The Mystery of Zhou Enlai

The Mystery of Zhou Enlai

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Zhou Enlai, Prime Minister of China from the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949 until his death in 1976, leads a demonstration in support of the regime, likely at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966.

Through the ups and downs of the unpredictable Chinese Revolution, Zhou Enlai’s reputation has seemed to stand untarnished. The reasons for this are in part old-fashioned ones: in a world of violent change, not noted for its finesse, Zhou Enlai stood out as elegant, courteous, even courtly; and with his remarkable good looks and fluent intelligence, he seemed to personify the mannerisms of diplomats from a gentler age. At the same time, Zhou’s reputation benefited from the apparently profound contrasts with Mao Zedong, who loved to thrust himself forward into the limelight, and never shrank from taking credit for China’s perpetual upheavals.

The title of Gao Wenqian’s book, Zhou Enlai: The Last Perfect Revolutionary, is deliberately sardonic, and is designed to show that far from being perfect, Zhou was in fact fallible, often devious, and capable of great cruelty to his friends and fellow revolutionaries. Zhou had “a deft talent,” Gao writes, “for finding some tiny crack in the wall that would allow him to appear even-keeled in his judgments.” In reality, Zhou was often “trailing like a faithful dog” behind Mao, and prone to use “rhetorical babble” whenever doing so might save his skin. “Zhou survived politically by expressing his eternal deference to Mao,” and, adds Gao, employed “voluminous and disgusting flattery” and apparently acquiesced in being “forced to carry Mao’s execution knife.” In a sharply worded introduction to Gao’s book, the China scholar Andrew Nathan takes the epithets even further: for Nathan, Zhou Enlai was a man “unique…in his capacity to endure abasement”; one who was Mao’s “indispensable yet despised assistant,” Mao’s “enabler” who had a “servant mentality” and possessed “an inability to take existential risks, a psychological need to be another leader’s number two.”

If that were all there were to the corrective defining of Zhou Enlai’s life, it probably would not be worth reading a whole book about it, but in fact this is an intriguing study written under unusual circumstances, by an author, Gao Wenqian, who apparently has excellent qualifications: before he left China, he had been one of the research scholars working on an official biography of Zhou Enlai, with access to classified archives. Though in the subhead the English version is called “A Biography,” the book originally made no claims to being a biography in the regular sense of the term. The Chinese version, which was published by Gao in Hong Kong in 2003, was titled simply Wannian Zhou Enlai (The Last Years of Zhou Enlai); it contained one opening background chapter covering the period from Zhou’s birth in 1898 until the outbreak of China’s so-called Cultural Revolution in 1966.

That chapter, owing to the necessities of space, was highly selective, but it still managed to deal rapidly with Zhou’s early upbringing and schooling, his role in the formative years of the Chinese Communist Party (which first met in 1921), the war of resistance against Japan, Zhou’s early years as a diplomat and premier of the People’s Republic, and the colossal upheavals in the 1950s of China’s anti-intellectual Hundred Flowers Campaign and the vast collectivization movement of the Great Leap Forward in 1958–1959, followed by catastrophic famine. It is really in the year 1966 that the detailed analysis of Gao’s Chinese text begins, and it ends in early 1976 with Zhou’s death from cancer.

* * *

As the book’s Chinese title suggests, these were indeed “the last years” of Zhou Enlai, an astonishing decade in which China piled misery upon misery, and violence upon violence. It was a decade that saw Mao’s launching of China’s youth—under the emotive label of “Red Guards”—against the bureaucratic powers that he suspected of deflecting the revolution from its stated goals; that saw the threat of economic revolution from underpaid and overworked factory laborers; that pitted armed gangs of youths against one another across the country and led to merciless attacks on formerly powerful intellectuals and politicians. During these years the army took over key functions of government in a desperate attempt to restore “order”; groups of radicalized urban youth were sent down to the countryside to “learn from the peasantry”; Mao Zedong in unbridled pursuit of power gleefully wrecked the lives of scores of his own former “comrades-in-arms”; Mao’s chosen successor, army marshal and Defense Minister Lin Biao, defected and was killed, and against all probable expectations, the President of the United States visited China to discuss long-range, great-power priorities with Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong.

In the English translation of Gao’s book, the original Chinese opening chapter on historical background is somewhat lengthened and subdivided into seven separate chapters—perhaps with the intention of justifying the subtitle of “biography” given to the book as a whole. But there is no easy way to check the two versions against each other since the organization of the Chinese version is not strictly followed in the English translation—indeed the words “paraphrase” or “rewriting” might accurately describe Gao’s book as we now have it.

The problem is compounded by the fact that the Chinese version of 2003 gives copious footnotes to Chinese sources and documents, but no bibliography of any kind, whereas the English version drops all of the footnotes, and has a bibliography in which the titles of all Chinese sources are translated into English, making it virtually impossible to collate one version with the other, or to find out what source the translators are in fact “translating.” As a result of these rather odd publishing decisions, what could have been a fairly straight-forward task of checking Gao’s references becomes instead an exhausting and often fruitless steeplechase.

