Zhang Hanzhi, an elegant Chinese diplomat who was Mao Tse-tung’s English tutor and President Nixon’s interpreter during his historic 1972 trip to China, has died. She was 72.
Zhang died Jan. 26 in Beijing from a lung-related illness, state media reported, without giving details. Her funeral will be held Friday in the capital’s Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery, an honor given to the Communist Party’s elite.
She met Mao in 1950, at a party to celebrate the first anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, and saw him again in 1963 at his 70th birthday. He seemed relaxed and happy and asked to be her student when he found out she taught English. “Why not?” he asked, when she said she wouldn’t dare.
“The chairman wanted the lessons to start the following day! I was dumbfounded,” Zhang wrote in a 1999 article for Time magazine. “I was to teach the great leader whom over a billion people worshiped as their god?”
She described Mao as an ambitious student who was keen on vocabulary -- especially political terms -- and proper word usage, although he had no interest in grammar and correcting his accented pronunciations.
The pair formed a friendship. Zhang would update him on the latest happenings outside Zhongnanhai -- the compound where Beijing’s leaders live and work -- over dinners at which Mao would push her to eat his favorite dish of stewed fatty pork.
The lessons abruptly stopped in 1964 as the devastating Cultural Revolution began taking shape. Zhang and her family and friends were persecuted, although she said Mao provided protection at various times. In 1971, Zhang was transferred to China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where she began her diplomatic career and attended landmark meetings, including the ones with Nixon, when the countries began restoring diplomatic relations.
She was also part of the Chinese delegation that was in New York in 1971, when the United Nations seat held by Taiwan under the name Republic of China was transferred to the Beijing-based government of the People’s Republic of China.
Born in Shanghai in 1935, Zhang was the illegitimate daughter of a shop assistant and the son of a prominent family. She was adopted by Zhang Shizhao, a lawyer who had been involved in the custody battle.
Her family moved to Beijing in 1949 and four years later, Zhang entered the Beijing Foreign Studies University, where she taught after graduating with a master’s degree.
Zhang scandalized officials when she divorced her husband and married Qiao Guanhua, the head of the U.N. delegation, who was 22 years her senior. He died 10 years later.