Zhou Enlai Biography, Life Story, Revolution, Leadership and Legacy


Who was Chou En Lai (Zhou Enlai)? This article provides a comprehensive biography of his life story and career, including his early years, involvement in the Chinese Revolution, leadership in the People’s Republic of China, and his legacy.

CHOU EN-LAI (Zhou Enlai), (1898-1976), premier of Communist China. A man of great charm and exceptional diplomatic skill, Chou became a major figure in the early 1920’s and eventually attained third rank in the Communist party hierarchy. He is usually classed as a moderate.

Chou was born into a family of the provincial gentry in Shaoshing, Chekiang, but moved to Huaian, Kiangsu, while still very young. After receiving a traditional education, he went to Waseda University in Japan in 1917 and returned to study at Nank’ai University in 1919. During the May Fourth Movement, Chou joined the protest-and-study activities in Peking and was imprisoned for six months. There he met his future wife, Teng Ying-ch’ao. Although introduced to Marxist ideas in Japan, Chou did not become a Communist until after leaving for France in 1920.

Chou En Lai (Zhou Enlai) Biography, Life Story and Career

On his return in 1924, Chou became a political commissar in the Whampoa Military Academy and in Chiang Kai-shek’s First Army. It was Chou who organized the workers’ uprisings that delivered Shanghai to Chiang Kai-shek in 1927. He narrowly escaped from Chiang’s suppression of the Communists in Shanghai in April 1927 and fled south, where he became active in organizing the Communists in Nanchang, SwatcJw, and Canton.


Chou was first elected to the political bureau of the Communist party in 1927. He spent 1928 in Russia and at the end of the year returned to Shanghai, where he worked with Li Lisan until 1931, when the party leadership passed from Li. Chou then went to Mao Tse-tung’s rural base in southern Kiangsi and has remained closely associated with Mao ever since. He became a political commissar under army commander Chu Teh, a vice chairman of the Revolutionary Military Council, and a political officer on the 6,000-mile “long march” to Yenan in northwestern China in 1934-1935.

Chou’s negotiating skill was demonstrated in 1936, when he initiated the events leading up to Chiang Kai-shek’s kidnapping at Sian by disaffected warlords. Chou persuaded them not to kill Chiang and helped set the conditions that resulted in his release. Chou flew to Nanking to negotiate the united front against Japanese aggression, and when the Chinese-Japanese War broke out in 1937 he headed the Communist delegation at the Nationalist capital. He also represented the Communists in the abortive American-inspired negotiations under Gen. George C. Marshall at the end of World War II.

From 1949 to 1958, Chou was foreign minister as well as premier of the state council. Although he relinquished his post as foreign minister in 1958 to Ch’en Yi, he remained premier and the major spokesman on foreign policy. He was responsible for supervising the executive machinery of the government and for maintaining support among non-Communist Chinese. He headed the Chinese delegations to the Geneva Conference of 1954 and the Bandung Conference of 1955. Chou is a major spokesman on Sino-Soviet relations.

Nationalist-Communist split

Zhou Enlai played a significant role in the nationalist-communist split that occurred within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the late 1920s. At the time, the CCP was allied with the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) party in a united front against the ruling warlords and Japanese imperialism.

However, disagreements between the CCP and KMT soon arose, particularly over the role of the CCP in the united front and the extent of land reform. Zhou Enlai, who had been appointed as the head of the CCP’s organizational department, was tasked with building a united front between the CCP and KMT.

Despite his efforts, the KMT-led government launched a crackdown on the CCP in 1927, leading to a split between the two parties. Zhou Enlai, along with other prominent CCP leaders such as Mao Zedong, were forced to flee to the countryside and rebuild the party’s strength.

Zhou Enlai’s role in the nationalist-communist split and his subsequent leadership in the CCP played a crucial part in the party’s eventual triumph in the Chinese Revolution and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.


Activities during the Chinese Civil War

During the Chinese Civil War (1945-1949), Zhou Enlai played a key role in the Communist Party’s military and political strategy. As one of the most senior leaders in the CCP, he was responsible for coordinating the party’s military efforts and diplomatic relations with other countries.

Zhou was involved in several significant battles during the civil war, including the Huaihai Campaign, which was a decisive victory for the Communist forces over the Nationalist government. He also helped to establish the New Democracy policy, which sought to unite different social classes and groups under the banner of the CCP.

In addition to his military activities, Zhou Enlai was instrumental in establishing the Chinese Communist Party’s diplomatic relations with other countries. He played a key role in negotiating the establishment of the People’s Republic of China with the United States, the Soviet Union, and other nations.

Zhou also participated in the peace talks that ended the civil war and led to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. As the country’s first Premier, Zhou played a critical role in the early years of the new government, overseeing the rebuilding of the country’s infrastructure and economy, and negotiating key international agreements.

