A Native Chinese Man Comments on Zhou Enlai

My friend Ben wrote a comment to my post on the new biography of Chou Enlai, and I wanted to display it a little more prominently. It tells me something of just how much the Chinese idolize him (something I never doubted) and how they will continue to do so no matter what is said of him, proven or not. This is they type of thing that gives me vast insight into the Chinese psyche, and though I may often disagree with posts like this, I believe thay are vital for us on the outside to see and understand.

A new comment has been posted on your blog The Peking Duck, on entry
(Zhou Enlai, Saint or Sinner?).

Deification or Humanization?

Chinese always intend to deify national leaders. In ancient China, we
looked at the kings or emperors as gods or saints to prostrate before.
After the PRC was founded, we still sang for our great leader Mao and
wish him can live for 10 thousands years. Such deification finally let
Mao feel so inflated and made big mistakes in his last years.

Premier Zhou is another kind of deification, because he was such a
kind, selfless, and busy premier who was full of wisdom. He is one of my
idols till now, but I appreciate him more on his style and wisdom of
diplomacy. From my primary education on, this people’s good premier
constantly appeared in our textbook as if he was still living near us. Zhou
Enlai is perfect however you look from every aspect: he was so sinless,
he even had no descendants and impossible to leave anything to them; he
worked extremely hard for our state; he was so beloved by the whole
country. Such a person, can you find any flecks from him? The “sinless
officer complex” which formed in 3 thousand years of feudal society would
let modern Chinese people love this great premier so much. But, do you
think Zhou looks like a natural man, I think he looks more like a
saint, even he was so close to his people. The same saints will include Lei
Feng and Jiao Yulu, although they were not in such a high position as

Actually, I had awared some negative reports about my idol from some
Taiwan and Western media. If the reports are really facts, I will not be
mad at them, at least, we should hold an objective attitude to
criticize a person. Even the reports are truth, I think it will make my idol
look like a real man who I can close to, and I do not like a man who I
can only look up to. Why should we be so hard on our national leaders?
Yes, because he was our premier and on behalf of our country, but he was
also a human being, he could make mistakes, he would has his private
life, so what? We should accept these things as well as accept his
excellence, no one in the world is absolutely perfect! I know it was so
difficult for Zhou to be in stead of himself at Chinese political stage. As
one of Chinese sayings said, “It is impossible for two king tigers to
exist in a mountain at the same time.” I think this saying probably
suits the whole world. Especially in China, power-centralization tradition
is so outstanding, even Zhou could not be out of its control and had to
be defined as assistant position sometimes.

Anyway, I hope to return nature, to see real human. Though the media
will always be partial, let us accept people’s excellences and
shortcomings whether s/he is a great leader or a common person.

The Discussion: 18 Comments

it’s funny he mentioned Lei Feng. and in my chinese civilization class here in US, the professor said they found evidence to show that Lei Feng – the person and his diary is all made up, used by Mao as a tool… i really wanted to cry when i heard that.

December 11, 2003 @ 5:36 am | Comment

CNN footage: US Soldiers execute Iraqi man, cheer.


young soldier describes how ‘awesome’ it was.

December 11, 2003 @ 5:50 am | Comment

dodo, I hope you read my little essay on Lei Feng in the left-hand sidebar. It’s pure myth….

December 11, 2003 @ 7:17 am | Comment

I was old enough to remember the time when Zhou Enlai passed away. The sky darkened, all the adults were puffy eyed from crying. As a kid, it felt like the end of the world. Very dark days.

Then in highschool, i got hold of a book by Kissinger. The title in Chinese was “The Leaders”, which included various observations and anecdote that Kissinger had witnessed of world leaders during his time. In the book, Kissinger made a passing comment about Zhou Enlai. He said Zhou was largely a failed politician because aside from looking saintly to the people he wasn’t able to accomplish any substancial political goal, nor to save his allies. However he did manage to save himself through all political turmoils.

That was huge. It was a year or two before Tian’an men square happened. So the atmosphere was one of excitment and renewal in China. And as a teenager, I was very into getting any public saint off its pedastal. ๐Ÿ™‚

Anyway, a couple of years ago, a friend illustrated to me a foundmental difference between the west and the east using one Chinese phrase: it is called 合情合理 (fit sentiment/feelings/emotions, fit logic). It is used to mean when something is legit, it must be “fit sentiment, fit logic”. And note that sentiment comes BEFORE logic. While in English, there is “reason”, โ€œlogic”, “truth”. Feelings are not to be trusted and it has no part in any judgement making process. I found that very illuminating.

