In 1972, Chinese premier Zhou Enlai was asked about the impact of the French Revolution. “Too early to say,” he replied. Given that the French Revolution of 1789 had occurred nearly 200 years before, Zhou Enlai was expressing the long view of history in a very witty and Oscar Wildean way. News of this quote flew quickly around the chattering classes in the west, and it was soon used as evidence that the Chinese (especially Chinese intellectuals and leaders) took the long view of things, that they were a patient civilization, and that, when they thought about the future, it was hundreds of years distant.

Alas, Buzzkillers, it seems as if this was a case of mistranslation or misunderstanding the question. Prominent American diplomat Chas Freeman was a translator during that trip, and he was there when Zhou Enlai made this statement. Along with Chinese records of the exchange seen by historians, Freeman has confirmed for us that Zhou Enlai did reply to a question about the French Revolution — the 1968 student uprising in Paris, that is, not the 1789 French Revolution. The civil unrest in France in 1968 started as a student protest, but quickly included industrial workers and more or less shut the country down for a few weeks in the summer. Calls for reforms in government and society continued, and for many years, the “which side you were on in ’68” mattered in French politics.

Zhou Enlai, therefore, was responding to a question about a 1968 protest that was still having effects a few years later. He was not taking a two-centuries-long view of European history. At least not when responding to that question. Buzzkill Institute researchers have yet to determine whether Zhou Enlai thought the French were living through interesting times, as the oft-repeated “ancient Chinese curse” has it. Whether there’s anything Chinese about that curse will have to wait till another show.

Many thanks for Richard McGregor of the Financial Times for his story on this misinterpretation.

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