A Moment With Mao

Trip Start Jul 29, 2006
Trip End Sep 03, 2006

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Wednesday, August 2, 2006

The queue ran thick and ponderous down the length of Tiananmen Square and back before wrapping around the mausoleum. It was anyone's guess how many people were in line or how long it would take to reach the end, but the prospect of seeing not just a dead body but the preserved corpse of one of the 20th century's most important political leaders seemed to justify the wait.

Mao Zedong's body was preserved following his death in 1976, when a million people filled Tiananmen Square and factories, schools and transportation across the country came to a halt. The Great Helmsman has been lying in state in the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall since 1977, and is probably number two in the hierarchy of mummified communist leaders; ahead of Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh but still behind the granddaddy of them all, Vladimir Lenin, who's body--82 years deceased--is still on view in Moscow's Red Square almost twenty years after the fall of Russian communism.

Mao certainly didn't want to be preserved for posterity. "We should all be burnt after we die," he said, "turned into ashes and used for fertilizer." His last will and testament requested he be cremated, but Mao's body was far too precious to the state, and his wishes were ignored.

Every year hundreds of thousands of Chinese and foreign tourists visit the mausoleum, standing for hours in the rain and snow and Beijing smog to catch a glimpse of the Chairman. Being plucky foreign rouges we butted into the line somewhere about half way, unnoticed under a glorious blue summer sky.

Beside the line hawkers sold bottles of water, melting ice cream and umbrellas to keep the sun off lily-white faces. Speakers along the way warbled the rules of engagement inside the Mausoleum. No camera or bags allowed. No food or drink. Show respect at all times.

Bags must be checked at a baggage claim across from the Square, and many tried to conceal their purses and carrier bags from the sharp-eyed officials. Near the end of the line security tightened and anyone with food or water was forced to throw it in the waiting trash bins. The family ahead of us stuffed their packets of biscuits into every available pocket.

Many visitors bought white carnations to place in front of Mao's tomb, and it was tempting to imagine the bouquets are recycled out of the mausoleum and put up for sale again. Inside the Mausoleum all chatter ceased, replaced by an awed and respectful silence.

In the North Hall, surrounded by porcelain-potted plants, was an enormous white marble statue of Mao, seated rather like Abe Lincoln's memorial in Washington. The white carnations, recycled or not, were pilled thick at the statue's base. Here the line was split in two columns that treaded on lush red carpets around the statue and toward the encounter we'd been waiting so long for.

His body draped with the communist party flag and encased in a crystal coffin inside a glass chamber in the Hall of Last Respects, Mao Zedong's face glowed as if illuminated from within. It was an unsettling effect caused by the fiber-optic lighting inside his coffin, but the Chairman's face looked rather like a night-light. Behind the coffin four soldiers stood at rigid attention.

But there was little time to gawk as the line was prodded along. We'd waited nearly two hours for the privilege of spending less than ten seconds in the presence of China's greatest Communist leader. And as we re-emerged into the sunshine I felt, as after a good amusement park ride, like going again. There was still so much more to do, however, and our remaining time in Beijing ticked steadily away.
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