This is a pity, because Gao Wenqian, we are told, worked for fourteen years in the 1970s and 1980s on the staff of the government research bureau that was charged with the task of compiling the official biography of Zhou Enlai. That massive version appeared in two volumes in Chinese in 1998, totaling 2,160 pages, under the simple title Zhou Enlai Zhuan (Biography of Zhou Enlai). Gao was not present in China to see that earlier venture published, for—as he tells us in an afterword—he had grown disillusioned with the Chinese government after witnessing the agonizing events of 1989 at Tiananmen Square, and after many travails eventually emigrated to the United States in 1993.

It was in the US that Gao found a refuge to write his own analysis of Zhou Enlai’s last years, which he had prepared for by sending out of China the index cards of Zhou material that he had painstakingly preserved during his years of work on the official history. For security reasons, researchers on such delicate historical topics as the politics of the senior revolutionary leaders were not allowed to take full transcripts or photocopies out of the archives. When Gao’s book was published in Chinese in Hong Kong during 2003 it aroused great interest in the Mainland, where it was officially banned.

As Gao wrote in the Hong Kong edition, he dedicated the book to his mother, a Communist Party veteran of the revolution, who had been sentenced to serve seven years in a top security prison because of her criticisms of the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. Gao had not been allowed back into China to say farewell to her because of the anger his book had aroused. To underline his own self-image of someone eager to serve his country in its current struggles, Gao also wrote in the same dedication that his mother was a direct descendant of Commissioner Lin Zexu (1785–1850), the man who had bravely and unsuccessfully tried to stop the British export of opium into China during the 1830s.

At the very heart of Gao’s book lies an absorbing question that has occupied numerous Chinese thinkers since the time of Confucius in the fifth century BCE, namely how to understand and deal with the moral ambiguities and practical inhibitions that arise if we choose to serve a tyrant. If we believe we can do good by such service, should we risk the moral opprobrium that might come with it? Should men of integrity impose an absolute ban on such service? Suppose such service might seem the only way to guarantee the survival of our parents or our own children? Or suppose we set ourselves a firm limit—say five or ten years—after which time we undertake to sever our connections?

* * *

Gao confronts these questions with considerable seriousness, and he scans his voluminous sources with care as he tries to arrive at a nuanced judgment: Given a “monstrous ego” such as Mao’s, and Zhou’s own sense of service and/or survival, what tack should Zhou have taken? As Gao summarizes the relationship of Mao and Zhou near the end of World War II, when Mao successfully compelled Zhou to write one of the colossal “self-criticisms” on which Party discipline was believed to stand, “Mao was a man of immense talent, but he could not run the entire show all by himself. He needed Zhou Enlai.” Gao continues:

Throughout the decades to come, Mao was plagued by this paradoxical relationship. He had to keep Zhou at bay to prevent him from ever again gaining the upper hand; at the same time, to stay ahead of the game and keep his eye on the big picture, Mao grew even more dependent on Zhou Enlai. He had to draw Zhou close even as he raised the whip, and sometimes lashed the man he could not live without. This paradox is like a code. To understand the code is to understand the curious relationship between the men who ruled what, on October 1, 1949, became the People’s Republic of China—a relationship that remained locked in place as long as they both lived.

This is cogent, and even convincing, but it remains deeply ambiguous about the relationship between the two men, and how we assess their relative contributions. Gao, perhaps unintentionally, gives two conflicting summations to this conundrum—or “code” as he calls it. One is bleakly on the negative side, and in Gao’s account dates from an angry and confrontational meeting that took place in February 1967 in Beijing between the extreme radical leftists of the Central Cultural Revolution Group on one side, and the senior Communist bureaucrats and army commanders on the other. These professional Party leaders “were furious” with the leftist extremists, writes Gao:

But Mao’s fury was even greater and ultimately it destroyed them all. It annihilated an entire generation of old cadres. Zhou Enlai was the only one who managed to safely and deftly navigate his passage through the ordeal and it took all the political skills he could muster: Taoist-like concealment and endurance were combined with obedience and strategic defense, along with a two-timing personality and the face of Janus revealed to all.

That also sounds convincing, and perhaps conclusive, but it has to be contrasted with Gao’s analysis of Zhou’s actions in 1974, when Mao tried, for the last time in his stormy and petulant rule, to galvanize a fresh Cultural Revolution through the bizarre campaign “To Criticize Lin Biao and Confucius,” which was meant to set the seal on all the previous years of struggle. Here we see a different Zhou at work, and with completely contradictory effects. As Gao writes:

Everyone knew that while Mao wanted to settle ancient grudges with a host of political leaders, Zhou blocked him from taking revenge. China’s longtime premier had spent his entire career carefully skirting direct confrontation with the Chairman, and, because Zhou had survived, and acted as a protector, an entire coterie of political leaders had weathered Mao’s primordial wrath…. Zhou’s political influence also checked Mao’s desire to sweep clean the political slate.

So which Zhou is the real Zhou? Surely the answer has to be “both.” Zhou was a man of cunning, of tenacity, and of charm. He was also capable of astonishing ruthlessness at times when he considered it necessary for survival: for instance, in recent years scholars have identified Zhou Enlai as the leader of death squads in the early 1930s that executed (and even buried alive) Communist turncoats who were believed to have given away secret Party information to Nationalist Party interrogators.

