Zhou Enlai
China History

Research Report
Web Resources



This page gives information about the history of Premier Zhou Enlai, the Chinese Communist Party, and the People's Republic of China. Zhou Enlai was the Premier of China from 1949 to 1976. His story is a fascinating example of leadership and dedication. This page gives insight into his personal triumphs and political significance.

Historical Background

     After years of war and political uncertainty following the fall of the Qing Empire and the rise and fall of the nationalist government, China became the People's Republic of China under the Chinese Communist Party in 1949. Zhou Enlai was the premier and foreign minister of the People’s Republic of China from the end of the revolution in 1949 until his death in 1976.  He was respected as a diplomat by his party and foreigners alike, and loved by the people he led. Even today, twenty-five years after his death, he is known as "Beloved Premier Zhou".  He is remembered for his charisma, personal sacrifice, and genuine interest in the welfare of his people. His story is the story of the rise of communism in China: from humble beginnings to world wide recognition. He, more than any other leader, kept the People's Republic together in its formative stages and gained international respect for his party and his country.

Research Report

    Zhou Enlai was born in 1898 in Jiangsu Province into a respectable family. However, like many families at the time, they were impoverished but required to "keep up apperances". Zhou was the eldest grandson and was adopted into his uncle’s family at a young age to prevent his dying uncle from passing without having an heir. He said that he had three mothers: his natural mother, his adoptive mother, and the family’s housekeeper. Both his natural and adoptive mother died when he was a child. Zhou’s father was away working in another province: it was decided that Zhou Enlai would be raised by his uncle in  Manchuria for a time. There, he attended elementary school and prepared for futther schooling.
     After being rejected from the school his family wished him to attend because it favored students from Northern provinces, Zhou enrolled in Nankai Middle School in Tientsin. It was here that Zhou’s political leanings and leadership skills  would develop. During his second year he founded a student association called Jingye Lequnhui (Respect Work, Enjoy Group Life) in which students read progressive literature and wrote a journal called "Respect Work" which Zhou edited. China was in the midst of political turmoil at the time. The Qing dynasty had collapsed and a republican government had been esablished under Sun Yat-sen. However, the general Yuan Shikai had taken over and was once again trying to establish a dynasty while foreign powers awaited to carve up the country. The people of China were about to lose everything they had gained, but had not given up hope for self-government. Zhou's writing reflected this nationalist fervor: he criticized foreign interests and the ambitions of Yuan Shikai.
     After Nankai, Zhou studied in Japan for a year, but he and other Chinese students were called home by reports of unrest in China. He returned just in time to witness the May 4th incident in which student protesters came out in droves to object to Japan’s claim to Shandong province.
 Zhou studied, for a time, in France. Many Chinese were living there since being sent in WWI. Others received government grants. Most were students, and all were exposed to Communist movements that were taking place in Europe and at the same time keeping current with events at home. Soon, a Chinese Communist Party in Europe was founded. Zhou was an important member, once again using his writing skills editing their publication, Red Light.
     Zhou returned to China in 1924. The Chinese Communist Party was then a faction of the Nationalist Party, or KMT. Zhou’s skill and political clout was recognized and he was placed in charge of the Whampoa Military Academy, a post Chiang Kaishek himself had held. Here Zhou would make numerous contacts that would aid the CCP greatly in coming years.
     In 1927, Chiang ended the United Front, and Communists were forced into hiding. During the years of 1928 through 1930, Zhou established himself as a party leader. His contacts, intelligence, and skill at negotiating cemented his place at the top of the CCP. This was a turbulent time in party history. Chiang’s "White Terror" had purged many communists, and now many more were afraid to expose themselves and their political beliefs. They needed to draw membership from all over China, but scarcely had the resources to do so. Also, the party lacked any military power to speak of. To these ends, the CCP was aided by COMINTERN agents, but they insisted that things be done their way. The Russians began to resent the new "Chinese" communist thought. Here, Zhou was in his prime. He was not only the key player in running the day to day business of the party, but he established and organized the People’s Liberation Army and worked to maintain Russian support.
     The PLA was forced to run from the KMT. Attempting to reach the Northwestern provinces where they could regroup and reorganize, Mao, Zhou, and a large contingent of soldiers participated in the "Long March". This march was a twisting trek across China to escape the Nationalists. Without food or supplies, the numbers dwindled as the men and women marched for days and days on foot. Zhou became famous on this trip for his valiant effort and leadership.
