Eldest Son

The author’s title, ELDEST SON, indicates her sense of how important for Zhou Enlai that family role was in forming the career of China’s most accomplished twentieth century statesman. Although Mao Zedong was the acknowledged leading force in the creation of modern China, it was the level-headed pragmatist Zhou who, as premier, struggled against excesses in party policies, kept scientific research alive, and responded to Richard Nixon’s offer to end China’s estrangement from the West.

The outline of Zhou’s life is filled in clearly. There is the trip to France and the ensuing work in Europe in founding the Chinese Communist Party in the 1920’s. The first united front with Chiang Kaishek’s followers ended with Chiang’s betrayal when he massacred some 5,000 Communists in a five-day period in Shanghai in April of 1927.

The famous Long March established Mao Zedong’s leadership, and Zhou stood with him during the whole ordeal. A second united front with Chiang was necessitated by World War II, but collapsed after the war with Chiang’s banishment to Taiwan and the establishment of the new Communist government.

Han Suyin does not minimize the horrors of the catastrophic Great Leap Forward and the mindless Cultural Revolution. Nevertheless, her view of Zhou’s role in these self-destructive outbursts is that Zhou was diligent in minimizing the misery and injustice while riding out these difficult periods. It is unlikely that all historians will agree with her generous interpretation of Zhou’s motives, but her arguments will have to be answered carefully.