Zhou was surely often overawed by Mao, but not fatally so. He had to give in, against his judgment, on numerous occasions—perhaps most tragically during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, when he allowed China’s longtime revolutionary leader Liu Shaoqi to be destroyed. Gao gives some shattering examples of Zhou Enlai’s sycophantic language as he hammered the last nails into Liu’s coffin; at the same time Gao acknowledges that standing up for Liu against Mao in the circumstances would have been essentially suicidal, no matter who had tried it. But it is chilling indeed to read Zhou Enlai’s final denunciation of Liu Shaoqi, written in the fall of 1968, in which he borrowed almost every denunciatory phrase directly from the rantings of Mao’s wife Jiang Qing. As Zhou declared:

I too am filled with great hatred as I read and considered the materials and checked off the various examples contained in the three volumes that document how the traitor Liu betrayed our Party and sacrificed our comrades.

The criminal Liu is a big traitor, big scab, big spy, big foreign agent, and collaborator who sold out the country. He is full of the five poisons and a counterrevolutionary guilty on more than ten accounts!

We must fervently support the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution launched and led by our great leader Chairman Mao. Without such a great revolution, how could these criminal materials on the traitor Liu and his people who committed treason against the Party and the country and killed our comrades get dug out so deeply and thoroughly?

Of course, we must continue this probing without the slightest delay, and without losing sight of our goals. If the task cannot be finished in our lifetime, then it should be passed onto our descendants!

Gao, surely accurately, calls these words “disgusting flattery of Mao” and one can only guess at Zhou Enlai’s inner emotions as he wrote them, and whether he felt they echoed his own phrases when he had written some of his own abject recantations in obedience to Mao’s personal instructions.

* * *

With Gao’s book, I feel we are edging toward a clearer understanding of Mao and the Chinese Revolution. It is a mixture of extremes and paradoxes—even of “codes,” as Gao put it. To understand that revolution, we have to increase vastly our understanding of the powerful actors, of the Chinese they tried to govern, of those who perished, those who tortured and were tortured, those who fled into silence. Despite its comparative brevity, Gao’s book can be of real service to us as we inch forward into understanding not just the rhetoric and actions of Mao and Zhou Enlai, but of the chances and coincidences that lay at the heart of the tumult through which they were living.

Just one example: it was on August 29, 1966, we learn, that Red Guards smashed their way into the home of an eighty-five-year-old man called Zhang Shizhao. Zhang was only suffering the same fate as many other elderly figures from the early stages of China’s revolutionary struggle, who had served the revolution with discipline and devotion, but at the same time had kept true to their own beliefs concerning the best ways to bring China into the modern world. But one key difference was that Zhang happened to be from Mao’s hometown in Hunan province, and the two knew each other well. That same day, Zhang wrote a personal letter to Mao, telling him what had happened, and asking Mao to “mediate, to the extent possible, and end the trouble.”

The letter was delivered to Mao that same evening. Furthermore, Mao apparently read the letter at once and wrote across the notepaper, “Forward to the premier to handle as he sees fit. Should provide protection.” “The premier” was Zhou Enlai, and on receipt of the letter on the 30th, Zhou both wrote back to Zhang and started to implement immediate measures to protect Zhang and other prominent figures who were being victimized by the Red Guards. In his instructions, Zhou ordered that a number of these highly placed officials should be allowed to enter the local people’s army hospital #301 near the Communist residence compound, while others were sent to safer locations, or given their own guards to prevent forcible Red Guard entry into their homes.

Overlapping with these security actions, Zhou ordered that Song Qingling, the seventy-two-year-old widow of China’s first president, Sun Yat-sen, be brought to Beijing and put under Zhou’s protection. Mme Song had been living in Shanghai, where she had personally criticized Mao’s wife Jiang Qing for letting the Red Guards abuse their power and authority. The angry Jiang Qing had abetted the trashing of the Song family graves, and had approved the cropping of Mme Song’s hair as a punishment for her intransigence. In a lengthy missive to the Shanghai Red Guards, Zhou pointed out that there was no reason to persecute Mme Song just because her sister had happened to marry China’s former Nationalist leader and Sun’s putative successor, Chiang Kai-shek. In later months, according to Gao, Zhou at times gave help to major Party members as well: among them the Beijing Party boss Peng Zhen, Liu Shaoqi’s wife Wang Guangmei, and the once celebrated revolutionary general He Long.

* * *

Clearly, accounts of this kind demand careful attention if they are to be verified—at one level they involve some of the most powerful people in the country, but at the other end of the spectrum they involve nurses and bodyguards and students and mail deliverers—a whole panorama of China in motion. Tracking the truth and the motivations of these actors remains elusive. Chinese historiography is replete with tall tales masquerading as fact, or being adduced as substitutes for facts that may never be ascertainable.

