The following article is included here in entirety and should be cited as follows:

Hawks, Shelley Drake. (2014).  “Zhou Enlai.” In Kerry Brown (Ed.), Berkshire dictionary of Chinese biography (pp. 1535-1548).  Great Barrington, MA:  Berkshire Publishing.

Zhōu Ēnlái



1898–1976—Revolutionary leader, first premier of the PRC; diplomat




Considered one of the most important politicians in the Communist revolution, Zhou Enlai was the first premier of the People’s Republic of China and chief diplomat for the Chinese Communist Party under Mao Zedong. Zhou was well educated and as a young man spent time in Japan and France, which helped him to become the worldly and subtle spokesman who impressed heads of state such as President Nixon. Zhou was responsible for implementing Mao’s policies and has been criticized for not doing enough to ameliorate Mao’s later excesses. Zhou’s less ideological approach compared to Mao’s, however, was pivotal in determining the future of Communism in China.


One of the towering figures of China’s Communist revolution, Zhou Enlai was premier of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) from 1949 until his death in 1976, chief diplomat for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under *Máo Zédōng 毛泽东 (1893–1976), and mentor to CCP General Secretary *Dèng Xiǎopíng 邓小平 (1904–1997), among others. Zhou Enlai is typically remembered as the revolution’s second-most important politician after Mao Zedong. He was the assistant who made Chairman Mao’s policies operational after the Party came to power in 1949. He also served as one of the most important founding members of the Party. Occupying high positions in the Party for a half-century in both international and domestic affairs, Zhou played a critical role in China’s rise to power in the twentieth century.


True to the meaning of his given name “Enlai” (“Coming of Grace”), Zhou excelled at resolving logistical problems and mediating between opposing groups. [Page 1535]  He is known for his negotiations with US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that culminated in the signing of the Shanghai Communiqué in 1972, the agreement that struck a compromise on the thorny issue of the status of the island of Taiwan and culminated in the reestablishment of normal relations between the People’s Republic of China and the United States.


Zhou Enlai is remembered  for  his suave interactions with foreign dignitaries, advancing China’s interests. Henry Kissinger  described him as one of  the most impressive men he had ever met (Kissinger  2011, 241). Kissinger said of Zhou: “He moved gracefully and with dignity, filling a room not by his physical dominance (as did Mao or [French president Charles] de Gaulle) but by his air of controlled tension, as if he were a coiled spring” (MacMillan 2007, 41). UN Secretary-General  Dag Hammarskjöld praised Zhou as “the most superior brain I have so far met in the field of foreign politics” (Ibid.). At state banquets, he was a witty conversationalist who knew how to set visitors at ease. In an often-told story (which may be apocryphal), the French novelist André Malraux asked Zhou what he thought was the significance of the French Revolution. Zhou replied that it was too soon to tell. (It should be stressed, though, that  there is controversy over this oft-quoted statement, with many claiming it referred not to the 1789 event, but to the student unrest in Paris in 1968.)


Zhou exemplified the Chinese strength for thinking historically. He was flexible with his tactics, but always kept a long-term vision. For example, he is credited with ending the 1936 Xi’an Incident peacefully and helping to save Nationalist  leader Chiang Kai-shek’s 蒋介石  (1887–1975) life after he had been kidnapped  by  his own generals, who wanted Nationalist forces to focus  on repelling the Japanese invasion. Many parties involved in the kidnapping wanted Chiang Kai-shek dead, because he had executed so many Communists. Zhou advocated for keeping Chiang alive, supposedly because he understood that China needed a national figure like Chiang to stand united against the  Japanese  (Zhongguo Lishi Bowuguan, 2–3). Zhou did not operate out of compassion, but a clear-headed pragmatism: so much so that his opponents thought him callous. At the start of the Long March in 1934—a series of military retreats from Nationalist-occupied territory that led to a 9,600-kilometer (6,000-mile)-long journey—he is reported to have systematically organized purges against fellow Communists deemed unreliable (MacMillan 2007, 42).


