Being Mao Zedong

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Han Shi, the first actor ever to have portrayed late Chairman Mao Zedong. Photos: Cai Xianmin/GT and courtesy of Han Shi 

Han Shi was the first actor ever to have portrayed late Chairman Mao Zedong, and this is the only role he has ever essayed in films. Unlike in recent films, where established movie stars usually play revolutionary politicians, previously actors were chosen simply because of their physical similarity to the person they were playing.

In the living room of Han's house, two pictures hang on the wall: Mao in one, and Han in the other. They are both wearing Red Army suits, looking frontwards with narrowed eyes, and carrying a similar kind of composed attitude. Han says it is difficult for some people to distinguish which is the real Mao on first seeing the pictures.

Han, who is now in his 60s, is beginning to lose his hair and is putting on weight. Only a few people in his neighborhood even know that he was formerly a Mao impersonator. But he still clearly recalls the days he played the late Chinese leader.

Strong similarity

Even as a teenager, people began to remark on how much Han resembled Mao. "There was a teacher back at the Children's Palace where I attended art lessons who told me that I looked like a younger version of Mao," he said. When he was sent to an art and drama troupe in Shenyang Military Region in Shenyang, Liaoning Province, he was given the chance to play Mao because of this similarity in appearance.

"The first time I played Mao was in a drama called Dielianhua just after Mao had passed away. Before that, no one had ever played Mao because it was forbidden while he was still alive," Han said. The drama, produced in 1978, described the relationship between Mao and his first wife Yang Kaihui.

Being the first person to play Mao put a lot of pressure on Han. "Mao was still considered as a god in China. No one knew how to play the role. The only thing we could do was to be similar to Mao in appearance," he said.

There were not many references to Mao that Han could consult. The only materials he had were 30 pictures. The makeup artists applied Han's makeup on Han in accordance with these pictures.

Han still remembers the first moment he stepped onto the stage. "There was stage smoke when I appeared as if I was appearing from the heavens. And before I did anything, great peals of applause burst out and continued for a long time," he recalled.

The drama was warmly received in Beijing, and afterwards a director from the Changchun Film Studio decided to make a film version in 1978. This was the first time that Mao Zedong had been portrayed on the big screen.

Based on the success of the film, Han got the chance to play Mao again in the 1980 film Cross the Dadu River which helped to seal his reputation and influence. This time, however, playing Mao required more than just looking like him. The film is about how the fourth regiment of the Red Army secured the Luding Bridge even though its planks had allegedly been removed by the Kuomintang and its allies.

"Because the political atmosphere had changed, Mao was no longer considered a god but an ordinary person, and this also influenced the film production team," Han told the Global Times. However, in Han's heart, Mao remains a god to this day. "No one could manage what Mao achieved in history. Mao is a human, but at the same time he is a god to me," he said.

To behave exactly like Mao, Han observed Mao's behavior in video clips. "Mao didn't look at people with widened eyes. He usually narrowed his eyes when looking at a person as if he knew what the person was thinking," Han said. "Mao usually stood with arms akimbo, but his hands were placed higher up, not on the hips but on the waist."

Han said playing Mao has not conferred any special benefits or position on him in real life. "I was just an actor. Everyone is equal whoever he or she plays," he said.

Unsuitable actors

Not all of the other Mao impersonators are as respectful as Han, he believes.

When talking about Tang Guoqiang, an actor who is famous for playing Mao in numerous movies and television series, Han said: "How could a Mao impersonator appear that frequently in television advertisements?"

Han is not pleased with the recent trend of inviting movies stars to play historical characters. "Liu Ye is a good actor playing other roles, but he is certainly not the proper type of person to take on the role of Mao," he said. Liu Ye portrayed Mao in the recent film The Founding of a Party.

Han thinks that the biggest disadvantage for young actors playing Mao is that they have limited ideas about him. Because of this it's very important for the director to choose the right actor according to, not only his appearance, but also as to his understanding of Mao.

However, Han does think there is someone who played Mao better than he did. "Gu Yue was the best Mao impersonator. Not only did he look like Mao, but he spoke with a similar accent."

Gu played Mao 84 times and was widely considered the best Mao impersonator. He passed away in 2005.

Han stopped playing Mao after his second film when he married and moved to Shanghai. He now owns a bar in Yangpu district. His friends still call him Lao Mao (Old Mao).

"There are always people asking why I did not continue playing Mao and they think it's a pity," he said.

Although he hasn't played Mao for 30 years, Han still has a photo from Cross the Dadu River printed on his business card. The title on the card reads "The Impersonator of Chairman Mao Zedong."

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