The Zhou Enlai Paradox

The Zhou Enlai Paradox

A bit over a half century ago when Henry Kissinger was organizing Richard Nixon’s visit to China, he was largely interacting on this matter with Zhou Enlai (Chou-Enlai in Wade-Giles transliteration). He reported that during their negotiations he asked Zhou what he thought of the French Revolution.  Zhou replied that “It is too soon to tell.” This has since been taken as deep insight by Zhou on a deep historical issue, which indeed is still debated, at least in parts of the West. More recent scholarship has decided that probably rather than being Mr. Deep Historical Genius, Zhou was simply commenting on recent current events, most notably the student-worker uprisings in France in 1968, two-three years prior to their discussions. 

According to the Chaguan column in The Economist, 6/5/21, there is now a film out about the life of Zhou Enlai being shown to children from kindergarten on up, with this produced in anticipation of the centennial of the Chinese Communist Party’s official recognition of its founding on July 1. That Zhou rather than many other possible figures is being put forward to children at this time as a role model is most curious and interesting.

I think what is involved here is the regime’s effort to resolve its ongoing conflict between traditional Chinese Confucianism and the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist heritage of the ruling CCP. Zhou came from a scholar-bureaucrat family, which fell into pieces, with Zhou depicted as the deep student of traditional Confucianism that he was as well as finding works in his grandfather’s library about peasants rising against “feudal aristocracy,” with him moving to become a “great proletarian revolutionary.” 

So this film about his life provides an effort to overcome this conflict between ancient Confucian Chinese tradition, with its respect for established hierarchies such as the CCP is now, with support for the ideologically revolutionary Marxist-Leninist-Maoist tradition that underpins the Chinese Communist Party on this time of its centennial.

A final note is that the Economist article observes that one reason why Zhou managed to survive through the worst machinations and reversals and upheavals of the Maoist era was precisely due to his deeply serious Confucian education from his youth, this allowing him to “a reverance for Coufucian teachings about self-restraint and the need for officials to swallow small insults in the national interest.”

Oh, and as regards the reception by various age groups of this new film about the life of Zhou Enlai, the very young like a moment where he shows his bare bottom, a bit older like seeing him picking and selling wild vegetables as a boy to try to get his family out of debt, and older viewers liking the conclusion, which shows him “to swelling chords, young Zhou waxes indignant on learning that Russia and Japan have taken territory from the ailing Chinese empire, then declares that he studies hard so that China may rise. That phrase of Zhou’s is taught in schools to this day and triggers murmers of recognition.”

Barkley Rosser