A diplomat with three mothers

Zhou Enlai:
March 24, 1995

This work is a more detailed and updated account of the early years (18981924) of Zhou Enlai's life than is available in the several complete biographies of Mao Zedong's closest associate. It makes use of more recent records to correct some of the errors made by previous biographers and to flesh out the formative years of Zhou's life. On the basis of his decade-long research, the author states he has improved on the inadequate attempts of earlier biographers to explain how Zhou acquired and developed the notable intellectual and personal attributes that made him "a sophisticated intellectual, pragmatic Marxist, able political leader, and skilful diplomatic negotiator".

Chae-Jin Lee divides Zhou's formative years into four phases: his Confucian upbringing in a prominent gentry family in Jiangsu province and Manchuria (18981913); his western-influenced education at Nankai Middle School in Tianjin (191317); his exposure to Taisho democracy, socialist and communist perspectives, and Chinese student politics in Japan (191719); and his political activism first during the May Fourth era in China (191920) and then in the left-wing maelstrom of Chinese students and workers in Europe (192124).

A good example of the author's attention to detail is his meticulous reconstruction of the Zhou family tree. This is especially useful as the reader attempts to place the various relatives who played a role in Zhou's upbringing and later activities.

Of particular interest is the discussion of Zhou's feckless father, how Zhou came to be adopted by his father's younger brother and what it meant to be brought up in an expanded household that included three mothers - his natural mother and his adoptive mother - as well as a plebian wet nurse whose children were his frequent playmates. The author suggests that Zhou acquired shyness, gentleness, and intelligence from his father, a cheerful and outgoing side from his natural mother, a sensitive and introverted side from his adoptive mother and an empathy for the lower orders from his wet nurse. And from the Confucian ambiance of the gentry clan he developed a sense of noblesse oblige that later expressed itself in many different forms.

This Confucian background came to be overlaid with a Western veneer when Zhou as a student at Nankai Middle School came under the influence of its headmaster, Zhang Boling, a Young Men's Christian Association activist, a convert to the Congregational Church and an innovative educator. Zhang emphasised western science, Christianity, and democratic values and modelled his school after the Ivy League secondary schools in the United States. Zhang particularly stressed ideas of moral rectitude and service to the people and the country.

The author presents much absorbing detail of how the adolescent Zhou, though constantly plagued by money problems, threw himself into the varied activities of the school. Zhou particularly excelled in Chinese literature and became a prominent and prolific contributor to various campus publications. He gained special fame by taking female roles in dramatic presentations, from which women were still excluded. And he was a highly regarded member of many student organizations, in which, it is noted, he often contented himself with playing a secondary role.

Given Zhou's American-style secondary education, the author notes, he may well have preferred to go to the United States for further study, but in this he was frustrated by his deficiency in English and his lack of money. He could afford to go only to Japan, the academic mecca of hordes of young Chinese.

The detailed account of Zhou's two-year stay in Japan depicts him as an indifferent student but a quintessential organisation man. Most of his initial academic efforts were devoted to acquiring Japanese. Though he eventually became capable of translating articles from Japanese to Chinese, he never acquired full competence in the language, and this kept him from study at the college level, or indeed from formally enrolling in any extended academic programme. He read extensively, especially in the works of Kawakami Hajime, a pioneer expounder of Marxist thought, interest in which was intensified by the outbreak of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. In addition, Zhou spent much time in discussion with fellow Chinese students and in organisational activities involving the numerous Nankai contingent in Japan and more politically engaged groups concerned with reforming China.

Zhou's return to China was timed, apparently coincidentally, with the start of the May Fourth movement in 1919. He did not, however, take a leading role in this movement, preferring instead to remain in the background. He concentrated on editorial work and himself wrote extensively. Almost accidentally he was subjected to several months' imprisonment as a result of his participation in mass protests against Chinese subservience to foreign encroachment. His thinking, now influenced by a leading Chinese Marxist, Li Dazhao, turned further to the left.

Zhou seized upon the opportunity for a scholarship grant to study in Europe and set sail for France, which he referred to as the "home of liberty". Here, as in Japan, he showed himself to be an indifferent student but an indegatigable participant in the political discussions raging among the Chinese students. In the spring of 1921 he joined a small Chinese communist cell in Paris. He quickly gained a position of responsibility that saw him concentrating on recruiting for the Communist party and working to bring about co-operation between members of the rival Kuomintang and Communist parties.

From the wealth of details presented in this short book, the author seeks to draw conclusions about how this or that fact accounts for this or that attribute or happening in the life of Zhou Enlai. Although it is uncertain that the author has advanced any really new insights, nevertheless the ideas are suggestive, and the details often interesting, so that the work deserves attention from anyone seeking to delve deeper into the early life of this important figure.

John DeFrancis is emeritus professor of Chinese, University of Hawaii.

Zhou Enlai:: The Early Years

Author - Chae-Jin Lee
ISBN - 0 8047 2302 8
Publisher - Stanford University Press
Price - $.95
Pages - 241pp

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