Chen Yan is a former housewife who now has a day job of impersonating Mao Zedong.
The 57-year-old Sichuan native makes a living out of 40 minute-long silent performances, in which she switches between waving to the crowds like the Great Helmsman did at Tiananmen Gate, smoking like the nicotine-addicted founder of the People’s Republic and staring solemnly into the distance, as if contemplating a bright future.
Profiled by the mainland People magazine, Chen’s notoriety has now expanded from China’s southwest to the entire nation. She is one of several Mao impersonators touring the nation, however impersonating Mao is still a sensitive topic. She was once questioned by authorities after being interviewed by a foreign journalist, the report said.
Looking like the late chairman, who passed away when she was in her twenties, is not easy for Chen. In an interview in 2007, she recalled in tears how she was mocked growing up due to her resemblance to Mao.
She recalled how a year earlier she finally embraced her appearance, and mustered up the courage to participate in a show on Southeast Television, a regional broadcaster.
A woman impersonating the former Communist Party chairman was still too controversial at that time, but the show allowed her to impersonate Tang Guoqiang, a well-known actor of Mao Zedong roles.
A report in the Chongqing Times newspaper from summer 2007 recounted her appearance on the city’s streets. “Many residents take the initiative to shake her hand, some take photos with their mobile phones, and others call their relatives,” the report read.
Describing the reaction of onlookers, it went on: “The scene suddenly crowded with people. The officers who rushed to the scene struggled to hold back tears of laughter.”
At the time of the report, Chen received 2,000 yuan (HK$2,530) for an appearance - now her fee have risen to five figures.
Chen, who is just 1.53m tall, walks on specially made 26cm stilts that mimic a larger shoe size. She never talks during her performances.
People magazine reported one of her recent appearances where she was standing on a podium and greeting people in front of four impersonators of Red Guards and a banner that read: Use your bank card for real benefits on Christmas and Thanksgiving.
Chen rarely leaves home except for her performances, according to the report. She spends her free time studying the Helmsman’s body language through historic television dramas. Her dream, she said, was to act in one of them.
She was estranged from her husband, the report said. He couldn’t cope living with Mao. In 2010, the reconciled.