40 Years After the Former Premier’s Death: Remembering Zhou Enlai through Photos

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This year marks the 40th anniversary of the death of China’s first premier Zhao Enlai.

Zhou is remembered in Chinese history as one of Chairman Mao Zedong’s most trusted lieutenants, and his right-hand man. He also is recognized for saving lives without being purged during the Cultural Revolution, which coincided with the height of Mao’s paranoia and blood spilling.

During his lifetime, his character was admired by all walks of life in China from peasants to top officials. His leadership and handling of foreign affairs was lauded by leaders from Beijing to Washington.

To celebrate his life, Sina published a photo essay capturing the highlights of Zhou through the eyes of those he met along his 77-year journey into the history books.

One photo depicts a young Zhou with friend Zhang Shenfu, the man who introduced Zhou to the Communist Party and essentially kick-started the legacy Zhou would create.

Zhang remembers Zhou as an energetic revolutionary studying abroad in Paris. Zhou eventually joined the ranks of the nascent CCP in the spring of 1921, months before the Communist Party became official.

The essay also contains photos of Zhou with his wife Deng Yingchao. She recalls marrying her husband with no ceremony because there were no registrars or witnesses at the time they wed in 1925.

As a high-ranking party official, Zhou came into contact with several foreign leaders especially during the three-party talks.

During this time, he captured the respect of many.

Former U.S. Ambassador to China John Leighton Stuart, who also is pictured in the essay among other American officials, said Zhou was a man of “infinite charisma.”

As the collapse of the 3-party talks came closer, U.S. General George Marshall expressed that the Nationalists under Chiang Kaishek did not give Zhou “the respect that a man of his caliber deserved.”

The essay features photographs of Zhou with former President Richard Nixon and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

Nixon described Zhou as a calm man who always “spoke directly and succinctly.”

Kissinger praised Zhou as “scholarly, patient, intelligent, adroit and agile. When discussing international affairs, he easily and quickly got to the heart of the matter, and it seemed that there was no affair he was not prepared to discuss.”

Nonetheless, Zhou resonated as much with the top of society as he did with the bottom.

One photo taken in 1950 depicts Zhou with Sun Yatsen’s wife, Soong Ching-ling.

She spoke highly of Zhou’s ties to peasants.

“Whatever the peasants ate, he ate too,” Soong said. “His clothes were often worn thin and covered in patches. He would often eat his meals with his driver, and would dine together with the wait staff during flights.”

Zhou’s life, however, began to deteriorate when he was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 1972 at the height of Mao’s ill-fated Cultural Revolution.

At the time, high-ranking officials needed approval from Mao before they could undergo surgery. Possibly due to Mao’s paranoia of party members conspiring against him and as his purge continued, Mao ordered Zhou’s diagnoses to be kept secret from him. By the time Zhou finally was operated on in 1974, the cancer already had spread. He died on January 8, 1976.

Deng Xiaoping said the following of Zhou’s role during the turbulent time before his death: “Zhou was placed in a difficult situation during the Cultural Revolution where he was forced to act and speak against his own will. Regardless, he deserves the forgiveness of the people. Because it was not truly him who did those things, nor was it truly him who spoke, and had he not, he would have forfeited the life of a great man. In working from behind the scenes, Zhou was able to save a great many people during the turmoil.”


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