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.”
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.