When I first read Gao Wenqian’s story of the piles of index cards, deftly smuggled out of the country by loyal friends or associates, it seemed the kind of tallish tale that has aroused our suspicions in the past: it seemed a little pat, a little too much driven by our modern passion for clandestine access. But unlike some other recent accounts, where we really have to take the stories from China on faith, along with their sometimes wild exaggerations and unlikely coincidences, Gao’s book on Zhou Enlai gains in plausibility from offering us what at times seems to be a direct route into the archives, or at least into collections of material that offer verifiable clues as to their provenance and their authenticity.

Gao Wenqian does not push himself forward in the story he is telling, but occasionally he reminds us that he himself was involved with the research in a hands-on fashion. Thus he notes at some points that Zhou Enlai chose to alter the minutes of certain key Party meetings, in order to save himself from later recriminations—which could have led to punishment or even death. Sometimes Zhou annotated a general discussion that contained criticism of Mao, pointing out, for example, that “the discussion had veered from the intended agenda.” Carefully tracking certain heated debates, Zhou “made sure that he wasn’t implicated or tied to many of the extreme remarks that had been uttered.”

One particularly voluble and angry vice-premier named Tan Zhenlin exploded against the extreme leftists of the Cultural Revolution leadership group at a meeting in February 1967 and stormed out. Gao observes:

Zhou immediately, and uncharacteristically, pounded on the table and demanded Tan’s return. For Zhou, this detail was absolutely crucial, and when he reviewed the documentary record of this meeting, Zhou personally altered the record to make sure his efforts to rein in Tan Zhenlin were duly noted.

Similarly, describing a top-level meeting convened by a furious Mao at midnight in his Zhongnanhai residence, Gao points out that “Zhou’s revision of this tirade as the official note-taker toned it down somewhat”—lest someone at a future time attempt to use the tirade to impugn Zhou’s loyalty. These sound to me like the kind of details that can be only observed by someone who has worked personally in the archives, or at least has had access to marginal notations or contested interpolations.

Similarly detailed is Gao’s observation that at the time of President Nixon’s 1972 visit to Beijing, Mao gave orders that his favorite interpreter Nancy Tang and his trusted grand-niece Wang Hairong should carefully monitor foreign press reports on the Nixon visit, and inform Mao if they seemed to tilt too favorably toward Zhou Enlai. At other times, Gao tells us that he heard certain pieces of highly confidential information through interviews or conversations with important witnesses who had been present at the events they described.

Given the historiographical complexities of trying to work out what really happened in the Chinese Communist corridors of power, it is not just pedantic to express some exasperation with the absence of footnotes in Gao’s Zhou Enlai: The Last Perfect Revolutionary, but at least the editors have placed a detailed list of sources at the close of his volume. Even if those piles of index cards cannot be checked, or some of the transcripts have gone astray, we can cross-check many of Gao’s references, and that is a great help. In the case of the example presented above, the stories of Zhang and Song, of the rampaging Red Guards, of Mao’s swift response and Zhou Enlai’s practical security measures, which appear in both the 2003 Chinese edition and the 2007 English version, are also discussed at length and elaborated on in the official Chinese biography of 1998, with full indications of the sources. There are still immense gaps, of course, and doubtless always will be. But bit by bit a more believable Zhou Enlai is emerging, one who is all the more interesting for being less than perfect.

Jonathan D. Spence holds the position of Sterling Professor of History, Emeritus, at Yale University, and is well-known throughout the world for his insightful views on modern China. His books...
Reviewed in This Article

Zhou Enlai: The Last Perfect Revolutionary: A Biography
by Gao Wenqian, translated from the Chinese by Peter Rand and Lawrence R. Sullivan
PublicAffairs, 345 pp.

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This article was first published in the May 28, 2009 issue of the New York Review of Books.



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Chen Guangcheng in New York


Following are excerpts from a recent conversation among Chen Guangcheng, the blind legal activist who was recently permitted to leave China and is currently a distinguished visitor at New York University School of Law; Jerome A. Cohen, Professor of Law and Co-Director of the US-...

The ‘Breaking of an Honorable Career’


1.In the 1950s, the late John King Fairbank, the dean of modern China studies at Harvard, used to tell us graduate students a joke about the allegation that a group of red-leaning foreign service officers and academics—the four Johns—had “lost” China: John Paton Davies,...

Who Killed Pamela in Peking?


An ordinary winter evening in the Legation Quarter of Peking, where foreign embassies and consulates were located, January 7, 1937. Cold. The heavy sound of Japanese armored cars, out on patrol down the busy shopping streets that flank the Forbidden City. (Japan would occupy the...

Dancing in Empty Beijing


The Lunar New Year began last week as it always does, with a new moon. The empty sky seemed to empty Beijing of up to half its residents—authorities estimate that an incredible nine million people left the city, which usually has a population of eighteen to twenty million. This...

The New Chinese Gang of Seven


In traditional Chinese religion, a fashi, or ritual master, will recite a set of phrases to turn an ordinary space into a sacred area where the gods can descend to receive prayers and rejuvenate the community. The ceremony can last days, with breaks and feasts, until the rites...

Does This Writer Deserve the Prize?


On October 11 Peter Englund, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, announced that the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2012 will go to the fifty-seven-year-old Chinese writer Guan Moye, better known as Mo Yan, a pen name that means “don’t talk.” (The name is...

