Zhou Enlai: A Tragic Hero?
Gao Wenqian talks about his new book at the Center for Chinese Studies
Invited by the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies, Mr. Gao Wenqian, author of The Final Years of Zhou Enlai (Wannian Zhou Enlai), talked about his new book at a jammed-packed public presentation on June 16. Since it was published in spring of this year, Mr. Gao’s book has attracted nationwide attention from both academia and the public, and will surely be eagerly read in samzidat editions in China, where it is officially banned. Relying on mostly first-hand materials, many of which have never been disclosed before, Mr. Gao’s book portrays a Zhou Enlai who was much more complicated than many people have thought.
The Conventional View of Zhou Enlai
The conventional view of Zhou, both within China and without, has been that he was satisfied with living one step below the pinnacle of power in the Chinese Communist movement, that he was suave and urbane (and in this respect quite unlike Mao Zedong, who remained unrefined right until the end), that he promoted a sensible and effective state administation and foreign policy (both of which he was responsible for), and that he was a moderating influence. After the PRC was established in 1949, when Zhou was mainly responsible for China's foreign policy, he projected a most handsome face for China. This comes through strongly in the transcript, recently released by the United States, of his behind-closed-doors talks with President Richard Nixon in Beijing, leading up to the establishment of formal relations between the PRC and the U.S. In these talks, Zhou was very much a gentleman -- respectful, polite, and witty -- but also tough and skillful when it came to pressing China's case. Apparently in all respects Zhou was quite the equal of Nixon, who was also remarkably smooth. But, thanks to the Watergate tapes and other materials, the world has also seen another face of Nixon. One may argue that Mr. Gao's book is a Chinese analogue of the Watergate tapes, in the sense that Mr. Gao uses secret, archival documents, which were also not for public consumption, to provide readers a “behind-the-scenes” look at a world leader. Of course, unlike the Watergate tapes, which revealed to the public a negative side of Nixon, Mr. Gao’s unprecedented work reveals Zhou to be a tragic hero who had a very complex character. Students of Chinese studies have praised this book as a major contribution to the study of Zhou Enlai and an indispensable reference for future research.
During the early years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when China had seemingly slipped into total chaos, Zhou personally met with countless delegations and small groups of people from all over the country who came to Beijing to present their grievances to the highest leaders. This was mostly the case of "revolutionary" groups seeking help in their struggle with other "revolutionary" groups. Zhou came across as someone who cared, who wished to see "true revolutionaries" unite and reconcile, and who patiently worked to prevent violence. From this reputation, and for other reasons, a great many Chinese came to feel a great respect and affection, if not love, for Zhou. Thus, when in 1976 Zhou died of cancer, there was an apparently spontaneous, public outpouring of grief in Tiananmen Square, with large crowds of people openly weeping. This demonstration was violently supressed by the Gang of Four, a step that helped seal their fate and bring to power Deng Xiaoping, who was in some respects considered Zhou's right-hand man.
A Nuanced Portrait of Zhou
Mr. Gao began his talk with an introduction to his previous career as an official biographer of Zhou Enlai when he was affiliated with the Chinese Institute of Central Documents Research (Zhongguo zhongyang wenxian yanjiushi) in the 1980s and 1990s, and then proceeded to discuss briefly his participation in the June 4th movement in Beijing in 1989 and how that changed his life. After coming to the United States, Mr. Gao began the writing of the book, under the sponsorship of Columbia University, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and Harvard University.
As Mr. Gao spoke, the audience grew larger and larger, and an interesting thing happened: it seems the conference room reserved for the talk was too small to accommodate all the people. Therefore we moved to another room downstairs. But the audience seemed not at all “bothered” by the trouble of walking downstairs and finding new seats. Indeed, the enthusiasm of the audience was soon demonstrated by their almost incessant questions after Mr. Gao’s talk. Mr. Gao then elaborated on the relationships between Mao, Zhou and Deng, and the relationships between Lin Biao, Jiang Qing (Mao's wife) and Zhou, as well as the inside story of the Sino-American rapprochement.
Interestingly, some book reviews or commentaries, however, seem to misread and hence exaggerate the extent to which the author is critical of Zhou. Borrowing Mr. Gao’s own words, his attitude toward Zhou is “neither to conceal his faults, nor to excoriate him” (buhuiguo, bukeze). Indeed, as he himself later revealed, he was quite “sympathetic” toward Zhou. As a historian, what he is trying to do is to uncover the truth of history and leave the judgment to the readers. If one reads the book throughout carefully, one must be impressed by its delicate portrait of a rich character, who was, on the one hand, a great man who lived up to his own highest ideals, but also, on the other, a man who was limited by, and even suffered from, the history he lived through, as well as his own personality weakness, which to some extent can be attributed to the influence of Confucianism, i.e., his belief in and practice of the Confucian political morality that dictated that “the ruler shall be the people’s guide” (jun wei chen gang) and “if the ruler asks his minister to die, then he must do so” (jun yao chen si, chen buke busi). No one, when reading the final part of the book, will fail to be struck and deeply moved by the author’s revelation that even as premier, Zhou had to put his own life at the mercy of Mao. In a sense, we see a story of a tragic hero that paralleled the ancient Greek tales of those who suffered from both the historical contexts in which they lived, but also their own character weakness. A solid academic work as it is, this book is also very enjoyable reading, with characters presented in a series of dramatic conflicts. It is not only a history of the final years of Zhou, but also a history of a tortured nation during tumultuous years.
Although Mr. Gao's book has been out only a few weeks, it has already gone through several printings. Those who read Chinese can find a copy in UCLA's East Asian Library (although it is likely to be checked out -- and with a long list of people waiting to read it), or can buy one from Evergreen Book Store or other bookstores that deal in Chinese-language publications. Those who do not read Chinese will have to wait for the English translation, which Mr. Gao says is in the works.
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Dong Wang, who received his bachelor's degree, with a major in diplomacy and international relations, from Peking University in 1999, is a doctoral candidate in political science at UCLA. He is working on a dissertation on U.S.-China relations in the 1960s and 1970s. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published: Thursday, July 31, 2003