The British have given up empire over palm and pine but they have not lost much of their dominion over the writing of biography and history. Dick Wilson's painstaking biography of Zhou Enlai (frequently spelled Chou En-lai) is in this grand tradition. No library or university should be without it in any language.

No one can understand China, past, present or future, without a basic understanding of prime minister Zhou Enlai and his pivotal role. Along with his superior, Mao Tse-tung, he has no peer in the East and few in the leadership of a revolution at any time or place.

High-priest sinologists will no doubt look askance at Wilson because he is a journalist with the gift of communication. But his qualifications are most impressive. Among other roles, he has edited The China Quarterly in London. He has studied India, which has stultified for lack of a revolution, and published books on Southeast Asia and Singapore. Like my late husband, Edgar Snow, he is a bridge between East and West.

What is more fascinating than the history or legends of revolution? I do not agree with much of Wilson's book, but I appreciate its value and his achievement. (Both my husband and I had to take serious risks in 1936-37 to get at the facts about the "Red bandits," as the Communists were officially called by the Kuomintang. Edgar Snow returned from the trips which produced his "Red Star Over China" book with life histories of Zhou, Mao and other leaders. Afterward, everyone except Mao greeted me worriedly with the demand that I make sure my husband cut out any unfavorable words about Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, as the new line was a saccharine diplomacy for a united front against the Japanese invaders.)

Nothing I know of compares with Zhou Enlai's life experience: his lucky escapes from danger, his total fearlessness, and his rise by merit from pigtail, bankrupt beginnings to the top. His mother, who had bound feet, had to give him to his uncles.

Zhou was handsome, brilliant, cultivated and charming. Born in 1898, he began as a leader in the May 4 Movement of 1919 in treaty-port Tianjin, where he had scholarships at the Christian Nakai Middle School and was the prote'ge' of its YMCA president, Dr. Chang Poling. In 1920-1924 he was in France as a work-and-study student. He joined the Communist Party and was picked by the Russian advisers in Canton for leadership in the 1925-1927 revolution, along with Chiang Kai-shek. Driven underground in the cities, he and his wife, Deng Yingchao, escaped to Mao Tse-tung's stronghold in Jiangxi and barely survived the Long March of 1934-35. He was premier from the seizure of power in 1949 to his death from cancer in 1976.

Wilson missed one of Zhou's secrets of success -- his friendship with Ye Jianying, who was made chairman of the National People's Congress after Zhou's death. He does no justice to the model puritan marriage from 1924 to one of the leaders of the Chinese women's movement. Deng Yingchao is still active and the most respected woman in China. Like their non-communist friend, Madame Sun Yat-Sen, and at much cost to themselves, both set themselves up as role models for youth and Communist Party members.

Wilson overstates the influence and initiatives of Zhou, as if they were a seesaw with those of Mao. In fact, the Zhou-Mao pairing was synergistic, as both knew. Mao was the presiding genius; Zhou was the executive and administrator "who held things together." In addition, he was the authority on foreign affairs. Zhou was seated on a gyroscope in the long zigzag Chinese revolution, always picking the winning side but keeping a low profile. He was not noted for his wit, but he did coin the slogan for the Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976: "Power should be seized from below, but only according to Mao's directions from above."