China: Worse Than You Ever Imagined


Last summer I took a trip to Xinyang, a rural area of wheat fields and tea plantations in central China’s Henan province. I met a pastor, a former political prisoner, and together we made a day trip to Rooster Mountain, a onetime summer retreat for Western missionaries and...

Who Was Mao Zedong?


In Kashgar’s largest bazaar a few years ago, I spotted a pencil holder sporting an iconic Cultural Revolution image: Mao Zedong and Marshal Lin Biao smiling together. But Mao’s personally chosen heir apparent had been a nonperson since 1971, when he allegedly godfathered an...

An Honest Writer Survives in China


A little over a year ago, I went with the Chinese writer Yu Hua to his hometown of Hangzhou, some one hundred miles southwest of Shanghai, and realized that his bawdy books might not be purely fictional; their characters and situations seemed to follow him around in real life too...

China’s Lost Decade


It’s hard to believe, but just twenty years ago China was on the verge of abandoning the market reforms that have since propelled it to its current position as a world power. Conservatives had used the 1989 Tiananmen massacre to reverse the country’s economic direction. Many...

News from the Dalai Lama


“I told President Obama the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party are missing a part of the brain, the part that contains common sense,” the Dalai Lama said to me during our conversation in London in mid-June.But it can be put back in. I am hopeful about the new Chinese...

Bo Xilai: The Unanswered Questions


The Chinese Communist Party has always put great emphasis on smooth surfaces, maintaining political “face” through a decorous exterior. Men at the top dye their hair black and every strand must be in place. But sometimes there are cracks in the smoothness and outsiders are...

The People’s Republic of Rumor


A group of people the other day were at the large shopping mall at a place called Shuangjing, just inside Beijing’s Third Ring Road, looking at their cell phones and comparing notes. “Don’t go to Sina Weibo—it’s too famous,” one person advised, referring to the...

‘Pressure for Change is at the Grassroots


The Chinese legal activist Chen Guangcheng arrived in the United States last month following top-level negotiations between U.S. and Chinese officials. Several weeks earlier, Chen had dramatically escaped from house arrest in his village in northeast China by jumping over a wall...

China: Politics as Warfare


Mao’s Invisible Hand is one of those books that make one feel good about scholarship. It describes inner workings of Chinese Communist society about which few nonexperts know anything—it may even surprise the experts—and it will interest anyone professionally interested in...

A Chinese Murder Mystery?


Roughly every decade, China’s political system cracks, its veil is rent, and its inner workings are laid bare. 2012, the Year of the Dragon, is turning out to be one of those periods when the country’s high priests can’t quite carry out their rituals as planned.The...

On Fang Lizhi (1936–2012)


Fang Lizhi, a distinguished professor of astrophysics, luminary in the struggle for human rights in contemporary China, and frequent contributor to The New York Review, died suddenly on the morning of April 6. At age seventy-six he had not yet retired, and was...

Debacle in Beijing


The story of a blind Chinese lawyer’s flight to the US Embassy in Beijing is likely to ignite accusations and recriminations until the US presidential election in November. But what few will acknowledge is a harsher truth: that for all our desire to effect change, outsiders...

Beijing Dilemma: Is Chen Guangcheng the Next Fang Lizhi?


The Chinese lawyer Chen Guangcheng, blind since childhood, self-taught in the law, defender of women’s rights to resist forced abortion, thorn in the side of local despots in his home district of Linyi in Shandong province, veteran of a four-year prison sentence on the spurious...

A Master in the Shadows


How should one assess the best ways to survive in a revolution? What exactly is the tipping point between obedience and outright sycophancy? When does one try to hold on to the values that gave meaning to one’s upbringing, and when is it best to just let it all go? When does...

China’s Falling Star


In China, the year is traditionally divided into periods based on the moon’s orbit around the earth and the sun’s path across the sky. This lunisolar calendar is laden with myths and celebrated by rituals that allowed Chinese to mark time and make sense of their world.So too...

The Chinese Are Coming!


The day after the Russian parliamentary elections in early December, the Chinese publication Global Times, an English-language newspaper and website managed by People’s Daily, the official organ of the Communist Party official, ran an editorial on how little credit the West...

He Told the Truth About China’s Tyranny


Better than the assent of the crowd: The dissent of one brave man!—Sima Qian (145–90 BC)Records of the Grand HistorianTruth will set you free.—Gospel according to JohnThe economic rise of China now dominates the entire landscape of international affairs. In the eyes of...

The New York Review of Books China Archive

Welcome to the New York Review of Books China Archive, a collaborative project of and The New York Review of Books. In the archive you will find a compilation of full-length essays and book reviews on China dating from the Review's founding in 1963. We encourage you...

China Gets Religion!


This autumn, China has been marking the one hundredth anniversary of the collapse of its last imperial dynasty, the Qing, with a series of grand celebrations. The government has released an epic film showing how the revolution of 1911 prepared the way for the Communists’...

From Tenderness to Savagery in Seconds


Much nonsense has been written about the Nanjing Massacre, also known as the Rape of Nanking. We know this much: in December 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army, after taking the Chinese Nationalist capital of Nanjing, went on a six-week rampage, looting, murdering, and raping large...