So naturally I thought of “The Karamazovs”. Will science(logic) save us or destroy us? Science and rational thinkings are what the west has been betting on for the past few centuries. But the east has been betting on “sentiment” before the west took over…that was… how long? five thousand years? Maybe there is a reason it has survived thus far… Maybe not all eastern thinkings are “repressive, ignorant, backward, oppressed, isolationist, arrogant, corrupt and poor”. Possible?

As far as Zhou Enlai goes, I don’t think “making a saint out of a leader” is a Chinese thing. Just think of JFK. It is just human to worship. As far as banning the book in China, how about CBS refused to air “The Reagons”?! Difference in scale, but not in essence.

December 11, 2003 @ 8:45 am | Comment

Jean, thankis for the great comments. The only point I’d take issue with is “I don’t think “making a saint out of a leader” is a Chinese thing. Just think of JFK. It is just human to worship.” This is true to some extent — we all tend to romanticize our leaders. But the point about Zhou is not that he was only romanticized, but that he was not in any way the person we all believe he was. In other words, he was actually the very opposite of what we were taught to believe, a true lackey to Mao who we somehow all got suckered into believing was a savior.

December 11, 2003 @ 11:51 am | Comment

This is not entirely on the topic … but I’ll bring it up anyway. I never have got the American love affair with JFK’s memory … aside from the fact that he was young, handsome and rich (which will generally get you adored) and he got killed … what is there to love? He did stand up to the Russians fairly effectively … but aside from that … what’s there to love?

December 11, 2003 @ 12:13 pm | Comment

Interesting question, Li En. I think it was two things, his youth and his rhetoric. His presidency was deeply flawed, and his failure to actively resist the Berlin Wall along with the Bay of Pigs disaster can’t be easily forgotten. His one great moment was the Cuban missile crisis. But he did represent a new dynamism in America; he got people inspired and excited. His overquoted “Ask not…” speech truly electrified America and captured our imaginations. And of course, when you are martyred the way he was, it makes it even more natural for people to deify you. His was also the Last Great Presidency, untainted by scandal; we look back to it as the time when America was truly invincible, a belief that was shattered forever with Vietnam. Everything since Kennedy’s shooting was downhill, it was the death of America’s truly great era….

December 11, 2003 @ 12:28 pm | Comment

Interesting … is this a commonly held belief in USA? That the country has been in decline since then? I’m kind of surprised … objectively, has America ever been stronger than now?

Taking a long term view (long enough for people alive at the time to die off) I strongly suspect that Reagan will go down in history as one of the “great” presidents … and even Bush Jr. has a shot at a respected place in history, though I think that’s largely dependent on where things go from here. From close range people tend to concentrate on certain aspects of a regime … but from long range the view can look rather different.

Most of the great rulers of centuries past would be considered brutal tyrants if they were alive today … individuals who were too soft, too eager to seek compromises, too indecisive … they get blamed by the history books. I’m thinking in particular of King Stephen of England, but there are other examples …

December 11, 2003 @ 1:07 pm | Comment

I think you have to take into account just how terribly Vietnam ravaged America, bleeding us for 12 years, each more agonizing than the last. Until Vietnam, there had never been vast, nationwide distrust — even contempt — for our leaders. There was always this can-do American spirit and righteousness, and a strong sense of patriotism. It all fell apart between 1965 and 1972.

You are exactly right abour Reagan. And the reason he will be remembered as so great? Mainly because he took a nation that was still battered by Vietnam and its memory and, atr least in the eyes of manyu, made if great again. Illusion or not (and I think to some extent it was), it was what America needed, a Franklin Roosevelt type (in terms of speaking skills) who could infuse the country with not only hope but with a sense of Greatness.

Yes, the history books, which always have the final say, often distort and romanticize or villanize. Reagan has been turned into a god-like figure, and never mind Iran-Contra, the suicide bombing of the marines in Lebanon (and rapid retreat of all forces) and the staggering deficits with which he left us. But at least I understand the deification; like Kennedy, he gave us inspiration, especially at a time when the nation was still hurting.

December 11, 2003 @ 2:10 pm | Comment

Reagan will not be up there in the ranks of ‘Great’ US presidents (as the US ppl see it) simply because he was not involved in a large war. Sad but true this is the one defining factor of all the ‘great’ US presidents.

December 11, 2003 @ 7:10 pm | Comment

Richard, thank you for the clarification. I must admit that I missed that from your postings. I realize that I haven’t read the book. But isn’t this statement a little strong?

“But the point about Zhou is not that he was only romanticized, but that he was not in any way the person we all believe he was. In other words, he was actually the very opposite of what we were taught to believe, a true lackey to Mao who we somehow all got suckered into believing was a savior.”

