ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
As we wait to see whether lawmakers can work out a deal, we're going to examine something Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said last week as he previewed the Senate debate.
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MITCH MCCONNELL: Whoever gets to 60 wins. It'll be an opportunity for a thousand flowers to bloom.
SHAPIRO: A thousand flowers to bloom.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Well, for anyone who has studied Chinese history or lived through it, this is what comes to mind.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: (Speaking Chinese). Let a hundred flowers bloom, and let a hundred schools of thought contend.
KELLY: That's NPR's Beijing correspondent Anthony Kuhn quoting Chairman Mao from 1956 when he launched the Hundred Flowers Movement. It was billed as a freewheeling debate. Writers and intellectuals were invited to give their ideas and opinions and even criticism of the communist government.
KUHN: The thing about this is that in 1957, there was a complete turnaround, and basically critics say that this was a trick.
SHAPIRO: Here's how John Pomfret, author of the book "The Beautiful Country And The Middle Kingdom," describes what happened.
JOHN POMFRET: Upwards of a million Chinese intellectuals were thrown into labor camps, and many of those Chinese intellectuals actually had been educated in the United States. Thousands and thousands of these people died, and hundreds of thousands of people had their lives basically ruined because of Mao's campaign to let a hundred flowers bloom.
SHAPIRO: John Pomfret says he hears versions of the expression used or misused all the time. In fact it's all over our archives.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I say God bless it, and let a hundred flowers bloom because...
XENI JARDIN: Kleinrock talks about, like, letting a thousand flowers bloom, the flowers being web servers or nodes on the Internet.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The Republican Party needs to let a thousand flowers bloom.
KELLY: To be fair, as Anthony Kuhn tells us, the words let a hundred flowers bloom had a life before Mao uttered them. They appear in a famous 19th century Chinese novel.
KUHN: In which an empress China orders the spirits of the flowers to make all the flowers bloom at once. And it's just, you know - it's a metaphor for a riot of color, a profusion of diversity and everything.
SHAPIRO: As for where Mitch McConnell first heard those words, his office says, as you note, it's a common phrase used by people from all walks of life. I am sorry to say there is no deeper meaning than that. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.