W. Joseph Campbell

‘New Yorker’ misinterprets Zhou’s ‘too early’ remark

In Debunking, Media myths on October 14, 2011 at 12:28 am

The New Yorker magazine ruminates in its latest number about the amorphous and bizarre Occupy Wall Street protests and in doing so invokes the mythical quotation about Chinese premier Zhou Enlai and the French Revolution.

About the protest movement, the New Yorker asked:

“[W]hat’s the meaning of it all? So far, the best answer is the one that Zhou Enlai, the Great Helmsman’s great henchman, supposedly gave when President Nixon supposedly asked him to assess the impact of the French Revolution: it’s too early to tell.”

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.

We know this from Nixon’s interpreter, a former U.S. diplomat named Charles W. (Chas) Freeman Jr., who was present at the meeting in Beijing in 1972 when Zhou made the remark.

First to call attention the Zhou misinterpretation was London’s Financial Times, which quoted Freeman’s remarks at a panel discussion four months ago in Washington, D.C.

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

Freeman said Zhou’s remark probably was made over lunch or dinner, during a discussion about revolutions that had succeeded and failed. They included, Freeman added, the Prague Spring of 1968 and the Hungarian uprising of 1956, both of which the Soviet Union had crushed.

Freeman characterized 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.

Nixon meets Zhou, 1972

The misinterpretation of Zhou’s remark long ago took on life of its own, offering as it did apparent confirmation about the sagaciousness of China’s leaders and their willingness or inclination to take an exceptionally long view of history.

But the misinterpreted version, Freeman noted, “conveniently bolstered a stereotype … about Chinese statesmen as far-sighted individuals who think in longer terms than their Western counterparts.”

The misconstrued comment, he added, fit nicely with “what people wanted to hear and believe.”

And so it told hold.

As the New Yorker essay suggests, the conventional interpretation — the erroneous version — retains broad appeal, despite Freeman’s well-publicized corrective.

Which does makes you wonder about the New Yorker’s vaunted fact-checkers, though.


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