Early years and education[edit | edit source]
Zhou Enlai was born in Huaian, Jiangsu Province. His family, although of the educated scholar class, was not well off. His grandfather, a minor civil servant of the Emperor, was poorly paid. His father repeatedly failed the Imperial examinations, and throughout his life would be employed in low-paying minor clerkships.
Zhou Enlai was the eldest son and eldest grandson of the Zhou family. When Enlai was still less than one year old, he was adopted by his father's youngest brother who was dying of tuberculosis. This adoption took place so that the younger brother would not die childless, a serious scandal to a traditional Confucian family of high status.
Lady Chen, his adoptive mother, began to teach him the Chinese ideograms as soon as he could toddle. By the time he was four years old he could read and write several hundred words.
In 1907 Enlai’s birth mother died of TB, and in the summer of 1908 Lady Chen also died. Enlai was an orphan at the age of ten, so it was arranged that Enlai would leave Huai An and go to the city of Shenyang in Manchuria to live with his Uncle Yikeng. At the age of twelve Enlai was enrolled in the Tung Guan model school that taught “new learning,” i.e. mathematics and natural science, as well as Chinese history, geography and literature. The students were also exposed to translations of western books, where Enlai learned about freedom, democracy and the American and French revolutions.
In 1913, at the age of fifteen, Enlai graduated from Tung Guan and in September of that year he was enrolled in the Nankai school, located in Tianjin. For the next four years he was a diligent student of this prestigious school. Throughout the period of his schooling China was in great turmoil. In 1911 the Xinhai Revolution of Sun Yat-sen overthrew the Qing dynasty and established the Republic of China. The outbreak of the Great War in Europe relieved the pressure from European intruders, but presented an opportunity for Japan to push its own dominance. Enlai could see that China was being ruined by foreign intervention. He shared in the wrath, the protest, and the indignation at the plight of China.
The next step in Enlai’s education was to attend university in Tokyo. His goal was to become a teacher so that he could have influence on the youth of China. But he found he could not concentrate. He could not study. In Nankai he had written and spoken against Japan’s military and political pressure upon China, and its inexorable slide into anarchy. He challenged his fellow students on what his generation could do to save China. Their answer was to study, to become educated in the sciences and professions. China needed elite, knowledgeable doctors, engineers, and teachers. “But why?” he asked. “If China is to disappear, what is the use of studying?”
Revolutionary activities[edit | edit source]
Zhou first came to national prominence as an activist during the May Fourth Movement. He had enrolled as a student in the literature department of Nankai University, which enabled him to visit the campus, but he never attended classes. He became one of the organizers of the Tianjin Students Union, whose avowed aim was “to struggle against the warlords and against imperialism, and to save China from extinction." Enlai became the editor of the student union’s newspaper, Tianjin Student. In September, he founded the Awareness Society with twelve men and eight women. Fifteen year old Deng Yingchao, Enlai’s future wife, was one of the founding female members. (They were not married until much later, on August 8, 1925). Zhou was instrumental in the merger between the all male Tianjin Students Union and the all female Women’s Patriotic Association.
In January 1920, the police raided the printing press and arrested several members of the Awareness Society. Enlai led a group of students to protest the arrests, and was himself arrested along with 28 others. After the trial in July, they were found guilty of a minor offence and released. An attempt was made by the Comintern to induct Zhou into the Communist Party of China, but although he was studying Marxism he remained uncommitted. Instead of being selected to go to Moscow for training, he was chosen to go to France as a student organizer. Deng Yingchao was left in charge of the Awareness Society in his absence.
The European years[edit | edit source]
On November 7, 1920, Zhou Enlai and 196 other Chinese students sailed from Shanghai for Marseilles, France. At Marseilles they were met by a member of the Sino-French Education Committee and boarded a train to Paris. Almost as soon as he arrived Zhou became embroiled in a wrangle between the students and the education authorities running the “work and study” program. The students were supposed to work in factories part time and attend class part time. Because of corruption and graft in the Education Committee, however, the students were not paid. As a result they simply provided cheap labour for the French factory owners and received very little education in return. Zhou wrote to newspapers back in China denouncing the committee and the corrupt government officials.
Zhou traveled to Britain in January; he applied for and was accepted as a student at Edinburgh University. But the university term didn’t start until October so he returned to France, moving in with Liu Tsingyang and Zhang Shenfu, who were setting up a Communist cell. Zhou joined the group and was entrusted with political and organizational work. There is some controversy over the date Zhou joined the Communist Party of China. For secrecy reasons members did not carry membership cards. Zhou himself wrote "autumn, 1922" at a verification carried out at the Party's Seventh Congress in 1945.
There were 2,000 Chinese students in France, some 200 each in Belgium and England and between 300 and 400 in Germany. For the next four years Zhou was the chief recruiter, organizer and coordinator of activities of the Socialist Youth League. He traveled constantly between Belgium, Germany and France, safely conveying party members through Berlin to entrain for Moscow, to be taught the art of revolution.