The High Price of the New Beijing


One recent weekend, I went for a walk through the alleys around the Qianmen shopping district, once Beijing’s commercial heart and still home to nationally known traditional shops. One of its chief side streets, Dazhalan, had been turned into a Ye Olde Pekinge-type street: its...

The Past and the Future


Concerning the Past:I have maintained that China should move forward with the reform of society. In many speeches before 1988, I openly expressed my advocacy of reform in China.I acknowledge that the following are my principal views:Marxism—whether viewed as a philosophy, a...

Kissinger and China


It is hard to fit Henry Kissinger’s latest book, On China, into any conventional frame or genre. Partly that is because the somewhat self-deprecatory title conceals what is, in fact, an ambitious goal: to make sense of China’s diplomacy and foreign policies across two and a...

Will There Be a ‘Duel of Dalai Lamas’?


On March 10 the Fourteenth Dalai Lama made front-page news throughout the world by saying,As early as the 1960s, I have repeatedly stressed that Tibetans need a leader, elected freely by the Tibetan people, to whom I can devolve power. Now, we have clearly reached the time to put...

Quality of Life: India vs. China


1.The steadily rising rate of economic growth in India has recently been around 8 percent per year (it is expected to be 9 percent this year), and there is much speculation about whether and when India may catch up with and surpass China’s over 10 percent growth rate. Despite...

The Worst Man-Made Catastrophe, Ever


When the first waves of Chinese graduate students arrived on American campuses in the early 1980s, they were excited at entering an unfettered learning environment. After the recent ravages of the Cultural Revolution, political science students had few inhibitions about studying...

China: From Famine to Oslo


1.Each year around the “sensitive” anniversary of the Beijing massacre of June 4, 1989, Ding Zilin, a seventy-four-year-old retired professor of philosophy, is accompanied by a group of plainclothes police whenever she leaves her apartment to go buy vegetables, or to do...

How Reds Smashed Reds


July and August 1966, the first months of the ten-year Cultural Revolution, were the summer of what Andrew Walder, a sociologist at Stanford, calls “The Maoist Shrug.” Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong’s wife, told high school Red Guards, “We do not advocate beating people, but...

The Question of Pearl Buck


The announcement by the Swedish Academy in November 1938 that Pearl Buck had been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature was met with sarcasm and even derision by many writers and critics. They were not impressed that this was the third choice by the academy of an American writer...

The Party: Impenetrable, All Powerful


In the next few weeks, an event will take place in Beijing on a par with anything dreamed up by a conspiracy theorist. A group of roughly three hundred men and women will meet at an undisclosed time and location to set policies for a sixth of humanity. Most China watchers will...

The Message from the Glaciers


It was not so long ago that the parts of the globe covered permanently with ice and snow, the Arctic, Antarctic, and Greater Himalayas (“the abode of the snows” in Sanskrit), were viewed as distant, frigid climes of little consequence. Only the most intrepid adventurers were...

The Triumph of Madame Chiang


Charlie Soong, born in 1866, was a new kind of figure in Chinese history, an independent-minded youngster with an openness to the world who came to Boston from Hainan Island at the age of twelve to work in a store. At fourteen he stowed away on a Coast Guard cutter, was baptized...

Specters of a Chinese Master


1.Luo Ping, who lived from 1733 to 1799, was perfectly placed by time and circumstance to view the shifts in fortune that were so prominent in China at that period. He grew up in Yangzhou, a prosperous city on the Grand Canal, just north of the Yangzi River, which linked the...

China: Humiliation & the Olympics


The IncidentOn a snowy winter day in 1991, Lu Gang, a slightly built Chinese scholar who had recently received his Ph.D. in plasma physics, walked into a seminar room at the University of Iowa’s Van Allen Hall, raised a snub-nose .38-caliber Taurus pistol, and killed Professor...

The Passions of Joseph Needham


It is now a little over four hundred years since a scattering of Westerners first began to try to learn the Chinese language. Across that long span, the number of scholars studying Chinese has grown, but their responses to the challenges of Chinese script have been generally...

Casting a Lifeline


Sixty pages or so into Ma Jian’s novel Beijing Coma, the hero, Dai Wei, is troubled by the memory of a harrowing anatomy lecture that he attended as a university student. Taught by “a celebrated cardiovascular specialist,” the class observed the dissection of the fresh...

Sentimental Education in Shanghai


1.In April 1924 Rabindranath Tagore arrived in Shanghai for a lecture tour of China. Soon after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, Tagore had become an international literary celebrity, lecturing to packed audiences from Japan to Argentina. His message—that...

The Quiet Heroes of Tibet


Earlier this year, shortly before boarding the new Chinese train from Beijing to Lhasa, I met Woeser, a Tibetan poet and essayist (she uses only one name). Unusual among Tibetans in China, who tend to avoid talking to foreigners, she spoke frankly about Chinese rule over Tibet....

Mission to Mao


“This was the week that changed the world” was Richard Nixon’s summing up at the end of his trip to China in February 1972.1 The hyperbole was justified, for this visit to China by an American president was a turning point in the cold war. Hitherto, the Soviet Union and...

