In the future in Arrival, the commander says that he changed his mind about going to war with the aliens because Louise called his private number and told him his wife's dying words. My question is what did Louise say to him (like in English) and why did it change his mind?


9 Answers 9


In Arrival, Louise did two incredible things to change the Chinese general’s mind. Firstly, she called him on his direct number, straight to his mobile- a permission only available to a select few secure people, yet she called him directly as she knows at this point that in her timeline, the general will give her his phone number. From this ‘pre-memory’ so to speak, she is able to contact him directly in an attempt to stop him from attacking the visitors.

After managing to contact him, she needed to convince him to stand down and work toward peace, and so Louise chose to ‘remember’ the event where the general told Louise in person what his wife’s last words were. They were whispered to Louise in the future, so from this I suspect that his wife’s death was an intimate affair- a situation very closed and private. Perhaps something even he is ashamed of, as his wife’s last words are “In war there are no winners, only widows.” (as it is mentioned at: The mystery line in 'Arrival', revealed) .

As the general was the first to intend to attack the visitors, it seems as though he may be somewhat trigger happy, and it seems as though his wife has dissuaded him from war in the past, or at least, her death is a consequence of a war.

Another answer here made by @Linz focuses on the possibility that the Chinese General was also receiving visions. And very likely other members of each of the 12 areas of the world visited. @Linz postulates that the General's wife was possibly still alive and well at the time of the phone call, and that the General's visions were of war-time and loss, for the country and for himself. That he was able to see the unifying relevance the aliens gift was, as he had visions of his own wife's death. When Louise was able to see forwards to her meeting with the general, there was an instant connection between them of understanding and patience.

For me, this possibility could be the most significant part of the tale, because if it is true that the General was seeing visions of his wife's death, then took actions to avoid it, perhaps the timeline in the visions could be changed. From this, we know that Louise realises she will make the decision to tell Jeremy Renner.. (spoiler)

of their daughter's uncurable disease.

This forces him to...

Divorce Louise

However she becomes aware of this in the film and may now even choose an alternative future with regards to marriage or otherwise.

Their daughter however is without hope as the disease is unquestionably incurable.


The movie deliberately does not explain the detail of the conversation (it withholds subtitles for non-mandarin speakers both implying that the content isn't critical and highlighting a movie theme that language is very important). Others have pointed out that the wife's last words were "in war there are no winners, only widows" but this isn't critical to understanding why the conversation changed his mind.

Louise is the only person who has had her brain completely rewired by the alien language so she can experience the past and the future not just the present. She, therefore, has access to knowledge that no normal human thinking in a human-like way could possibly have.

The point of the alien visit is to give humanity the language and thereby change the way people perceive the universe so they can become more useful (the aliens will need humanity's help in 3,000 years). None of the other people investigating the aliens has yet sufficiently absorbed the language and their partial understanding leads them to think the aliens want to give them a weapon (which is potentially very dangerous) or are somehow hostile to humanity. Only Louise appreciates the real intent.

So the question arises how can she persuade someone else of her knowledge? The answer, we can infer, is by using that knowledge to reveal information that only her changed perception of time could possibly reveal. It isn't much of a stretch to assume that the only person who heard General Shang's wife's dying words were the general. By revealing her knowledge of whatever the general's wife said demonstrates that she has new capability generated by absorbing the alien's language. Presumably, she told the general what the aliens intended to share and that it wasn't a weapon. But this would not be a credible thing to say unless she could also demonstrate that it were true (which is why the wife's dying words were a clincher).

It is a welcome characteristic of the movie that it doesn't explain these details to us and just leaves them for the audience to work out. As it does with many other details. This is one of the characteristics that make it a great movie and not just a popcorn blockbuster.


The conversation sums up the phrase, "Wars don't make winners, only widows."

You will have to ask a Mandarin speaker for word-to-word translation.

Source of the generalization: Read it in some blog somewhere.

Edit: I just read a snippet from the horse's mouth. The movie's scriptwriter states that the Chinese General's wife only says those words, "In war, there are no winners, only widows."

The way he said it seems like the phrase was of his own making. But I can't help thinking I've heard it somewhere before.


Just telling the General what she said wouldn't be sufficient. He would suspect she had all this info via surveillance. She has to convince him, with his collusion, that his future self gave her the information. He can only trust her if he knows he has decided to trust her downstream.

Put another way, how does the General convince his past self to trust a stranger? That's why I very much would like a translation of the Mandarin used. It had to be more than just his dying wife's words. That might be enough to convince him to listen, but to trust her with the fate of China?

Probably not.

Unless, of course, the screenwriters just went with the 'I never told anyone' trope. Which would be disappointing.