At first the CCP, established in July 1921 by Chen Duxiu, rejected the suggestion of the Comintern that they establish a “united front” with Sun Yat-sen’s new Kuomintang, (Nationalist Party), but in 1923 the CCP changed its policy. Zhou was now charged with the task of coordinating cooperation between the two vastly different political movements in Europe. He apparently did such a good job he was ordered back to China to take charge of the united front work in the Kuomintang stronghold in Guangzhou. He arrived in Hong Kong in July 1924.
The First United Front[edit | edit source]
In January, 1924, Sun Yat-sen had officially proclaimed an alliance between the Kuomintang and the Communists, and a plan for a military expedition to unify China and destroy the warlords. The Whampoa Military Academy was set up in March to train officers for the armies that would march against the warlords. Russian ships unloaded crates of weapons at the Guangzhou docks. Comintern advisers from Moscow joined Sun’s entourage. In October, shortly after he arrived back from Europe, Zhou Enlai was appointed director of the political department at the Whampoa Military Academy in Guangzhou.
Zhou soon realized the Kuomintang was riddled with intrigue. The powerful right wing of the Kuomintang was bitterly opposed to the Communist alliance. Zhou was convinced that the CCP, in order to survive must have an army of its own. "The Kuomintang is a coalition of treacherous warlords" he told his friend Nie Rongzhen, recently arrived from Moscow and named a vice director of the academy. Together they set about to organize a nucleus of officer cadets who were CCP members and who would follow the principles of Marx. For a while they met no hindrance, not even from Chiang Kai-shek, the director of the academy.
Sun Yat-sen died on March 12, 1925. No sooner was Sun dead than trouble broke out in Guangzhou. A warlord named Chen Chiungming made a bid to take the city and province. The East Expedition, led by Zhou, was organized as a military offensive against Chen. Using the disciplined core of CCP cadets they met with resounding success. Zhou was promoted to head Whampoa’s martial law bureau. Zhou quickly crushed an attempted coup by another warlord within the city. Chen Chiungming once again took the field in October 1925. Once again Zhou defeated him and this time captured the important city of Shantou on the South China coast. Zhou was appointed special commissioner of Shantou and surrounding region. Zhou began to build up a party branch in Shantou whose membership he would keep secret.
On August 8, 1925, he and Deng Yingchao were finally married after a long distance courtship of nearly five years. The couple remained childless, but adopted many orphaned children of "revolutionary martyrs"; one of the more famous was future Premier Li Peng.
After Sun’s death the Kuomintang was run by a triumvirate composed of Chiang Kai-shek, Liao Zhungkai and Wang Jingwei, but in August, 1925 the left wing member, Liao Zhungkai, was murdered. Chiang Kai-shek used this murder to declare martial law and consolidate right wing control of the Nationalists. On 18 March 1926, while Mikhail Borodin, the Russian comintern advisor to the United Front, was in Shanghai. Chiang created a further incident to usurp power over the communists. The commander and crew of a Kuomintang gunboat was arrested at the Whampoa docks, See Zhongshan Warship Incident. This was followed by raids on the First Army Headquarters and Whampoa Military Academy. Altogether 65 communists were arrested, including Nie Rongzhen. A state of emergency was declared and curfews were imposed. Zhou had just returned from Shantou and was also detained for 48 hours. On his release he confronted Chiang and accused him of undermining the United Front but Chiang argued that he was only breaking up a plot by the communists. When Borodin returned from Shanghai he believed Chiang’s version and rebuked Zhou. At Chiang's request Borodin turned over a list of all the members of the CCP who were also members of the Kuomintang. The only exception were the members Zhou had secretly recruited. Chiang dismissed all the CCP officers from the First Army. Wang Jingwei, considered too sympathetic to the communists, was persuaded to leave on a “study tour” in Europe. Zhou Enlai was relieved of all his duties associated with the First United front, effectively giving complete control of the United Front to Chiang Kai-shek.
The Shanghai massacre[edit | edit source]
After the Northern Expedition began, he worked as a labour agitator. In 1926, he organized a general strike in Shanghai, opening the city to the Kuomintang. When the Kuomintang broke with the Communists, Zhou managed to escape the white terror. It has been said that he had been captured and released on the orders of Chiang Kai-Shek, to repay a debt from an occasion when Zhou had saved Chiang from violent leftists in Guangzhou. Zhou eventually made his way to the Jiangxi base area and gradually began to shift his loyalty away from the more orthodox, urban-focused branch of the CCP to Mao's new brand of rural revolution, and became one of the prominent members of the CCP. This transition was completed early in the Long March, when in January 1935 Zhou threw his total support to Mao in his power struggle with the 28 Bolsheviks Faction.
In the Yan'an years, Zhou was active in promoting a united anti-Japanese front. As a result, he played a major role in the Xi'an Incident, helped to secure Chiang Kai-shek's release, and negotiated the Second CCP-KMT United Front, and coining the famous phrase "Chinese should not fight Chinese but a common enemy: the invader". Zhou spent the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) as CCP ambassador to Chiang's wartime government in Chongqing and took part in the failed negotiations following World War II.