 It was also during the Long March that perhaps the most significant event in Zhou’s life and in Party history occurred. At a place called Tsunyi in 1935, a long meeting was held between important Party leadership. This meeting signified two great events: the first major break with COMINTERN and the establishment of Mao Zedong as the leader of the CCP.  Mao pointed out the military failures that had occurred under Zhou’s command and Zhou agreed. Mao became chairman of the Politburo and also took Zhou’s post at the head of the Military Affairs Commission. From now on, Mao would lead the Party, and Zhou would be at his right hand. Zhou recognized the greatness in Mao, his ability to move the masses and garner support. Zhou would be his greatest supporter for the rest of his life, outwardly expressing his dedication to Maoist thought, and privately clearing up Mao’s excesses and carrying out the daily business of the Party.
     The next great accomplishment in Zhou’s early career is the establishment of the Second United Front with Chiang Kaishek. The communists knew that in order to defend against a Japanese invasion, the PLA would have to join forces with the KMT. It would be a very delicate matter, and Zhou would orchestrate it. First, he garnered support from Chiang’s own generals. Then, Chiang was actually kidnapped and convinced to unite and to do it on the CCP’s terms. The PLA required that they maintain their own chain of commandand keep direct control of their own forces, and total guerrilla warfare. Somehow, it worked. It was a tenuous alliance, and soon after the Japanese had been defeated, Chiang was as well.
     With the communist takeover in 1949 came the task of piecing a war-torn China back together without any aid from the United States or the USSR to industrialize and organize. Zhou was Mao’s "housekeeper", the one who would clean up, reorganize the nation. Mao would run the Party as Chairman, and Zhou would run the state as Premier.
 Zhou’s other role as Premier was that of Foreign Minister. He represented the People’s Republic internationally—Mao never left China. It was Zhou that attended the Geneva conference in 1954, the Bandung conference in 1955, who worked with Vietnam. He kept tabs on and kept relations open with the Overseas Chinese, whose funding he knew China needed badly.
     Zhou was the man who held the People’s Republic together through the turbulent stages of Mao’s continued revolution. In 1957, the Hundred Flowers Movement began. The idea behind it was to allow intellectuals, artists, and scientists to speak freely, to counter the party trend toward silencing "bourgeoisie" thought. Of course, a floodgate was opened when the intelligensia was invited to criticize the undereducated Party members. A counter attack proved just as excessive, and many members of Zhou’s staff, as well as the scientists attempting to gain nuclear power, were now targeted. Zhou always tried to protect those resources that were important to China by adding the right names to protected person’s lists.
     Zhou was called upon once again to control excesses during the Great Leap Forward campaign, beginning in 1958. The Great Leap was to be china’s push toward industrialization. However, Mao was not an economic planner. He knew how to inspire people, but he was mistaken about where to direct them. The new plan had fault in its conception and its execution. And of course, reluctant to anger Mao, the party cadre who carried it out reported higher yields than they had. Soon the economy was much worse off than it had been to begin with. Zhou, through the whole ordeal, was one of the people. He and his wife lived on rations, did not take advantage of the stores open only to upper-level party cadre. He would patch things up, always the housekeeper, heading up the retrenchment and readjustment of the economy.
     Again Zhou would protect China from herself during the Cultural Revolution, beginning in 1967. It was Mao’s campaign to instill a sense of revolution in the new student generation. Unfortunately, it would turn into a head hunt: anyone and everyone could be accused of anti-Maoist thought. What was seen as a way to strengthen China was manipulated into a plot for Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing and her supporters to gain power within the party, and they used the people to carry it out. Students across China began to organize a "Red Army", an organization taking power and terrorizing their countrymen in the name of the party. They investigated everyone. Chance comments that could be twisted as opposition to Chairman Mao could be the end of a career, or even a life. Again, the Premier protected those he knew would be easy targets, but were indispensable to the country. Zhou protected groups of scientists and artists once again. He also protected thousands of cultural artifacts and monuments from being destroyed simply because they were "old". Zhou Enlai is famous for his steadfastness during this time of upheaval. Even though Zhou himself was investigated, he did what he could to keep working to hold the country together, although the numbers of his staff had dwindled because of the witch hunt.
     This also passed. Zhou was by now an old man, seventy years old, but still dedicating his life to the cause of his country. The big breakthrough was to come: talks with the United States. Zhou held secret talks with President Nixon’s advisor Henry Kissinger in 1971: this was the beginning of the opening of China. Zhou knew exactly how badly China needed foreign exchange with the United States and even simple recognition. Zhou was indisputably the man for the job: no other leader in China had the poise, the warmth, or the intelligence to handle a détente with the United States.