Activities during World War II

During World War II, Zhou Enlai played a crucial role in the Chinese resistance against the Japanese occupation. He worked closely with the Nationalist government and other Chinese resistance forces to organize and coordinate resistance activities against the Japanese invaders.

In 1937, Zhou helped to organize the “8th Route Army,” a Communist-led guerrilla force that played a significant role in the Chinese resistance effort. He served as the political commissar of the army and worked closely with military commander Zhu De to develop effective tactics for fighting against the Japanese forces.

Zhou also played a key role in the establishment of the Yan’an base, which served as a center for Communist activities during the war. He worked closely with Mao Zedong to build a coalition of anti-Japanese forces and to develop the CCP’s military and political strategy.

In addition to his military activities, Zhou also worked to establish diplomatic relations with other countries during World War II. He traveled to Moscow in 1941 to negotiate the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Alliance, which helped to secure Soviet support for the Chinese resistance effort.

Overall, Zhou Enlai’s activities during World War II laid the foundation for his later leadership in the Chinese Revolution and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.

Diplomatic efforts with the United States

Zhou Enlai was a key figure in the diplomatic efforts between China and the United States during the 20th century. During the Chinese Civil War, the US provided significant support to the Nationalist government, which was fighting against the Communist forces led by the CCP.

After the Communist victory in 1949 and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, the US initially refused to recognize the new government and imposed a trade embargo on China. However, Zhou Enlai, who was serving as the country’s first Premier, worked to establish diplomatic relations with the US and other countries.


In 1971, Zhou made a historic visit to the US, where he met with President Richard Nixon and helped to pave the way for the normalization of diplomatic relations between the two countries. The meeting was significant because it marked the first time a high-level Chinese leader had visited the US since the Communist takeover.

During the visit, Zhou and Nixon signed the Shanghai Communique, which established a framework for diplomatic relations between the US and China. The Communique recognized the “one China” policy, which acknowledged the government in Beijing as the sole legitimate government of China.

Overall, Zhou Enlai’s diplomatic efforts with the United States helped to ease tensions between the two countries and paved the way for future cooperation and engagement.

Resumption of Civil War

After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, tensions between the Communist government and the Nationalist forces continued to simmer. The Nationalist government, which had retreated to Taiwan, refused to recognize the legitimacy of the new government and continued to claim sovereignty over mainland China.

In 1950, the Korean War broke out, and the US sent troops to support South Korea against North Korea and its ally, China. The conflict further heightened tensions between China and the US, and the Nationalist government in Taiwan saw an opportunity to launch a campaign to retake mainland China.

In 1954, the Nationalists launched a series of raids on the Chinese coast, hoping to destabilize the Communist government. However, the raids were largely unsuccessful, and the Chinese forces were able to repel the Nationalist attacks.

In 1958, the Nationalists escalated the conflict by launching a full-scale invasion of the mainland. However, the invasion was poorly planned and executed, and the Chinese forces were able to quickly defeat the Nationalist troops.

Zhou Enlai played a key role in managing the resumption of the civil war and preventing it from escalating into a larger conflict. He worked to maintain diplomatic channels with the Nationalist government and to avoid a direct military confrontation with the US.

Overall, while the resumption of the civil war was a challenging period for China, Zhou Enlai’s leadership helped to ensure that the conflict did not spiral out of control and that the country was able to focus on rebuilding and developing its economy and society.

PRC diplomat and statesman

Zhou Enlai was one of the most prominent diplomats and statesmen of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). He served as the country’s Premier from 1949 until his death in 1976, and played a key role in shaping China’s foreign policy and domestic development during this time.

As Premier, Zhou oversaw China’s economic and social development, working to rebuild the country after years of war and political turmoil. He introduced policies aimed at improving agricultural production, expanding industry, and providing education and healthcare to the population.


In addition to his domestic work, Zhou was also deeply involved in China’s foreign relations. He played a key role in establishing diplomatic relations with other countries, including the US, the Soviet Union, and countries in Africa and Asia. He also worked to promote the “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence,” which called for peaceful relations between nations based on mutual respect and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs.

Zhou was known for his diplomatic skills and ability to negotiate complex agreements with other countries. He played a key role in establishing the Bandung Conference in 1955, which brought together leaders from Asian and African countries to discuss common concerns and interests. He also worked to establish China’s position as a leader of the developing world, promoting solidarity among nations in the fight against colonialism and imperialism.

Overall, Zhou Enlai’s contributions to China’s domestic and foreign policy were significant and helped to shape the country’s development in the second half of the 20th century. His legacy as a diplomat and statesman continues to be celebrated in China and around the world today.

The Great Leap Forward

The Great Leap Forward was a social and economic campaign launched by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under the leadership of Mao Zedong in 1958. The campaign aimed to rapidly transform China from an agricultural society into an industrialized nation through rapid industrialization and collectivization of agriculture.

