Zhou Enlai's Famous Saying Debunked

Was one of the more famous quotes of the 20th century the result of a misunderstanding?

Dean Nicholas | Published 15 June 2011

Zhou Enlai in 1946
Zhou Enlai in 1946

One of the more celebrated quips of the 20th century may 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 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 legend, 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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