Chinese Whispers – Ben Chu demystifies China

This post is part of a series of blog posts reviewing our list of top non-fiction titles. These are the books that are being read by large groups in The Pigeonhole’s Company Book Clubs (click for more information). Our carefully curated list includes titles on technology, wellness, politics, geopolitics, the workplace and the economy. Expect a new post showcasing our ever expanding list twice a month.

Chinese Whispers by Ben Chu

Published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson, pp. 288. Buy here.

The Relevance

Alongside artificial intelligence, workplace well-being, and innovation, the rise and rise of China is one of the most popular themes in The Pigeonhole’s Company Book Club. The traditional western superpowers now have to think about their irrepressible competitors in the east, and in particular the most populous country on the planet; a phoenix that has risen from the ashes of Mao’s disastrous ‘Great Leap Forward’ to become one of the most industrialised and productive economies in the world.

There are some great new books on China, but our pick of the bunch is Ben Chu’s Chinese Whispers. In seven bite-sized ‘whispers’ he breaks down the core truisms and mistruths that have proliferated since … well, since forever. These myths have infiltrated not only popular culture, including music, theatre, television, and the arts, but the behaviour of politicians too – with Henry Kissinger’s soundbites frequently popping up in Chinese Whispers as an example of an outsider who has formed very strong, if not entirely accurate, views of Chinese culture.

Any company with operations in China, or those considering expanding into this market, must take steps to understand the operating environment and the psychology of the businesses and individuals they will be dealing with. What Ben Chu demonstrates is that this supposedly unique nation is, in many ways, similar to its new economic contemporaries, especially in the dreams and aspirations of the youngest generations.

The Story

No punches are pulled in this frank demystification of everything that China has come to stand for in the 21st century: a gargantuan country whose culture is deep-rooted in communism, with a population that loves to work so hard it barely spares a thought for its own civil liberties while maintaining a strong distrust for foreigners. This insanely driven nation are running rings around lackadaisical western education systems and it is a matter of when not if they become the world’s number 1 superpower.

These are a selection of the legends that Chu inspects during the course of his succinct yet detailed national profile. Each chapter follows a familiar pattern. First, Chu traces the roots and the supporting evidence of each whisper about China, pulling apart the strands of how and why these beliefs have become so widespread. Once we are all sitting comfortably, reassured by the weight of evidence mustered to support the view that China is, say, an inherently racist nation, Chu pulls the carpet from under our feet and shows us the whole picture.

The answers are always revealing and sometimes shocking, but more often than not they are levelling, and let us know that this supposedly unknowable nation have a lot in common with their western counterparts. Rather than force-feeding the reader his own rhetoric on what China is and is not, Chu lays out the facts and challenges us to come to our own conclusions. That’s just one of the reasons it is such a great book for discussion within companies.

The Creator

Ben Chu has produced a fiendishly well-research book from a position of good authority, and we are delighted to be hosting a live private Q&A with him and one of our company book groups later this month. Born to a Chinese mother and a Scottish father, Ben was brought up in Manchester and went on to study modern history at Jesus College, Oxford. He has written for the Independent since 2000 and has been the paper’s economics editor since August 2011. Before that he was the newspaper’s chief lead writer and assistant comment editor. He has reported from China, Taiwan, Germany, France and Switzerland and Ireland. Other positions Ben has held at the paper include editing the letters page and writing for the personal finance section. You can find him tweeting on the economy and other things right here.

Ben still has family living in the Guangdong province of China and this, his first book, Chinese Whispers: why everything you’ve heard about China is wrong, is published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson. Purchase it here.

If you would like use The Pigeonhole’s Company Book Club service, please click here for more information or email .

The Panama Papers


The Panama Papers – Bastian Obermayer & Frederik Obermaier

This is the third article in our new series about the books that are currently popular in our company book clubs. This carefully curated list includes titles that focus on technology, wellness, politics, the workplace and the economy. To check out the service offering and book a consultation click here. Continue reading The Panama Papers

The Rise of the Robots

This is the second article in our new series about the books that are currently popular in our company book clubs. This carefully curated list includes titles that focus on technology, wellness, politics, the workplace and the economy. To check out the service offering and book a consultation click here.


The Relevance

Currently our most read nonfiction title, The Rise of the Robots unpacks the rapid progress of the AI revolution and has become, definitively, the must-read title of the genre. Not only are Martin Ford’s hypotheses diligently researched, convincing, accessible, and couched in elegant prose – they are almost completely inarguable and are required reading for all professionals, especially those concerned with strategy, HR, and innovation. Readers are challenged to think creatively in the face of this brave new information, and construct a world in which human labour – and in particular the middle classes –can remain necessary and valuable.

Continue reading The Rise of the Robots

A Very Expensive Poison

This is the first article in our new series about the books that are currently popular with our company book clubs. This carefully curated list includes titles that focus on technology, wellness, politics, the workplace and the economy. Expect a new post showcasing the highlights once a fortnight. To check out the service offering and book a consultation click here.

A Very Expensive Poison by Luke Harding

The Relevance

You don’t need to be interested in Russia, international relations, or security to enjoy Luke Harding’s investigative masterpiece; the unveiling of London as a playground for spies and a hotbed for murder and deceit is more than enough to keep you gripped. Russia has always been a major player on the international political scene – never more so than now. With America undergoing a process of redefining its foreign policy on a scale not seen for generations, and the UK in the throes of their own identity crisis, understanding the internal machinations of the Russian authorities and gaining an insight into the scarcely believable manner in which lethal powers are passed down the hierarchy, is both politically relevant and makes for a enthralling narrative. In our reading groups Harding’s book has prompted lengthy debate and it continues to be a popular selection for our clients and their colleagues.

