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Accidental Chinese Wisdom

Last updated on: July 18, 2011 17:02 IST

Kissinger asks Zhou Enlai, 'What do you think is the impact of the French Revolution?' Zhou, after a pregnant silence so beloved of statesmen, says, 'It is too early to tell.' This comment about the Revolution that changed history has been a subject of analysis for decades.

Much of my professional life I have lived believing that the Chinese, especially the leadership, have a long-term vision, but are deliberately enigmatic in articulating it.

Thinking about my own belief now, jolted by a recent revelation to which I will come in a moment or two, I think it was influenced by a famous incident that I read about a long time ago, perhaps in my university days.

This is the much quoted story of the encounter between Zhou Enlai and Henry Kissinger in 1971 during the breakthrough that Kissinger and Nixon made with China. Other variations of this story connect it to Andre Malraux, the famous French intellectual. The 'who' in the anecdote is less important than the 'what' but the story and its interpretations go like this.

Kissinger asks Zhou Enlai, known as the quintessential mandarin with knowledge, wisdom, historical and philosophical understanding etc: 'What do you think is the impact of the French Revolution?' Zhou takes a deep breath, is deeply contemplative for a minute or two, and after a pregnant silence so beloved of statesmen, says, 'It is too early to tell.'

This comment has stayed with us and has been a subject of analysis for decades. How profound, many have thought, like me. The French Revolution of 1789 not only changed history, but also our thinking about basic political concepts.

The belief in the divine right of kings to rule was overthrown like the King himself, and the ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity found expression in the real world in a most dramatic fashion.

That ordinary people can be free to express not only their opinions but have the right to change a political order was one result of the rebellion resulting in the end of the monarchy. That all men are equal and have inherent rights was another fundamental belief that was to change Western thinking and inspire the revolution in America as well.

Two hundred years of Western democracy had been shaped by these beliefs by the time the question was posed to Zhou.

In its deconstruction, the question itself is provocative and profound. Here was China with its thousands of years of civilisation and with the Emperor as the unquestioned authority till mid-twentieth century. The will of the Emperor was supreme and there was no question of liberty. And then Mao and the communist order had arrived. It was a revolution all right, but a very different one from the French.

Had it ushered equality? Doubtful but, at any rate, no question of complete liberty as understood in the West. 

If so, what did someone like Zhou Enlai, a keen student of history and at the same time steeped in the Chinese communist party beliefs, think of the ideals embodied in the revolution of 1789? Would he accept the idea of liberty or assert the necessity of authority? Was the impact of the French Revolution seminal, or marginal, or negative? How did this great scholar-statesman assess it?

And the answer: 'It is too early to tell'. How enigmatic and complex that was! Here was China still consolidating its own independence of 1949 and building a system that was decidedly not based on the idea of liberty. It was based on force and authority and in practice meant repression and denial of freedoms of expression, association etc, on instruments to enforce the will of the communist party.

If there is one thing that the Chinese leadership fears it is anarchy and the French Revolution was certainly anarchic. If so how can Zhou endorse the French Revolution?

On the other hand weren't ideas of fraternity and equality, not ideals that at least notionally were espoused by the party? Who knew whether collectivism imposed by the central authority will stand the test of time or individualism with liberty triumph? 'Too early to tell'. What a cautious, calibrated and even cunning answer. So I thought, like many others.

And now comes the surprise. It appears that the wisdom seen in the answer was accidental.

A recent disclosure by the interpreter who was present during the exchange seems to indicate that Zhou possibly completely misunderstood the question. We must see the question and the answer in the context of the early seventies.

France had witnessed huge student riots in May 1968 with thousands of university students taking to the streets. The general strike that virtually paralysed life and discredited the government of Charles deGaulle at that time was ideological in character.

It started as a workers strike but soon the students joined them and they revolted against all signs and symbols of authority: the police, the church, the establishment in all its manifestations, capitalism, materialism, any other isms.

It was anarchic and nihilistic. It fizzled out after a while but came to symbolise a spirit of questioning and nay-saying for quite a while. It was an adventure in France, but historically not of the order of the revolution of 1789.

In a retelling, it now appears and only now, that when Zhou was asked about the French Revolution, he thought that the reference was to the 'student riots' that had occurred three years back and that had left question marks about what the protest signified.

China had undergone its own turmoil in its so-called cultural revolution in 1965 and had doubts about its trajectory. The natural and therefore not so profound answer was 'too early to tell'.

The interpreter for the American government, Chas Freeman, who told this story recently says he immediately saw the misunderstanding looking at Zhou, but it was 'too delicious an irony to be corrected'. All those present nodded sagely at the Confucian answer that had confused them. Another story was added to the lore of the far-seeing Chinese. Whether this narrative is accurate will be known, if at all, when the Chinese archives will be open.

Wisdom, accidental or otherwise is not unique to the Chinese though, and we have more than our share. There is the possibly apocryphal story of Dr Radhakrishnan, our own philosopher-statesman visiting Germany when he was the President of India.

As he landed, he was received at the airport  by Konrad Adenauer, the German chancellor who was a bit shaky in  English. The story goes that Adenauer shook hands vigorously with the visiting Indian dignitary but kept saying, 'Who are you, Who are you?' instead of 'How are you, How are you?'

Radhakrishnan must have been nonplussed by this fundamental question of philosophy being asked so directly and blatantly at the airport itself, the question 'Who am I'  being the form of inquiry that the great Ramana Maharshi encouraged. Answers like 'Aham Brahmasmi', or 'I am the Atman, but no different from the Brahman' must have come to the tip of his tongue, but seeing the enthusiasm of the German he did not articulate such Advaitic percepts.

Instead, he drew himself up to his full height and answered solemnly, 'I am the President of the Republic of India'. So the story goes.

But my favourite tale, perhaps again apocryphal, of the impact of accidental sayings is a more contemporary story. It can be told since the key personalities involved are no longer active in politics.

Prime Minister Narasimha Rao was forming his Cabinet in 1991. There was some expectation that Madhavrao Scindia would be made the foreign minister. At the swearing-in ceremony when the name 'Madhav…' was announced, it is told, that Scindia was already getting up from his chair.

But the name read out was 'Madhavsinh Solanki', the veteran Gujarat politico. It is believed that even Narasimha Rao looked surprised when Solanki got up and took the oath of office. Some say that Narasimha Rao did admit to his secretary who normally takes down the list orally indicated by the PM that 'maine Madhav bola toh tha, magar (yes, although I had said Madhav…)

But by then the deed had been done and the wrong Madhav had taken the oath for the wrong ministry.

B S Prakash is the Indian Ambassador in Brazil and can be reached at

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

B S Prakash