W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Zhou Enlai’

The debunking of the year, 2011

In Debunking, Media myths on December 29, 2011 at 5:15 am

Freeman (Middle East Policy Council)

The nod for the most notable debunking of 2011 goes to retired U.S. diplomat Charles W. (Chas) Freeman Jr. for puncturing the popular tale about Zhou Enlai’s remark in 1972 that it was “too early to say” what the effects would be of the French Revolution.

Freeman told a panel in Washington, D.C., in June that the Chinese premier was referring to the turmoil in France in 1968, not the years of revolutionary upheaval that began in 1789.

His remarks debunking the Zhou misinterpretation were first published by London’s Financial Times.

Zhou’s “too early” comment was made during President Richard M. Nixon’s historic visit to China in February 1972. Freeman, then 28-years-old, was the president’s interpreter on the trip and heard Zhou’s remark.

Freeman said during the panel discussion in June that the misinterpretation “was too delightful to set straight” at the time.

In a subsequent interview with me, Freeman said it was “absolutely clear” from the context of the conversation that Zhou’s comment was a 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.”

(In an oral history interview in 1995, Freeman said Zhou possessed  “enormous grace and charm.”)

The conventional interpretation of Zhou’s “too early” comment lives on because it suggests that Chinese leaders are inclined to a long and patient view of history.

“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, adding:

“It was what people wanted to hear and believe, so it took” hold.

Indeed, it did. The misinterpretation persists — and even has been invoked when it’s acknowledged as apocryphal.

The puncturing of the Zhou misinterpretation rates as the “debunking of the year” not only because of its significance but because of its relevance to busting media myths, those delicious but dubious tales that masquerade as factual and offer distorted views of historical events.

In designating Freeman’s disclosure as the “debunking of the year,” I’m reminded of high-minded observations offered in 1998 by Max Frankel, formerly the executive editor of the New York Times.

In observations that go to the heart of the importance of busting media myths, Frankel wrote:

“What’s wrong with a little mendacity — so goes the theory — to give a tale velocity? It is unforgivably wrong to give fanciful stories the luster of fact, or to use facts to let fictions parade as truths.”

Puncturing the Zhou misinterpretation seems in keeping with that objective. The debunking, moreover, offers us a more accurate, more telling, and more realistic view of history and historical figures.

Media Myth Alert‘s first “debunking of the year” went in 2009 to the Spanish researchers who challenged the authenticity of Robert Capa’s iconic “Falling Soldier” image, taken in September 1936 during the Spanish Civil War.

Capa’s photograph purports to show a charging loyalist militiaman at the instant he is fatally death.

No “debunking of the year” was designated in 2010, the year of publication of my latest book, Getting It Wrong, which punctures 10 prominent media-driven myths.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post.

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Apocryphal, but still quotable

In Debunking, Media myths, Quotes on December 24, 2011 at 7:24 am

Apocryphal, but still quotable.

That’s the takeaway from a commentary posted yesterday at the online site of the Nation. The commentary invoked Zhou Enlai’s misinterpreted comment about the upshot of the French Revolution.

Zhou supposedly said in 1972 that it was “too early to say” what the effects would be. But Zhou was speaking about the political turmoil in France in 1968, not the years-long upheaval that began in 1789.

The Nation’s commentary, “The Soviet Union’s Afterlife,” tried to have it both ways with Zhou’s remark; the opening paragraph asserted:

“Asked to evaluate the French Revolution nearly 200 years later, the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai was famously reported to have replied, ‘Too early to say.’ Though apocryphal, the long perspective attributed to Zhou is better informed than the certitudes of American commentators about the causes and consequences of the end of the Soviet Union only twenty years ago.”

If it’s apocryphal, then why invoke it? To do is to distort and confuse and even mislead.

The temptation to invoke telling quotes of dubious derivation can be too powerful to avoid. As I point out in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, “Turns of phrase that sound too neat and tidy often are too perfect to be true.”

Craig Silverman, author of Regret The Error and a columnist for Columbia Journalism Review, has likened dubious quotes to “little gems that supposedly tell a story in just a few words. They lodge themselves in our culture and consciousness.”

So it is with Zhou’s remark, which was made during President Richard Nixon’s historic trip to China in February 1972.

The conventional interpretation — which the Nation commentary invoked — is that the comment stands as evidence of the sage and far-sighted ways of Chinese leaders.

