Not letting the facts ruin a good story
It was one of the most quotable quotes of the 20th century. When asked about the influence of the French Revolution, the late premier Zhou Enlai is reputed to have said: 'Too early to say.'
If that was what he really meant, it was a perfectly pompous answer. But somehow, coming as it did from China's foremost diplomat, it sounded profound. It became an example of the patient and far-sighted nature of Chinese leaders, who thought in centuries, as opposed to the short-termism of Western democratic politicians.
It now appears he was responding to a very different question. He was apparently not commenting on the French Revolution of 1789, but the much more recent French students' revolts in 1968. The misunderstanding appeared to be related to the French Revolution and the Paris Commune of 1871 because those were the historical references the Paris students used to compare themselves with. In this context, Zhou's answer was sensible but perfectly prosaic.
How do we know this? Richard Nixon's translator was there in the early 1970s and now decides to put the record straight. At a recent seminar in Washington on Henry Kissinger's new book, On China, Chas Freeman said it was a misunderstanding 'too delicious' to correct.
Such misunderstandings of Chinese leaders are not exceptional. Some misquotes are just too good to be corrected. The late Deng Xiaoping never said 'To get rich is glorious', but it so captured the ethos of the new bare-knuckle capitalist China that it stuck.
It's been said people who don't learn from history are condemned to repeat it. Well, let's first agree on what history we are talking about.