Chou En-lai (1898-1976) was a Chinese Communist leader and premier of the People's Republic of China. From the 1920s on Chou was among the top leaders of the Chinese Communist party.
Chou En-lai was born in Huaian, Kiangsu Province, into a landed family. Both of his parents died while he was a child, and Chou was sent to live with an uncle in Mukden, where he was given a traditional primary education.
Early Foreign Travels
In 1917 Chou went to Japan to continue his education. He joined in the activities of a nationalistic Chinese student organization and was introduced to Marxist thought through Japanese sources. When the May Fourth student movement broke out in 1919, he returned to Tientsin to join in the active political ferment among Chinese students. He enrolled at Nank'ai University, where he became editor of a radical student newspaper. Early in 1920 he was arrested with other students after a demonstration and imprisoned for 4 months.
After his release from prison, Chou went to France on a work-study program and soon came under the influence of French and Chinese socialists active in France. He became a member of the Chinese Socialist Youth Corps, a young Communist organization, and founded its Berlin branch in 1922. In the same year he was elected to the executive committee of the European branch of the Chinese Communist party (CCP). As the Communist party was at that time allied with Sun Yat-sen's Kuomintang (KMT), Chou also joined the KMT and served on the executive committee of its European headquarters. During these years he formed close attachments with many future leaders of the CCP, including Chu Teh and Ch'en Yi.
Work with the Kuomintang
Late in 1924 Chou returned to China and began working in Canton at the joint Communist-KMT revolutionary headquarters established there by Sun. Chou soon became deputy director (and in effect acting director) of the political department of the Whampoa Military Academy, just established with Chiang Kai-shek as its commander. In this capacity Chou formed connections with many cadets who were later to form the core officer group of the Red Army, among them Lin Piao.
In August 1925 Chou was made political commissar to the 1st Division of the 1st Army of the KMT, which was the chief military force under Chiang Kai-shek's control at the time. In the winter of 1925 he became special commissioner of the recently captured East River District of Kwangtung Province. Chou lost both these posts, however, after the Chung-shan gunboat incident of March 1926, when Chiang Kai-shek seized control of the KMT by a military coup.
When the Kuomintang armies began the Northern Expedition against the warlords in the summer of 1926, Chou went to Shanghai and worked to organize a labor revolt in the city. Chou then directed the general strike that captured Shanghai just before Chiang's troops entered the city. Chou, however, escaped the terror instituted by Chiang and fled to Wuhan, where the official leadership of the KMT still supported the Communist alliance. At the Fifth National Congress of the Communist party there in April, he was elected for the first time to the Central Committee and the Politburo and became head of the Military Committee. When the KMT at Wuhan also broke with the Communists in the summer of 1927, Chou fled again. He took charge of a small military force created by the defection of Communist officers and led the Nanchang uprising on August 1. After the failure of this insurrection Chou remained with the Communist forces through a series of abortive campaigns aimed at setting up a base in Kwangtung Province.
With the Communist party in disarray as a result of these events, Chou went to Moscow for the Sixth National Congress of the Communist party and was reelected to his positions. He returned to China in 1929 and created the Red Guards, a secret police that tried to protect the party leadership in Shanghai. In the spring of 1931 Chou was sent to Ch'ingkan Mountain Soviet, controlled by Mao Tse-tung and Chu Teh, to establish a closer connection with the party headquarters. There he became political commissar of Chu Teh's army. When this base had to be abandoned in 1934, Chou served as a military officer on the Long March to Yenan in the northwest.
In Yenan, Chou began to emerge as a major negotiator for the Communist party. He worked out cease-fire arrangements with Gen. Chang Hsüeh-liang that eventuated in Chang's kidnaping of Chiang Kai-shek at Sian in December 1936. As leader of the Communist delegation summoned to Sian, Chou is widely believed to have saved Chiang Kaishek's life. From this point to the end of the Sino-Japanese war, Chou was largely involved in negotiations with Chiang Kai-shek and his government over common anti-Japanese issues. Chou spent much of the war period in Chungking, the Nationalist capital, where his personal charm, intelligence, and tact made him an effective spokesman for the Communist position to the press, foreign diplomats, and uncommitted Chinese.
From November 1944 Chou was regularly involved in negotiations between U.S. ambassador Patrick J. Hurley, the Nationalist government, and the Communists. Early in 1946 he headed the Communist team in negotiations with Gen. George Marshall over the future of China. When these discussions broke down, Chou returned to Yenan.
People's Republic of China
After the Communist victory in 1949, Chou became premier of the People's Republic. He was largely responsible for the creation and guidance of the new governmental bureaucracy and until 1958 was also foreign minister. After 1949 he was also largely responsible for maintaining relations with the non-Communist political groups that supported the People's Republic.
Early in 1950 Chou negotiated in Moscow a treaty of alliance with the Soviet Union, and in 1952 he again went to Moscow, where he negotiated further agreements. In 1957 he played a significant role in negotiating settlements of issues arising from Polish and Hungarian conflicts with the Soviet Union. After Sino-Soviet relations deteriorated, he led the Chinese delegation that walked out of the Twenty-second Congress of the Soviet party in October 1961.
Chou also had to deal with acute crises in Sino-American relations that arose largely as a result of the Korean War. On Oct. 2, 1950, he delivered through the Indian ambassador a warning that China would intervene in the war if American troops crossed the 38th parallel. The American rejection of this warning brought a direct confrontation of American and Chinese troops in Korea. However, on Chou's initiative in 1955, Sino-American ambassadorial talks began in Warsaw.
Chou also was prominent in forming and implementing Chinese policy toward the Afro-Asian nations. He made extensive tours of Asia and Africa. In 1954 he led the Chinese delegation at the Geneva Conference and was instrumental in drawing up terms for the French evacuation of Indo-China. In 1960 he played a leading role in negotiating treaties delimiting Chinese frontiers with Burma, Nepal, Mongolia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan but failed to resolve the Indian frontier question despite a visit to New Delhi for talks with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
Domestically, Chou played an essential role both as head of the administrative system and as peacemaker in the party. He actively supported Mao Tse-tung during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution that developed in 1965, the major objective being to reinfuse revolutionary enthusiasm into Chinese society. At the end of this movement in 1969, Chou was the third-ranking member of the Chinese leadership, and later, after Lin Piao disappeared, the second-ranking member.
In 1975, Chou was dying of cancer, but he continued to serve China. In January, his report to the Fourth National People's Congress justified the Cultural Revolution as a battle against bourgeois tendencies and at the same time proposed the Four Modernizations (of agriculture, industry, national defense and technology). Chou died on January 8, 1976.
In 1925 Chou married Teng Ying-ch'ao, whom he had met in 1919 when they were both active in student demonstrations in Tientsin. She remained an active revolutionary leader and was one of the few women who made the Long March. When she was trapped in Peking by the Japanese occupation of the city, she was smuggled through Japanese lines by Edgar Snow. She was deputy chairman of the All-China Federation of Women. They had no children.
Further Reading on Chou En-lai
The best account of Chou's life is Hsu Kai-yu, Chou En-lai:China's Gray Eminence (1968). Hsu tends to exaggerate Chou's importance but presents a convincing picture of his character-his human warmth versus his devotion to revolution. See also Edgar Snow, The Other Side of the River: Red China Today (1962), which contains interviews with Chou En-lai, as well as other Chinese leaders; Donald S. Zagoria, The Sino-Soviet Conflict, 1956-1961 (1962); and Franz Schurmann and Orville Schell, eds., The China Reader (3 vols., 1967), especially volume 3.