  • I too would like to know the complete translation of all of Louise's Mandarin dialog. She says more than a single sentence. She may repeat parts of it, but it seems that she says 2-3 sentences. Lots of Mandarin speakers have watched the movie, and if Amy Adams' pronunciation (and grammar) are not too bad, they should be able to understand it. So, it should be widely known among Mandarin speaking audiences. Indeed, it should probably be available on the net. I'll ask a Mandarin speaking friend who is a Sci Fi fan about it.
    – Les
    Commented May 29, 2021 at 5:19
  • 2
    Here is a complete translation of Louise's phone call to General Cheng, from my friend, and Mandarin native speaker, William Hsu. (He got it from another website, and then made his own edits to the key sentence at the end.) “General, I am in the United States camp. General, your wife gave me a dream. She said that you should use courage to help save the world. War makes no heroes; it will leave behind orphans and widows.” I asked Bill, and he said that it was comprehensible Mandarin (but with a funny accent).
    – Les
    Commented May 29, 2021 at 7:05

Isn't it obvious? You all are so close but as Mother Teresa once said "We look but don't see. We hear but don't listen" So I invite you all to take a harder look and to truly listen once again and consider the following.

  1. Listen: The person who answered the phone call from Louise is a female. What does this tell us? Consider the General is the equivalent of the Chair of the Joint Chiefs here in America, A political figure most likely not out on those ships that are depicted in the film. That being his personal cell he shows Louise, I'd bet only his wife is the only one person ever allowed permission to answer. Perhaps they, being half a world away at the time, may have been in bed when the phone rang. The general being asleep the wife answers and is told by Louise that she must speak to the general, she then gives the phone to him and the story goes on from there.

  2. Now see. Who is the woman in white standing behind what are likely two of the generals security personnel? She is looking straight at Louise and we can tell she has a smile and is likely of Asian descent but not much else is revealed about her. The fact that she is dressed in all white (and no other person throughout the film is) tells me she is the symbol of peace in the film and is very likely to be the Generals wife.

Too deep? I'd argue not. One only need too see and listen to figure it out.

I invite your thoughts.

  • correction- She is not the only person in white (Forgot about the bio-suit changers) Perhaps the fact that the call takes place where the suits are changed also has some meaning (Now I am going too deep) ;-) Commented Mar 4, 2017 at 22:39

My interpretation was that the General was beginning to understand the language, and had been having weird visions like Louise, that he didn't fully understand. Seeing his wife dying and hearing her last words was one of them, but at the time she is still alive, so he thinks it is a dream. When Louise calls and explains the language, and tells him the wife's last words, he understands that he was seeing the future just like Louise has. So he trusts her and her theory (which would otherwise sound insane).

  • 4
    I like this idea, however, the General says (in the future, when he meets Lousie at the conference) that "he cannot begin to understand how her mind works." If this interpretation were correct, I think he would understand exactly how her mind is working.
    – Steve-O
    Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 15:17

To me the key line in the film was, perhaps slightly paraphrased, "Time is not linear." Therein lies the entire focus of the dialogue and Louise after interacting with the aliens was living in a non-linear time frame. She knew that her daughter would die of cancer, that her husband would leave her and yet she still agreed to make her daughter. Her acting, when she hugged Jeremy Renner, after agreeing to conceive was brilliant AND that scene should give anyone that thinks, pause to examine an event or events in their life that brought them incredible turmoil/pain but resulted in incredible joy. It also, given the nature of her time being past, present and future, provides wonderful material to think about relative to free choice, predestination and in the case of John Calvin, double predestination.


There is a subtle but important catalyst that occurs right before Louise has the series of premonitions/back-flashes that result in her calling the Chinese General. The daughter comes to her mom, Louise, telling her to "Wake Up". In one way, this is a calling for Louise to wake up to her gift, and fully step into seeing the future as well as all time being present at once (non-linear). A larger view would be the daughter is inviting her to spiritually "wake up" from illusion about not only time, but true nature of being human, etc. Far from the daughter being a figure for whom there is no hope (written above?), she is a boddhisattva in this moment, enlightening Louise. In terms of predestination or preordination, the relationship between the mom and daughter is rich. What gifts did the daughter have? Did SHE fully choose being born knowing she would die young, vs. the choice being her mom's?? She did indeed come back to me as Louise had asked. Circle back to the General and his wife. 'War making widows' implies men (the General himself) would be dead if conflict occurred, and thus her alive and a widow. Perhaps the WIFE was also a boddhisatva willing to die first so her words would save her husband, as well as humanity.


We are trying to explain a situation that we can't possibly understand because Louise's perception is now nonlinear and unhindered by time. Future Louise says, "I called you, didn't I? But it's REALLY "present" Louise asking the question! She, with the help of her future self, is remembering something she hasn't done yet.

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