The "Saint" beside Mao
Chou: the Story of Zhou Enlai, 1898-1976
by Dick Wilson
Father is somewhat irresponsible, given to childish enthusiasms, extravagant habits and disgraceful infidelities. He is not really very mature. It is Mother who holds the family together. She controls the household finances as best she can, keeps the children fed and clothed, and pacifies the neighbours.
Sometimes she argues with Father; but when his mind is made up she knows better than to disobey him. She is loyal by instinct, abstemious by necessity and never complains. This is a pattern very commonly seen in Chinese families. It is a nice analogy for the relationship between Mao Tse-tung and Chou En-lai, who together created modern China.
For 40 years Chou plaved yin to Mao's yang, restraining the old rogue when he could, standing by patiently to clean up the mess when he couldn't. The common people of China, ever filial, seem curiously unable to express themselves clearly on the subject of Mao, but they leave you in no doubt of their feelings towards Chou: they consider him a saint. Last year I attended an impromptu concert given by some students at a Chinese college. One lad went on stage and sang a song of appalling sentimentality called "Dreaming of Premier Chou". After one verse there was not a dry eye in the house.
Dick Wilson has now given us a very useful biography of Chou. The pace of his treatment leaves one feeling rather breathless, but this is to be expected. Chou's life was extraordinarily eventful and no book of reasonable size can dwell at length on any but the most crucial incidents. Where it matters, Mr Wilson has told the general reader what he needs to know: about the Zunyi conference for example — the consummation of this very peculiar, very Chinese marriage.
Of course, a biography should not be merely a chronicle. Has Mr Wilson given us the man? I think he has, but there was really very little to give. Chou was a Leninist revolutionary whose passions were for organising committees, striking compromises and out-manoeuvring enemies. He was personally frugal and uxorious. He read little and wrote nothing but some bad poetry. In his early years he formed one or two close friendships, but these were sacrificed to The Cause. The monument to his aesthetic sensibilities is Peking's Great Hall of the People, of which the non-travelling reader can get a sufficient impression by recalling the Odeons of his childhood. One might as well look for human interest in the life of a chess prodigy.
Was Chou good for his country? Most Chinese think so. Wilson agrees with them, declaring himself "hopeful for the China he [Chou] left behind." I cannot share this optimism. Chou once delivered himself of the opinion that "The Soviet Union's present is China's future." On this point I am afraid he was probably right.
One thing Mr Wilson's book reveals — even in its title — is the confusion that now exists in the spelling of Chinese names. The dreadful Wade transcription seems to have been definitely superseded by the even worse pinyin method, which makes a paragraph on the composition of the Politburo look like an optician's chart.
The problem is: what to do with those names that first came to our attention in Wade spelling? Mr Wilson has pinyinised most of them, turning Chou into Zhou; but even he draws the line at writing "Xianggang" for Hongkong. What a mess! Doctor Johnson referred to the King of France as "Lewis", but nobody would be that sensible nowadays.