Ji Chaozhu, who was a longtime interpreter for top Chinese officials, including Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, and who was at Zhou Enlai’s side during President Richard M. Nixon’s groundbreaking trip to China in 1972, died on April 29. He was 90.
His death was reported by The South China Morning Post, among other news media outlets. Further details were not available.
Mr. Ji, who sought to act as a bridge between China, where he was born, and the United States, where he grew up, played a crucial role in a secret visit to Beijing in 1971 by Henry A. Kissinger, then Nixon’s national security adviser. That meeting, which laid the groundwork for Nixon to become the first American president to visit mainland China, led to the restoration of diplomatic relations between Washington and Beijing after decades of hostility.
Raised mostly in New York City and educated briefly at Harvard, Mr. Ji spoke impeccable English. He did not make policy, but his language skills often helped shape negotiations. Sometimes he would even translate for both sides when American leaders met with their Chinese counterparts.
That was the case during Mr. Kissinger’s secret visit, although Mr. Ji’s flawless English was not the only reason he was given this highly sensitive assignment.
“Nixon really didn’t trust the State Department to keep a secret, so we didn’t really have anyone of our own,” Winston Lord, an aide who traveled with the president and Mr. Kissinger, told The New York Times in 2012.
The Americans relied on Mr. Ji on other occasions as well.
“The United States Government, it turns out, does not employ anyone fully qualified as a simultaneous interpreter from English to Chinese,” a Times editorial observed in 1979 after Mr. Ji had facilitated a discussion between Chinese officials and President Jimmy Carter. As a result, The Times declared Mr. Ji “indispensable.”
During his decades-long career as an interpreter for Chinese leaders, Mr. Ji was so ubiquitous that he took on a Zelig-like aura, cropping up in photographs on numerous important occasions: with Zhou in Geneva in 1954, at the end of the Korean War; with Zhou shaking hands with Nixon on the Beijing tarmac in 1972; and with Deng as he donned a white cowboy hat during a whirlwind tour of the United States in 1979.
Ji Chaozhu was born on July 30, 1929, into a wealthy family of Communist sympathizers in the northern Chinese province of Shanxi. His family fled during the Second Sino-Japanese War, in the late 1930s. They arrived in the United States when he was not yet 10.
Mr. Ji spent the next dozen years in New York City. He graduated from the Horace Mann School in the Bronx and attended Harvard for a short time before dropping out in 1950, when China entered the Korean War against American-led forces. He returned to China to join Mao and his allies, who were hoping to build a Communist paradise.
“When the Korean War broke out, I was torn between my love for two countries,” Mr. Ji told The Times. “But I knew I was fundamentally Chinese.”
He enrolled at Tsinghua University in Beijing, where he studied chemistry. His dream was to develop nuclear bombs for China. Instead, because of his English-language skills, he was chosen to be a note-taker at the talks that led to the cease-fire in the Korean War. He became one of the top interpreters for China’s leaders and served in that role for several decades.
In his later years he was China’s ambassador to Fiji and to Britain and an under secretary general of the United Nations.
In 2008 Mr. Ji published a memoir, “The Man on Mao’s Right,” the title a reference to his frequent position in the reviewing stand at Tiananmen Square when English-speaking officials were present with Mao.
The memoir disappointed some reviewers, who were hoping for more insight into China’s leaders and their strategic decision-making. Most of Mr. Ji’s humanizing passages were, diplomatically, about himself.
But he did offer comments about the men he served. Mao, he said, “complained I spoke too loudly when I translated;” Zhou “was like a father;” Deng “was so short, I had to spread my legs to get lower when I interpreted.”
He was more forthright when it came to Jiang Qing, Mao’s fourth wife and a member of the infamous Gang of Four, which helped preside over the brutal persecutions and chaos of the Cultural Revolution. She was, he wrote, “the horror of all horrors!”