Zhou Enlai’s Caution Lost in Translation

Richard McGregor explains the misunderstanding behind Zhou Enlai’s famous utterance — “too soon to tell” — on the impact of the French Revolution:

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 mis understanding that was too delicious to invite correction,” said Mr Freeman ….

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.

McGregor, author of ‘The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers’, debunked five other myths about the CCP at Foreign Policy earlier this year. More recently, Christian Science Monitor attempted to bury ten famous political misquotations, including Deng Xiaoping’s “to get rich is glorious”.

See also a post at kottke.org on apocryphal quotes which took flight on Twitter after Osama bin Laden’s death.


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