By the time she graduated from middle school in Tianjin in 1920, she was heavily involved in the May Fourth movement. She helped found the Tianjin students' union, and was a leading participant in the Tianjin Women's Patriotic Association. She was said to have met her future husband, Zhou Enlai, during a street demonstration, but both were members and perhaps cofounders among others of the Awakening Society in Tianjin. Like Zhou, she was a contributor to the first radical journals that were published at the time. She was jailed at least once for her activism.
During the five years that Zhou Enlai was in Europe, Deng remained in Tianjin for the most part where she taught primary school and was a leader in women’s rights activities. This includeci the founding of a society for progressive women and the publication of a newspaper. In 1924 she joined the Socialist Youth League and in the following year she became a member of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and was made the head of its Women’s Department in Tianjin. She also joined the Guomindang (GMD) during this initial period of collaboration between the two new political parties. In late 1925 she went to Guangzhou where she married Zhou Enlai who had just returned to China.
In January 1926, Deng was elected to the GMD Central Executive Committee as its only woman member. She moved to Wuhan with the GMD government when that urban center was secured, and served as vice¬chairman of the woman's department under Liao Zhongkai's widow, He Xiangning. But when the Left GMD turned on the CCP in July 1927, Deng moved to Shanghai where she worked underground. She attended the Sixth CCP Congress in Moscow in mid-1928, at which time she was appointed head of the Party’s women’s department.
In 1932, Deng went to the Chinese Soviet Republic that had been established in November of the preceding year in Ruijin, Jiangxi, where she continued to be very active, sometimes taking positions, along with her husband, opposed to Mao Zedong. She was reportedly made an alternate member of the Central Committee (CC), and soon thereafter became a member of the Soviet Republic^ Central Executive Committee. However, that autumn the Communists were forced out of their Jiangxi base, and Deng was one of very few women who took part in the Long March and survived. She stayed in Shaanxi, the terminus of the Long March, for only a short time, but the stay was interrupted by a trip in 1937 to Japanese-occupied Beijing for medical attention. The famous American correspondent Edgar Snow facilitated her safe departure from Beijing.
In 1938 Deng was sent with Zhou Enlai to Hankou, the temporary provisional capital, to serve as CCP representatives to the Nationalist government in the new (second) United Front. A short while later, they were both evacuated with the government to Chongqing. Here she was a representative of the Eighth Route Army (the designation of the Red Army during the Second United Front period). Aside from another trip to Moscow in 1939, Deng resided for the most part in Chongqing until 1943. However, following the New Fourth Army incident in January 1941, in which the Nationalists killed thousands of Communist troops who were attempting to relocate north of the Yellow River, Deng boycotted most of the meetings of the Peopled Political Council. She returned to Yan an in 1943, where she was active in women's organizing work. She was named an alternate member of the CC in 1945.
After the war of resistance against Japan, Deng was again sent to Chong-qing as a delegate to the Chinese Peopled Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), a new body agreed upon by Mao Zedong and Jiang Jieshi, and then moved to Nanjing when the Nationalist government returned to its prewar capital. However, as the situation deteriorated into outright civil war, Deng and Zhou returned together to Yan5an in late 1946. During the civil war she remained active in womens organizational work and in the land reform program. She was elected a vice-chairman of the All-China Federation of Democratic Women (renamed the National Women s Federation of China in 1957) in April 1949, a position she held for many years, becoming its honorary president in September 1978.
Deng was quite active in the work of establishing the new government and had an impressively active career for many years. In October 1949, she was appointed a member of the Committee of Political and Legal Affairs in the government administration council and served until October 1954. She was very much involved in the drafting and the exceedingly difficult imple-mentation of the Marriage Law, the PRC's first major legislation and in many ways a capstone of her years of women’s rights work. The law was adopted on May 1, 1950. She was elected as a delegate from Henan to the first National People's Congress (NPC) in August 1954 and reelected in subsequent elections. She was elected to the NPC Standing Committee in September 1954 and in subsequent elections. She was appointed vice-chairman of the NPC Standing Committee in December 1976, a post she held until June 1983, when she was elected chairman of the National Committee of the CPPCC, the leading united front organization of the PRC. In this role, her call at the 1984 New Year’s tea party for reunification with Taiwan was briefly publicized.
She delivered the major report to the Second Women's Congress in April 1953. She became a full member of the CCP Central Committee sometime prior to the Eighth Party Congress in 1956, during which she gave a speech outlining the achievements and shortcomings in women's work.
Deng was a member of Guo Morou’s delegation to the Second World Peace Congress in Warsaw in November 1950, and in March 1961, she led a delegation to Hanoi to attend a women's congress. She was elected to the Politburo in December 1978, and again in September 1982. But in September 1985, along with 130 other elderly Party veterans, she resigned from her positions, including membership on the CC and Politburo.
Deng died of illness in Beijing on July 11, 1992 at the age of eighty-eight. In a letter written to the CC a decade earlier, on June 17, 1982, she asked that no memorial meeting should be held after her death and requested that her ashes be scattered. Furthermore, she asked that houses in which she or Zhou Enlai had lived should not be turned into memorials but should be returned to the state. Finally, she asked that no special treatment be accorded their relatives.
7th Central Committee, CCP 1945. 8th Central Committee CCP 1956, re-elected 9th Central Committee 1969, 10th Central Committee 1973. 11th Central Committee CCP 1977, 12th Central Committee CCP 1982-1985.
Politburo, Central Committee CCP 1978-1985. Presidium CPPCC 6th National Committee since 1983.
Deng participated as a team leader in the May Fourth Movement, where she met Zhou Enlai. They married on August 8, 1925 in Guangzhou. She was a legal witness in the wedding of Ho Chi Minh and Zeng Xueming in 1926.
Deng and Zhou had no children of their own. However, they adopted several orphans of "revolutionary martyrs", including Li Peng, who later became the Premier of the People's Republic of China. She promoted the abolition of foot binding imposed on women.