Chas Freeman … is a former diplomat who served as Richard Nixon’s interpreter during his visit to China in 1972. Because Freeman was working during the discussions between Nixon and Zhou Enlai, he knows that one of the most famous stories about Zhou is not true. Half the commencement speakers in America have quoted Zhou’s alleged response when asked whether the French Revolution had been a success: “Too soon to tell.” Ah, those far-seeing Chinese! In fact, Freeman points out, Zhou was not talking about the French Revolution of 1789. He was talking about the upheavals that began in France in 1968 and had not fully simmered down by the time he and Nixon talked.
This correction won’t change the behavior of commencement speakers, however.