Mao's urbane English tutor dies in China

BEIJING (Reuters) - The debonair Chinese diplomat who tutored Chairman Mao in English has died, ending an eventful life that began as an abandoned child and brought her next to Mao and U.S. President Richard Nixon as they shared toasts and jokes.

Zhang Hanzhi died on Saturday aged 73 after an unspecified lung ailment, the Beijing News reported on Sunday, citing her daughter.

Zhang will receive a funeral at Babaoshan, the cemetery for the Communist Party’s elite, in a mark of her status as a diplomat closely involved in talks between China and the United States over normalizing relations in the 1970s.

She was born in Shanghai in 1935, the illegitimate daughter of a shop assistant and a powerful businessman. She was adopted by a lawyer, Zhang Shizhao, an official in the Nationalist government who shifted his loyalties to the Communists who took power in 1949.

Zhang was teaching English at a Beijing university in late 1963, when she accompanied her father to a birthday dinner for Mao Zedong, the Communist Party’s all-powerful leader.

Mao asked her to be his English tutor, and Zhang was launched on a life as his teacher, interpreter and confidante.

“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 worshipped as their god,” Zhang recounted in Time magazine in 1999.

The lessons ended abruptly and Zhang endured the turmoil of Mao’s radical Cultural Revolution until the early 1970s, when Mao summoned her to work in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as he explored opening ties with the United States.

Zhang attended Mao’s and Premier Zhou Enlai’s talks with Nixon and his key foreign policy adviser Henry Kissinger. Later she joined China’s delegation to the United Nations.

She scandalized officials by divorcing her then husband and then marrying Qiao Guanhua, the head of China’s U.N. delegation who became foreign minister in the 1970s.

In recent years, Zhang -- always elegantly dressed -- enjoyed a burst of national celebrity after she published several bestselling memoirs of her times near the apex of power.

Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani