Zhou En Lai was a man like any other; with hopes and dreams; failures and successes. In his heart beat the throb of humanity for a better world; under strain it tilted to temptation; in death-bed it mourned mistakes and milestones alike. On this, 122nd anniversary of his birth; it might behoove us to look into a little known side of Zhou; not his deeds, nor words; but his feelings; his sentiment; the flavor of the man, strewn in lines of poetry.

Yes, Zhou was a poet like Mao; but a poet very unlike Mao in many ways; his lines flow less freely; his form, more sturdy and consistent as the man was himself, vis-à-vis Mao; the apposite public servant, who combined practical savy with unwavering tenderness towards the polis he served; above the pettier politics of historical Marxism; but never detached from the ‘dare to struggle; dare to win’ ethos proper to his time, as ours.

In 1914, as the warlords waged plunder unto ‘all under Heavan’ a 14-year old Zhou laid down lines in the strict ‘five-word short’ form, and he would not, like Mao, stray far from the tight rhythms of classical verse. Rife with classical Chinese allegories, Notes on a Spring day, bemoans the ‘deer chase’ (dynastic rule; crumbling into bitter infighting) and calls for a ‘Polang strike’ (insurrection against decadant authority) to avenge a despoiled homeland (Lin 1979, 1) . Duty, above all, was Zhou’s point of departure. But duty to what?

The poem’s title Notes on a Spring Day; is suggestive. While recognizing the divine beauty of nature, Zhou insists on it’s being a mere reflection of humanity’s potential. Duty to the human spirit takes the place of piety to the timeless edicts of celestial dynasties. For instance, in Maruyama Park, he writes; ‘Cherry blossoms all over the park […] A drooping willow nestles by a small pond. A young girl stands there all alone […] And nobody seems to care’ while onlookers contemplate; ‘which is lovlier – the cherry blossoms or the willow?’ (Lin 1979, 15). To get lost in the beauty of nature, while humanity weeps is to dance with shadows.

Zhou’s poems on Muryama Park were written on a study trip to Japan in 1919, where he aquainted himself for the first time with Marxism. Evidently, Zhou absorbed not only Marx’s materialist conception of history – which decries sentimental romanticization of nature – but Marx’s 11th thesis on Feuerbach as well; which calls on philosiphers, not just to understand the world, but ultimately; to change it. In Fourth Visit to Maruyama Park, Zhou writes; ‘Triumph and defeat; Are the objective givens in this world of men’ (Lin 1979, 17). The point isn’t to transcend one’s problems in reverence of nature, but to recognize reality and work to improve it.

But how to improve it? And here, like Engels, Zhou finds his answer in the street; in the palm of the people; a rickshaw driver shows him the way; ‘Whiz! Whiz! The northwest wind! […] I feel the pinch of cold in spite of my coat; He feels it an extra burden to keep his on; He strips it off and covers my feet with it; I thank him for being considerate; He thanks me for accommodating him; Co-existence with mutual benefit? The sweating of men alive! The indolence of life-in-death!’ (Lin 1979, 19).

And not only the workers, but the women too; in Bon Voyage to Li Yu-ju, Zhou writes; ‘your decision; your courage; your bubbling aspiration; Backed up by a will to fight! From these shores […] to the coast of France; Home of liberty […] Develop your skills; Keep your innocence; Come back some day; You’ll unfurl the standard of freedom […] fight for women’s rights; Seek equality’ (Lin 1979, 23).

Equality. That is the what; and struggle the how. Zhou wrote the above lines while in prison, June 1922. An echo of Nazim Hikmet, a fellow-traveler of the iron bars, rings in Zhou’s commentary on separation, later on in the poem; ‘But aren’t we in one world; Why speak of separation! Moreover, love spins on forever; The lotus root breaks but not the fibres’ (Lin 1979, 24).

The ultimate separation; that of death, Zhou bemoaned and belied in tandem just a few months earlier, in March 1922; after his comrade, Huang Cheng-pin was murdered for leading the cotton mill strike in Changsha; ‘Is it not better to die a weighty death; That makes light of life! […] separated by death – The worst that could happen to men […] Is it not better to bid a farewell that inspires!’ (Lin 1979, 27). Uncanny echoes of Mao’s ‘Mount Tian’!

These are the poems of Premier Zhou en Lai. They stem from his youth, as he was a man of action, finally; and wrote little after his prison stint in 1922. It seems Zhou plunged into praxis after a brief but necessary flirt with the muse in his wandering youth. Here we hear the pledge of a Premier-to-be to beauty of man in nature; our potential as a species to strive and arrive at ‘co-existence with mutual benefit’; to conquer the ‘indolence of life-in-death’ ; life lived as a dead automaton; a mere character mask of capital; that which so many technocrats became; Zhou elided; the public servant of the people; not their paternal despot. An inspiration for ages to come!

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Justin Theodra is an intellectual biographer and international political economist interested in the life and work of Samir Amin and other ‘global organic intellectuals’ as well as theories of imperialism, the critique of eurocentrism, and uneven development more generally.


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