Hong Zhijian, the director of plastic surgery at the General Hospital of Nanjing Military Command in Jiangsu province, told the China Daily newspaper: "We've been preparing for such operations since 2003."

Hong said the hospital, in the provincial capital of Nanjing, was already studying five or six candidates for their suitability.

"When all of the conditions are right, we can carry out face transplants at once," Hong said.

However Hong, the leader of the hospital's face transplant team, had still not finalised who the first patient would be, with assessments also including the prospective patient's psychological characteristics.

"Although many people want to have face transplants, not all of them are suitable to have the operation," he said. "That is why we are still looking for the first patient."

Hong said his hospital had been inundated with inquiries after it announced in the local press this week their ability to carry out such operations.

China's stated face transplant ambitions follow the world's first such operation in France on 27 October.

French case

The 38-year-old French woman who received the transplant, a mother of two, lost both lips, her nose and chin after she was mauled by her dog in May, and was unable to speak or eat properly.

The transplant operation is a
highly complex procedure

Doctors grafted a nose, chin and mouth taken from a brain-dead donor on to her face at a university hospital in the northern French town of Amiens.

The operation is a highly complex procedure and the graft can fail if the minute nerves and tiny blood vessels of the face do not connect properly. There is also a risk of rejection by the body's immune system.

A transplant recipient has to endure life-long immuno-suppressing medication that can have bad side effects as well as live with the psychological challenge of carrying part of a dead person's body.

European and US doctors have had the technical ability to carry out facial transplants for some time but held back because of ethical concerns.