The Mystery of Zhou Enlai

Lancashire/Sipa Press
Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, Beijing, 1956

Through the ups and downs of the unpredictable Chinese Revolution, Zhou Enlai’s reputation has seemed to stand untarnished. The reasons for this are in part old-fashioned ones: in a world of violent change, not noted for its finesse, Zhou Enlai stood out as elegant, courteous, even courtly; and with his remarkable good looks and fluent intelligence, he seemed to personify the mannerisms of diplomats from a gentler age. At the same time, Zhou’s reputation benefited from the apparently profound contrasts with Mao Zedong, who loved to thrust himself forward into the limelight, and never shrank from taking credit for China’s perpetual upheavals.

The title of Gao Wenqian’s book, Zhou Enlai: The Last Perfect Revolutionary, is deliberately sardonic, and is designed to show that far from being perfect, Zhou was in fact fallible, often devious, and capable of great cruelty to his friends and fellow revolutionaries. Zhou had “a deft talent,” Gao writes, “for finding some tiny crack in the wall that would allow him to appear even-keeled in his judgments.” In reality, Zhou was often “trailing like a faithful dog” behind Mao, and prone to use “rhetorical babble” whenever doing so might save his skin. “Zhou survived politically by expressing his eternal deference to Mao,” and, adds Gao, employed “voluminous and disgusting flattery” and apparently acquiesced in being “forced to carry Mao’s execution knife.” In a sharply worded introduction to Gao’s book, the China scholar Andrew Nathan takes the epithets even further: for Nathan, Zhou Enlai was a man “unique…in his capacity to endure abasement”; one who was Mao’s “indispensable yet despised assistant,” Mao’s “enabler” who had a “servant mentality” and possessed “an inability to take existential risks, a psychological need to be another leader’s number two.”

If that were all there were to the corrective defining of Zhou Enlai’s life, it probably would not be worth reading a whole book about it, but in fact this is an intriguing study written under unusual circumstances, by an author, Gao Wenqian, who apparently has excellent qualifications: before he left China, he had been one of the research scholars working on an official biography of Zhou Enlai, with access to classified archives. Though in the subhead the English version is called “A Biography,” the book originally made no claims to being a biography in the regular sense of the term. The Chinese version, which was published by Gao in Hong Kong in 2003, was titled simply Wannian Zhou Enlai (The Last Years of Zhou Enlai); it contained one opening background chapter covering the period from Zhou’s birth in 1898 until the outbreak of China’s so-called Cultural Revolution in 1966.

That chapter, owing to the necessities of space, was highly selective, but it still managed to deal rapidly with Zhou’s early upbringing and schooling, his role in the formative years of the Chinese…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.