But we know from a retired U.S. diplomat, Charles W. (Chas) Freeman, that Zhou in his talks with Nixon in 1972 was taking a decidedly shorter and more immediate view of turmoil in France.

Freeman was Nixon’s interpreter during the trip and was present when Zhou made the “too early” comment.

Freeman has said that Zhou’s remark came during a discussion about revolutions that had succeeded and failed. The revolutions cited, Freeman said, included the Prague Spring of 1968 and the Hungarian uprising of 1956, both of which the Soviet Union crushed.

Freeman said it was clear from the context that in saying it was “too early to say,” Zhou was speaking about the events in France in May 1968.

How Zhou’s “too early” remark came to be so badly 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,” he said, adding:

“It was what people wanted to hear and believe, so it took” hold.

First to report Freeman’s debunking was Richard McGregor, a journalist and China expert writing for London’s Financial Times.

As I’ve pointed out, the appeal and tenacity of Zhou’s misinterpreted remark is reminiscent of William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain at the end of the 19th century.

Hearst’s reputed vow  supposedly was made in an exchange of telegrams with the artist Frederic Remington, who was on assignment in Cuba for Hearst’s New York Journal.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, 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.”

“Like many media-driven myths,” I further note, the purported Hearstian vow “is succinct, savory, and easily remembered.

“It is almost too good not to be true.”

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post.

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A thumbsucker commentary and the Zhou misinterpretation

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Furnish the war on December 2, 2011 at 12:49 am

A thumbsucker is what some American journalists call a self-indulgent article or commentary that tends to go on and on, usually about an obscure or time-worn topic.

At its online site yesterday, Britain’s Guardian newspaper posted a thumbsucker that ruminated about the close of historical periods, offering observations such as this:

“Bloodied soldiers didn’t stand around on the battlefield at Bosworth and immediately reflect that, though it had been a hard-fought day, at least the later Middle Ages had now ended.”

Obscure, perhaps, but not altogether uninteresting.

But what 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 Revolution.

That version is frequently offered as evidence of China’s sage, patient, and far-sighted ways. That’s rather how the Guardian thumbsucker-commentary referred to it, saying:

“If, as Zhou Enlai said, it is too soon to have a view of the French Revolution, then it is probably too soon to say if the [governing] coalition [in Britain] is a failed government.”

But Zhou was not referring to the French Revolution that began in 1789.

He was speaking about the political turmoil in France of 1968.

We know this from a retired U.S. diplomat, Charles W.  (Chas) Freeman Jr., who was present when Zhou made the comment during President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972.

Freeman, who was Nixon’s interpreter during the historic, weeklong trip, offered the revised interpretation almost six months ago at a panel discussion in Washington.  The discussion’s moderator was Richard McGregor, a journalist and China expert who wrote about Freeman’s comments for the Financial Times of London.

In a subsequent interview with me, Freeman elaborated on his recollection about Zhou’s comment, saying it probably was made over lunch or dinner, during a conversation about revolutions that had succeeded and failed. The discussion, Freeman said, touched on the Prague Spring of 1968 and the Hungarian uprising of 1956, both of which the Soviet Union crushed.

Freeman said it was “absolutely clear” from the context of the discussion that Zhou was speaking about 1968.

Just how Zhou’s remark came to be so dramatically 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. “It was what people wanted to hear and believe, so it took” hold.

Stereotyping is but one hazard of dubious quotes like Zhou’s.

Dubious and misinterpreted quotes tend to are falsehoods masquerading as the truth — as suggested by the delicious but apocryphal tale about William Randolph Hearst and his purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain at the end of the 19th century.

Dubious quotes also dishonor their purported authors — as in the comment often attributed to President Lyndon B. Johnson. Upon hearing newsman Walter Cronkite’s downbeat assessment about the war in Vietnam, Johnson supposedly said:

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Or something to that effect.

But as I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, there’s no persuasive evidence that Johnson ever made such a comment.

Besides, he didn’t see Cronkite’s report about Vietnam when it aired in late February 1968.

So it’s very difficult to believe the president could have been much moved by a show he didn’t see.

Or that he would have uttered such a comment, if he had seen the program.

WJC

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‘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.

WJC

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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.”

Wonderful.

WJC

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He ‘did a Zhou Enlai’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, New York Times on July 26, 2011 at 10:15 am

Cohen (NYTimes photo)

Roger Cohen, a twice-a-week foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times, stirred murmured commentary not long by defending Rupert Murdoch as a phone-hacking scandal swirled around the tycoon’s media holdings in Britain.

