Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Maomorabilia sold separately

If the Beijing is the most authoritarian-feeling city in China, and Tiananmen Square is the most authoritarian-feeling place in Beijing, then Mao's tomb is the most authoritarian-feeling part of Tiananmen Square. But more than that, it is also the most fascinating fusion of authoritarianism, capitalism, and religiosity I've seen in China or anywhere in the world.

Mao's tomb resembles the other buildings in Tiananmen Square, in that it is a monolithic, Soviet-style concrete monstrosity. The building is a feng shui nightmare, situated at the south end of the Square and facing north toward Tiananmen Gate and the Forbidden City, all of whose palaces are oriented to the south. This was apparently very controversial at the time the tomb was built. I'm also convinced that its size was dictated by the Chinese authorities asking, "How big is Lenin's tomb? We'll double it!" In the Russians' defense, the Lenin mausoleum is an architectural masterpiece that was as revolutionary for its time as its titular resident, where as the Mao tomb is...very big.

The exterior is decorated with some pretty standard communist iconography, with statutes of generic-looking peasants triumphantly bearing Mao's standard. Apparently, in the communist world, man and woman alike are insanely buff. No wonder those East German women won all those Olympic weightlifting titles during the Cold War.

The tomb is only open from 8:30 am to 11:30 am every day (the rest of the time, Mao is lowered through the floor into a giant freezer, where he spends the rest of the day). As a result, lines are huge. We made our way toward the end, but were immediately turned away. No bags or cameras allowed in Mao's tomb, and I was wearing a backpack.

So off we went to the east side of Tiananmen Square, where for a fee determined by the size of my backpack, we could deposit in storage. In addition, we would have to pay a fee for each camera that was being left behind. I paid at one window and, as I was walking to another window to deposit my bag, Britt put his camera in with mine without having paid. When I handed the man my bag, he inspected my ticket and then opened the bag. Discovering a second camera that wasn't authorized by my receipt, he sent us right back to the payment counter to buy another camera deposit.

20 yuan (US $2.50) later, we were in line for Mao. A channel, wide enough for 3 people, runs around the Mao tomb and is marked with chalk in the pavement. As we walked, a passing guard began barking agitatedly at a trio in front of us. The group was walking such that two stood side-by-side and one behind, and the guard insisted that they walk in a line, so as to fill out the whole designated line. A few minutes later, a man behind us was chastised loudly for walking outside the chalked-off area. Clearly, these people had an uncompromising vision of how the line was supposed to work.

We moved forward at a decent clip, and before too long, we were past the external gate and in a courtyard area, where the line snaked back and forth once more before going in. Along the way, we passed a trailer, where the Mao faithful could purchase flowers from the tomb, ranging from a single carnation to a 24-rose bouquet. A remarkable number of the visitors opted to buy flowers, and there was no trend to who decided to buy...people representing all ages, classes, and regions picked up flowers as they went. When we reached the door of the building itself, we passed a vendor who, for 8 yuan (about US $1), sold a small booklet that, in English and Mandarin, recounted Mao's greatest hits and reproduced various photos of him at historic moments. These, too, sold quite well.

As we entered the first main hall, we were greeted by a larger-than-life marble statue of Mao, set before an intricate and beautiful tapestry of verdant greens, spacious skies, and amber waves of grain (looks like they view their countryside the same way we do). From there, the line forked into left and right paths around the outside of the room, but before visitors committed to a side, they could approach the statute and lay down their flowers on the floor in front of it. Several bowed while they presented their flower, while a few actually bowed three times before laying them down, replicating the traditional procedure employed by worshipers setting down incense at Buddhist temples. The religiosity of the process was very much in line with the room's solemn atmosphere and the visitors' reverential demeanor.

From there, we passed into the room were Mao lay, draped in the Chinese flag. Once entering that room, under no circumstances were we permitted to stop moving. Although we did slow to a shuffle to prolong our view of the "Great Helmsman," even this attracted wary stares from the multiple posted guards. Stopping wouldn't have worked anyhow, as the neverending flow of visitors would have spirited us through whether we liked it or not. Within a matter of seconds, we had passed, and it was over.

As for Mao himself? I have to say, the Chairman isn't looking so hot. He's waxy, orange, and way too smooth-skinned for someone who was over 80 years old and in poor health when he died. From the moment his embalmed remains were unveiled, rumors swirled. In talking to other tourists and locals, I've heard that: he's real, he's a wax doll, sometimes he's real and sometimes he's a wax doll and they switch it out for preservation purposes, he used to be real but was later replaced with a wax doll, and parts of him are real and parts of him are wax. He certainly doesn't look as good as Lenin, who has a bit of the waxy texture himself, but looks far more like an actual person, and is subject to periodic inspection by scientists who confirm that he's real (and not decomposing).

But what does it matter? Real or not, you still have the same bizarre situation as in the old Soviet Union: a communist society that disdains religion, that is formally atheist, deifying a once-living man, taking a great and powerful leader and relegating him to eternal status as a puppet of the state. Maybe saddest of all on an individual level is that Lenin had specifically asked to be buried without fanfare when he died, while Mao had instructed that he should be cremated. Mao's power was being challenged in the last years of his reign, his policies all but abandoned by the reformist government that followed, and still, the cult of Mao lives on.

And nowhere was this more evident than right outside the back door of the Mao tomb, where hordes of street vendors hawked Maomorabilia, with Mao's face plastered on watches, messenger bags, hats, t-shirts, mugs, pens, key-rings, ashtrays, lighters, statues... Good to know that you can have the great red heart of the people on the tchotchke of your choice for just a few yuan.

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