American Culture

China, Day Eight: Mao watch

Part eight in a series

Chairman Mao looks a little waxy these days.

sm-maowatchIt isn’t for lack of trying. The Chinese government has gone to great pains to keep him looking fresh—at least as fresh as a guy who’s been dead since 1976 can look.

Just as the Russians have Lenin on display in Moscow, the Chinese have Mao on display in Beijing. Those Communists, it seems, love their embalmed leaders. (I wonder if Castro is making similar plans.)

Mao Zedong—or, as Americans learn it, Mao Tse-Tung—served as leader of the Communist army during the Chinese civil war of the 1930s, and then became leader of the entire country when the Communists eventually won in 1949. He served as chairman until his death in 1976.

And that’s when the legend of Mao took off.

Mao is to China what Abraham Lincoln is to America. That is, he can serve as a symbol that can mean just about anything to anyone. But most of all, he serves as a model of all that is good and great and inspiring.

Mao’s tomb even evokes the same kind of aura as the Lincoln Memorial—although the Lincoln Memorial features beautiful classical architecture while Mao’s tomb serves as one more example of Beijing’s monolithic Soviet-era box buildings.

The tomb, officially called Chairman Mao Memorial Hall, sits on the south edge of Tiananmen Square. The square itself is a wide expanse of concrete covering one hundred acres, making it the largest public square in the world. At the center stands a 125-foot-tall pillar called the Monument to the People’s Heroes.

Tiananmen Square, looking northward toward the Tian'an Gate.
Tiananmen Square, looking northward toward the
Tian’an Gate.

Otherwise, the square is as flat and open as…well, as flat and open as Tiananmen Square. It’s so big it defies comparison, although that’s hard to appreciate until you stand in the middle of it. There are rows of lampposts, and between the Heroes’ Monument and Mao’s Tomb, there are large planters full of dying salvia, wilting yellow chrysanthemums, and, at the center of each, a short palm. The weather has been dry and in the nineties, and it has taken its toll on the flowerbeds.

On the west side of Tiananmen Square sits the Great Hall of the People. In effect, it’s China’s capitol building. It’s another larger-than-life Soviet-era box building, although it has a bureaucratic majesty about it.

Technically, Mao’s Tomb sits in Tiananmen Square since the square’s massive southern gate, Qianman Gate, sits to the south of the tomb, but the size and scale of Mao’s Tomb effectively turns it into the square’s southern edge.

As I stand in line to enter the tomb, several street venders try to sell me watches with Mao’s face on them. In place of a hand to tick off seconds, Mao’s right hand waves back and forth. They’re so cheesy I have to get some—cheap.

But Mao’s Tomb itself is a solemn affair, and the Mao worship encouraged by the state is so strong, that I’m surprised to find Mao on the watch. His portrait appears on virtually all Chinese money, with the exception of coins and a bill worth one half of a yuan. A giant copy of Mao’s portrait adorns the front of the Tian’an Gate on the square’s northern border.

In front of Mao’s Tomb, two larger-than-life sculptures flank the entrance. The sculpture on the left depicts “The People” in various poses, representing various military branches, nobly assembling for readiness. The sculpture on the right features a similar scene, although “The People” proudly assemble for industrial and agricultural readiness. Each group carries a banner with Mao’s profile on it.

The line to get into the tomb wraps its way across the front of the building and through security. Visitors must show valid I.D.—they accept my N.Y. state driver’s license—and they can’t bring cameras. Several students with cameras in their pockets get turned away.

I pass a woman standing under a red umbrella next to a white cart. A sign in English says “Short informative book 1 yuan.” I pay up.

Nineteen seventy-six, the year America celebrated the bicentennial of its independence, proved to be a year of independence of a sort for China. Mao passed away that year, on the ninth of September. Shortly thereafter, the Chinese government began a series of reforms that eventually led to a more open, modern China.

Mao’s final years had been rough on the country because of the ill-fated Cultural Revolution. One person I’ve spoken to called the C.R. “nothing short of a catastrophe for China.” During the Cultural Revolution, the government persecuted intellectuals and called a halt to education across the country, all in the name of class equality and state security.