At the Bandung Afro-Asian conference in 1955, Zhou cultivated solidarity among  fellow  nations struggling with economic backwardness. A year prior, at the Geneva Conference, US Secretary of   State John Foster Dulles had famously refused to shake the premier’s hand as a symbol of America’s Cold War policy of isolating China. Zhou Enlai responded to the Anti-Communist world’s attempts [Page 1536] at containment by energetically building coalitions among emerging countries who had suffered from colonialism. Together, Zhou and Mao charted an assertive foreign policy that pivoted toward the Soviet Union initially, and then shifted to the United States, when China’s interests demanded it. In 1972, Zhou Enlai accepted the reversal of Dulles’ earlier snub, when President Nixon alighted from Air Force One. Zhou stood dignified with his hands resting at his side until Nixon outstretched his hand. In official photographs, Zhou took care not to appear deferential to the visiting American officials. He orchestrated the entire state visit down to the last detail to show that China and the American superpower were equals.


Zhou Enlai is credited with leading efforts to stabilize China financially in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution 文化大革命  (1966–1976), an upheaval which left China’s economy and society in ruins. Throughout his career, he served as the chief bureaucrat supervising China’s foreign trade. He pushed for increased relations with countries who could help China acquire the expertise necessary for economic development (Dikotter 2010, 77). In 1964 and again in 1975, Zhou urged the adoption of the Four Modernizations, a new policy direction emphasizing investment in advanced technology and economic construction (with a focus on agriculture, industry, national defense, and science and technology), that set the stage for Deng Xiaoping’s Second Revolution in the post–Cultural Revolution period.


Early Life


Born in 1898 to a well-established gentry family in Huai’an, Jiangsu Province, Zhou Enlai was deeply immersed in Confucian traditions as a child. The Zhou clan traced their descent to a long line of scholar-officials from Shaoxing, Zhejiang Province, including Zhōu Dūnyí 周敦颐 (1017–1073), a Neo-Confucian philosopher of the Northern Sòng dynasty. Zhou’s grandfather, Zhou Panlong, moved his family to Huai’an in the 1870s to find work as a minor official (Lee 1994, 6).


Zhou Enlai’s birth was the occasion for a generous act of filial piety. He was the first grandson in the extended family, and yet his father gave him up so that his dying brother, stricken with tuberculosis, would not be left without an heir. This meant that Zhou was raised by his widowed aunt as his adoptive mother while continuing to live near his birth mother. Having so much attention lavished on him advanced his education, but it also created a complex situation for a young child to navigate. He learned to conduct himself with great sensitivity to the various needs of each mother. This abundance of mothering gave rise to his life-long respect for women. It also may have contributed to the servile way that he related to Mao for most of his career. In the absence of his father, Zhou was [Page 1537] heavily influenced by the deferential customs of female role models.


Tragically, he lost both his mothers to disease before he turned ten, and his life was severely disrupted. He was forced to grow up quickly as the family’s assets dwindled. Throughout these difficult times, his father did not come to his aid, yet Zhou managed to care for himself and his two younger brothers for two years. He even repaid family debts by pawning articles from the household.


When he was twelve, Zhou’s uncle invited him to come to Manchuria in northeast China to continue his education. Zhou was fortunate to receive indepth training in classical Confucian learning and modern subjects such as mathematics, English, and geography. When his uncle moved to Tianjin, Zhou Enlai applied and was admitted to an English-speaking boarding school famous for Western learning, Nankai Middle School. Mentored and financially supported by two visionary educators, Zhang Boling and Yan Xiu, he thrived at the  school,  excelling  at  essay-writing and debate. He edited two student publications and participated in the New Drama  Club as an actor, set designer, and director. He won public acclaim for his performance as the female heroine in the play One Dollar in 1915. Later in his career, Zhou Enlai drew on his training in drama to mastermind an elaborate theatrical performance based on a folk-song, “The East is Red.” He attended to all the details of the production featuring 2,000 artists and a 1,000-person chorus. According to the American journalist Edgar Snow, who attended the 1964 performance, the play ended with the hoisting of a 9-meter-high (30-foot-high) portrait of Mao, a salute to the cult gathering around the Chairman.


