BEIJING - A book to be published in Hong Kong in the new year says Zhou Enlai, Communist China's much-respected first premier, was probably gay despite his long marriage, and had once been in love with a male schoolmate two years his junior.
It is a contention certain to be controversial in China, where the Communist Party likes to maintain its top leaders are more or less morally irreproachable and where homosexuality is frowned upon, though no longer officially repressed.
The Hong Kong-based author, Tsoi Wing-mui, is a former editor at a liberal political magazine there who has written about gay-themed subjects before though this is her first book.
She re-read already publicly available letters and diaries Zhou and his wife, Deng Yingchao, wrote, including ones that detailed Zhou's fondness for a schoolmate and emotional detachment from his wife, to conclude that Zhou was probably gay.
Zhou was premier from the revolution in October 1949 that brought the Communist Party to power until his death from cancer in 1976, a few months before the death of his revolutionary colleague Mao Zedong, the founder of modern China.
Reuters obtained excerpts of the Chinese-language book, called "The Secret Emotional Life of Zhou Enlai".
It is published by the same house that put out the secret diaries of former Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang, who was ousted after 1989's Tiananmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators.
Tsoi re-read books published by the party in 1998 to mark the 100th anniversary of Zhou's birth that contained public essays and speeches by Zhou as well as his diary, letters, poems, novels and thesis from 1912 to 1924.
"Zhou Enlai was a gay politician who had the misfortune of being born 100 years early," Tsoi writes in her book.
She told Reuters the real meaning of the diaries had been hidden in plain sight, but no Chinese scholars had openly made the connection before as the subject of homosexuality was unknown to them.
"When mainland Chinese authors came into contact with this material, they would not consider the possibility of homosexuality," she said.
It is not illegal to be gay in China and these days many large Chinese cities have thriving gay scenes, although there is still a lot of family pressure to get married and have children, even for gay men and women.
There are a handful of openly gay celebrities in China but certainly no politicians say in public they are gay.
While Chinese literature and history are rich in their descriptions of relatively liberal attitudes towards homosexuality during imperial times, the revolution brought more prudish attitudes.
Tsoi expects the book to be banned in China, where discussion of controversial personal details of senior leaders, especially historically significant ones like Zhou, are off limits.
Gao Wenqian, a US-based biographer of Zhou, said he was aware of speculation about Zhou's sexuality, but it was hard to say for certain if it was true.
"There's actually not that much information about it in the records," Gao told Reuters. "There's no way to be sure."
The State Council Information Office, or cabinet spokesman's office, did not respond to requests for comment. The Communist Party History Research Office, reached by telephone, declined to comment.
The book says Zhou was most fond of Li Fujing, a schoolmate two years his junior.
Zhou wrote in his diary that he could not live one day without Li, the author says in the book, and being with Li can"turn sorrow into joy".
Zhou and Li shared a dormitory from 1917 and "even their shadows do not part", she wrote. Li died in 1960.
Zhou married Deng Yingchao in 1925. They had no children of their own.
There were "no romantic feelings" and it was a "marriage in name only ... He was never in love with his wife," Tsoi wrote.
Deng, who was chairwoman of a high profile but largely ceremonial advisory body to parliament from 1983-88, died in 1992.