China’s Great Terror


Long before August 1966, when immense chanting crowds of young Chinese Red Guards began to mass before Chairman Mao in Tiananmen Square, alerting those in the wider world to the onset of the Cultural Revolution, senior figures in the Chinese leadership began to seek their own...

‘June Fourth’ Seventeen Years Later: How I Kept a Promise


The weekend of June 3, 2006, was the seventeenth anniversary of the Beijing massacre and also the first time I ever received a summons. It happened, as the police put it, “according to law.” Twice within twenty-four hours Deputy Chief Sun Di of Department 1 of the Beijing...

Liu Binyan (1925-2005)


Liu Binyan, the distinguished Chinese journalist and writer who died of cancer on December 5, 2005, in exile in New Jersey, at the age of eighty, was an inveterate defender of the poor and the oppressed, a man with a powerful analytic mind. But the trait that most determined his...

On Leaving a Chinese Prison


Jiang Qisheng, a former student of philosophy and a human rights activist, was arrested in 1999 for commemorating the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. After four years in prison, he was recently released. He wrote the following statement upon accepting the Spirit of...

A Little Leap Forward


The Communist dynasty is collapsing in China, and in retrospect one of the first signs was a Chinese-language computer virus that began spreading when I was a reporter in Beijing in the early 1990s. The virus would pop up on your screen and ask a question about the hard-line...



1.To stand somewhere in the center of an East Asian metropolis, Seoul, say, or Guangzhou, is to face an odd cultural conundrum. Little of what you see, apart from the writing on billboards, can be described as traditionally Asian. There are the faux-traditional façades—...

China: The Anaconda in the Chandelier


In China’s Mao years you could be detained and persecuted for talking with your neighbor about your cat. The Chinese word for “cat” (mao, high level tone) is a near homonym for the name of the Great Leader (mao, rising tone), and a tip to the police from an eavesdropper who...

Found Horizon


1.Traveling recently by bus from Shigatse to Lhasa, squeezed in between a heavily made-up bar hostess from Sichuan who was vomiting her breakfast out the window and a minor Tibetan official in a shiny brown suit who asked me about Manchester United football club before noisily...

East Is West


Chang-rae Lee has an extraordinary talent for describing violence. Here is his account of the gang rape and murder of a Korean sex slave (“comfort woman”) in a Japanese army camp during World War II:I ran up the north path by the latrines, toward the clearing, as it was known...

Divine Killer


“If there was anything Mao wouldn’t want to see, it was tears. Mao said on one occasion, ‘I can’t bear to see poor people cry. When I see their tears, I can’t hold back my own.’ “Another thing which upset Mao was bloodshed.” —From Mao Zedong: Man, Not God by...

China in Cyberspace


1.It is not widely known that the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan are now at war. The battles are not being fought on land, however, or at sea, or even, strictly speaking, in the air; they take place in cyberspace, where nobody so far has ever died. The soldiers in this...

The Jiang Zemin Mystery


1.Since the Chinese Communist Party leaders will not allow themselves to be criticized in the press or on television, critics have had to find other means to express their political grievances. Historically speaking, one of the most telling ways to make a protest known has been...

Sex and Democracy in Taiwan


Fairly or not, sex scandals in politics have acquired a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon ring. The French boast of taking a more sophisticated view of the private lives of public men—that is to say, those lives are shielded from public scrutiny. Germans smack their lips when their...

Selling Out Hong Kong


1.And so it finally came to pass, at midnight, June 30, 1997, in the brand-new Hong Kong convention center, resembling, local people say, a giant cockroach: the red flag of the People’s Republic of China, snapping in the breeze of wind machines, went up, and the Union Jack came...

Holding Out in Hong Kong


1.The Master said: “If seeking wealth were a decent pursuit, I too would seek it, even if I had to work as a janitor. As it is, I’d rather follow my inclinations.”—Confucius: Analects1Flicking through the April issue of the Hong Kong Tatler, a glossy high life magazine...

China: The Defining Moment


The evolution of the People’s Republic of China since its founding in 1949 has been tumultuous and bloody, and marked by the suffering of millions. It has been anything but peaceful. Yet it is precisely the prospect of “peaceful evolution,” which in Peking has the special...

The Beginning of the End


Failed rebellions are often like failed marriages: former partners and their friends blame the other side for what went wrong; old tensions are magnified; the past is rewritten; feuding camps are formed. This pretty much sums up the situation among the survivors of the Beijing...

In China’s Gulag


Near the end of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn includes a chapter he calls “The Muses in Gulag.” Most of the chapter describes the absurdity and uselessness of the Communist Party’s Cultural and Educational Section, but he also briefly reflects on the relationship...

Unmasking the Monster


In 755 the Tang dynasty poet Tu Fu wrote about the corruptions of court life:In the central halls there are fair goddesses; An air of perfume moves with each charming figure. They clothe their guests with warm furs of sable, Entertain them with the finest music and pipe and...

History on the Wing


Golden Inches is a charming memoir of an American couple who built up the YMCA in Chengtu and Chungking. Their careers on America’s farthest Western cultural frontier in Szechwan province give us a sense of the day-to-day texture of Chinese-American relations during the golden...