    Soon after this breakthrough, Zhou was diagnosed with cancer. He was weakening, and his rivals with the party recognized that fact and took advantage of it. He was attacked again, as the "Gang of Four" still waged their war on all around them. Zhou was in and out of the hospital for treatments and blood transfusions. The Gang of Four accused Zhou of being too Confucian. Confucius was to them the reason China had been so backwards. Confucian thought had kept the bourgeoisie in power. As Han Suyin writes: "…indeed, he was a great Confucianist. His life was a fulfillment of the Sage’s ideals of integrity, self-sacrifice, dedication to the welfare of the people. In him the Chinese found their ideal ‘ruler’".  Zhou died in January of 1976, after working from his bed for months.

Historical Significance

     In his death, Zhou Enlai accomplished what he could not in life: the downfall of the Gang of Four and the end of the Cultural Revolution. The people so ardently grieved his death and realized what had been going on in the name of the party was merely a power struggle. They spoke out against the Gang of Four, moved by the example of the late Premier. Even to this day, Zhou Enlai is remembered by the Chinese people as a self-sacrificing, charming, intelligent man. He is still referred to as "Beloved Premier" and I have found that even small Chinese companies tend to include anecdotes about Zhou on their webpages as testimonials to their products. He was a great man, dedicated to his people, and they remain dedicated in return. It is important to learn about Zhou Enlai as a part of the communist party in the People's Republic because we are often too quick to put only Mao's face on the CCP. By studying Zhou, we can better understand the internal dynamics of contemporary Chinese politics and the dramatic ways life and politics has changed in China in the past century.


Elegant, Robert S. The Center of the World; communism and the mind of China. London: Methau, 1963.
Fang, Percy Jucheng. Zhou Enlai: a Profile. Beijing: Foreign Language Press, 1992.
Han Suyin. Eldest Son: Zhou Enlai and the Making of Modern China, 1898-1976. New York: Hill and Wang, 1994.
Kai-yu Hsu. Chou En-lai: China's Grey Eminence. New York: Doubleday, 1968.
Kamperen, Thomas. Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai and the evolution of the Chinese Communist leadership. Denmark: NIAS Publishing, 2000.

Web Resources

China Now: a great travel resource: also has cultural and historical information about china http://chinanow.com/english/features/sinic/spared-print.html

Nankai University: Zhou's alma mater. He is the most esteemed graduate, and the homepage provides quality historical information http://www.nankai.edu.cn

CNN: provides up to date current U.S.-China relations pieces and a wealth of in-depth coverage of significant historical events.  http://www.cnn.com

Chinastar: gives basic stats and information about Chinese celebrities and leaders.  http://1chinastar.com/index2.html

Government archives: gives information about and access to recently declassified documents regarding meetings between Nixon and Zhou Enlai. http://govis.circ.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/nsa/publications/DOC_readers/kissinger/nixzhou