The Chinese Water Torture

Originally Performed ByPhish
Lyrics ByJimmy Johnson
VocalsLaura Olsher (Narration Samples)
Phish Debut2014-10-31
Last Played2014-10-31
Current Gap359
HistorianTim Wade (TheEmu)
Last Update2015-09-28


A form of torture was first described by a 15th century Italian lawyer named Hippolytus de Marsiliis, who observed how dripping water can, over time, deform stone. Though the moniker “Chinese water torture” is an invention of the early 20th century, there is nothing fictitious about the discomfort the procedure entails. Ask the Mythbusters, who deemed Chinese water torture “too plausible to risk complete confirmation.”

Phish’s interpretation of the “The Chinese Water Torture” on 10/31/14 is, thankfully, not torturous in the least. The dripping sound effect is picked up by a pulsing drum beat, and echoed by splashing and cascading piano. Mike and Trey give this introductory segment more of a middle eastern than far eastern groove, but the mood quickly shifts into a “Cars Trucks Party Time Buses” jam. where Trey solos within Page and Fishman’s structure. The improv here is hot, and one of the set’s many musical highs.

The performance is punctuated by Laura Olsher’s reference to the “Ancient Chinese” as “a very clever race,” and ends with her wisecracking that she’s “not even Chinese!” It’s important to note the embarrassing, insulting, mock-Chinese babble that appears on the original Disneyland record. It’s a cringeworthy example of classic American racism that Phish mostly sidesteps by omitting the offending passage (while retaining the punchline), but it would be wrong not to stop and recognize it here. That 1960’s American pop culture (or Disney specifically) would display open racism isn’t surprising, but its appearance on a record for children shows how deeply these stereotypes have been embedded in our sociological hide. Racism is a subject much too scary for a song in this format to grapple with, so it’s hard to fault the decision to ignore it on Halloween, but “The Chinese Water Torture” has yet to be played a second time.

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