Time Abroad


Upon graduating from Nankai in 1917 as valedictorian, Zhou spent two years in Japan. He studied the Japanese language, read Japanese newspapers avidly, and attended political action meetings organized by Chinese students in Tokyo. The writings of the Japanese Marxist Hajime Kawakami convinced him that capitalism was to blame for poverty and social misery (Lee 1994, 104–109). His return to China coincided with the swirl of student activity associated with the May Fourth Movement 五四运动 in 1919, in which students rose up to protest traditional Chinese values and Western dominance. He founded the Awakening Society in Tianjin, an organization for spreading progressive thinking and protesting Japanese imperialism. The society’s members invited Lǐ Dàzhāo 李大钊 (1888–1927), the director of Peking University Library and one of China’s first Marxists, to be a guest lecturer. At this time, Zhou was already an ardent nationalist, but not yet a serious revolutionary. He would say later that his revolutionary consciousness began when he was arrested for participating in rallies [Page 1538] against Japanese imperialism. Imprisoned for six months together with hardened criminals, Zhou Enlai became convinced that the old social order required fundamental change. He gave lectures on Marxist theory to fellow prisoners. He vowed to go to France, the “home of liberty,” to learn the most advanced techniques to lead China’s revolutionary transformation.


Zhou Enlai found the means to travel to France in 1920 through the financial support of Zhou family members and Nankai school connections. He initially planned to attend the University of Edinburgh because of his proficiency in English, but he discovered on a trip to England that the curriculum required competency in foreign languages besides English. He returned to France and briefly worked at a Renault automobile factory on the outskirts of Paris. Before he left China, he had arranged to serve as a special correspondent for Tianjin-based Yishi bao (Beneficial News)  益世报. As part of his responsibilities, he chronicled the activities of Chinese work-study students in France, many of whom became  radicalized by the discrimination they experienced, eking out a living and receiving half of what French workers earned.


A friend from his  days organizing the Awakening  Society, Liu  Qingyang and her husband, Zhang Shenfu, a pro fessor at Peking University, convinced Zhou Enlai to join the Chinese Commu nist Party in March of 1921. Zhou Enlai soon became a pivotal member of the underground community organizing Communist cells in Paris and Berlin. He drafted the charter for the establishment of the Chinese Youth Communist Party in Europe in June of 1922 and became the Youth League’s general secretary. During the four years he spent in Europe doing revolutionary work, Zhou became acquainted with many future leaders of the international Communist movement, including Deng Xiaoping, Zhū Dé 朱德 (1886–1976), and Ho Chi Minh.


Political Career



A young Zhou Enlai in 1924, wearing a National Revolutionary Army uniform. He served as Political advisor of the Whampoa Military Academy.


 After the Moscow-based Communist International, or Comintern, pressed the Chinese Communist Party to form a United Front with the Nationalist Party, Zhou became the acting chairman of the Nationalist Party’s European branch in 1923. In 1924, he was invited to return to China to serve as the Director of the Political Department at the newly formed Whampoa Military Academy in Guangzhou (Canton), a position that allowed him to earn the trust of revolutionary military officers. Zhou had no military training, but his affiliation with generals at Whampoa Academy gave him credibility as a military organizer.


