Mao Zedong

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I was a teenager when I first met Mao Zedong. In October 1950, Mao gave a big dinner party at Zhongnanhai to celebrate the first anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic. My father, an old friend of Mao — or rather of his father-in-law — was invited. I still don't know why, but guests were allowed to bring their children.

It was a big party with more than 100 guests. Mao approached my father, and I was introduced. He seemed to me like a giant: so tall, so big, but also so kind. He patted my head, asked me a few questions and then said, You kids must be bored to be with us adults. I am asking Comrade Jiang Qing, his wife, to take you all to the garden. You will surely like that much better.

It was 13 years before I saw him again. The occasion was another dinner party to which my father had been invited and permitted to bring a daughter. It was Mao's 70th birthday. By 1963, of course, I was no longer a young, ignorant teenager. I considered meeting Mao to be a rare honor, and I was filled with excitement. Mao seemed relaxed, talking to his guests and laughing often. At one point he turned to me and asked what I was doing. I answered nervously that I had finished college and was a teacher of English. Mao smiled kindly and said he could not believe that I was already a teacher. Then he asked if I would like to take him as my student. I was embarrassed and stumbled over my reply. I said, How dare I teach you, Chairman? Mao laughed a little and said, Why not? But then he turned away to talk to other guests.

After I returned home, I almost forgot Mao's request. But a few days later, my school's party secretary summoned me to his office to answer a phone call. It was Mao's office. The Chairman wanted the lessons to start the following day! I was dumfounded. I was to teach the great leader whom over a billion people worshiped as their god?

Mao Zedong's English lessons started the following afternoon, a cold, windy Sunday in January 1964. I had no idea how to begin, but Mao seemed to know what he wanted. He handed me copies of the English translations of some political essays repudiating the Soviet revisionists, which had been distributed for party and government staff to study. At the time, the rift between the two biggest communist countries in the world was at its deepest. The translations were in very formal language with a lot of heavy political vocabulary. I did not dare tell Mao that if he really wanted to use English, this kind of language was not suited for beginners.

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. I also had the feeling that, apart from learning the language, he wanted a change from his monotonous life in Zhongnanhai, the top leadership's compound. Wherever he went, he saw almost the same people every day. I felt he needed to meet and chat with someone younger who could bring him news from the outside world. I was right. Though our weekly English lessons lasted only an hour each, Mao always invited me to go for a walk with him afterward and to stay for dinner. He was persistent in making me eat his favorite dish, fat pork. He would ask me about my father and my school and lots of other everyday happenings. Mao seemed to enjoy the conversations. As I saw him more, I became less nervous and I even dared to argue with him. I was struck by the force of his personality. He was intelligent and knowledgeable, reasonable and considerate.

I was just starting to enjoy our English lessons when they came to an abrupt stop. As I arrived at Zhongnanhai one Sunday in May 1964, Mao said to me, I am afraid I won't have time to continue our lessons from now. Something has happened in the party. I have to spend a lot of time on it. When he had settled the problem, he said, we would continue our lessons. The something he was talking about was the Cultural Revolution.

Two years later, with the Cultural Revolution gathering momentum, I was growing worried. Violence was breaking out all over the city. Senior party cadres and prominent scholars were being struggled against and humiliated. I was horrified at these events and decided to write Mao a letter telling him what was happening outside Zhongnanhai and begging him to stop the violence. I also asked to see him in person to report to him what I was feeling. My request was rejected, but he sent me a cryptic reply. It read, The Chairman has received your letter but thinks this is not the appropriate time to see you. He left you two messages. One is, 'You should face the world and brave the storm.' The other is, 'Get drunk today if you have wine, do not worry about tomorrow.'

I was disappointed and bewildered. But this was the Chairman's instruction, and one could never question it. I tried to understand the necessity of the Cultural Revolution, but soon I myself became a target. The next three years were a nightmare. I went through a frustrating time, being struggled against, deprived of personal freedom and swept into the categories of black gang, revisionist, and worst of all, assisting foreign spies.

Mao offered help at critical moments, both to me and to my father. In September 1966, when my father's house was ransacked by the Red Guards, Mao asked Premier Zhou Enlai to take protective measures. And in 1968 and 1969, when I wrote to him about the persecution my friends and I were undergoing, Mao ordered his bodyguards to take over the college where I was teaching. I do not think he took this action just for me. I believe he saw that it was time to bring this ruthless revolution back under control and end the chaos.

Almost 30 years have gone by since then, and I still cannot fully understand why all this happened. I have no doubt that Mao must have seen some threat to his doctrines being realized in China. So he wanted a revolution. But did he really want all that brutality, all those innocent deaths? That question will have to be left for serious historians to answer.

I met Mao again in June 1970. I had been sent to a textile factory, where I worked weaving knitwear. One day I got a surprise call from the Chairman's residence asking me to come and see him. That meeting changed my life. When Mao saw me he asked, My teacher, how are you? Have you been facing the world and braving the storm all these years? I was an insignificant person, yet the Chairman remembered what he had advised me years earlier. I was touched.

At our meeting, Mao talked in detail about bringing students back to classrooms and launching educational reforms. He wanted to send me back to my college, the Foreign Language Institute, to introduce an experiment in language teaching. Then he said something that surprised me even more. He thought I was a brave woman who was capable of writing convincingly and speaking forcefully, he said. China needed women diplomats, so the Chairman recommended that after I finished the teaching reform I should join the diplomatic service.

After I joined the foreign service, I had more opportunities to see Chairman Mao, though mostly at meetings with foreign dignitaries. Those were exciting years, from 1971 to 1974. 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. I had the privilege of being present at his meetings with Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. 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 Kissinger about exporting 10 million female Chinese to the U.S., which stunned the U.S. Secretary of State.

Two decades have passed since the Chairman died. I have great respect for him as a leader and great regret for his errors, which caused chaos in China and suffering for me. However, I believe Mao tried hard to keep China and his party moving on what he saw as the only true, socialist path. Anyone can see the wide difference between today's China and the one Mao left behind. Superficially, it is hard to find his legacy, but his influence will always be there in the minds of almost three generations of his countrymen. I am not a historian. It's not for me to make any judgment of Mao. Yet personally, I shall always treasure the memory of the hours I spent with the man who changed the history of China and the world.

Zhang Hanzhi is now president of the China International Association for Development in Beijing