Zhuo Lin: Wife of China's late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping

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Zhuo Lin, widow of China's late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, and described by China's ruling Communist Party as a "time-honoured loyal Communist fighter", died of an unspecified illness after medical treatment failed, according to a statement from the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC). She was 93.

The death of the Long Marcher severs one of the last links to the group of ideologues who swept the Communist Party to power 60 years ago and comes at a time when the party is trying to redefine its role in an increasingly capitalistic China.

She was born Pu Zhuolin in April 1916, the daughter of a wealthy pork merchant in Xuan Wei County in Yunnan province in south-western China. She excelled at school, and used to say that her revolutionary leanings came from her music teacher at secondary school, who preached communism in class, and was later executed.

In 1936 she became the first person from Yunnan to enrol at the prestigious Peking University, where she majored in physics, and was the only woman in the science department at that time.

She moved to the Communist Party stronghold at Yan'an in northern China in 1937, and changed her name to Zhuo Lin. The Communists had set up a base there to fight the Japanese and the Nationalist government, and Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and other leaders were stationed there. She joined the Communist Party in 1938 and remained an avid ideologue all her life, saying at one point: "To be in the Party is to eliminate your faults and serve the people."

Deng was a political commissar 12 years her senior and she agreed to marry him even though she had barely met him. She initially declined his offers of marriage, which came through associates, but he persisted. "I decided, 'oh, whatever, I'll marry someone sooner or later anyway. He seems okay. Just go for it'," she said in a radio interview. They married in 1939, at the mouth of Mao Zedong's cave dwelling in Yan'an. Photographs from the time seem to show that Zhuo was even shorter than the southerner Deng, who stood four feet eleven inches tall.

Deng had already been married twice. His first wife died in childbirth in 1930 and his second wife divorced him when he was in political trouble in 1933. Zhuo, however, was known in China for her loyalty to her husband, fighting the Japanese as well as Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists with him. "They used to go out and fight while we and other relatives stayed in the rear area. We met between battles. When the army marched southwest, my husband issued the command that relatives should be left behind. I refused, and said that he would have to behead me to stop me from following him and working as a CPC member. It was only then that he agreed."

She also stood by him during various times of political tumult. Her husband was purged three times in his nearly 50 years in the party's upper ranks. Deng fell out of favour with Chairman Mao Zedong during the period of political zealotry known as the Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1976). He was labelled the "second biggest capitalist roader" in 1966, and was swept from power as Chinese vice premier.

Zhuo was bewildered by the turn of events, but decided to stay with her husband. "I've been with him for so long that I'm certain he's an upright man," she told their daughter, Deng Nan. She accompanied him in October 1969 into exile to Xinjian County in Jiangxi Province, where for a period he worked in a tractor repair workshop.

They also worked on the land. Deng Lin, their eldest daughter, told the Xinhua News Agency how Zhuo often spoke of the days in Jiangxi when they dug the land, pulled weeds and spread manure. During this period, Zhuo learned how to make rice wine with glutinous rice for her husband, as they could not afford to buy it.

During the Cultural Revolution the couple's eldest son, Deng Pufang, was imprisoned and tortured, and was left paralysed after being thrown from a third-storey window. He subsequently became a prominent spokesman for the disabled in China.

The couple had five children. Their youngest son, Deng Zhifang, became a prominent businessman in Hong Kong before disappearing from public life under a corruption cloud. Deng Lin is an artist, and the couple's youngest daughter, Deng Rong, is her father's biographer.

After Mao Zedong died in 1976, Deng returned to Beijing and ascended to the party's upper ranks. He never held the posts of head of state or head of government, but he was the most powerful figure in the Communist Party from 1978 until the early 1990s. He is known as the architect of the reform programme which kick-started 30 years of expansion in China. Part of this was to put an end to the "iron rice bowl" jobs for life for Party loyalists.

He is also remembered for the brutal military suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests. The suppression, which killed hundreds, perhaps thousands, is believed to have taken place on his final orders. Before his death, aged 92 in 1992, his only official title was chairman of the Chinese Bridge Association, but he remained a powerful figure behind the scenes until the end. Deng picked the two leaders who followed him, Jiang Zemin and China's current president, Hu Jintao.

Although she was a fairly senior figure, Zhuo kept a relatively low profile politically – as the wife of a senior leader she was expected not to make herself too visible, and most of her public appearances were limited to ceremonial occasions. In January 1978, Zhuo was appointed a consultant of the Central Military Commission General Office. She served as a deputy to the fourth and fifth National People's Congress and was awarded the Independence Merit Medal from the People's Liberation Army in 1988.

In 1997, months after Deng died, Zhuo and daughter Deng Nan attended festivities in Hong Kong marking the return of the British colony to Chinese rule, as a tribute to Deng's role in winning back the territory.

Zhuo had left instructions that her corneas and body be donated and that her ashes, like those of her husband's, should be spread at sea.

Zhuo Lin, Communist Party member and wife of Deng Xiaoping: born Xuanwei, China 6 April 1916; married 1939 Deng Xiaoping (two sons, three daughters); died Beijing 29 July 2009.

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