Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Too early to say

A journalist asked Premier Chou En-lai (Zhou Enlai) what, in his opinion, had been the full impact of the French Revolution? Chou’s answer, after a long and thoughtful pause, was: “It is too early to say.” A good one, no? Perhaps too good. Obviously this anecdote gained traction in the wake of Vietnam, and ever since, as a measure of the sage Chinese “long view,” but because it is repeated so regularly, and with a suspicious array of variations—occasionally also attributed to Ho Chi Minh, and even to Mao—I have become increasingly skeptical about its authenticity. There is a whiff of orientalist fantasy, after all, to say nothing of plain condescension in the broad historical conceit. Add to these a suggestion of facetiousness on Chou’s part and the whole thing strikes a false note. No doubt it held some appeal, too, for student radicals in the west to whom Chou was most appealing in the guise of Confucius, and not so much as master of the Party Congress. At last I think I have cracked it. According to Charles W. Freeman, Jr., a retired American diplomat who acted as the official interpreter for President Richard M. Nixon during his famous visit to China in February 1972, Chou made his remark to Nixon over lunch or dinner in Peking (as it was then still known), during a rather delicate political discussion about revolutions that had succeeded, and ones that had failed. These included the Hungarian uprising of 1956 and the Prague Spring of 1968. According to Freeman it was quite clear from the context that in saying it was “too early to say” Chou was referring specifically to the upheaval that took place in Paris in May 1968, and not to 1789. There are other theories, for example that Chou made his remark to a French journalist at the Geneva conference in 1954, but I suppose this simply demonstrates the tendency of enjoyable snippets to take on a life of their own, and powerfully to resist clarification, correction, or debunking. I think we can safely predict that Chou will continue indefinitely to say it is too early to say,” without any fear of contradiction.

1 comment:

  1. But, history being what it is, in a sense, it will be always be too early to say anything definitive about the consequences of a great many events.