Zhou Enlai was the number two official in the Chinese communist government from 1949 until his death in 1976. Before the communists gained power, he was an official of the Guominatang, the Communist Party and the United Front. He was active in all the many different wars, movements and revolutions that scarred the last century of Chinese history. Although his role in the government is of course controversial, due to both the lack of clear facts about the period he lived in, and to the fact that he served an often atrocious communist government, the fact that Zhou was personally intelligent, hard working and truly modest seem to be undebated.
Zhou was born in the year 1898 to a declining family of Mandarins, or civil servants. From a young age, he was a good student, and seemingly shrewd. Although he was smaller than other children his age, and went to school near Manchuria, where he was seen as an outsider, he managed to avoid beatings and tauntings by impressing and befriending older students. As a high school student, he was let into the Nankai High School, a prestigious school that mixed traditional learning with Western Learning. After high school, he studied briefly in Tokyo, where he begin to be politically aware, but without yet singling out Marxism as his political beliefs. He arrived home from Tokyo just in time to participate in the May 4th Movement of 1919, where students protested against government policies that were holding China back. Zhou became a leader of this movement, and from this point onwards, politics would be the major focus of his life. This became even more apparent when he travelled to France to study. Instead of studying, he ended up organizing the students for political protests, and educating people about communism, both in Paris and Berlin.
After returning home to China, he moved to Guangdong (Canton), where Dr. Sun Yat-sen was trying to organize a government that could topple the chaotic rule of the hodgepodge of warlords that ruled China. At this point, Zhou became an official of the Guomintang, or Nationalist party, The Guomintang had both Right Wings of anti-communists and a Left Wing of communists and their sympathizers, both united in a desire to fight the warlords, Japanese and Westerners that were picking China apart. Zhou worked as a professor at the Whampoa Military Academy under Chiang Kai-Shek. At this point, he also found time to get married, to the woman that would remain his wife for the rest of his life. in 1926, the allied communists and nationalists started the Northern Expedition to march north from Guandong to free the Chinese people of the warlords.
Something happened along the way: in the city of Shanghai, Chiang Kai-Shek ordered a massacre of communists, trade unionists and other people who opposed his right wing policy. Zhou barely escaped with his life, and was surprised to find himself at war with his former allies. This was the beginning of 23 years of civil war. Zhou fled to Mao Zedong's rural base, which was soon cordoned off. The two of them escaped, making their way to the Northwest on a journey that killed many people, and almost killed Zhou. That they survived was due to Zhou's hard work and preservance in leading the fleeing communists. The Long March also gave a famous, perhaps apocryphal story about Zhou's honesty, that in accordance with the 8 Rules of the People's Liberation Army, he refused to eat a piece of food when hungry, until he was assured that its owner had been paid. Also, on the Long March, Mao was selected (after intermittent bickering within the communist party) to be the leader of the Communists. Zhou would never publicly challenge Mao for the rest of his life.
At Yennan, Zhou helped set up the communist base in caves dug out of the earth. The Communists continued their civil war with the Guomintang, but when the Japanese became a larger threat, the two sides signed a truce and Zhou went to work in Hankou, amongst people who had been responsible for murdering a great deal of his friends and colleagues. He seemed to be able to do this well enough, working with them to help fight the Japanese who had taken over almost all of China's seacoast.
The truce could not last for long, however, and even before the war with Japan was over, the two sides were fighting again. Zhou Enlai however, seems to have honestly worked to keep the two factions united, but for a host of reasons, that was impossible. After the war had ended, the two sides started their fight again, despite the efforts of George Marshall to work out a truce. Due to their corruption, brutality and stupidity, the Nationalists quickly lost the war, and by 1949 had been exiled to Taiwan.
Zhou's work "after liberation" was wide ranging and often dull. He was the foreign minister, and travelled around Africa and Asia to help make friends for the new Chinese regime. He also took care of any number of small affairs, helping to modernize China and repair her wounds from the 35 years of war and revolution. Digging canals was the traditional task of Chinese officials, and Zhou Enlai spent a great deal of the 1950's doing the 20th century equivalent of that. Him and Mao also tried to launch the 100 flowers movement in the late 50's to liberalize criticism of the communist party, a movement that only lasted a few months until the groundswell of dissatisfaction against communism was silenced. This was also when Mao attempted the Great Leap Forward, an abortive attempt to progress Chinese society at a prodigious rate by (amongst other things) setting up backyard steel furnaces. The Great Leap Forward caused famine, as people were too busy smelting low quality iron to tend their fields. Zhou was left to pick up the pieces.
The 1960's was the decade of the Great Cultural Revolution, an experience that scarred Chinese society until the present day. It must have been a great dissapointment to Zhou Enlai: he had worked hard to build China into a modernized, prosperous country with a working scientific and technical system. For whatever reason, Mao decided that what China really needed was to arm teenagers with guns and dogma and allow them to beat up whoever they wanted. Zhou never spoke out against the Cultural Revolution directly: in public he supported it. Whether this was out of some idea of loyalty to Mao, or just out of knowledge that there was nothing he could do, I can not tell. But even while publicly supporting it, he tried to restrain some of its bloodier effects. In Han Suyin's biography, she tells of how he would publicly denounce someone as a "rightist", and then have them shipped to a hospital where they could not be touched by the Red Guards. Through this all, he continued his day to day work of making sure that China's infrastructure continued to function.
He continued his work even after he found that he had cancer, and continued his work of modernizing China even as the country fell apart around him, and his body disintegrated. And at this point he scored yet another triump: the famous Ping Pong diplomacy that would lead to Richard Nixon's arrival in China, and the mainland government being seated in the United Nations. He died shortly after this, in 1976. His funeral led to a spontaneously outpouring of grief by the Chinese people: a display that would herald the end of cultural revolution. Shortly after this, Mao died and Deng Xiaoping, a moderate, became China's leader. Deng Xiaoping would pursue a course of modernization that Zhou had outlined right before his death.
That, then, is the rough outline of Zhou's life and his influence on history. It says little about the man himself. Zhou seems to have a certain mystique amongst people who have studied Chinese history: perhaps because even though he was a communist and nominally a revolutionary, he had all the qualities of a Confucian: learned, diligent and modest. Of course, those qualities aren't that appealing when they are put into the service of the government that was possibly the last centuries most abusive of human rights. However, in Chinese history, there is a precedent for his behavior. Mencius wrote about Yi Yin, a man who would serve a government, no matter how foul, as long as he could somehow make it any better. I think few people would argue that Zhou's service to China did not make the country better, even though the government he served was at times downright bloodthirsty. Whatever his politics were, they seemed to be his honest best: he seemed to be free of hatred and bigotry, or even selfishness and pettiness, in his personal life.