In Star Trek VI, we have this odd (but amusing) quote

"There's an old Vulcan proverb: Only Nixon could go to China."

Why did the Vulcans have this proverb?

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    They didn't. That is a joke. The "only Nixon could go to China" thing is a real quote about Nixon, but not (obviously) from Vulcans. Yes, Spock made a joke. You must admit that Vulcans have perfect deadpan delivery – JRE Oct 22 at 17:13
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    Don't forget that Spock was half-Human as well. – Sava Oct 22 at 17:33
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    All those years Spock served with Chekov and his Russian history lessons... – Gaultheria Oct 22 at 20:41
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    It's as much a Vulcan proverb as "To be or not to be" was translated from classic Klingon literature (spoken later in the movie). – Anthony X Oct 23 at 1:18
  • Vulcans go to great lengths not to “feel” anything! – Paul D. Waite Oct 23 at 14:00
up vote 2 down vote accepted

This was address (tangentially) in a footnote in The Autobiography of James T. Kirk (2015 written by Kirk himself and edited by David Goodman.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a well-known Vulcan proverb, but its origin is unclear. It derives from the events of 20th-century Earth, when President of the United States Richard Nixon opened diplomatic relations with Communist China. The meaning of the proverb refers to the fact that it was considered a political success because of Nixon’s career history of being a virulent anti-Communist; as such, none of his opponents could accuse him of being “soft” on Communism. It is unclear, however, what Vulcan was a student of Earth history to the extent that they created a proverb. And it couldn’t be “ancient,” as the events it referred to were only 300 years old.

In A Time to Die this phrase is described by Picard as one of a variety of pedestrian platitudes that Vulcans were wont to utter.

Jean-Luc heard footsteps on the stone walkway just beyond his open door. He wondered if it was a visitor come to see him. A moment later, he was disappointed to see it was just another holodeck character—a wise-looking Vulcan who often stopped to dispense pedestrian platitudes and try to engage him in conversation.

The old Vulcan cleared his throat and said, “Only Nixon could go to China.”

“I’ve heard that already,” muttered Picard. “Go on your way.”

A popular use of the expression came in the 1991 film Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, where "only Nixon could go to China" is quoted by Spock as "an old Vulcan proverb". In the context of the film, it is given as a reason why James T. Kirk, a character with a history of armed conflict with the Klingons and a personal enmity for them, should escort their chancellor to Earth for peace negotiations with the Federation.

Source

It isn't a proverb, that's just Spock saying a joke, although he uses it to describe as to why Kirk would be a good choice for the mission. It's the same case as Chancellor Gorkon who knew Shakespeare wasn't written originally in Klingon.

Here is a link to the full scene with the "proverb"

  • This explains the general meaning of the phrase but not why Spock would consider it a Vulcan proverb (which was the point of the question). – Valorum Oct 22 at 18:41
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    @Valorum he doesn't. That's part of the humor, which would help his case among the humans (and maybe other non Vulcans) in the audience. – jaxad0127 Oct 22 at 20:23
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    @jaxad0127 - Great. Now, can you provide any evidence that that's the case? – Valorum Oct 22 at 20:26
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    @Valorum: It is impossible for it to be literally true unless Spock considers "old" to include "since we met the humans." So it must be a joke. – Kevin Oct 22 at 20:29
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    @Kevin - The Vulcans were on Earth during the Nixon Era so it's perfectly possible for it to be literally true. There's also time-travel and alternate universes to take into account. – Valorum Oct 22 at 20:30

I think JRE is seriously overthinking it.

From the very first time I saw this excellent movie my interpretation was always the same. Spock fully translates his proverbs.

There must have been some incident in Vulcan history where the more antagonistic party is the one to make peace and reached the same saying. So Spock completes the translation by filling in the names from a similar incident.

  • Do you have any evidence to support this answer one way or the other, so that it's not just one interpretation vs. another with no evidence to support either? – V2Blast Oct 23 at 6:22
  • Or maybe he literally means Nixon and China. We know that the Vulcans had the means to monitor Earth transmissions. Maybe our newscast was a TV show to them? – Edmund Dantes Oct 23 at 6:43
  • @Edmund Dante's: The second, if true, is a retcon. – Joshua Oct 23 at 13:38

Spock's line is an ironic joke to us, but my take was that Vulcans, reasonably being well-schooled in the political histories of all the major Alpha Quadrant civilizations, found the Nixon/China story noteworthy enough to proverbialize it in their own civilization. Joshua above suggested that Spock changed the names from some Vulcan reference to Nixon and China so that the assembled humans would get the meaning; I don't find that necessary. Perhaps Vulcan history had no analogous event and so Vulcans took special note of this especially bold sociological concept, where an adversary's principal opponent is the most meaningful one to make an overture of peace because of the message of sincerity it sends.

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