W. Joseph Campbell

‘Too early to say': Zhou was speaking about 1968, not 1789

In Debunking, Media myths on June 14, 2011 at 8:50 am

Nixon and Zhou, 1972

When Chinese premier Zhou Enlai famously said it was “too early” to assess the implications of the French revolution, he was referring to turmoil in France in 1968 and not — as is commonly thought — to the more distant political upheaval of 1789.

So says a retired American diplomat, Charles W.  (Chas) Freeman Jr., who was present when Zhou made the comment during President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in February 1972.

Freeman, who was Nixon’s interpreter during the historic, weeklong trip, made the disclosure last week during a panel discussion in Washington about On China, the latest book by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

The discussion was moderated by Richard McGregor, a journalist and China expert who wrote about Freeman’s comments for the Financial Times of London.

In an interview yesterday, Freeman elaborated on his recollection about Zhou’s comment, the conventional interpretation of which is frequently offered as evidence of China’s sage, patient, and far-sighted ways. Foreign Policy magazine, for example, referred last month to that interpretation, saying the comment was “a cautionary warning of the perils of judgments made in real time.”

The Washington Post’s recent review of Kissinger’s book likewise referred to the conventional understanding of Zhou’s remark.

Freeman described Zhou’s misconstrued comment as “one of those convenient misunderstandings that never gets corrected.”

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

He said it was clear from the context and content of Zhou’s comment that in saying it was “too early to say” the Chinese leader was speaking about the events in France in May 1968, not the years of upheaval that began in 1789.

Freeman acknowledged that the conventional interpretation makes for a better story but added that it was “absolutely clear” from the context of the discussion that Zhou was speaking about 1968.

Just how Zhou’s remark came to be misinterpreted, Freeman was unable to say.

“I cannot explain the confusion about Zhou’s comment except in terms of the extent to which it conveniently bolstered a stereotype (as usual with all stereotypes, partly perceptive) about Chinese statesmen as far-sighted individuals who think in longer terms than their Western counterparts,” Freeman said in a follow-up email. “It was what people wanted to hear and believe, so it took” hold.

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

The Zhou comment also represents a reminder about the often-irresistible quality of pithy and apparently telling quotations — a topic discussed in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, which addresses and debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths.

“Turns of phrase that sound too neat and tidy often are too perfect to be true,” I write in discussing such media myths as William Randolph Hearst’s reputed vow — supposedly made in an exchange of telegrams with the artist Frederic Remington — to “furnish the war” with Spain in the 1890s.

“Like many media-driven myths,” I write, the purported Hearstian vow “is succinct, savory, and easily remembered. It is almost too good not to be true.” As is the conventional interpretation of Zhou’s “too early to say” remark.

I note in Getting It Wrong that among the many reasons for doubting the anecdote is that it “would have been absurd for Hearst to vow to ‘furnish the war’ because war — specifically, the Cuban rebellion against Spain’s colonial rule — was the very reason Hearst sent Remington to Cuba in the first place.”

Anyone reading U.S. newspapers in January 1897, when Remington was in Cuba on assignment for Hearst’s New York Journal, “would have been well aware,” I write, “that Cuba was a theater of a nasty war.”

What I call version variability — the imprecision that alters or distorts an anecdote in its retelling — has afflicted Zhou’s “too early to say” comment. Some accounts, for example, have attributed the remark to Chinese dictator Mao Zedong.

Another account has it that Zhou, who died in 1976, made the comment in Geneva in 1953, in response to a French journalist’s question.

Freeman said he doubted that version was accurate.

Zhou, he said, “was a man with a graceful wit but not given to facetious remarks.”

WJC

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