Published: June 2007
Peter Hessler

"I wanted to get a sense of everyday life and let the people tell me about things that were interesting to them," says author Peter Hessler about his approach to "China's Instant Cities." In the small settlement of Shifan—established for people relocated as a result of a massive hydroelectric project, he talks with a resident about the man's new home. "The research for this story was quite conversational," Hessler continues. "I watched these people adjust to changing circumstances and talked to them about their community."

Quirkiest

I made ten trips to Zhejiang, usually taking the only morning flight, at 7:40, from Beijing to Wenzhou. I'd wake up at 5 a.m. and drag myself to the airport. I don't think I ever experienced a normal flight. Often, we were delayed; one time they lost my bags, and on another occasion, a passenger lit up a cigarette and then refused to put it out (in China, flights are strictly nonsmoking). Once, at the baggage claim in Wenzhou, two women got into a fight. I generally tried to sleep through everything.

In February 2006, I boarded the Air China flight, found my seat, and began to doze as other passengers were filing past. At one point, I half awoke and noticed that a man had an odd resemblance to Mao Zedong. It might have been a dream, so I didn't think much of it until I heard two flight attendants talking excitedly.

One of them said, "The actor who plays Chairman Mao is back there!"

"Which row?"

"Twenty-five!"

He was in the middle seat, wedged between two Wenzhou businessmen, who, like nearly everybody on the plane, were falling asleep. But the actor looked completely alert. He wore a neat gray suit, a red tie, and full makeup. His teeth gleamed—they must have been false—and his hair had been dyed black and brushed away from his forehead. He wore a prosthetic mole on the left side of his chin. Every physical detail was in place, and the effect was stunning: Mao Zedong in seat 25E, economy class.

After we landed, I introduced myself, and we exchanged business cards. His read:

Jin Yang
The Actor Who Plays the Role of the Great Leader Mao Zedong

He had come to Wenzhou to film a television miniseries about the war against the Japanese. For more than a decade, he had been playing the chairman on television and in movies. He smiled when he saw my card.

"Oh, you're a journalist," he said. "There was a famous American journalist named Edgar Snow who was friends with Chairman Mao."

I was curious to know how Jin Yang had been discovered and what sort of career he'd had before becoming The Actor Who Plays the Role of the Great Leader Mao Zedong. Had he been a plumber? A security guard? Or a shopkeeper? Some kind of zou zi pai, a capitalist roader from the Cultural Revolution? But every time I asked a question, he responded with some anecdote from the chairman's life. When I inquired about his background, he said, "You know, the most famous photograph of Chairman Mao was taken by Edgar Snow."

"I've heard that," I said. "But what were you doing before you became an actor?"

"That's the photograph they always used for the young Mao," he continued. "It was reproduced in so many places in the fifties and sixties."

Throughout the conversation, his benevolent smile was as steady as the plastic mole fixed to his chin. But he refused to answer any question, and the few biographical details he gave seemed unlikely. He said he had been born in Changsha, the chairman's hometown. He remarked that Edgar Snow's book had introduced the chairman to the West. Was this man completely insane? Did he really believe that he was Mao Zedong?

I finally gave up on the conversation and picked up my bags. Before leaving the airport, I stopped in the restroom. It was empty except for Chairman Mao, who stood at the first urinal. I heard him saying to himself, "American journalist, American journalist. …" I decided to take the urinal on the far side of the restroom.