Zhou Enlai was a key figure in the implementation of the Great Leap Forward, serving as Premier of the country at the time. While he supported the campaign in principle, he also recognized the potential risks and challenges it presented.

The Great Leap Forward had a number of ambitious goals, including increasing agricultural and industrial production, modernizing China’s infrastructure, and developing new industries. However, the campaign was poorly planned and executed, and the policies implemented had disastrous consequences for the country.

One of the most significant problems was the widespread collectivization of agriculture, which forced farmers to abandon private farming and instead work on collective farms. This led to a sharp decline in agricultural productivity, as farmers had little incentive to work hard or innovate. The campaign also included a massive effort to promote backyard steel furnaces, which diverted resources away from other essential industries and contributed to environmental pollution.

The consequences of the Great Leap Forward were severe. A combination of drought, famine, and mismanagement led to a widespread food shortage, and millions of people died from starvation. The economic impact of the campaign was also significant, with industrial production declining and the country’s overall economic growth stalling.

Zhou Enlai, along with other leaders of the CCP, eventually recognized the severity of the situation and took steps to reverse the policies of the Great Leap Forward. However, the damage had already been done, and the campaign remains one of the darkest periods in China’s modern history.

The Cultural Revolution

The Cultural Revolution was a political movement launched by Mao Zedong in 1966, aimed at purging “bourgeois” elements from Chinese society and promoting Mao’s ideology of revolutionary purity. Zhou Enlai played a key role in the movement, serving as one of Mao’s closest advisors and helping to manage the complex political dynamics of the time.

The Cultural Revolution had a profound impact on Chinese society, leading to widespread social upheaval and political persecution. The movement was characterized by a cult of personality around Mao, with his image and slogans dominating public life.


Zhou Enlai initially supported the Cultural Revolution, but as it progressed, he became increasingly concerned about the excesses and abuses of power that were taking place. He worked behind the scenes to moderate some of the more extreme policies and to protect the interests of the moderate factions within the Communist Party.

Zhou also played a key role in managing China’s foreign relations during the Cultural Revolution. He worked to maintain diplomatic channels with other countries and to prevent the movement from escalating into a wider conflict. He also played a key role in the normalization of relations with the US in the early 1970s, which helped to open China to the world and paved the way for the country’s economic and social transformation in the following decades.

Despite his efforts, Zhou was not immune to the political persecution of the Cultural Revolution. He was repeatedly attacked by Mao’s supporters and forced to make public confessions of his supposed “crimes.” However, he remained committed to his vision of a more moderate and pragmatic China and continued to work behind the scenes to shape the country’s future.

Overall, while the Cultural Revolution was a challenging period in China’s history, Zhou Enlai’s leadership helped to prevent it from descending into chaos and to pave the way for a more open and prosperous future for the country. His legacy as a pragmatic and visionary leader continues to be celebrated in China and around the world today.


Zhou Enlai died on January 8, 1976, at the age of 77, after battling bladder cancer for several years. His death was a significant loss to the Chinese Communist Party, which had relied heavily on his leadership and diplomatic skills to navigate the country through turbulent times.

Zhou’s death came at a critical juncture in Chinese politics, as the country was grappling with the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution and the question of who would succeed Mao Zedong as the leader of the country. Zhou had been seen as a moderate voice within the party, and his passing left a significant void in the leadership that would have long-lasting implications.

Following his death, Zhou was widely mourned by the Chinese people, who remembered him as a statesman and a pragmatist who had worked tirelessly to modernize the country and to promote its interests on the global stage. Despite the political turmoil that followed his passing, Zhou’s legacy continued to influence Chinese politics for decades to come, as his ideas and principles shaped the direction of the country and its relations with the rest of the world.


Zhou Enlai’s legacy is multifaceted and significant, both in China and around the world. He was one of the most important figures in modern Chinese history, serving as a key architect of the country’s political, economic, and diplomatic strategies for several decades.

Zhou is perhaps best remembered for his role as a pragmatic statesman and skilled diplomat, who played a key role in China’s engagement with the rest of the world during the Cold War. He was a master of diplomacy and negotiation, and his efforts helped to maintain China’s independence and promote its interests on the global stage.

In addition to his diplomatic achievements, Zhou was also a committed revolutionary who worked tirelessly to promote the cause of socialism in China. He played a key role in the Chinese Communist Party’s rise to power and in the country’s subsequent efforts to modernize and transform its economy.

Zhou’s legacy also includes his commitment to social justice and equality, as well as his efforts to promote cultural and artistic expression in China. He was a patron of the arts and a champion of traditional Chinese culture, and his efforts helped to preserve and promote China’s rich cultural heritage.


Overall, Zhou Enlai’s legacy is one of leadership, vision, and commitment to the Chinese people and to the cause of socialism. His contributions to modern Chinese history continue to be celebrated in China and around the world, and his ideas and principles continue to shape the direction of the country as it navigates the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.


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