History man

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 February, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 February, 1994, 12:00am

Eldest Son by Han Suyin Jonathan Cape $235 A BIOGRAPHY of Zhou Enlai by Han Suyin is faintly disconcerting. It is like finding a biography of Ramsay MacDonald written by Barbara Cartland. Women who write slushy love stories in their youth should, perhaps, be allowed to live this down. But many readers will approach Han's 400-odd pages with misgivings.

Han has, over the last 50 years, enjoyed almost unrivalled access to China and China's leaders. A symptom, or perhaps a cause, of this was the level of enthusiasm which she managed to maintain for whatever she beheld of them.

Whatever the current brand of Leninist lunacy was, Han managed to find not only that it was good, but that is was wildly popular. This suggests Han's critical faculties may have atrophied to a degree which presents difficulties even for a biographer of Zhou, who is generally agreed to have been one of the century's more attractive personalities.

It must be said also that Han's second career as a historian has had its rocky moments. Reviews of earlier efforts have suggested that the creative imagination was given rather more play than was appropriate in a non-fiction context.

Han's publishers have not helped by making a frog's breakfast of her footnotes. These are not only banished to the back of the book in the deplorable modern style, but also bereft of any mark in the text.

Readers will gather that I approached this book with considerable doubts. Possibly because of this I was pleasantly surprised.

To start with Han can write. Her style is consistently readable and some of the descriptions are excellent. Moreover as a way of organising a period of which it is difficult to make sense a Zhou biography works very well.

Han has also devoted a lot of care to the question of names. Most histories of modern China suffer from the War and Peace problem: there is a cast of thousands and all of them seem to have three versions of their names. In this book the reader is thoughtfully reminded, when somebody walks in, where we have met him before, what he was called then and whether any alternative version of him is floating around. As a result it is unusually easy to keep track of people and this apparently minor detail is a great help.

I do not agree with the reviewer in a local Chinese newspaper who said that Westerners would not like this book because so many things are blamed on foreign influence or intervention. It is true that many things are, though Han has a soft spot for the Americans.

On the other hand one develops a perspective on this. Western efforts to hinder the revolution were feeble in the effects compared with the catastrophic influence of Russian efforts to help.

And both categories pale compared with the internal struggles. Han has off pat all the old gripes from the First Opium War onwards. At times this reads like history as it is taught in Beijing kindergartens.

But even in this book, most of China's injuries are clearly self-inflicted. This brings me to a second worry, which is Han's concern that readers will find the book too hagiographic - that Zhou is too saint-like to be believable.

This is unlikely to be a problem for readers who are still awake when they reach Chapter II where we discover Zhou's contribution to the early work of the revolution took an interesting form: he ran the death squads. Here is our hero in action on page 109: ''Zhou gave the orders. Gu's whole family, 17 of them, were executed, save for a young boy of 12. They were buried in their own courtyard.'' Meet Mr Nice-guy.

Zhou's achievements as the voice of reason and commonsense in post-revolutionary China were considerable. They still, I fancy, left him with a good deal to explain to Saint Peter.

Readers will find this book adheres closely to the current official line. Do not worry. You are more likely to be depressed than deceived.

In essence, this is a very sad story. Before 1949 there was chaos. After 1949 there was centrally-organised chaos. The only improvement is that like every other centrally-organised commodity, chaos is occasionally in short supply.

Zhou's role in this was to use the less chaotic periods to write cheques which other people were later to dishonour. Artists, intellectuals, scientists, businessmen were all told at various times that they were needed, welcomed, appreciated and should dotheir patriotic duty by working for and in the Motherland. Those who succumbed to these blandishments - a category from which Han had the sense to exclude herself - were later treated atrociously by other people.

This was despite valiant efforts by Zhou, who argued for tolerance when it was possible to do so and in the worst moments hid people form their tormentors in distant postings, in hospitals or even in this own flat.

He could perhaps have reflected that any revolution which starts by bumping off other people's children will end by devouring its own.

It is a pleasing tribute to Zhou's good intentions to portray China's present emphasis on economic development and public well-being as a belated triumph for him.

It would be nice to think that his preference for gentleness, mutual respect, open discussion and selfless government were also being respected. Nice, but difficult.