While headquartered in Guangzhou, Zhou Enlai rose quickly to a top leadership position within the United Front. His interpersonal skills were particularly useful for mediating between the Chinese Nationalistic Party, China's [Page 1539] Communist Party, and the Soviet Union’s Communist International. As he rose in the ranks, Zhou Enlai recognized the need for a wife’s companionship to help him cope with new responsibilities. While in Europe, Zhou struck up a romantic relationship with a fellow activist, Zhang Ruoming. He eventually decided that she was unsuited for the life of a professional revolutionary (Lee 1994, 159; Gao 2007, 43–45). He began corresponding with another fellow activist from Tianjin, seven years his junior, who had knit him a sweater as a send-off gift. Dèng Yǐngchāo 邓颖超 accepted his marriage proposal readily, even though she had not seen him since the student demonstrations of 1919. She joined him in Guangzhou, where they married on 8 August 1925. Like her husband, Deng Yingchao proved to be an energetic organizer of revolutionary activities. She became a leader of the Women’s Movement within the party. The couple had no children of their own, but later in life adopted several orphans, including,  according  to some sources, the future premier Li Peng.


A First Meeting with Mao


After the president of the newly founded Republic of China, Sun Yat-sen 孙中山 (1866–1925), died in while visiting Bejing in 1925, Zhou Enlai grew to distrust Chiang Kai-shek. He continued to cooperate with the Nationalists, however, out of deference to the instructions of the Communist International. Once Chiang Kai-shek launched the Northern Expedition in 1926 to combat warlordism, Zhou was dispatched to Shanghai to assist the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Chén Dúxiù 陈独秀 (1879–1942). Before leaving Guangzhou, Zhou met Mao Zedong for the first time at the home of his neighbor . Mao was the leading spokesman for the unorthodox view that China’s revolutionary strategy must focus on organizing peasants. Zhou Enlai favored the plan for urban-based insurrection supported by Moscow. In Shanghai, Zhou organized workers’ strikes to protest against foreign imperialism. He accepted Mao’s perspective only after Chiang Kai-shek’s forces massacred the Communists in Shanghai and forced a relocation of Party members to the countryside. [Page 1540]


During the early years of their working relationship, when Zhou Enlai outranked Mao, the two men found themselves on opposing sides of most policy issues. Zhou assiduously followed orders emanating out of Moscow. Mao had a strong independent streak. During the early 1930s, when Nationalist armies inflicted severe casualties on Communist troops, both Zhou and Mao suffered defeats on the battlefield, but Party authorities  punished Mao more harshly, because of his refusal to abide by Party discipline. A proponent of guerilla warfare, Mao felt that  urban-based cadres like Zhou did not understand the realities of fighting.


At a conference at Ningdu in 1932, Zhou Enlai tried to rein in Mao by proposing an arrangement relieving Mao of his command while retaining him as an advisor. Mao refused to cooperate. Zhou responded by assuming full military authority and shifting his allegiance to Mao’s rival, the Soviet-backed *Wáng Míng王明 (1904–1974). Exiled from leadership for two years, Mao never forgot this slight, and even after they repaired their working relationship during the Long March, Mao constantly required Zhou Enlai to show signs of submission and to apologize for doubting his views. After purging Wang Ming and his followers from the Party in 1941, Mao required Zhou Enlai to submit a lengthy self-criticism to prove that he was loyal. Zhou Enlai willingly groveled, because he felt that Mao’s strategy and tactics had won out. Ultimately, Zhou deferred to Mao, because he saw Mao as the visionary who saved the movement from extinction. He naturally gravitated toward assuming second in command, since his own gifts were more detail-oriented and administrative.  


Zhou personally handled all of Chairman Mao’s foreign policy initiatives throughout the half-century of their political partnership. Mao rarely traveled abroad and typically left the details of his policies to others. Even in the rare instances when Mao met personally with a head of state, such as his historic meeting with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in Moscow to cement the Sino-Soviet Agreement of 1950 or with US president Richard Nixon in Beijing to open up relations with the United States in 1972, the chairman relied on Zhou to initiate and finalize all arrangements. Thus, it is hard to distinguish the degree to which Zhou should be credited with the substance, as opposed to the mere execution, of these momentous shifts in policies.


