On 8 January 1976, Zhou Enlai died. He had been Chinese premier and was viewed by the Chinese people as a true idealist and “man of the people”, a public servant at odds with the violent radicals who had imposed the reign of terror known as the “Cultural Revolution”. In a spontaneous outpouring of mourning, hundreds of thousands of people began building a memorial altar to Zhou, with wreaths of white flowers, white paper chrysanthemums, and short poems called xiaozibao, which extolled the virtues of the fallen premier.
The memorial activities stretched on for days and weeks, and into the spring. At times, over a million people were gathered, exchanging memories of Zhou Enlai, praising a more civil kind of Communist China, and —unavoidably— reminding each other that Zhou was not one of the “Gang of Four” radicals who were sowing chaos and violence across China, imposing the harsh, irrational conditions of “reform” known as the Cultural Revolution. The Zhou memorial became a place for dissident poets to gather, and for groups of Chinese citizens to voice their grievances in writing or in conversation, calling for government reforms.