the public imagination? I have some ideas, but frankly, I’m missing the piece that will finish this puzzle.
The “Oxford English Dictionary’s” first citation of “Chinese water torture” dates to 1946 (though it’s not a comprehensive study). It’s notable that more often than not, the image is conveyed by referring merely to “water torture.”
In American slang, “Chinese” is frequently added to a word or phrase to mean generically “exotic” or “foreign.” It could be that Hippolytus’ water torture was popularized long ago—perhaps by Gothic novels, which often exaggerated the Inquisition’s lurid acts—and just had “Chinese” attached recently for a dose of exoticism.
But “Chinese” may be there for a reason. In the 1850s, during the Opium Wars, China’s harsh tortures (none of them involving dripping water) gave rise to exaggerated British propaganda known as “Chinese torture” stories.
These stories greatly influenced the “Yellow Peril” fiction of the early 1900s, which was based on the supposed threat China posed to the West. Best known were the Fu Manchu stories of San Rohmer, filled with exotic torture techniques. Rohmer expert Lawrence Knapp says Rohmer never mentioned water torture, but it’s possible one of his imitators did.
Rohmer was also pals with magician Harry Houdini, who was obsessed with “Chinese torture” execution photos, and who was responsible for the one great popular usage of “Chinese water torture” I could find: his Chinese Water Torture Cell.
Debuting in 1912, this escape trick was originally called the Water Torture Cell, being billed as “Chinese” only in the 1920s (after he met Rohmer, and during the height of “Yellow Peril”). But the trick didn’t involve dripping water; Houdini was submerged head-first.
Much more recently, a dripping-followed-by-screaming “Chinese water torture” has figured prominently on horror sound effects albums designed for Halloween use.
Other than that, the phrase has been simply a convenient metaphor for boredom or aggravation.