The Story

More than ten years have passed since the death of Alexander Litvinenko – ample time for Luke Harding to piece together how two blundering assassins executed their somewhat rudimentary plan with the most expensive (and toxic) of poisons. Having offended the Russian government and Vladimir Putin in particular, Litvinenko sought sanctuary in London, where he received a sizable monthly stipend from the sometime-charitable oligarch and friend, Boris Berezovsky – a man whose monthly expenditure regularly exceeded $1 million. But rather than ensuring a safe distance between him and his former employers, Litvinenko was still exposed to the wrath of his riled compatriots.

The meat of Harding’s book, after the steady and careful scene-setting of the early chapters, occurs in the final third, when – after a couple of bungled attempts – two of history’s less capable hitmen make their final play. The incompetence and plain ignorance of the two men entrusted with a substance that left poisonous traces throughout west London, is – frankly – terrifying; as is Litvinenko’s chilling awareness, in the immediate aftermath of the assassin’s plot, that he had been poisoned.

The Creator

Luke Harding is perfectly placed to narrate events concerning corruption at the heart of the Russian state, having been a victim of their unscrupulous methods himself. During years spent living and reporting in Moscow as a foreign correspondent, Harding frequently found himself on the wrong side of the authorities and was subjected to intimidation and threats as comeuppance for unflattering articles he had written – an experience he catalogues in one of his previous books. Harding positions the murder of Litvinenko as the centrepiece of Russia’s broader incursions on the West, providing insight, and perhaps warning, of what is to come. This nuanced account of what is, at its heart, one family’s tragedy, makes for essential and captivating reading. Following our book groups, Luke is open to hosting events and Q&A sessions with the readers.

More details on our company book clubs can be found here. Please contact to discuss options for your own reading group.

November’s Pigeonhole Transmission

Juliet Jacques photographed at the Close-Up Film Centre, East London by Pal Hansen for the Observer New Review.

November is going to be an exciting month at The Pigeonhole as we launch our serialisation of Juliet Jacques’ Trans: A Memoir. A few weeks ago, I raced through this unflinching look at what it means to be transgender in 2016 and the innumerable physical, social and psychological barriers people in transition have to go through to reach their long-awaited destination; a destination which, as the closing words of the memoir suggest, is less a destination than a starting point, from which life can then begin: ‘I let go of the mouse, drummed my fingers on my desk and then gently reclined into my chair, letting the day go by.’

Continue reading November’s Pigeonhole Transmission

If Obama can, so can we


Finally, after months and years of waiting, the public have got what they have been crying out for (in well-mannered, almost whispered tones): a look at exiting-President Barack Obama’s 5-strong summer reading list. (He’s even had time to put together a chart-topping Spotify Playlist – he’s really doing no work at all anymore is he?) Continue reading If Obama can, so can we

Who are the Redlegs?

RED LEGS amended 3 (2)

I know exactly how many years it took to write Redlegs. It was conceived a little after my daughter was, and it was published when she was 21.

I mean, I wasn’t sitting all day every day tussling with it. That would be about a paragraph a week. During that time, I wrote something like three stage plays, 70-odd hours of television (including Taggart, and documentaries like An Anarchist’s Story), about twice as many radio dramas and documentaries, a book of short stories (Poor Angels), and another novel (Ascension Day). As well as doing my bit bringing up Emma and her wee brother. Continue reading Who are the Redlegs?

“The Complexity of Simple Things”

A piece by The Pigeonhole Founder Jacob Cockcroft for the Bristol University TEDx Conference.



“Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

– Antoine de Saint-Exupery

A start up is essentially a distillation process inside an hourglass. Will you extract the essential product before time runs out?

The wonderful thing about starting a new enterprise is the limitless possibilities of your ideas, of what you can build, of what problems you can solve. Your universe is constrained by nothing more then your imagination. But this same potential, is also your biggest weakness. You cannot sit on the fence forever and nor can you be all things to all men, you must work out the one simple thing you can do, and do it beautifully. Continue reading “The Complexity of Simple Things”

Less is More: The State of the Short Story

Image: seaternity on Flickr
Image: seaternity on Flickr

The short story has had a long and topsy-turvy existence. Over in America, and especially on the east coast, publications such as The New Yorker and Esquire relentlessly peddled the finest in the mini-form for decades from before the Second World War. The New Yorker in particular became a (seriously esteemed) nursery slope on which promising novelists could fine-tune their prose. Truman Capote, Vladimir Nabokov, Dorothy Parker and John Updike were just a few of the celebrated names that went on to considerable fame following publications in the periodical.

Continue reading Less is More: The State of the Short Story

Read Somebody Else’s Diary

If you’ve heard of but never actually stuck your nose into the episodic piece of comedy genius that is The Diary of a Nobody, then now is the time. Wdiaryofanobodye are serialising George and Weedon Grossmith’s comic classic, and in so doing harking back to its original format – it first appeared in instalments in Punch magazine. Forever cropping up on the-best-100-novel lists, The Diary of a Nobody will make you laugh, cringe and then laugh some more at the neurotic considerations of the inimitable Charles Pooter. Continue reading Read Somebody Else’s Diary