Zhou has been perceived as a force for moderation and openness within the Communist Party. This is only partially true (Wilson 1984, 7). Zhou served the Communist Party with an iron sense of discipline and loyalty. When Mao swerved toward radical extremism, Zhou followed suit. Some analysts portray Zhou as a mere appendage of Mao, a skilled implementer of another man’s [Page 1541] strategic vision, whereas others see Zhou as an independent force in his own right, a self-effacing figure who discretely shaped and expanded the broad field of action that Mao afforded him. As more archival and other historic material comes to light, it might be easier to see which of these is the closer to Zhou’s role.


Regarding the 1972 opening of relations with the United States, for example, not Zhou but rather his foreign minister, Marshal Chen Yi, first advocated the conceptual shift toward détente with the United States in a strategic report submitted to Mao in 1969. Zhou supported this policy recommendation too, but he allowed the general to advance the argument first. Zhou could never have acted on Chen Yi’s recommendation to improve relations with the United States without Mao’s explicit endorsement. Yet, after Mao gave approval for this broad policy shift and granted the request of the US table tennis team to visit Beijing, Zhou orchestrated the complex preparations leading up to Nixon’s visit with intelligence and finesse.


  A Symbiotic Pair: The Relationship Between Zhou and Mao


Zhou has retrospectively won praise from those who see him as representing a more benign and cosmopolitan alternative to the Chinese Communism championed by  Mao. Considering the calamitous result of Mao’s Great Leap Forward (a campaign launched in 1958 aimed to advance China’s agricultural and industrial development), and the later Cultural Revolution, Zhou comes off favorably by comparison. His responses were more moderate, and, particularly during the Cultural Revolution, he was someone who was able to reduce some of the excesses of Mao’s policies. Comparing the firstand second-most important Chinese revolutionaries, however, presumes that their careers can be disentangled from one another. This is only partially true.


Although they began as rivals, the two men became an indissoluble symbiotic pair after Zhou subordinated himself to Mao’s leadership over the course of the Long March (1934–1935), when Mao’s decisive leadership was critical for the Party’s survival. Actually their personal relationship was always strained, but they managed to forge a potent political partnership despite their contrasting personalities. Zhou was by nature a prudent and tolerant team player, in some ways the supreme pragmatist, whereas Mao was an uncompromising rebel, utopian and idealistic in his vision, polarizing and overbearing in his effect on people around him, particularly after the mid-1950s. Their careers became so intertwined that Zhou must be considered accountable, at least to some degree, for all of Mao’s destructive policies. He was the technocrat who enabled them to be implemented. [Page 1542]



 President Richard Nixon and Premier Zhou Enlai on 21 February 1972


President Richard Nixon and Premier Zhou Enlai on 21 February 1972. Nixon’s visit to China marked the opening of relations between China and the United States. Chairman Mao relied on Zhou to initiate and formalize much of the arrangements between the countries. Source: National Archives.

If Zhou had sided with the leaders trying to restrain Mao rather than constantly aligning himself with Mao, the immense human suffering caused by the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution might have been limited considerably. Zhou Enlai may be credited with having mitigated some of the destructiveness of the Red Guard movement (in which high school and college students become Mao Zedong’s personal guards and enforcers) by stationing guards, for example, to defend valuable cultural properties like the Forbidden City. Yet he also prolonged the Cultural Revolution in the sense that his willingness to modify the excesses of the movement kept it operational and seemingly palatable. He was also integral to the operations of the Cultural Revolution, through his chairmanship of various key groups like the infamous Central Examination Group, which had responsibility for the torture and interrogation of key figures during this period. To Zhou’s credit, he showed contrition for not [Page 1543] doing more to save veteran comrades from brutality. Intimates of Zhou report that he was haunted by these failures. At the funeral of Marshall He Long in 1975, who died in jail after being purged during the Cultural Revolution, Zhou bowed  to  his  deceased  friend’s  ashes and portrait seven times.



