Too Soon to Tell

There's a story that Zhou Enlai, the premier of Communist China from 1949-1976, was once asked for his impressions of the long term effects of the French Revolution. Zhou famously responded that it was "too soon to tell", which has been taken as a testament to the value of having an expansive view of history and China's intellectual history of doing so. The problem with this anecdote is that it's not true:

The former premier’s answer has become a frequently deployed cliché, used as evidence of the sage Chinese ability to think long-term – in contrast to impatient westerners.

The trouble is that Zhou was not referring to the 1789 storming of the Bastille in a discussion with Richard Nixon during the late US president’s pioneering China visit. Zhou’s answer related to events only three years earlier – the 1968 students’ riots in Paris, according to Nixon’s interpreter at the time.[...]

At a seminar in Washington to mark the publication of Henry Kissinger’s book, On China, Chas Freeman, a retired foreign service officer, sought to correct the long-standing error.

“I distinctly remember the exchange. There was a mis­understanding that was too delicious to invite correction,” said Mr Freeman.

He said Zhou had been confused when asked about the French Revolution and the Paris Commune. “But these were exactly the kinds of terms used by the students to describe what they were up to in 1968 and that is how Zhou understood them.”


Link (registration required) via Marginal Revolution | Photo: Indiana University

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"There was a mis­understanding that was too delicious to invite correction,”

Hmm, this is what I would call delusion borne out of a contingent domain of self-worth, but when I say it it applies to much more, and much less people understand it. Suffice to say that we all distort reality according to our desires.

And that is a little piece of ancient Chinese wisdom, c/o Lao Tzu.

"Always without desire we must be found,
If its deep mystery we would sound;
But if desire always within us be,
Its outer fringe is all that we shall see." - 3rd Paragraph of the Tao Te Ching

"All in the world know the beauty of the beautiful, and in doing
this they have (the idea of) what ugliness is; they all know the skill
of the skilful, and in doing this they have (the idea of) what the
want of skill is." - 5th paragraph

"All things spring up, and there is not one which declines to show
itself; they grow, and there is no claim made for their ownership;
they go through their processes, and there is no expectation (of a
reward for the results). The work is accomplished, and there is no
resting in it (as an achievement)." - 8th Paragraph

"Not to value and employ men of superior ability is the way to
keep the people from rivalry among themselves; not to prize articles
which are difficult to procure is the way to keep them from becoming
thieves; not to show them what is likely to excite their desires is
the way to keep their minds from disorder.

Therefore the sage, in the exercise of his government, empties
their minds, fills their bellies, weakens their wills, and strengthens
their bones.

He constantly (tries to) keep them without knowledge and without
desire, and where there are those who have knowledge, to keep them
from presuming to act (on it). When there is this abstinence from
action, good order is universal." - 10th, 11th, and 12th paragraphs
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Not to mention that after 200+ years you CAN talk about long term implications. I mean, it's not as well informed as you may be 500+ years out, but you can always say that the fallout is not complete. There's certainly been measurable impacts at that point, you're past the immediate confusion...you an start talking about the impact an event had at the multiple century mark!
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