Zhou Enlai, the Qingming Festival, and the spring demonstrations of 1976

Today is Qingming Jie, the annual grave sweeping day, and also the 35th anniversary of the April 5 Τiananmen Incident.  This post, originally published on the anniversary of Zhou Enlai’s death (January 8, 2007), looks at the legacy of Zhou Enlai and how the celebration of Qingming led to a major demonstration and crackdown in the spring of 1976.  Qingming remains a day of political significance, something not lost on the Chinese state security apparatus.


Perhaps no 20th century Chinese leader is as beloved inside China or respected abroad as much as Zhou Enlai (1898-1976). Even so, Zhou remains something of an enigma. He is revered for being a rock in the storm of mid-century Chinese politics, holding fast to his integrity and working to moderate the excesses of the Mao regime as best he could. (It was Zhou who told the Red Guards that the Forbidden City was off-limits in their destruction of all things “Old.”) And yet one wonders how Zhou could have watched as his closest friends and oldest allies, men such as Deng Xiaoping and Liu Shaoqi, along with their wives and families, were cast aside and made to suffer–quite cruelly in the case of the terminally ill Liu–to satisfy Mao’s revolutionary vision. What sorts of machinations and compromises were necessary to linger in power while those around him were being swept away?

Is our lasting image of Zhou Enlai to be the smooth, urbane diplomat showing up for talks in Geneva in a tailored-suit, silk tie, and a fedora, exchanging quips about the French Revolution? Or will it be the Zhou Enlai standing on top of Tiananmen with a red armband and a little red book, screeching in a high-pitched hysterical frenzy, “Long Live Chairman Mao!” as hordes of fanatical teenagers chant in the square and the Chairman looks on in approval?

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Perhaps my favorite image of Zhou is footage from Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. As the US President blathered on about ‘friendship and mutual respect,’ the jaded premier shifted in his chair, unable to contain a mighty yawn.  Zhou’s work with Kissinger was done and in the books. That had been the important part.

Or, perhaps, he was simply tired.

After all, it was during that summer that Zhou was diagnosed with bladder cancer. While he maintained a rigorous schedule of duties (Mao himself was far too ill to appear in public), Zhou in his mid-seventies must have sensed that the end was coming soon. In 1975, as the cancer spread, he sought to rehabilitate his long-time political ally Deng Xiaoping from exile.

It is telling that in their final political acts, both Mao and Zhou brought forth their chosen successors. For Mao, it was Hua Guofeng: stable, solid, unwilling to deviate from any course set by the Great Helmsman. Mao was not going to tolerate the emergence of any Krushchevs in China after he was gone.

Zhou backed Deng Xiaoping, whose pragmatic policies of modernization and economic development would steer China on a radically different course. Perhaps it is Zhou’s ultimate legacy that it would be his own ally, the diminutive Deng, and not any lackey of Mao’s, who would ultimately lead China into the new era.

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But in the early days of 1976, the future direction of the PRC was far from certain. On January 8, Zhou Enlai finally succumbed to cancer that had ravaged his body for four years. Upon hearing the news, the country went into a state of deep mourning, an outpouring of emotion that surprised many while angering an important few. From Mao, there was only silence. There were no condolences sent to Zhou’s widow (the equally talented Deng Yingchao) and the Chairman was conspicuously absent from the state funeral held a week later. In fact, Mao had not seen Zhou in many months. The Chairman was sick and, more than that, was increasingly surrounded by a cabal of sycophants in league with Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing.*

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While Jiang Qing disliked Zhou, she loathed Deng Xiaoping, and it was Deng who delivered the eulogy at the funeral. It was Deng who praised Zhou for his warm heart, his hard work, and his plain and simple lifestyle. Not the sort of rhetoric to inspire controversy, but Jiang Qing and those around Mao considered Deng’s laudatory remarks to be thinly-veiled criticism of Mao. In all probability, she was right.

April 4, 1976, was the eve of Qingming, the annual festival to remember the dead. Thousands of ordinary Chinese, from all walks of life, went to Tiananmen Square to place wreaths, posters, banners, flowers, and placards at the base of the Monument to the People’s Heroes–all in honor of Zhou Enlai. The pavement was covered with remembrances, both a vast display of grief and a not-so-subtle jab at those who remained in power. 1976 marked ten years of Cultural Revolution, the people were tired, and with the death of Zhou they felt they had lost one of the only leaders who truly cared for them.

