When it comes to books about the past there are really three categories: 1. there are some books that simply record history; 2. there are other books that eventually become history; and then 3. there are some books that are so imbued with significance that at the moment of their inception they become transformed beyond their medium to become both resource and artifact. The book’s very existence takes on an importance that transcends its actual subject matter.
Gao Wenqian’s Zhou Enlai: The Last Perfect Revolutionary is one of those rare books. Not only is it a thoughtful and fascinating account of one of modern China’s most significant and mysterious figures, it is also written by a former historian in the Chinese Communist Party who utilized never-before-published information from the archives of the Chinese Government. Gao, who secreted the information out of China over many years before moving to America, breaks with traditional Communist history to paint the picture of a deeply complex and strangely paradoxical man who stood at Mao’s right hand during some of the must tumultuous events in contemporary Chinese history.
Zhou Enlai has always stood apart from the brutal Mao in the eyes of many western figures and scholars of Chinese history. While a dedicated socialist and devout follower of the Chairman, Zhou was also a product of the multifaceted and diverse philosophical backdrop of Chinese culture. While fiercely advocating for the revolution and working to violently overthrow the corrupt old order, Zhou was also the ideal image of the Confucian intellectual-moderate in opinion and thoughtful in temperament.
Gao’s book effectively traces the growth of Zhou from a politically polarized youth, to the savvy aged statesmen who helped broker the deal that opened the door for Chinese and American relations that significantly altered the realities of the Cold War. As Zhou navigated the dangerous waters of communist politics and sought out the Confucian “middle way”, he became almost emblematic of the Chinese societies’ ability to incorporate and reconcile seemingly opposing ideologies. He was a socialist revolutionary, yet simultaneously a typical conservative sensitive to the stimulus of tradition. He was dedicated to Mao, yet simultaneously acted as a behind-the-scenes counterbalance to offset the impact of the Chairman’s many disastrous policies. In this context, his story can be seen as typifying the story of Modern China itself.
If a person is interested in Chinese history, but has had little or no exposure to the civil war, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, or the rise of Mao and the Chinese Communist Party, this book may not be helpful. Gao incorporates these events into his narrative, but they are only as setting and are not examined in length. The real focus is the drama and the tension that existed between Zhou and his cruel master, Mao.
Gao portrays Zhou, who eventually became Premier of China, as Mao’s loyal servant, who sometimes attempted to moderate his master’s excesses, but ultimately did what he was told when push came to shove. Mao, on the other hand, is the abusive and cruel figure who despised Zhou even as he needed the Premier to manage the finer details and nuances of state that the Chairman had no patience for. This sadomasochistic relationship defined Chinese politics as the two worked to modernize China and to project its power into world affairs. Zhou as loyal servant who is constantly humiliated by Mao who always seeks to control and destroy any who come close to rivaling his power and prestige.
This drama ultimately culminated with Zhou’s death and his almost deification into a figure of popular love and admiration by the Chinese people. Although Mao had been maneuvering to have Zhou disgraced so that no one could use his image as rallying cry for moderation in the face of Mao’s radicalism, ultimately the Premier’s popularity was too poweful, and the Chairman was forced to abandon his plans. Gao portrays this as Zhou’s final triumph: after a life of loyal service to his nation, his is able to die with his reputation and his dignity intact, unlike Mao whose abuses of power have placed him in the ranks of Stalin and Hitler
While this is a fascinating and worthwhile book with a subject that inspires both sympathy and even admiration, there is a necessary caveat that must be provided. I will confess that when it comes to books like this, I find it easy to fall into the trap of romanticizing historical figures into idealized projections. While reading Zhou Enlai: The Last Perfect Revolutionary, it is easy to forget the millions of deaths that the Chinese Government is responsible for. It is convenient to simply blame Mao for everything and rationalize the role his subordinates played in the calamitous Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution.
Gao’s narrative style, which at times makes the book more of a novel then a biography, can easily lull the reader into defining the main characters under simple black and white archetypes: Zhou is the good guy and Mao is the bad guy. Yet while Zhou is clearly a moral man who tried to serve the best interests of his country, he still played a significant role in a government that destroyed the lives of millions and that put its own survival and power above the welfare of its people. It is important that romantics, like myself, be aware of these issues when reading this book.
Ultimately, Zhou Enlai is a figure whose only real comparable historical counterpart would be Albert Speer. Like Speer, the Minister of Armaments in Nazi Germany, Zhou was conflicted about the excesses and abuses of the government he served. Although part of a corrupt regime, both men were sympathetic figures in their self-reflection and honest self-evaluation. Perhaps if the Communist Party had fallen, Zhou would have echoed Speer’s regret and remorse at participating in so many terrible acts.
They were both moral men who worked secretly against the wishes of their masters to help protect their respective countrymen from their leader’s insane plans. But like Speer, who was unable to avoid being sentenced to prison for 20 years at Nuremburg, maybe Zhou, despite all the good he did, is not redeemed by his silent opposition to Mao. His morality, even as it forces our sympathy and respect, is also the most damning aspect of his story. For who is worse in the eyes of history: immoral and insane men like Mao and Hitler, or the fundamentally good people who, despite the protestations of their conscience serve, their despots faithfully?
Ultimately the final judgment of Zhao Enlai is yet to be decided. Nonetheless Gao Wenqian’s book is a wonderful resource for those interested in the fascinating and mysterious figure of the Chinese Premier. While the Gao’s pension for portraying Zhou in a romantic light may cause some to question the author’s ultimate objectivity, the book is still of massive significance.
Gao, at great personal risk, was able to rescue valuable source material from the manipulations of communist historians, more concerned about the politicization of history then its factual accuracy. This book’s very existence is a defiant blow against governments, regardless of ideology or political affiliation, who seek to manipulate the past for self-serving motives. While Zhou’s place in history may still be debated, this book an important piece in the overall puzzle, and the bravery of the author who wrote it should be acknowledged.