In my ongoing obsession with 1930s Shanghai, I dug out this old photo I took on my second trip to Shanghai in 1991.
I’m standing in front of Zhou Enlai’s house. I can’t remember if we were even allowed inside, but I do remember posing in front of the door.
It was one of the highlights of that trip.
The details of the photo are difficult to see, but the English on the brass plaque reads:
Gen. Chow En-Lai’s Residence
And the Chinese simply reads: Chow’s Public Residence
I guess people have always done things differently in Shanghai. 1991 wasn’t so long ago that pinyin was still a new method of romanizing Chinese. It’d been in use for decades at that point.
And using the Cantonese spelling of Chow versus the old Wade-Giles spelling of Chou sends a thousand questions to my mind.
(The spelling Chow was used in Wade-Giles for other characters with the same sound. But in this case, the surname Zhou would have been spelled Chou in the Wade-Giles system.)
And I thought that Zhou Enlai would have been remembered best as the PRC’s first Premier. So the plaque’s use of General is also a bit surprising to me.
But the biggest shock of all, I suppose, is how my perception of Zhou Enlai has changed through the years.
When I started learning about China back in the mid-1980s, the verdict on Mao was just coming out. I mean, people knew he was a tyrant, but his real crimes were just beginning to be exposed. Zhou, on the other hand, was the rational, sane, stable of the two. For each disaster attributed to Mao, Zhou kept China from dozens more such tragedies. A statesman, diplomat, leader–all these labels were associated with Zhou.
Until the truth started coming out.
In recent years Zhou’s true nature has been exposed. Jung Chang and Jon Halliday wrote about Zhou in their epic biography, Mao: The Unknown Story (Knopf, 2005). They portrayed him as a spineless lackey who instead of keeping Mao in check, kowtowed to the Chairman and carried out his programs like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.
Author Frank Dikotter says it better in his new book about the Great Leap Forward, Mao’s Great Famine (Bloomsbury, 2010): “Mao was the visionary, Zhou Enlai the midwife who transformed nightmares into reality.“