Premiership[edit | edit source]
In 1949, with the establishment of the People's Republic of China, Zhou assumed the role of Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs. In June 1953, he made the five declarations for peace. He headed the Communist Chinese delegation to the Geneva Conference and to the Bandung Conference (1955). He survived an assassination attempt by Kuomintang (KMT) on his way to Bandung. An American-made MK7 was planted on a charter plane Kashmir Princess scheduled for Zhou's trip. It killed sixteen civilian passengers instead, when Zhou Enlai changed his schedule at the last minute. In 1958, the post of Minister of Foreign Affairs was passed to Chen Yi but Zhou remained Prime Minister until his death in 1976.
Zhou's first major domestic focus after becoming premier was China's economy, at an ill stage after decades of war. He aimed at increased agricultural production, from the even re-distribution of land. Industrial progress was also on his to-do list. He additionally initiated the first environmental reforms in China.
In 1958, Mao Zedong began the Great Leap Forward, aimed at increasing China's production levels in industry and agriculture with unrealistic targets. As a popular and practical administrator, Zhou maintained his position through the Leap. The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) was a great blow to Zhou. At its late stages in 1975, he pushed for the "four modernizations" to undo the damage caused from the campaigns.
Known as an able diplomat, Zhou was largely responsible for the re-establishment of contacts with the West in the early 1970s. He welcomed US President Richard Nixon to China in February 1972, and signed the Shanghai Communiqué.
Discovering he had cancer, he began to pass many of his responsibilities onto Deng Xiaoping. During the late stages of the Cultural Revolution, Zhou was the target of the Gang of Four's political campaigns.
Zhou is widely seen by many to have had a moderating influence on some of the worst excesses of Mao's regime, although he did not wield the power necessary to bring about major changes to policy. It has been suggested that he used his powers to protect some of China's oldest religious and royalist sites from the rampages of Mao's Red Guards. After Chinese Economic reform and the June 4th Incident, the Communist government looses its tight control on speech. Many people stand up and question the former Chinese leaders and criticize their decisions. However, even on the Internet, the least controllable of media, hardly any mainland Chinese criticize Zhou. Many Chinese youths view him as their political idol. Some scholars even believe that Zhou's influences on Chinese youths are even greater than the most famous Chinese leader, Mao. However, There is no doubt that he was fundamentally a believer in the Communist ideal on which modern China was founded.
Death and reactions[edit | edit source]
Zhou was hospitalized in 1974 for bladder cancer, but continued to conduct work from the hospital, with Deng Xiaoping as the First Deputy Premier, handling most of the important State Council matters. Zhou died on the morning of January 8, 1976, 8 months before Mao Zedong. Zhou's death brought messages of condolences from many non-aligned states that he affected during his tenure as an effective diplomat and negotiator on the world stage, and many states saw Zhou's death as a terrible loss. After his death, his body was cremated and the ashes scattered by air over hills and valleys, which was what he wished.
Inside China, the infamous Gang of Four (Jiang Qing and Co.) had seen Zhou's death as an effective step forward in their political maneuvering, as the last major challenge was now gone in their plot to seize absolute power. At Zhou's funeral, Deng Xiaoping delivered the official eulogy, but was forced out of politics thereafter. Because Zhou was very popular with the people, many rose in spontaneous expressions of mourning across China, which the Gang considered to be dangerous. During the Qingming Festival in April 1976, the clamp-down on mourning for the "Beloved Premier" caused riots, largely because the Gang of Four believed people might manipulate the situation into expressing hatred towards them. The incident was popularly known as the Tiananmen Incident (天安門事件). Anti-Gang of Four poetry was found on some wreaths that were laid, and all wreaths were subsequently taken down at the Monument to the People's Heroes. These actions, however, only further enraged the people.
Since his death, a memorial hall has been dedicated to him and his beloved wife in Tianjin, named Tianjin Zhou Enlai Deng Yingchao Memorial Hall (天津周恩來鄧穎超紀念館), and the issue of national stamps commemorating the 1 year anniversary of his death in 1977, and again in 1998 commemorating his 100th birthday.
Assessment[edit | edit source]
Zhou Enlai is generally regarded as a skilled negotiator, a master of policy implementation, a devoted revolutionary, and a pragmatic statesman with infinite patience and an unusual attentiveness to detail and nuance. He was also known for his tireless and dedicated work ethic. He was probably the last Mandarin bureaucrat in the Confucian tradition. To a large extent, Zhou epitomized the paradox inherent in a communist politician with traditional Chinese upbringing: at once conservative and radical, pragmatic and ideological, possessed by a belief in order and harmony as well as a conviction to rebellion and revolution.
Footnotes[edit | edit source]
Further reading[edit | edit source]
- Eldest Son by Han Suyin, a general biography.
- There is a new book published in 2003 in Hong Kong, Zhou Enlai's Later Years by Gao Wenqian which is of interest. No English translation is currently available.
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