Although his real opinions were often shrouded in secrecy, Zhou disagreed with Mao on the critical issue of how to pace and structure China’s economic development. Zhou expressed disagreement with Mao’s so-called Little Leap in 1956, the precursor to the more extreme Great Leap Forward campaign that Mao devised in 1958. Zhou thought the targets for growth that Mao was advocating were overambitious and recommended scaling them back. Mao became angry at Zhou for suggesting a slower timetable and forced Zhou to recant his views before a large meeting of party delegates.


A few years later, when Minister of Defense Péng Déhuái 彭德怀 (1898–1974) urgently sought to convince Mao to halt the Great Leap Forward, Zhou did not support Peng’s petition but rather remained cowed and seemingly neutral. Reportedly, a distressed Peng told Zhou to his face that he was “too sophisticated, too smooth” (Gao 2007, 161). This was also the case in February 1967 when several military officers challenged Mao’s Cultural Revolution policies. Zhou agreed  with the officers complaint that the Cultural Revolution should be curtailed and order restored, but again he remained neutral, unwilling to risk detaching himself from Mao. Zhou thus failed to defend the public interest when it really counted, that is, when his support for constraining  Mao might have decisively blunted Mao’s power.


Succession Power Struggles


According to the memoirs of Mao’s personal physician, Li Zhisui, Zhou behaved surprisingly obsequiously in Mao’s presence, tasting his food to make sure that it was not poisoned and crawling at his feet to show him maps as if Zhou were a eunuch serving the emperor. In private, Mao referred to Zhou dismissively as “his housekeeper” (Li 1994, 258). Apparently, the servile way in which Zhou related to Mao was partially a strategy for assuaging Mao’s ego and easing his paranoia, and partially a relic of feudal habits and arrangements.


In the aftermath of heir-apparent Lín Biāo’s 林彪 (1907–1971) betrayal of Mao in 1971 and his subsequent death in a plane crash in Outer Mongolia while perhaps trying to flee the country, (the exact reasons for the flight are unknown), the need to establish a credible successor to Mao loomed heavily in the minds of both Zhou and Mao. By 1972, the Cultural Revolution’s ideological extremism was sputtering, and in this new circumstance the contrasting approaches of Zhou and Mao seemed more contradictory than complementary. By1972, Zhou had sprung into action, restoring normal [Page 1544] governmental functions, rehabilitating party veterans, and putting the economy back on solid footing.


Mao and his radical allies seemed anxious to keep these “rightist” tendencies in check and to salvage some positive legacy for the Cultural Revolution. Because both Zhou and Mao were chronically ill, Zhou with cancer and Mao with Lou Gehrig’s disease, a sense of urgency infused their decision making. The subtle rivalry between Mao and Zhou, long suppressed by the self-effacing Zhou, flared up as they both sought to leave their personal stamp on the future direction of the revolution to which they had dedicated their lives. To make sure that his rival did not outlive him, Mao forbade doctors from treating Zhou’s bladder cancer even though it was discovered in its early stages and doctors predicted a full recovery. Mao worried that Zhou Enlai might one day lead a negative reassessment of the Cultural Revolution. He was also jealous of Zhou’s stature on the world stage.


In 1974, Mao’s wife, Jiāng Qīng 江青 (1914–1991), and her allies accused the ailing Zhou of being a closet Confucian and forced him to make a self-criticism before hundreds of officials in the Great Hall of the People. Mao dealt Zhou Enlai another blow when he chose Deng Xiaoping instead of Zhou Enlai to represent China at the United Nations in 1974.


