If you ask your next door neighbor, Who’s Zhang Hanzhi? Nine out of ten would answer immediately, “Zhang who?“
Even though she’s an invisible player of the Cold War, she played a critical role in the thawing of diplomatic relations between the United States and China during the early seventies.
Due to a series of rare coincidences—she was at the right place at the right time—Zhang Hanzhi became the English tutor and interpreter of China’s Chairman Mao Zedong.
Being a teenager, she met Mao in 1950, at a party to celebrate the first anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, and again in 1963 at Mao’s 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 worshipped as their god?”
In Zhang’s own words, “Soon I found that Mao had his own special way of learning a foreign language. He was not interested in my correcting his Hunan-accented pronunciation, and he was not too keen on learning grammar. His interest was in the vocabulary and word-formation of English. He made comparisons between the Chinese and English languages and tried to figure out the rules of English usage. “
The pair formed a friendship where Zhang would update him on the latest happenings outside Zhongnanhai — the compound where Beijing’s leaders live and work. More than learning English, Mao was interested in knowing what was happening in the rest of the world.
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. She could never understand why Mao used such brutality against innocent people. She wrote him a couple of letters expressing her views against such violence.
In 1971, Zhang was transferred to China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where she began her diplomatic career and attended a series of landmark meetings, including the ones with Nixon, when the countries began restoring tattered diplomatic relations. Mao wanted a talented woman with an impeccable English in the Chinese Diplomatic Delegation to the United Nations.
She had the privilege of being present at Mao’s historic 1972 meeting with Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger during a dramatic period between the United States and China known as the Ping-Pong Diplomacy.
“Although the Chairman was aging fast, his mind was still quick: when he spoke, he was forceful and witty, full of wisdom and globally strategic insights,” Zhang wrote in the Time article. “I listened as he defended his principles, insisting that the Taiwan issue was an internal affair of China’s. I also listened to his jokes with (Henry) Kissinger about exporting 10 million female Chinese to the U.S., which stunned the U.S. Secretary of State.”
She was also part of the Chinese delegation that was in New York in 1971, when the United Nations seat Taiwan held under the name Republic of China was transferred to the Beijing-based government of the People’s Republic of China.
I bring forth the name of this outstanding Chinese diplomat, because she recently passed away at age 72. An invisible player of the Cold War Era is gone. We are now entering the Era of Global Terrorism with a brand new set of players. Let’s trust they have the same integrity of Ms Zhang Hanzhi.