updated 1/29/2008 7:01:39 PM ET 2008-01-30T00:01:39

Zhang Hanzhi, an elegant Chinese diplomat who was Mao Zedong's English tutor and U.S. President Richard 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.

"I want everyone to remember her smile, her loyalty to love, her kindness of heart and how grandiose she was. Remember her brilliant life," Zhang's daughter, Hong Huang, a well-known publisher, wrote in her blog. "Mother ... we will still be together."

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 well-known 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.

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?"

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.

A relationship begins  
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 — over dinners where 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 a series of landmark meetings, including the ones with Nixon, when the countries began restoring tattered diplomatic relations.

"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.

Zhang, who recently published an autobiography, 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.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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