6/21/11 - too early to say

In today's excerpt - the Chinese have often been invoked as having a longer-term perspective on history compared to the West, and to buttress this view, the story is often repeated of Premier Zhou Enlai's response when asked to discuss the impact of the French Revolution. His answer? "Too early to say":

"The impact of the French Revolution? 'Too early to say.'

"Thus did Zhou Enlai—in responding to questions in the early 1970s about the popular revolt in France almost two centuries earlier—buttress China's reputation as a far-thinking, patient civilisation.

"The former premier's answer has become a frequently deployed cliché, used as evidence of the sage Chinese ability to think long-term—in contrast to impatient westerners.

"The trouble is that Zhou was not referring to the 1789 storming of the Bastille in a discussion with Richard Nixon during the late US president's pioneering China visit. Zhou's answer related to events only three years earlier—the 1968 students' riots in Paris, according to Nixon's interpreter at the time.

"At a seminar in Washington to mark the publication of Henry Kissinger's book, On China, Chas Freeman, a retired foreign service officer, sought to correct the long-standing error. 'I distinctly remember the exchange. There was a misunderstanding that was too delicious to invite correction,' said Mr. Freeman.

"He said Zhou had been confused when asked about the French Revolution and the Paris Commune. 'But these were exactly the kinds of terms used by the students to describe what they were up to in 1968 and that is how Zhou understood them.'

"Geremie Barme, of the Australian National University, said Zhou's quote fitted with the widespread western view of an 'oriental obliquity' that thought far into the future and was 'somehow profound'. 'Whereas, in China, you mostly hear that the leadership is short-sighted, radically pragmatic and anything but subtle,' he said. Dr. Barme added that Chinese researchers with access to the foreign ministry archives in Beijing said that the records made clear that Zhou was referring to the 1968 riots in Paris.

"The Chinese archives also record Zhou's conversation as being with Henry Kissinger. A spokeswoman for Dr. Kissinger said that 'he has no precise recollection but that the Freeman version seems much more plausible'.

"Zhou's cryptic caution also reflected the murderous political climate in Beijing at the time, and the premier would not have risked passing judgment on the radical French Maoists involved in the Paris riots.

"It is not the first time a misinterpretation of a Chinese leader's saying has mistakenly entered mainstream parlance. Deng Xiaoping, who launched the country's market reforms, is credited with saying, 'To get rich is glorious', although there is no record that he said it. The oft-quoted Chinese curse, 'May you live in interesting times', does not exist in China itself, scholars say."


Richard McGregor


"Zhou's cryptic caution lost in translation"


Financial Times/


June 10, 2011
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