Monday, July 24, 2006

China Stories Pt 18: Mao's-o-leum

I made the obligatory visit to Chairman Mao's Tomb. It was a sunny spring day, but still a little cool, I recall.

There was a long line that snaked back out into the southern flank of the square, full of Chinese tourists making their first (maybe their only) trip to Beijing. Tian An Men Square was as much of a tourist destination for Chinese as it was for foreigners; probably more so, in fact. The Tian An Men gate, where the portrait of Mao hangs, is the place where Chairman Mao announced the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, and the place from where he watched National Day parades, and waved to throngs of adoring Red Guards. In the fevered heyday of the Cultural Revolution (1960s), a trip to Beijing and the square was a quasi-religious pilgrimage. While American hippies were hitch hiking to Haight Ashbury with flowers in their hair, young and idealistic Chinese Red Guards were hopping trains to Beijing (for free) in hopes of catching a fleeting glimpse of the beloved Great Helmsman, Chairman Mao.

Now they lined up and waited, patiently, orderly, pretty certain that this time, they would in fact see the Chairman.

There were rumors that when Mao died (in September 1976), China was not prepared, and did not have the skills to properly prepare him for public display, so they had to send for a Soviet expert do it. In the intervening days, there had been some, um, degradation. So there were stories - that one of his ears was completely fake; that something had fallen off; that he was shrinking.

My friends and I had a little local knowledge, which was that foreigners didn't have to wait in the long line; they could go directly to the front. This was not uncommon. Sometimes, you sensed hostility from the locals, but more often than not, they didn't mind. They seemed to accept that we received this preferential treatment, and just ascribed this treatment to our bizarre foreign-ness. Now that Chinese are more accustomed to Westerners, I can't imagine that type of deference exists anymore. It seems quaint, vestigial. Familiarity breeds contempt.

As we wound our way inside, the suspense was building. There was a sign that asked you to remove your hands from your pockets and keep them at your sides. I believe the primary intent of this directive was to create an atmosphere that was solemn and respectful, though it was probably a security measure as well.

We got to the front of the line relatively quickly. They kept the line moving - and why not? A lot of people want to see the Chairman, and frankly, once you see him, there's not a lot of reason to hang around.

He didn't appear lifelike at all - it was hard, really, to believe that this was in fact, the actual person Mao Zedong. Rather, it was just a profoundly lifeless figure, posed under glass and white lights, like a cake at a diner.

I don't think we actually stopped moving, so before we knew it, we were being pushed out the rear of the building into a gauntlet of souvenir shops, all selling Dead Mao memorabilia. Because after all, what better way to remember the somber occasion of seeing the Great Helmsman than with a commemorative plate? No? How about a baseball cap?

I had to buy something. I debated getting the lighter that played "The East is Red" when you opened it, but opted instead for a set of chopsticks that said "Chairman Mao's Tomb" in Chinese characters on them.

I know I made the right choice. Buying a lighter would have been... I don't know, crass.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting


At 4:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You didn't even buy one of those "all I got was this lousy t-shirt" shirts?

The lighter would have been a huge hit at concerts though.

At 6:31 PM, Anonymous sweetone said...

wow! (i can tell i'm about to make this all about me, so i apologize in advance, but i can't help it!) this is almost exactly like my experience going to lenin's mausoleum in moscow in 1989! the only difference is that foreign tourists did have to wait in line, and we had to be COMPLETELY silent the entire way through the tomb. i didn't know this and was almost taken to prison when i whispered something to a friend. ok, no, i was not almost taken to prison, but the guard who told me to be quiet was really, really scary. i don't know what he said to me in russian, but i'm pretty sure it was something about a train to siberia waiting for cretins like me.

the whole thing was basically creepy. the rumors floating around were that he was decaying from the feet up so they had a blanket over him that they kept extending to cover the newly decayed parts. no idea if that was true.

mostly, he just looked small -- compared to the massive statues, billboards, and paintings of him that covered every square inch of the country.

and, just like in your experience, the whole thing was over so fast. i don't recall them having memorabilia for sale... i wonder if they did.

it's great reading your story! i may have to scroll down because now i'm curious what year(s) you were there.


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