“If you add everything up,” Cohen wrote about the tough, old media mogul, “he’s been good for newspapers over the past several decades, keeping them alive and vigorous and noisy and relevant.”

Maybe Cohen was being contrarian. Or maybe he didn’t quite grasp what the scandal says about Murdoch and his corporate management.

In a more recent column, Cohen revealed that he’s not fully up to speed with the revised interpretation of Zhou Enlai’s famous comment in 1972 that “it’s too early” to discern the implications of upheaval in France.

The conventional interpretation is that Zhou was speaking about the French Revolution that began in 1789.

As such, his comment suggests a sagacity and a long view of history seldom matched by Western leaders.

Recent evidence has emerged, however, that says Zhou was referring not to the French Revolution but to the more recent political unrest that rocked France in 1968.

The new evidence was offered last month by Charles W.  (Chas) Freeman Jr., a retired U.S. diplomat who a was present when Zhou made the comment during President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in February 1972.

Freeman discussed the context of Zhou’s remark last month at a panel discussion in Washington, D.C. London’s Financial Times was first to report on the revised interpretation that Freeman offered about Zhou’s comment.

In a subsequent interview with me, Freeman said that Zhou made the remark during a discussion about revolutions that had failed or succeeded.

He pointed out that it was clear from the context that Zhou’s “too early to say” comment was in reference to upheaval in France in May 1968, not the years of turmoil that began in 1789.

Freeman described Zhou’s misinterpreted comment as “one of those convenient misunderstandings that never gets corrected,” adding that “it conveniently bolstered a stereotype … about Chinese statesmen as far-sighted individuals who think in longer terms than their Western counterparts.”

The misconstrued comment fit nicely with “what people wanted to hear and believe,” Freeman said, “so it took” hold.

And it’s not infrequently repeated.

Cohen invoked the conventional interpretation late last week, in a column that began this way:

“When I asked Gen. David H. Petraeus what the biggest U.S. mistake of the past decade has been, he did a Zhou Enlai on the French Revolution number to the effect that it was too early to say.

“The outgoing commander in Afghanistan and incoming Central Intelligence Agency chief is adept at politics,” Cohen wrote, “one reason he’s the object of the sort of political speculation once reserved for Gen. Colin L. Powell, who was the face of the military to most Americans before Petraeus assumed that role later in the post-9/11 era.”

The passage, “he did a Zhou Enlai,” suggests how irresistible Zhou’s misconstrued remark really is — a quality that’s typical of quotations that seem just too highly polished.

“Turns of phrase that sound too neat and tidy often are too perfect to be true,” I write in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, which addresses and debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths.

Among the myths is the remark attributed to President Lyndon B. Johnson, who after watching Walter Cronkite’s pessimistic, on-air assessment about the Vietnam War supposedly said:

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Or something to that effect.

Versions vary markedly.

But as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, the anecdote is almost certainly apocryphal.

Johnson wasn’t in front of a television when Cronkite’s special report about Vietnam aired on CBS television on February 27, 1968.

The president wasn’t lamenting the supposed loss of Cronkite’s support, either.

Rather, Johnson was on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, offering light-hearted banter at the 51st birthday party of a longtime political ally, Governor John Connally.

At about the time Cronkite was saying the U.S. war effort was “mired in stalemate,” Johnson was quipping:

“Today you are 51, John. That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for — a simple majority.”

WJC

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‘What’s a couple of centuries’ when it comes to China and Zhou Enlai?

In Bra-burning, Debunking, Media myths on July 3, 2011 at 5:58 am

When Zhou Enlai observed that it was “too early” to assess the significance of political upheaval in France, he was speaking about the turmoil of 1968, and not, as is often believed, about the French Revolution that began in 1789.

Zhou greets Nixon, 1972

The Independent newspaper in London referred to the Zhou misunderstanding in an editorial posted yesterday, and essentially shrugged it off, stating :

“Revisionists now claim that he was commenting not on the storming of the Bastille in 1789, but on the student riots of 1968. But what’s a couple of centuries to a China still engaged in its own long march to modernity?”

The editorial’s snark and breezy dismissiveness may be because the “revisionists” include the Financial Times, a rival London newspaper.

The Financial Times was first to call attention to the mistaken interpretation of Zhou’s remark.

Zhou, the Chinese premier, said during President Richard Nixon’s trip to China in February 1972 that it was “too early to say” what were the implications of political upheaval in France.

