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Zhou Enlai's Famous Saying Debunked

By Dean Nicholas | Posted 15th June 2011, 10:30
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Zhou Enlai in 1946One of the more celebrated quips of the 20th century has turned out to be less sagacious than it once seemed.

During Richard Nixon's visit to Beijing in 1972, the Chinese premier, Zhou Enlai, was asked about the impact of the French Revolution. Speaking of an event that took place nearly two centuries previously, Zhou famously commented that it was "too early to say". The witticism quickly became a standard way of emphasising the Chinese ability to take the long view in history.

Yet it seems that Zhou may not have correctly understood the question. Rather than referring to the 1789 revolution, his interlocuter was speaking of the events of May 1968, and the Chinese leader's comment was directed toward those far more recent developments. As reported in the Financial Times, a diplomat present at the time called it a misunderstanding that was "too delicious to invite correction". The story became legendary, and a rather lazy cliche about the difference between Chinese and Western mentalities entered the public discourse.

Though the quip may have been debunked, will it disappear from use? As Zhou might have appreciated: it's simply too early to say.

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