China’s grandest music academy this month unveiled a full-length, Western-style opera about Zhou Enlai. The puzzle is that it took this long. Opera is arguably the only art form big enough to capture the contradictions of this brilliant moral failure of a man, Mao Zedong’s prime minister for over a quarter century. When Zhou died in 1976 he was beloved by Chinese who did not know him well. Vast throngs of Beijingers filled Tiananmen Square in the spring of that year to mourn him, risking arrests and police beatings to remember a leader they credited with moderating the worst excesses.

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