“It is too soon to tell” — the real story China fact of the day

by on June 11, 2011 at 1:25 am in Education, History, Political Science | Permalink

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.

How so?

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.”

But will this revelation diminish the use of this story?  Dare I say it is too soon to tell?  By the way:

The oft-quoted Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times”, does not exist in China itself, scholars say.

1 dearieme June 11, 2011 at 8:18 am

May you live in Chinese times.

2 John June 11, 2011 at 8:44 am

And I thought the messages in fortune cookies were genuine Chinese proverbs too

3 doctorpat June 14, 2011 at 2:00 am

Also, my Chinese wife had never seen a fortune cookie until she went to Australia.

4 Howard Olsen June 11, 2011 at 10:40 am

Also, there is no “African proverb” that says it takes a village to raise a child.

5 Nichol June 11, 2011 at 10:48 am

there’s a chinese proverb that says ‘chinese proverbs do not exist’

6 jk June 11, 2011 at 10:53 am

From China bubble to anti-China bubble? First ever meta-bubble?

7 Kolohe June 11, 2011 at 11:19 am

The so-called “joke” that Mao played on Nixon involving a can of Coca-Cola have also found to be an urban legend.

8 AC June 11, 2011 at 12:59 pm

What joke is that?

9 Cad Warren June 11, 2011 at 1:39 pm

“Me Chinese me do joke, me do pee-pee in your Coke.”

This joke was always good for a laugh when I was in 1st grade

10 Chad H June 11, 2011 at 1:59 pm

“May you live in interesting times” was an invention of the English author Ernest Bramah:


11 Bill June 11, 2011 at 9:49 pm

What role would an interpreter have in seeking clarification if both parties have different interpretations of the same words?

12 J Thomas June 12, 2011 at 12:29 pm

So, this misinterpreted story has been told for 40+ years.

What will the long-term effects of this story be?

It’s too soon to tell.

13 TGGP June 13, 2011 at 1:17 am

Nobody has yet mentioned what Chas Freeman was in the news for a little while back?

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