Zhou Enlai and The Chinese Omelette

The lively and informed blog, Jottings from the Granite Studio, January 8 has a well turned piece “This date in history: The Death of Zhou Enlai.” The piece shows that Zhou was a consummate statesman who perhaps snookered Nixon and Kissinger, with a reputation for countering Mao’s excesses and acting the suave statesman.

I remember the reporter Harrison Salisbury telling a story about the cosmopolitan Zhou. At the Geneva Conference of 1954 Zhou went around a reception greeting each delegate in his own language, showing up the less worldly Khrushchev, who knew only Russian. Khrushchev, according to another story, later struck back by observing to Zhou how strange it was that he, Khrushchev, came from a peasant background while Zhou was quite the aristocrat. Zhou is said to have thought for a moment and then replied, “true, but we each betrayed the class from which we came.”

For a long time, the story was that John Foster Dulles was so anti-communist that at this Geneva Conference he refused to shake Zhou’s hand. Problem is that when a spoil sport researcher went to check, there was no time at which the two were together. Still, when Nixon went to Beijing in 1972, he clearly had heard this story. He bounded down from Airforce One and the  first thing he did was to shake Zhou’s hand!

Another example of Zhou’s reputation is in a piece of urban folklore about Nixon’s visit to Beijing in 1972. At that time the small but famous Gansu Flying Horse was on display in one of the capital’s museums. Nixon, thinking we was alone, admired the horse so much that he stealthily put it in his pocket. A museum guard, according to the tale, secretly observed the deed, but hesitated to report the theft for fear of destroying the friendly atmosphere of the visit. What could he do but take the incident to Zhou? That night at the banquet, after the mao tai, Zhou introduced China’s leading magician. The magician performed several feats, then unveiled a reproduction of the Flying Horse which he then caused to disappear. Where was it? Well, he announced, reaching into Nixon’s pocket: “Voila!” So once again, the wily and humane Zhou saved the day.

But the Jottings piece also asks: “What sort of machinations and compromises were necessary to linger in power while those around him were being swept away?” What about allowing his long time comrade Liu Shaoqi to die of untreated pneumonia lying on the floor of an unheated jail cell?

Much of this enigma is spelled out in the recent book by Gao Wenqian, Zhou Enlai: The Last Perfect Revolutionary (NY: Public Affairs, 2007; translated by Peter Rand and Lawrence R. Sullivan). Gao was a researcher at China’s secret party archives where he had access to files, interviews, gossip, memos, and internal compilations. He smuggled out notes and documents with which he wrote an explosive Chinese language biography of Zhou, published in Hong Kong in 1999, which the translators have slightly supplemented for English language readers. This is not the cynical view presented in, say, Li Zhisui’s The Private Life of Chairman Mao: The Memoirs of Mao’s Personal Physician (New York: Random House, 1994), much less the unhinged portrait in Chang Jung and Jon Halliday’s Mao: The Unknown Story (New York: Knopf, 2005). Li chronicled Mao’s refusal to take baths or brush his teeth, his sexual use of young women, and his rapacity towards both enemies and old comrades. He doesn’t allow that Mao ever did anything which was not despicable, which may be a reasonable stance but not convincing if other arguments are not even considered. Likewise, Chang & Halliday’s argument is terribly weakened because it strays too far from evidence.

Gao, on the other hand, allows Zhou’s accomplishments, which are usefully sketched in the Jottings from the Granite Studio piece. Yet in spite of Zhou’s reputation as a balance to Mao’s extremism, Gao paints an ultimately damning portrait of a man who said yes to power. What would have happened if Zhou had stood up to Mao or at least advised him differently? Would he have lasted?

Would it make a difference if we accepted, as Zhou surely did, the legitimacy of the Revolution? After all, every nation or political cause accepts some form of the proposition that the ends justify the means. Was it legitimate to drop the Atomic Bomb? Stalin justified his slaughter of innocents by saying “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.” But, asked somebody (presumably in a very quiet voice) “how many eggs do you have to break to make one omelette?” Or, we might add, when so many eggs are broken, shouldn’t we demand to see an omelette?

6 responses

  1. I am doubtless garbling this a bit from dim memory, but as I recall it’s been argued that Zhou had been part of a Party leadership troika that was distinctly anti-Mao during the retreat from Jiangxi, but jumped ship just before 9or was it at?) Zunyi, when ever the consummate political operator, he sensed which ways the winds of power were blowing. Anyway, the gist was that he from then on dedicated his career to never being on the wrong side of mao again, and mao enjoyed having this hold over him.

  2. wait, you’re tellin’ me that nixon pocketed a 7,5 kg bronze horse?! did he have a backpack or what?

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