But Mao gets a free pass on it today. Everyone I’ve talked to thus far about the Cultural Revolution has put the blame elsewhere. One person said Mao was “led off track” and another said he was “deceived about the extent of the persecutions.” The youngest of Mao’s four wives and the rest of her notorious “Gang of Four”—some of Mao’s top lieutenants—are favorite scapegoats.

Mao himself is remembered as “the greatest Chinese leader of the 20th century,” according to the brochure, which calls the tomb “the most important memorial hall of the Party and the state.” The hall is “a focus for education in patriotism and the revolutionary tradition.”

Mao's Tomb
Mao’s Tomb

Construction began in November of 1976, just a month after Mao’s death, and it was completed jus six months later, in May of 1977.

A red carpet goes up the center of the granite steps. At their foot, a vendor sells long-stemmed white carnations wrapped in clear plastic. The line shambles forward and up the steps, onto a colonnade. I have to take off my ballcap when I enter the building.

Inside, a white marble Mao sits Lincoln-like in front of a mural depicting the mountains, drawn in traditional Chinese style. The statue, two or three time larger than life-size, is surrounded by a thick rectangle of lush poinsettias, ferns, and palms, with shorter flowers in the front and the palms closest to Mao.

The people in front of me bought white carnations, which they place in a box so big it could almost be a sawed-off boxcar. It sits just in front of Mao’s statue, like a screen, filled with thousands of flowers that people bought just two hundred feet ago at the bottom of the stairs.

The line splits in two and we go in opposite directions. The half I’m with is told to form into ranks of two. We go around the corner, through a small hallway, and then we walk into the room where Mao lies in state. The gold characters on the white marble wall behind him say, “Long live the great leader and mentor Chairman Mao Zedong.”

Mao lies inside a glass coffin inside a glass room. He’s wearing a flannel suit that almost looks like pajamas, although most of the coffin is covered by a Chinese flag. A soft light illuminates his face.

He looks waxy.

In fact, some conspiracists theorize that Mao is frozen somewhere and was replaced by a wax figure because the real body wasn’t holding up so well. I could believe it.

On the far side of the glass room, I can see the other half of the line from the lobby. In fact, we’re just a few of the thousands of people who’ll come to the tomb every weekday morning to pay their respects.

The security guards at either end of the room keep us moving along, so we whisk through. The lines empty out in a rear lobby filled with vendors. It wouldn’t be China if someone wasn’t trying to sell me something. I could get plates, bronze busts, key chains, jewelry, charms. No Mao watches with waving hands, though.

Outside, I descend steps similar to the ones out front. Statues of workers and soldiers, also similar to the ones out front, flank the stairs. Beyond the gates, more vendors try to sell me trinkets.

I pay them no heed. I’m trying to figure out why my trip through Mao’s Tomb has left me oddly impressed.

Once more, China has surprised me.

3 replies »

  1. Like Mongolia embracing Genghis Khan as the father of its country, Mao worship is kind of pathetic considering how predatory he was toward his own people:

    The U.S. State department in 1976 estimated that there may have been a million killed in the land reform, 800,000 killed in the Zhen Fan campaign. Mao himself claimed that a total of 700,000 people were executed during the years 1949–53. However, because there was a policy to select “at least one landlord, and usually several, in virtually every village for public execution”, the number of deaths range between 2 million and 5 million. (Wikipeida)

  2. What I found fascinating when I went to Tienanmen Square is that I was in what many considered the epicenter or symbol of “Communism”, but I was surrounded by people constantly undercutting each other trying to sell stuff. I saw two guys almost duke it out over who got to sell me a $1 Mao book, It was the greatest display of capitalism I’ve ever seen.

  3. @ Russ –> I was really surprised by the level of Mao worship, to be honest. No one ever seems to call him out for the catastrophe that was the C.R. Tens of thousands of people still visit his tomb every week, too.

    @ Darrell –> Those Mao watches are so classy, it’s no wonder everyone wants to sell them. I couldn’t bring myself to buy one of Mao’s Red Books since that’s all free on the internet!