Mao Zedong (1893-1976) was Chairman of the Politburo of the Communist Party of China from 1943 and the Chairman of the Communist Party of China from 1945 until his death on 9 September, 1976.
On previous visits to Beijing I had always been put of visiting the Great Helmsman, as he is sometimes known, in his crystal sarcophagus by the thought of standing in a queue for an hour or more for a one minute look at a rather plastic looking Mao.
On my most recent trip to Beijing I had just returned from Pyongyang, North Korea, where I had visited the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun and seen the embalmed remains of North Korea’s Great Leader, Kim Il-sung and that of Kim Jong-il, his son and Dear Leader of North Korea. Having previously visited the mausoleums of Lenin in Moscow and Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi I could no longer resist the temptation to see Chairman Mao and in so doing see the last of the five remaining embalmed ex leaders on display in the world today. How long I might wait in the queue was no longer relevant.
Many find it amazing how communist regimes seem to have a fascination with pickling and preserving their leaders for posterity. Of course, all these gentlemen remained in power for as long as they did solely because of the cult of personality which had built up around them. As such, it was only natural that their loyal supporters and successors would want to keep them ‘alive’ forever, especially when it was simultaneously helpful to their successors retaining power themselves.
The procedure for visiting Mao, who resides in the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall (see my separate review for some commentary on the building itself) is fairly simple. Get to Tiananmen Square as early as possible on a viewing day and join the queue which will be your home for the next hour or so – just accept it !
There are a few rules – no cameras, no bags and carry your passport. On the day I visited none of these rules seemed to be being enforced (though no one ventured to use a camera or mobile phone within the Mausoleum) but I suggest you don’t take chances and stand in the queue for an hour, or most likely more, only to be told that you can’t get in because you have a camera or don’t have a passport. There is a left luggage office (fee applies) to the east of the Mausoleum which I didn’t visit, having left my worldly possessions in my nearby hotel.
You should also dress appropriately. You are visiting a place of great importance to large numbers of Chinese people. Many of those visiting will be simple village people on a costly pilgrimage from distant rural parts of the country. A level of reverence and discretion is important irrespective of your personal views on Mao or the whole set-up.
After passing through airport style security, you will be given the option to purchase a bunch of chrysanthemums to lay within the tomb. Flowers are placed on a podium in front of a significantly larger than life (3.45m) white marble statue of a seated Mao benevolently staring down on the masses as they enter the Mausoleum (main picture). Behind Mao’s statue, and a backdrop for this, the Great North Hall, is a 23.74m wide and 6.6m high tapestry “The vast homeland” depicting the mountain scenery of China. The majority of Chinese visitors place flowers (very few foreigners do) here. These are quickly taken away and brought back out front to sell to the next group of devotees. Given the volume of flowers placed by visitors this floral recycling program, while it appears tacky and disrespectful to those who lay the flowers, makes perfect sense and keeps down the price of flowers.
Having passed Mao’s statue it’s a short walk into the main room of the mausoleum – Zhanyang Hall – the Hall of Mourning – where Mao lies on display in his crystal coffin atop a black granite base – wearing his trademark grey Sun Yat-sen uniform and draped in the party flag of Communist Party of China. Mao’s coffin is a Chinese copy of the Russian-made coffin of Dr. Sun Yat-sen. While only the top of Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s coffin is transparent, both the sides and the top of Mao’s coffin are transparent. The authorities didn’t want a situation where people viewing Mao were ‘looking down on him”!
Mao has lain here continuously (ok, he moves a little each day when the coffin is mechanically raised from a freezer for viewing and then lowered again post viewing) since 1977 apart from his periodic sojourns for refurbishment and general maintenance.
After the 20-30 seconds it takes to walk past the coffin (no lingering permitted) you exit the rear of the Mausoleum via the Great South Hall, one full white marble wall of which is covered with Mao’s poem “Reply to Comrade Gao Moruo”, written in his own hand.
Finally, and perhaps somewhat incongruously given the general solemnity of the remainder of the Memorial Hall, is a gift shop selling all sorts of Mao inspired baubles and trinkets – mainly junk.
A short diversion and footnote, if I may?
Mao’s expressed wish was that he be cremated – he once famously said:
“To chant ‘long live’ is to contradict natural laws. Everyone has to die…after people die, they shouldn’t be allowed to occupy any more space. They should be cremated. I’ll take the lead. We should all be burnt after we die, turned into ashes and used for fertilizer.”
The Politburo decided otherwise and now, rather ironically, Mao occupies more space in death than hundreds of his compatriots together have in life.
Given the sour state of Sino-Soviet relations at the time, the embalming process was (badly) carried out by Chinese and Vietnamese embalmers and many today hold that the body on display in Beijing is a wax dummy and not that of Mao. Who knows?
The Chairman Mao Memorial Hall is open for only a few hours each morning and perhaps and a couple of hours on a couple of afternoons (closed Mondays). It is probably better to accept that opening hours are erratic and check the notice board in front of the Mausoleum a day or so prior to your intended visit for up to date opening hours.
Admission fee: Free
Pictures 1 and 4 copyright Communist Party of China
This blog entry is one of a group (loop) of entries based on a number of trips to Beijing. I suggest you continue with my next entry – Zhengyangmen (Zhengyang Gate) – Gatehouse– or to start the loop at the beginning go to my Beijing Introduction.