5 Things You Thought Were Chinese But Aren't

Did you know that ping pong was a British invention? Or that Chinese water torture has nothing to do with China? Find out more in our post.

1. The Chinese Takeout Container

You know the one I’m talking about. The quintessential foldable box for rice, almost origami-like, with a little wire handle. It often has a pagoda drawing on the side and a stylized “Thank you” written in “Asian-font.”

As it turns out, this box is completely American. It was invented in 1984 by a man named Frederick Weeks Wilcox. He called it a “paper pail” and it was originally used to transport raw oysters. The nearly leakproof container was fashioned from a single sheet of paper, making it very inexpensive.

Around 1970s was when a graphic designer at Fold-Pak decided to splash a red pagoda and some red font on the side of the container. Chinese food was gaining wildly in popularity, due to the fact that was tasty, traveled well, and inexpensive. (Panda Express was founded in 1973.) Thus the oyster pail takeout container became forever associated with Chinese food – in America, at least. 

2. Fortune Cookies


At the end of an American-Chinese meal, there is perhaps nothing more ubiquitous than cracking open a fortune cookie. However, fortune cookies are virtually non-existent in China and Chinese history.

In fact, the snack is thought to have Japanese origins, as a similar pastry was served at shrines and teahouses in Japan as early as the 1800s. In 1914, a Japanese immigrant in San Francisco started distributing cookies with “thank you” notes in them, which is thought to be the start of the fortune cookie business. An immigrant from Hong Kong in Los Angeles made a competing claim that he invented the cookie in 1918.

Regardless, fortune cookies ultimately became the treat of American Chinese restaurants following WWII. Soldiers stopping in San Francisco partook in this regional pastry, and after returning home, asked their local Chinese restaurants to make them. 

READ MORE: How Chinese is the Fortune Cookie?

 3. Ping Pong

Ping pong, also known as Table Tennis, is China’s unofficial national sport. China routinely takes gold in all Olympic table tennis events. In the early 1970s, Ping pong was a vehicle for diplomacy, as an exchange of ping pong players between the U.S and China occurred. This facilitated Sino-American relations and paved the way for Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. 

A sport that is irretrievably tied to China was surprisingly NOT invented in China. Table tennis was a British parlor game, played in as early as the 1800s by the upper-class. The name itself, “ping pong” was English before it was ever Chinese, even though it sounds vaguely Chinese. (Another working name for table tennis was “whiff-waff.”)

The earliest version of the game was thought to be played with books by British military officials stationed overseas. A row of upright books in the middle of the table served as a net, while players hit a golf ball back and forth with more books. It wasn’t until later when the name “ping pong” was trademarked and more expensive equipment such as paddles and nets were invented.

Ping pong was thought to have spread to Asian countries by British military officers who held posts in those places. In the 1950s, European countries such as Hungary dominated the competitive scene of ping pong. With the invention of the foam paddle by the Japanese in the 60s was when Japanese players became the main winner. It wasn’t until the 1980s when China started dominating the scene, and they have dominated since.

 4. Chinese Water Torture

Wow, that took a dark turn. You may have heard of this medieval interrogation tactic, where water is slowly dripped onto a person’s forehead, effectively making him insane. In today’s term, the word is often used metaphorically. For example, hearing “Despacito” on the radio may seem like Chinese water torture since every radio station has been playing the catchy hit for months straight. However, this form of torture certainly did not originate in China. It started in Italy in the 15th or 16th Century, and was once called “Spanish water torture” in other parts of Europe.

So where did the word “Chinese” come from in “Chinese water torture?” Well for one, it probably came from an act by famous escapist Harry Houdini, who escaped from a locked water box called the “Chinese Water Torture Cell.” The word “Chinese” was used to make it seem more mysterious, exotic, and ominous.

5. Chinese Proverbs

You may be confused. Certainly, there are a lot of famous Chinese proverbs that have been translated and widely circulated. Many of these are easily linked to famous figures in Chinese history, such as Lao Tsu and Confucius. However through years of translations, transliterations, and interpretations, a lot of Chinese sayings have changed completely. Furthermore, if a quote has no clear origin, people often just attribute it to it being a Chinese proverb.

Let’s take a look at this famous quote: “Give a man a fish, you’ll feed him for a day. Teach him to fish, and you’ll feed him for a lifetime.” This is widely attributed as a Chinese proverb. However, QuoteInvestigator did some digging, and found that British novelist Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie deserves the most credit for coming up with the modern quote. Her version of the quote which appeared in 1885: “if you give a man a fish he is hungry again in an hour. If you teach him to catch a fish you do him a good turn.” 

There is a Chinese version of the quote that predates this. The Chinese quote, “授人以鱼不如授人以渔” appeared in a book by Chinese prince and geographer Liu An, during the Xi Han dynasty (around 206 B.C). The quote literally translates into “Giving a man a fish is not as good as teaching him to fish.” However, the translation doesn’t take into account that “fish” and “to fish” are read as the same in Chinese, so this is effectively a play on words. An ancient pun, if you will. 

But there are some “Chinese proverbs” that seem to have no origin at all in China. Such as this one: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” Although it is often attributed to being a Chinese proverb, we can’t seem to find the corresponding quote. Let us know in the comments if you know the original quote in Chinese!

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