W. Joseph Campbell

The Zhou misinterpretation

In Debunking, Media myths on August 31, 2011 at 11:17 am

It’s been debunked, but even so the tale lives on about Chinese premier Zhou Enlai’s  taking a long and sage view of history in saying in 1972 that it was “too early” to assess the implications of the French revolution, which began in 1789.

A commentary today at Time magazine’s “Global Spin” blog effectively testifies to the enduring appeal of Zhou misinterpretation.

The  commentary considered the wider implications of the fall of Moammar Khadafy’s regime in Libya and, in closing, invoked the conventional version of Zhou’s remark, stating:

“[T]o borrow from Chinese leader Zhou Enlai’s 1972 answer when asked about the historical significance of the French Revolution, when it comes to Libya’s grander significance, it may simply be ‘too early to tell.'”

Zhou’s comment — made during a discussion in China with President Richard M. Nixon — was about political upheaval in France in 1968, not the French Revolution, according to Charles W. (Chas) Freeman Jr., a former U.S. diplomat who was Nixon’s interpreter on the trip and who was present at the conversation.

First to debunk the Zhou misinterpretation was London’s Financial Times, which quoted Freeman’s remarks at a panel discussion in June in Washington, D.C.

In a subsequent interview with me, Freeman said it was “absolutely clear” from the context of the conversation that Zhou’s “too early to say” comment was in reference to the turmoil of 1968.

Freeman described Zhou’s remark as “a classic of the genre of a constantly repeated misunderstanding that has taken on a life of its own.”

He’s quite right about that. It long ago took on life of its own.

Further evidence of that is offered in a superficial commentary by McClatchy newspapers about the effects of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

The commentary asserted that the United States is “in some ways a very different country.

“How different?

“First, a story: It’s said that when President Richard Nixon made his groundbreaking visit to Communist China in 1972, he asked Premier Zhou Enlai what he thought about the French Revolution.

“It’s unclear if Zhou thought Nixon was asking about the political upheaval of 1789 or the Paris student demonstrations just four years earlier. In any case he replied: ‘Too soon to tell.'”

Well, no: It’s not unclear what Zhou meant, as Freeman’s recollections demonstrate.

The Zhou misinterpretation, moreover, was inspiration for a clever and amusing observation the other day, in a blog post by Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times.

Rachman’s post considered the legacy at the International Monetary Fund of Dominique Straus-Khan, the agency’s former director-general known as “DSK.”

He resigned in May after being arrested in New York on felony sex charges. Those charges recently were dropped.

“Sometimes,” Rachman noted, “an early exit is good for your legacy.”

He added:

“So, DSK’s legacy? As Zhou Enlai never said about the French Revolution: too early to tell.”

“As Zhou Enlai never said.”



Recent and related:

  1. […] Except that Zhou wasn’t referring to the French Revolution, which began in 1789. Rather, he was alluding to the civil unrest and protests that had seized France in 1968. […]

  2. […] caught the eye of Media Myth Alert was the reference to the conventional but erroneous version of Zhou Enlai’s famous and often-quoted comment in 1972, that it was “too early” to assess the implications of the French […]

  3. […] posted yesterday at the online site of the Nation. The commentary invoked Zhou Enlai’s misinterpreted comment about the upshot of the French […]

  4. […] it did. The misinterpretation persists — and even has been invoked when it’s acknowledged as […]

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