The man with a weather-beaten face spoke to a tight ring of several dozen young people by the Monument to the People's Heroes in Tian An Men Square. ``It was like the heavens had fallen down,'' he recalled. ``I was very sad. After Chou's death, I changed my surname to match his.''
The man said that he was from Henan Province in south-central China, but there was no time to learn what his experiences had been. Husky security police moved in and quietly told the crowd to move along. The man walked off, and the crowd dispersed.
But it was clear that he was one of those to whom Premier Chou En-lai had offered hope when China was being torn apart during the ``decade of disaster,'' the Cultural Revolution started by Mao Tse-tung in 1966.
Another visitor to Tian An Men Square recalled that Chou had authored China's modernization program. Still another remembered that he had protected many ``old cadres'' (senior party officials) during the ``years of turmoil,'' as the Cultural Revolution is sometimes called. Two miners from Hunan Province said people in their town wept openly at his passing 10 years ago last week.
As premier of China from 1949-1976, Chou En-lai was a man for all seasons. His role in modern Chinese history has been ranked just behind that of Mao himself. If Mao founded communist China, Chou founded its government and masterminded its foreign policy for more than a quarter century. He was the only close comrade of Mao's who survived the political turmoil, retaining his power and position in the Chinese leadership.
Chou's appeal as a leader has endured, despite a more realistic appraisal of China's recent past. Many Chinese prefer to remember his attempts to temper the excesses of the ``years of turmoil'' and not his complicity in starting them, much less his ruthlessness in the early days of the communist struggle or his faithful support of Mao's radical politics. In the decade since their deaths, Chou's reputation has stood up better than Mao's.
Part of Chou's appeal is that his reputation is on a more human scale than Mao's. His decisive influence on contemporary China is marked by a Confucian style that kept him one step removed from supreme power while he maintained a self-effacing public profile. In the eyes of many Chinese youth in the 1980s, he represents the best in their country -- the committed revolutionary, the brilliant bureaucrat, the artful statesman, and the solicitous father of at least 10 adopted children.
Hundreds of university students this week wrote the words ``son of Chou'' on the petals of white paper flowers they left at the base of the monument in Tian An Men. It was a spontaneous gesture of respect for a man at the top who took a stand for reason and a measure of humanity at a time of political madness -- and who made it possible for some to keep faith in the Communist Party.
But there are many, however, who cannot exonerate Chou from some responsibility for Mao's colossal mistakes, even if they are grateful for his efforts to save thousands of lives threatened by Red Guards. ``Many people now think that he blindly followed Mao,'' said a newspaper editor and longtime party member recently.
A new book on Chou, which was published in English last week (for a foreign readership), also carefully weighs his role in the Cultural Revolution.
``If fighting ultra-leftism was what the country then needed most of all, and Chou's stand could have made a difference, perhaps he gave up too easily, lacking the combativeness to stick to his guns,'' write Percy and Lucy Fang in ``Chou En-lai: A Profile.''
``He was given to too much shadowboxing with Mao Tse-tung rather than taking Mao on in a face-to-face contest of wills, as sometimes seemed not only necessary but imperative,'' write the Fangs. But the authors' say that since, in their opinion, Chou prevented the ultraleftist ``Gang of Four'' from seizing supreme power, ``the people of China today are inclined to pass over failings on Chou En-lai's part.''
The Fangs' ``informal biography'' contains a rich collection of anecdotes about Chou. In 1959, he arranged for China's last emperor, Pu Yi, who had just been released from prison, to view the National Day parade from an office window near Tian An Men Square. Chou later met with this ``enemy of the people,'' deposed in 1911, and encouraged Pu Yi to write his memoirs. The book, ``From Emperor to Citizen,'' is now being made into a movie by an Italian director.
The Fangs' account of the persecution during the Cultural Revolution makes for chilling reading. Chou personally intervened to save such people as Soong Ching-ling, widow of Sun Yat-sen (known as the father of modern China). But he was not able to protect others from the Gang of Four's vengeance, including his friend Chen Yi, a vice-premier and foreign minister.
The Chinese press has carried reminiscences of Chou by people who knew him and some historical photos; TV documentaries are also scheduled. But there has been no official commemoration of his passing, and no official commentaries have been published summing up his contributions to China.