What was at stake during the final years of both Mao and Zhou was whether the party machinery would be left in capable hands. Zhou was determined to pass on his position as premier to Deng Xiaoping and to secure Mao’s endorsement for it. Mao had high regard for Deng’s administrative abilities. Even when Deng was purged during the Cultural Revolution, Mao never allowed Deng to be expelled from the party. Mao invited Deng back to the leadership ranks in 1973 and made him acting premier despite the objections of the radicals.  But Mao remained ambivalent about Deng as a successor because he wanted the ultimate decision-maker to be someone who would strictly follow Mao’s radical vision, such as Wang Hongwen, third in rank in the Politburo, or Huá Guófēng 华国锋 (1921–2008), junior-most member of the committee who had investigated Lin Biao, his choices for successors. Mao did not want to see his ideological objectives diminished  or  buried.  Mao suspected that Deng was ultimately “a capitulationist,” that is, one who would eventually forgo revolutionary aspirations and "go down the capitalist road” were he not properly kept in check by a genuine revolutionary like himself. Mao’s suspicions seemed born out when Deng refused to evaluate the Cultural Revolution positively in 1975 (Vogel 2011, 145–150).


By January 1976, when Zhou succumbed to cancer, Mao’s credibility was on the wane because of his lingering support for ideological extremists such as his wife. On the other hand, Zhou’s reputation had been enhanced. His [Page 1545] conspicuous role in restoring governmental functions and rehabilitating persecuted intellectuals and party veterans since 1971 was widely appreciated. Deng was seen as one of the few cadres capable of continuing Zhou’s work in his absence. He gave the eulogy at the memorial service for the deceased premier. Deng rarely showed emotion, but in this case, he was visibly shaken. Their careers had been interwoven since they were Communist organizers in France. The intense outpouring of grief accompanying news of Zhou’s death unsettled Mao and his allies and spurred them to make a decisive move to curtail public mourning for Zhou and to remove Deng Xiaoping from power for a second time.


Demonstration Suppressed

On 4 April 1976, coinciding with the Qingming Festival to honor the dead, thousands gathered at Tiananmen Square in Beijing in defiance of strictures, laying wreaths, poems, and flowers in tribute to Zhou at the Monument to the People’s Heroes. The gathering threatened to escalate into a demonstration against Mao himself, as some wall posters denounced him as a cruel Qín Shǐhuáng 秦始皇 (259–210 BCE), the despotic first emperor of a unified China, famous in history for “burning the books and burying the scholars.” The CCP sent public security forces during the night of 4–5 April to remove the offerings from the monument and cordoned off the area in an effort to keep the throngs of mourners at bay. The radicals responded by accusing Deng Xiaoping of orchestrating a conspiracy, and troops were sent in to suppress the demonstration on the night of 5 April.


After Mao died in September and the Gang of Four 四人帮 (a group of four political leaders—Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing; Wáng Hóngwén 王洪文; Zhāng Chūnqiáo 张春桥; and Yáo Wényuán 姚文元) were arrested, mourning for Zhou was again permitted. Deng Xiaoping was exonerated of conspiracy charges, and the verdict on the Tiananmen Incident of 1976 (not to be confused with the 1989 incident) was reversed after Deng replaced Mao’s appointed successor, Hua Guofeng, as paramount leader in a peaceful transfer of power that began in 1979 and was formally consolidated in 1981.


The  dramatic  events  after  Zhou’s death suggest that Zhou ultimately won the footrace with Mao over the succession issue. Some might even go so far as to say that Zhou finally stepped out from under the shadow of Mao to contend with him, albeit in his self-effacing way, during the final years of his life. Decades later, we see that Zhou’s less ideological approach proved pivotal in determining the future of Communism in China. Mao’s choice of successor, the ideologue Hua Guofeng, could not compete with Zhou’s candidate, the seasoned pragmatist and team player, Deng Xiaoping. Zhou and Deng’s vision for opening to the outside world and  making use  of  foreign  investment and technology transformed China into an economic superpower. [Page 1546]


Legacy as Bureaucrat and Diplomat


At the time of his death, popular opinion toward Zhou was overwhelmingly positive. He was embraced as a true man of the people, an incorruptible official with a warm human touch. Chinese historians, like Gao Wenqian, who have consulted Party archives, see a more complicated picture. They characterize Zhou as Mao’s unflinching partner and blame him for implementing Mao’s flawed programs. These considerations should not overshadow Zhou’s considerable record of diplomatic and administrative achievement, however. Throughout his career, Zhou worked tirelessly to solve people’s problems in the wake of disasters.