From the Ming to Deng Xiaoping


When I began teaching Chinese history at Harvard in 1936 my first students turned out to be the brightest I would ever have—Theodore White as an undergraduate and Mary Clabaugh as a Ph.D. candidate. Mary Clabaugh was a Vassar graduate from Tuscaloosa who came to study...

The Last Days of Hong Kong


1.“Everything you need to know about a new life abroad…. It’s all in the pages of The Emigrant.”—Advertisement for a new Hong Kong periodical, 1989May 1983: It was exactly seven months after Mrs. Thatcher stumbled and fell on the steps of the Great Hall of the People in...

Keeping the Faith


On June 4, the day after the People’s Liberation Army opened fire on the citizens of Beijing, the distinguished Chinese astrophysicist and dissident intellectual, Fang Lizhi, reluctantly sought refuge in the American embassy in Beijing with his physicist wife, Li Shuxian. They...

Stories from the Ice Age


Since the Tiananmen Square killings it has become fashionable within the Chinese leadership to refer to dissident intellectuals as “scum.” That was Mao’s view, too. In 1942, the chairman, his armies besieged by both Chiang Kai-shek and the Japanese army, took time off for...

Why China’s Rulers Fear Democracy


To try to understand is not to condone or forgive. Quite the contrary. In this bicentennial year when a euphoria for democratic rights seemed to be sweeping the world, why was it stopped in Tiananmen Square? Why do China’s rulers attack their students like enemies when in our...

The End of the Chinese Revolution


When Deng Xiaoping suppressed the Beijing Spring last month, he thought he was putting down a new Cultural Revolution. Pirated notes from a Party meeting in late April quoted him as telling his colleagues:This is not an ordinary student movement. It is turmoil…. What they are...

The Price China Has Paid: An Interview with Liu Binyan


Liu Binyan is a sixty-two-year-old writer and journalist who is regarded as the preeminent intellectual advocating reform in China today. During the mid-1950s and again throughout the post-Mao period, he has strongly criticized Communist party officials for abusing their power...

Roots of Revolution


The books by Frank Ching and Zhang Xianliang are vastly different in content, aim, and style, as opposite as yang and yin. Yet each casts light on the Cultural Revolution. Considered together, they may even begin to explain it.Mao’s venomous “class struggle” against his own...

Passing the Baton in Beijing


Succession has become an omnipresent problem not only in China but throughout Asia. Long-lasting regimes under aging rulers are entering their twilight zone in North Korea, Burma, and Indonesia, and face a period of weakness and uncertainty, for the moment...

Our Mission in China


This is the bicentennial year for contacts between the United States and China, since it was in 1784 that the merchant ship Empress of China sailed to Canton from New York. It was an auspicious beginning, at least for the American backers of the voyage; the trip netted them 30...

China: How Much Dissent?


In the year 278 BC an aristocrat and poet named Qu Yuan took his own life by throwing himself into the waters of the Milo River. Qu Yuan had once been the powerful adviser to the ruler of the Chu kingdom, specializing in legal affairs and diplomacy, but the monarch was tricked...

Sitting on Top of the World


Remoteness is often a condition of status and an attitude cultivated by parties to inequality. Chinese peasants, for more than twenty centuries subjects not citizens of the realm, were being literal when they said, “Heaven is high and the emperor far away.” Their world was...

Rules of the Game


On September 18, 1931, a very small bomb caused a very minor explosion on the South Manchurian Railway just north of Mukden, a railway controlled by the Japanese and crucial to their economic domination of Manchuria. The explosion was denounced as the work of Chinese saboteurs....

Bringing Up the Red Guards


Revolutionaries are Monkey Kings, their golden rods are powerful, their supernatural powers far-reaching and their magic omnipotent, for they possess Mao Tsetung’s great invincible thought. We wield our golden rods, display our supernatural powers and use our magic to turn the...

Peanuts and the Good Soldier


In 1927, the province of Shantung was under the control of the warlord Chang Tsung-chang, a ferocious ex-coolie with a taste for white mercenaries and white women. His forces included a Russian brigade with four armored trains; he himself went to war with a trainload of forty-two...

Still Mysterious


Within mainland China today the ratio of Westerners to Chinese is probably no greater than it was in Marco Polo’s time seven hundred years ago. Sino-foreign contact is so minimal that it almost meets the old Taoist stay-at-home ideal, “to live hearing the dogs bark in the...

A Mao for All Seasons


A psychologist and an expert on the Far East, Mr. Lifton believes that the most fruitful way to look at Mao Tse-tung and the Cultural Revolution is to combine the investigation of psychological motives with historical analysis in what he calls the “...

The Great Wall


China is so distant, big, and complex that each Marco Polo nowadays tells a different tale. The authors of the three books under review—a cool Swedish journalist, a passionate Chinese true-believer, and a philosophical Frenchman—give very different impressions of Chairman Mao...

How to Deal with the Chinese Revolution


The Vietnam debate reflects our intellectual unpreparedness. Crisis has arisen on the farthest frontier of public knowledge, and viewpoints diverge widely because we all lack background information. “Vietnam” was not even a label on our horizon twenty years ago. It was still...