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China’s Best Mao Zedong Impersonator Is Actually a Woman

57-year-old Chen Yan used to be an average, run-of-the-mill homemaker. The only noticeable thing about her: her striking resemblance to Chinese revolutionary Mao Zedong. Chen was teased mercilessly for this as a child, reducing her to tears. But in 2006 she made a decision that would completely change her life –  to embrace herself and her appearance. Chen is now a full time Mao impersonator, an extremely popular one.

Impersonating Chairman Mao isn’t exactly a piece of cake. It’s a demanding and controversial job, because female impersonators of Mao aren’t very common in China. To look the part, Chen has to touch up her face, wear a Zhongshan suit and arrange her hair like Mao’s trademark style. She has to walk on specially made 26cm stilts, camouflaged to look like a larger shoe size. A typical performance is about 40 minutes long – Chen waves to the crowds, smokes and stares solemnly into the distance. I must say, she does a damn good job of it. It’s almost impossible to tell there’s a woman behind the costume.

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Photo: Reinhard Krause/Reuters

It all began in 2006 when Chen participated in a show on Southeast Television impersonating Tang Guoqiang, an actor who played Mao Zedong. In 2007, her street appearances were featured in the Chongqing Times paper. The report said that she was popular, that many residents took the initiative to shake her hand and take pictures with her. The officers controlling the crowds were apparently struggling to hold back tears of laughter. Initially paid 2,000 Yuan ($330), Chen now makes five figures per appearance. She never talks during performances and her audience always seems to love her.

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Photo: Reinhard Krause/Reuters

Chen’s role as Mao isn’t very easy on her or her family. Her husband couldn’t take being married to Mao I suppose; they were briefly estranged. He reportedly commented that intimacy with Chen was “impossible. It would be like sleeping with Mao Zedong.” Some reports suggest they reunited in 2010, while others say they are in a trial separation.

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Photo: Reinhard Krause/Reuters

Chen isn’t too happy about her personal life, but nothing will stop her in her quest for fame. She rarely leaves home when she isn’t performing, choosing to spend all her free time studying Mao’s body language from historic television dramas. She’d love to act in one someday, she says.

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Photo: Reinhard Krause/Reuters

We do hope her dream comes true. It’s pretty rare to come across a woman who has embraced herself completely and actually made it her strength.

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Sources: Lao Qiang Zhuang (Chinese), South China Morning Post, RocketNews24

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