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The next day, thousands returned to find the square empty. No flowers. No posters. No wreaths. Nothing. It had all been swept away in the middle of the night. Such an order could only have come from the highest levels, and the people’s grief turned to indignation and then to anger. 100,000 Beijing residents turned out in the square, ignoring increasingly shrill orders for them to disperse.

As the crowd grew disorderly, mourners started invading nearby government offices, overturning vehicles, lighting fires, and threatening police. Other demonstrators raised signs and banners reading “The Era of Qin Shihuangdi is Over.”

(Qin Shihuangdi of course was the first emperor of China, whose rule could be described as organized brutality in the service of unity and uniformity. Naturally he was, by Mao’s own admission, something of a role model.)

Jiang Qing and her gang watched the situation with a mixture of outrage and fear. On April 6th, she  emerged from Mao’s bedchamber, her face aglow with vengeance and glee, shouting: “It is done! It is done! It has been declared a ‘counter-revolutionary demonstration!’”

With that, loudspeakers once again blared forth, demanding that people to leave the square. Most heeded the orders, but a determined few remained behind. On the night of April 6, a company of uniformed police officers backed by a “worker’s militia” of non-uniformed thugs moved in. Officially 388 people were arrested though other reports have the number much higher. Those seized were hauled before a mass tribunal held on the grounds of Peking University, and there they were sentenced to imprisonment, hard labor, or worse.

Among the leadership it was Deng Xiaoping who took the fall. The next day he was stripped of all of his posts and dismissed from government. Newspaper editorials and journal articles labelled him a “capitalist roader” and “China’s ‘Number 2 Krushchev’” (The late Liu Shaoqi remained China’s “Krushchev #1″). Criticism of Deng reached a fever pitch in the summer of 1976, much to the satisfaction of Jiang Qing. but her delight would prove short lived. On September 9, 1976, Mao died. Within a year, Jiang and her lot would be rounded up as the Gang of Four, and Deng Xiaoping would once again be rehabilitated and on his way back into power.

For all of Zhou’s accomplishments, both within China and as a diplomat, it was the image that seemed to matter most. He was seen as the steadfast and loyal minister, selflessly serving his emperor while always mindful of the people. Clearly too, the support for Zhou in the wake of his death was due in part to the people’s fatigue after years of chaos in Mao’s permanent revolution. But even in China today, where Mao is officially considered 70% correct and 30% not so much, Zhou is still held with an almost universal regard.

As an epilogue, it’s possible that the ghost of Zhou was hovering over Tiananmen square during the Qingming Festival thirteen years later, when the death of another loyal official, Hu Yaobang, was remembered by mourners with wreaths and commemorations placed on the same spot where offerings to Zhou had once rested. As in 1976, others joined the mourners in the square that spring, some to voice their own displeasure with the government. We all know how that ended.

*Though they would occasionally shoot the Chairman full of drugs and prop him up to greet world leaders. In fact Mao’s last official act was to receive Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the father of Benazir, on May 27, 1976.

Immanuel Hsü, The Rise of Modern China. 6th Edition. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 763-764
Maurice Meisner, Mao’s China and After: A History of the People’s Republic. 3rd Edition. (New York: The Free Press, 2000), pp. 403-407
Jonathan Spence, The Search for Modern China. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991), pp. 645-649.

1. Poster from 1977, “At the Side of Premier Zhou,” from Stefan Landsberger’s Chinese Propaganda Posters Pages.
2. Zhou Enlai arrives in Geneva, 1954
3. Zhou Enlai speech, early 1970s.
4. Poster of Zhou Enlai and his wife Deng Yingchao. They met in Tianjin and married in 1925. from Stefan Landsberger’s Chinese Propaganda Posters Pages.
5. The three architects of China’s modernization in the 1980s. Unfortunately, only Deng would live to see their plans through to fruition. Liu Shaoqi, Zhou Enlai, and Deng Xiaoping, photographed in the early 1960s.
6. Poster from 1988, “The 10-mile long road says farewell to the premier,” from Stefan Landsberger’s Chinese Propaganda Posters Pages.