We’ve all heard some pomposity quoting Mao Zedong’s famous comment on the French Revolution, ‘It’s too early to judge’. This evidentşy has the goal of showing said pomposity to be familiar with the thoughts of famous political figures, and to associate themselves with Mao’s supposed profundity. This has tended to wear off over time with repetition. It’s difficult even for the self-deceiving and pompous not to notice at some point that repetition of a cliché does not look profound. Mao’s reputation as a tyrant responsible for the deaths of tens of millions, through political repression and harebrained totalitarian economic planning taken to the most lunatic extremes, has rightly grown over the years and made him less suitable for quotation.
As an article by Richard McGregor in the Financial Times, ‘Zhou’s cryptic thought lost in translation’, makes clear Mao never even said what has so often been attributed to him. The famous saying comes from Zhou Enlai, Prime Minister of Maoist China. And the saying is itself a misunderstanding of Zhou, who was referring to the student uprising in Pais of May 1968.
No doubt some will continue to adopt an air of faux wisdom by referring to this mythical saying for years to come, but knowledge of its apocryphal nature will inevitably permeate and pomposities will have to look elsewhere. As someone who has participated in party politics in Britain, I know that politicians of this type (and there is no shortage of political pomposities) will resort to other unsourced quotations in short books of political quotations on sale at party conferences.
On this topic, the most famous ‘Chinese saying’, the curse, ‘may you live in interesting times’ is also apocryphal, something I found a few years ago with the aid of the Internet. The spread of the Internet in various computing devices, and of search machines, has provided on way of detecting and avoiding apocryphal sayings, and reveals that a lot of so called ‘famous sayings’ exist because people now need to believe some famous person, or some ancient culture, said such a thing. The real lesson should be to avoid clichés. Often repeated real quotations of famous politicians and writers, even the most admirable, become means for signalling an assumption of profundity, veiling inner thoughtlessness.
The best comment on famous ‘Chinese sayings’ I’ve seen is in Quentin Tarrantino’s film Kill Bill. The Kill Bill Volume I opens with the saying that appears on the screen ‘Revenge is a meal best eaten cold’. This is then said to be a old Klingon saying. For those completely unfamiliar with the Star Trek universe, I should point out that Klingons are a war like alien race in that universe, who themselves refer to a mixture of clichés about martial Asiatic peoples and American Indians. All very well done and very justifiable within that fictional universe. Tarantino’s device elegantly signals how his films connect with various genres, hinting at Chinese references as well as science fictions. Oriental martial arts films and American versions of those, as in the American TV series Kung Fu, are major points of reference for Tarantino, who is also warning us not to take them as realistic portrayals of East Asian societies.
Another qualification I should add is that I believe there is serious evidence that Mao and Chinese leaders have knowledge of Chinese history and like to make comparisons between the present and the centuries old past. But not world history, and I think we should attribute that impression of particularly Chinese historical awareness to the continuity of China as an Empire over many centuries with a common language, that has little obvious comparison with any other state in the world. European politicians make occasional references to the Early Modern, Medieval and Antique past, but in ways which tend to refer to history as seen within one state with a very fragmented past, within the European space, sounding less profound than Chinese politicians who are referring to what has existed as a very large politically, and then linguistically, unified land mass (with changing borders and ruling families) since the third-century BCE.