It is a fact that all public figures wear many masks, and to certain extend, all of us does. There is the face for public to see, or whatever the official apparatus makes it up to be; then there is the private face reserved for loved ones family and friends; then there is the face one uses for colleagues that is specialized in manipulation or persuasion depends on which side you are on. They need not to be consistent, do they?

Does that mean all of the public figures in private eyes are opposite to what the public believes they are? After all, not all politicians are as shameless as the current US Administration who feel no need to conceal their lies.

Ah, but Iยกยฏm getting off the topic. I probably should just find a copy of this book on Zhou Enlai and read it first. ๐Ÿ™‚ Thanks for your interesting posts!

Zhang Li En, Iยกยฏm really shocked that youยกยฏd place GWB into the list of Greatest Presidents of the US. (I reserve my opinions on Reagon for now). Being powerful and exerting power are two different things. I remember reading from many Chinese martial arts novels that the truly powerful masters need not to lift a finger and people just KNEW they were powerful. On the other hand, the ones that had to exercise brutal force in order to show others that he was powerful was usually a sure sign of weakness and fear, especially if they picked on someone who was so much more inferior in strength and then beat them to the ground. Call me blind, but I see no greatness in that.

December 12, 2003 @ 8:42 am | Comment

Jean, I didn’t feel my comment on Zhou being “the opposite” of what many perceived him to be was too strong. That’s the whole theme of Pomfret’s article, to show Zhou has been totally, completely, 100 percent mythologized. It’s just a big lie. Let’s look at someone like FDR who has also been mythologized. At least he really did do great (not necessarily good, but great), like lead us our of the Depression and oversee most of our WWII victory. But with Zhou, he apparently did little or nothing to merit his canonization. Nothing. In fact, he did just the opposite of what we sing his praises for! Instead of helping people, he apparently had them arrested, isolated anecdotes aside. So I don’t think it’s harsh at all.

And I’m afraid I have to agree with Li En that Bush is destined to be one of the “great” presidents. As much as I loathe him, his “greatness” as a leader after 911 is history. If his Iraqi endeavor works, and it just might, he will be remembered as a leader on a level with Reagan and Kenedy. Its underserved and there’s a trillion things I hate about him, but history always plays tricks like this, just as it’s done with Zhou Enlai for the past 30 years.

December 12, 2003 @ 11:29 am | Comment

It is not just a simple problem about “great leader”. What a man can do will define by many elements or limitations, especially in politics. I do not want to push this topic to political system or tradition further, maybe I will discuss it separately later.

In my opinion, a real stateman is quite different from a politician or lackey. Premier Zhou’s public image looks more like “Great Civil Servent” and diplomat.

December 12, 2003 @ 12:03 pm | Comment

Ben, thanks for commenting. Please come and comment more often!

December 12, 2003 @ 1:04 pm | Comment

I just don’t see any greatness even after 911. It was an opportunity could be used for greatness, but in reality it was used by politicians to push for their agendas instead… oh well. I’m not getting into the details anymore. Too depressing.

What I remembered was the vast economy depression during the early 1990’s following Reagan Years. If history was to be trusted, it was bound to repeat itself after GWB Years. The past couple of years of recession was nothing, there could be much worse times to come if GWB gets his second election.

Just found this link that I found very informative: http://home.att.net/~Resurgence/1THE_REAGAN_YEARs.htm


December 13, 2003 @ 5:50 am | Comment

I do think people (not Richard) are missing the point of what I was saying. If you look at something you a magnifying glass you’ll see one thing, if you look at it from space you’ll see something completely different. If you stand beside a forest, you’ll see one thing … if you retreat to a nearby mountain, you’ll see something different. The judgement of history is often rather different from the judgement of contemporaries. Reagan’s ‘war’ is his victory over the Soviet Union in the cold war.

December 13, 2003 @ 9:50 am | Comment

“it’s funny he mentioned Lei Feng. and in my chinese civilization class here in US, the professor said they found evidence to show that Lei Feng – the person and his diary is all made up, used by Mao as a tool… i really wanted to cry when i heard that….”

Well, when an American talks about evidence, you must be very careful what he really means. He may simply mean what he imagines of or thinks about. Where is that evidence, and more importantly, is his evidence made up? American people habitually make up evidences, a prominent example being the Iraqi nuclear weapon, now an international joke. The invasion of Vietnam is admittedly another example how the president tried to mislead the whole country into satisfying his nationalist will of power or personal ambition.

December 4, 2005 @ 3:02 pm | Comment

I would like to know what mountain ranges are around China. Thanks

December 10, 2005 @ 8:06 pm | Comment

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.