|Nixon with Chou en Lai in February 1972 - taken for all I know in the
walled garden (Encylopedia Britannica)
It is said that Chou En Lai, asked to assess the impact of the French Revolution, replied:
"It's too soon to tell."
Not according to Nixon’s interpreter, the American diplomat Chas Freeman, who has recently spoken about this. But before we see what Freeman had to say, let’s have a look at the story as it’s usually told.
Legend has it that, while preparing Richard Nixon for his historic visit to China in 1972, Henry Kissinger mentioned that Chinese Prime Minister Chou En-Lai was an avid student of French history. During his trip, Nixon met with Chou in the walled garden of the Forbidden City. As they walked slowly around the lily ponds, Nixon remembered Kissinger's comment. To break the ice, he asked Chou what he thought had been the impact of the French revolution on western civilization. Chou En-Lai considered the question for a few moments. Finally, he turned to Nixon and replied, "The impact of the French revolution on western civilization - too early to tell."
It seems this shows up in a few different versions. Sometimes it's said to Kissinger, sometimes, as related above, to Nixon, and sometimes a full twenty years earlier to someone else. So it looks, or looked, like a good guess that Chou En Lai did actually say this, though precisely when, or to whom, isn't clear.
Chou’s answer has become a frequently deployed cliché, used as evidence of Chinese leaders' sage, patient, and far-sighted ways, in contrast to impatient westerners.
But now up pipes Chas Freeman and kills off this cosy anecdote. Here's what he says happened.
Chou and Nixon did indeed converse about events in France. But whilst Nixon’s question referred to the Revolution of 1789, Chou’s reply referred to les évenéments of 1968 – the Paris student riots and sit-ins just three years before.
It seems this all came out at a seminar in Washington (in early June, I surmise) to mark the publication of Kissinger’s book, On China. Chas Freeman is reported to have said “I distinctly remember the exchange. There was a misunderstanding that was too delicious to invite correction”; also that Chou’s misconstrued comment was “one of those convenient misunderstandings that never gets corrected”. Moreover that this probably occurred over lunch or dinner, during a discussion about revolutions that had succeeded and failed; not in the walled garden.
He said Chou had been confused when asked about the French Revolution and the Paris Commune, since “these were exactly the kinds of terms used by the students to describe what they were up to in 1968 and that is how Chou understood them.”
Just a 300-year interlude
I'm partly sorry this story has been debunked. That the Chinese take a long view of history may be both a cliché and actually true, even if the Nixon/Chou story can no longer be cited as an instance of it.
As an example of short- and long-term historical perspectives, let's note that in the West, China’s emerging economic dominance is surprising and disturbing. To the Chinese on the other hand, it’s wholly unsurprising. Through most of recorded history their country has been the world’s foremost economic power; there’s been a 300-year interlude, that’s all.
As to the effect of the French Revolution, this event brought about the rise of the nation state and was the precursor of the Russian revolution, and the Chinese revolution, and arguably of the First World War (and thereby also the Second World War). Who can say what the long term consequences of all that is? Chou’s answer, the answer we now have to believe he never gave, was quite apposite.
China’s long predominance in world history prompts the question, why did modern science and technology develop in Europe, when China seemed so much better placed to achieve it? It’s known as the Needham Question … but here I'll stop ... more another day.
Media myth alert - blog by W Joseph Campbell