His skillful crisis management continues to exert influence. When Premier Wēn Jiābǎo 温家宝, who also attended the Nankai school in Tianjin, earned acclaim for rapidly responding to the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, he was following in the footsteps of his illustrious predecessor. Zhou’s rigorous work schedule, interrupted by only a few hours of sleep a night, epitomized the self-sacrifice and industriousness implied by Mao’s slogan, “Serve the People” 为人民服务, a motto that Zhou wore pinned to his lapel every day (Zhonguo Lishi Bowuguan 1977, 1).


Mao and his allies criticized Zhou as more “Confucian” than Communist during the 1974 “Criticize Lin, Criticize Confucius Political Campaign.” They meant it pejoratively, but this characterization can be seen positively as well. Zhou’s early education in the Confucian classics and imperial history accustomed him to the role of the loyal minister. The Confucian conception of service coincided fairly well with the expectations of Leninist-style party discipline and the norms of a diplomat, who is an emissary rather than the seat of authority. An ardent nationalist and committed Communist revolutionary, Zhou’s gracious way of relating to people was always invested with purpose. In 1949, he instructed his subordinates at the Foreign Ministry that diplomacy was “a continuation of war by other means” (Keith 1989, 5). In Zhou’s capable hands, diplomacy became a powerful instrument for enhancing Communist China’s stature internationally and defending security interests, a legacy that still suffuses China’s diplomatic corps today.


Shelley Drake HAWKS
University of Massachusetts, Boston


Further Reading


Barnouin, B., & Yu Changgen. (2006). Zhou Enlai: A political life. Hong Kong: Chinese University of Hong Kong.


Chang, David W. (1984). Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping in the Chinese leadership succession crisis. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.


Chen Wu. (2004, February). Review of Gao Wenqian’s Zhou Enlai’s later years. China Analysts Group Monthly Journal, 1, 47.


[Page 1547]


Collins Associates. (Eds.). (1973). Quotations from premier Chou En-lai. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell. Dikotter, Frank. (2010). Mao’s Great Famine. New York: Walker & Co.


Gao Wenqian. (2003). Wannian Zhou Enlai [Zhou Enlai in his later years]. New York: Mingjing chubanshe.


Gao Wenqian. (2007). Zhou Enlai. The last perfect revolutionary. Peter Rand and Lawrence R. Sullivan (Trans.). New York: Public Affairs.


Goldstein, S. M. (1983, December). Zhou Enlai and China’s revolution: A selective view. The China Quarterly, 96, 720–730.


Hammond, E. (1980). Coming of grace: An illustrated biography of Zhou Enlai. Berkeley, CA: Lancaster-Miller.


Han Suyin. (1994). Eldest son: Zhou Enlai and the making of modern China, 1898–1976. New York: Hill and Wang.


Kampen, Thomas. (2000). Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and the evolution of the Chinese Communist leadership. Copenhagen: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies.


Keith, R. C. (1989). The diplomacy of Zhou Enlai. New York: St. Martin’s Press.


Kissinger,  Henry.  (1994).  Diplomacy.  New York: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster.


Kissinger, Henry. (2011). On China. New York: Penguin.


Lee Chae-Jin. (1994). Zhou Enlai: The early years. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.


Li Zhisui. (1994). The private life of Chairman Mao. Tai Hung-Chao (Trans.). New York: Random House.


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