Want to see a waxy faced dead communist? This is your place.
We had to check out Mao after visiting Lenin in Moscow, and it was a markedly different experience. While the Lenin mausoleum is fairly small and understated, and most of the visitors when we were there were tourists, Mao’s final resting place is a Big Deal.
Actually, Mao is the only embalmed and displayed Asian leader not to have been preserved by the Russians. Fun fact.
We arrived bright and early at Tiananmen square, and after passing through three separate body scanner and pat down security checks, we were finally allowed to join the queue for the mausoleum.
I’m amazed we didn’t need our passports.
They’re big on security in China. You need to have yourself and your luggage scanned every time you enter a train or metro station. So it’s like going through airport security every time you want to hop on the tube. We quickly learnt not to bring a bag.
You also need your passport to buy a train ticket, and to enter the station you have to present your passport with its matching ticket. The queues are looong. Most stations have extensive barrier systems set up outside for crowd control.
I suspect this is to mess with your head more than anything. You know — I’m just a tiny person in a big system, and I have to do as I’m told to get anywhere. Plus the government is keeping tabs on me, so I better not get up to anything.
The thing is, if you wanted to covertly go anywhere, you could just take the bus.
Anyway. The Maosoleum.
It was busy at 8.30 am, though the rest of the square was still fairly quiet. We wanted to see Mao at his best, before he started to defrost for the day.
The building itself is a big hulking block, though it’s dwarfed by the vast expanse of the square itself. Close up there are flourishes softening the monolith: pillars, lots and lots of pillars. There are decorative Chinese touches to the roof and doors. Also vast striving worker statues, much much larger than life. Glorious peasants, heroic shipyard workers, that sort of thing.
We couldn’t find the entrance to the queue in the maze of safety barriers set up around the perimeter. We didn’t have much hope that anyone spoke English, but we asked a guard for help anyway.
He spoke English! Sort of.
His instructions for finding the entrance were so robotic and precise that we wondered if he’d just been taught this one phrase to repeat if foreigners approached, on the assumption they’d be looking for the entrance. And maybe another one to explain it.
But hey, he got us to the queue. Any sliver of English is a pleasant shock here. My Mandarin extends to about five words, most of which nobody understood anyway.
You’re not allowed cameras or bags inside, so we were feeling buoyantly unencumbered as we queued in the frigid morning sunshine. All of our queue mates were Chinese, mostly with tanned faces and neat but outdated dress, suggesting countryside families on a day out to the big smoke.
It seems like these guys didn’t get the 70/30 memo the political elite have been circulating, and still think Mao is hero worship worthy. Or they think that they’re supposed to think that. Maybe they are supposed to think that. I don’t know.
As we all surged forward, soldiers shouting directions (presumably?) at the crowd, our excitable stretch of the queue reached a stand where you could buy plastic flowers. To lay at the not-exactly-a-grave. Everyone except us bought them, and I would guess the few yuan they cost was a significant expenditure for most of these people.
I began to wonder if I was causing grave offence by not buying Mao a flower. Could I bring myself to lay flowers for Mao? Probably not, but there were a lot of angry looking soldiers around. Everyone else had a flower. Maybe…
Interior decor: Changing Rooms meets Ceausescu.
But there wasn’t time to do anything about it. Our merrily somber gaggle pushed forward up the steps, and we were inside. But not inside the crypt, in a kitchily ostentatious entrance hall with a huge gaudy mural on the facing wall. It reminded me of Ceausescu’s palace in Bucharest, but a bit lower rent. The ‘just cos I’m a communist and my people are being crushed under my rule doesn’t mean I can’t have a bit of solid gold mosaic in my life’ school of architecture.
This is where the flowers were being laid, and not all that reverentially. The atmosphere was very odd. Formal and tense, from the grand surrounds and the parade of smartly dressed soldiers around the edge of the room, but also kind of everyday. People were surging through the hall with barely a pause to put down their shiny plastic flowers. Certainly no time for a moment of reflection, paying respect, or any kind of emotional significance.
The way the flowers were being deposited was so offhand that it made me wonder if their purchase had anything to do with devotion to Mao at all. Perhaps, as most things seem to be in China, it was all about status. Keeping up with the Zhangs.
Maybe the Zhangs know something I don’t.
Could be that not buying the flowers gets you put on a list. Maybe I should have bought a flower.
In countries we visited later on in our trip we would see a similar offhand casualness displayed at Buddhist shrines on festival days, where everyone must come to make their devotions, but doing so doesn’t seem to have much meaning for most. Just a duty.
But what really got me was how towering the pile of plastic flowers was already, at 8.30 am. The mausoleum would be open for another three hours. At some point they were going to have to remove some flowers to prevent a catastrophic avalanche.
And what would they do with them? I’ve seen what (some?) Buddhists do with devotional flowers, and I suspect the answer is the same here. The flowers go right back out front, to be sold to the next busload of impoverished country folk.
Before we knew it, we were back to the 80s.
The crypt itself was much bigger than Lenin’s, and while Lenin’s felt like a crypt; subterranean, enclosed, dark, sinister, this had more the air of a 1980s conference centre, plastic plants included. Except with a dead body in a glass box in the middle of the room. And lots of families with small children coming to have a look.
Mao looked rather sweet tucked up under his red flag. Older in death than you picture him, like most whose image has become more famous than them.
It all felt very blasé. Perhaps partly the shock of a body sitting there like that was reduced the second time around. Laying people out after death is not something we really do anymore in most western countries. I don’t know that I’d seen a dead body before Lenin’s.
But mostly I think the inattention of the other visitors made it unreal. They all seemed blank. Unreactive to the experience, going through the motions.
It was all over very quickly, and I distinctly remember taking a Maosoleum selfie on the way out, but I can’t find it anywhere. Nightmare. Maybe I didn’t bring my phone either, and I just wished I had a selfie so bad that I invented the memory. We did buy a fridge magnet in the gift shop though. (A maognet!)
It was all over, and I was still confused.
I don’t really know what to take away from visiting Mao’s mausoleum. You’re clearly supposed to think he’s still revered, what with all the images of him about, and the popularity of flower laying. That wasn’t how it felt though.
But then I learnt not to listen to my feelings so much in China. Feelings like this arise from some kind of social sense, picking up inference, signals in interactions. And I very quickly realised I was totally unable to do this in China. Facial expressions, gestures, body language, are not the same here. It’s unnerving not being able to read these clues at all.
I left this experience as confused as I’d come.
On the way back to the hostel we passed a sex shop next to a shop selling I ♥ BJ t-shirts, in the style of I ♥ NY. Was this a deliberate joke? Were they serious? I suppose nobody cares why people buy them, as long as they sell.
Perhaps that’s all there was to the plastic flowers too. Or not. I just don’t know.