Charles (Chas) Freeman, an American diplomat who was Nixon’s interpreter on the China visit, told a panel discussion in Washington, D.C., last month that Zhou clearly was speaking about the turmoil and student protests in France in 1968 — not the French revolution of nearly 200 years before.

A reporter for the Financial Times moderated the panel discussion and in his article wrote that Freeman said:

“There was a mis­understanding [about Zhou’s remark] that was too delicious to invite correction.”

In a subsequent interview with me, Freeman said:

“I cannot explain the confusion about Zhou’s comment, except in terms of the extent to which it conveniently bolstered a stereotype” about Chinese leaders’ taking an exceptionally long and patient view of history.

Stereotyping helps explain why Zhou’s comment has been so widely quoted — and why debunking its erroneous and more extravagant interpretation really does matter.

Stereotyping, as I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, can be buoyed by media-driven myths, those dubious media-centric stories that masquerade as factual.

In Getting It Wrong, I note a number of examples of stereotypes that have been bolstered by media myths.

I write: “The misleading if euphonic epithet of ‘bra-burning‘ emerged from a demonstration on the Atlantic City boardwalk in 1968 to become shorthand for denigrating the emergent feminist movement and dismissing it as trivial and even a bit odd. The widely misreported pandemic of ‘crack babies‘ in the late 1980s and early 1990s seemed to confirm the worst pathologies associated with inner-city poor people.”

Rather than reflecting China’s supposedly long and patient view of history, Zhou’s “too early” observation was cautious analysis about events that were fairly recent and still under interpretation.

Zhou’s was a pragmatic observation, hardly sage or long-sighted.

WJC

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Those delicious but phony quotes ‘that refuse to die’

In Cinematic treatments, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Spanish-American War, Washington Post, Watergate myth on June 25, 2011 at 10:31 am

Craig Silverman, author of Regret the Error, posted an intriguing column yesterday about appealing but dubious quotations that journalists seem especially prone to cite, noting that such famous lines “often turn out to be manufactured or inexact representations.”

It’s an important reminder, given the endless popularity of quotations that are neat, tidy, and irresistibly delicious. As I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, “Turns of phrase that sound too neat and tidy often are too perfect to be true.”

Plouffe: Not so 'queasy'?

Silverman’s column, titled “Misquotes that refuse to die,” was centered around a comment attributed in 2009 to David Plouffe, Barrack Obama’s campaign manager in 2008.

Plouffe supposedly said he felt a bit “queasy” about the prospect of Obama’s facing Jon Huntsman, the Republican former Utah governor, in the presidential election in 2012.

“Plouffe never said it,” Silverman wrote, describing how the queasy line took on life of its own.

Journalists can be particularly susceptible to such succinct “little gems,” as Silverman put it, because the gems are so effective in making a point or in distilling complexity.

Silverman’s column noted two famous, dubious quotes that I dismantle in Getting It Wrong.

One of them is the comment misattributed to President Lyndon Johnson who,  in reaction to Walter Cronkite’s on-air assessment that the war in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate,” supposedly said:

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Or something to that effect.

Versions as to what Johnson supposedly said vary quite a lot — which can be a marker of a media myth. I also point out in Getting It Wrong that Johnson did not see the Cronkite report when it aired on CBS on February 27, 1968.

The other dubious quote discussed in Getting It Wrong and mentioned by Silverman is William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain.

Reasons for doubting the Hearstian vow are many, I write, and include the fact that the telegram in which Hearst supposedly made the statement has never turned up. Plus, Hearst denied making such a vow.

A number of other famous and delicious quotes favored by journalists likewise have proven to be false, made-up, or of mythical dimension; among them:

  • Too early to say.” It’s often said that Chinese premier Zhou Enlai offered the observation in 1972, as sage, far-sighted analysis about the effects of the French Revolution of 1789. But according to a retired American diplomat, Charles W.  (Chas) Freeman Jr., Zhou’s comment, which came during President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in February 1972, was about political turmoil in France in 1968. “I cannot explain the confusion about Zhou’s comment, except in terms of the extent to which it conveniently bolstered a stereotype” about Chinese leaders taking an exceptionally long and patient view of history, Freeman said recently. Freeman was Nixon’s interpreter on the trip.

So what to do about these delicious but dubious and phony quotations?

Keep pounding away at them, calling them out for what they are, whenever they appear. That’s the only effective way of debunking.

But even then, thorough and utter debunking can be rare.

WJC

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‘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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