Visiting Mao Zedong
Today I waited in line to see the body of Mao Zedong at the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall at Tiananmen Square. When Mao died in 1976 (the year both Hsing-ay and I were born), the Chinese followed their Russian comrades and decided that all great communist leaders should be embalmed and put on display. So, Mao was embalmed and a memorial hall was constructed at the southern end of the square. Each day 10s of thousands queue up to pay their respects, or at least to briefly gaze upon Mao’s preserved body.
Although seeing Mao will not cost you a dime (or a Yuan), it will drain you and require a few hours. I arrived at the square around 8AM and already thousands were lined up. I naively thought I might get a jump on the line. So I queued up with the masses and spent roughly two hours slowly moving forward through the line. If you have ever visited China, you have likely experienced the peculiarities of how the Chinese line up. They rarely follow a calm order and typically push forward in a very aggressive fashion. So lines quickly become people massed upon people and any sense of personal space is non-existent. So for two hours I went chin to head, elbow-to-elbow, baby feet to back, toe to heel with all of the tourists who decided today was the day to see Mao. This was expectedly exhausting. Luckily I only had one cup of tea so far and was able to hold my own in the line. Once you get out of line, that’s the end of that.
The line winds its way around the outside of the hall and gradually arrives near the front door where they check your ID and send you through security. I had a terrible moment of panic early on when I realized I left behind my passport and only had a CO driver’s license. I could think of nothing worse than getting to the front of the line and being turned away. So I gambled that it would work out, and it did.
Near the front door, there are several vendors selling single stem white flowers. These are to pay your respects to the Chairman. 99.999% of visitors are Chinese that are there to pay their respects. This is a big deal for them and young and old, baby and extreme elderly all line up. We don’t really have an equivalent in America. For the religious, you might compare this to a pilgrimage. You want to see and touch the place where they say Jesus died. You want to make it to the Holy Land to touch the Wailing Wall. The Chinese want to see the person who personally saved all of China.
Once you get inside the building, you break into two lines. In the first room is a large marble statue of Mao reclining in a chair. It is an iconic image and this is where people deposit their flowers. If you have a flower, you can briefly step forward in front of the statue, then you bow several times and lay your flower upon a pile of thousands of flowers. Of course these flowers get removed everyday and I have to wonder if any of them get resold the following day.
Next you move into his room and two lines file around a glass chamber, which holds Mao. His body is covered except for his face, which is orange because of lights shining upon it. I believe the orange is to help cover up whatever unnatural color he has turned having been dead 35 years. Slowly you file past and everyone silently gazes upon his body. All in all, you are with Mao maybe 60 seconds. And then that’s it. You exit the building where you can buy souvenirs.
I wanted to take a moment to reflect upon my visit. I can’t do this without sharing some of my personal feelings about Mao. Since this will get a little bit political, I wish to say up front that I am just beginning to learn and process recent Chinese history and I do not claim to even remotely understand the totality of Mao’s life and his ultimate impact on China. In fact very few if any really have a full understanding of Mao’s life. Communist China is rarely forthcoming with details that reflect badly upon it and Mao is a particularly hard character to understand. His biographers vary in their assessments. The official Chinese stance is that Mao was 70% correct and 30% in error. Some say he was pure evil and knew everything he was doing and in an ultimate state of egomaniacal fervor he oversaw the needless deaths of tens of millions. Others say he was simply a bad leader and absentmindedly did not know much of what went on.
Here’s what I understand: Mao brought forth policies in the Great Leap Forward that led to The Great Famine. Somewhere between 15 and 45 million Chinese died in The Great Famine. Unspeakable crimes also accompanied this three-year famine (including cannibalism, unimaginable brutality, political persecution, etc). When criticized for his errors in the Great Leap Forward, Mao ushered in the Cultural Revolution, which resulted in a few million violent deaths and a reign of political terror that could rival any in human history. The Cultural Revolution has also been called China’s Lost Decade. By all accounts, it was awful. In the west we look at the holocaust as an example of evil run amuck in human behavior. The Cultural Revolution is just as shocking. In addition, Mao’s wife, the White-Boned Demon was personally responsible for much of the evil. Upon Mao’s death, she was imprisoned and has been considered a horrible villain ever since. Mao goes down as the great savior of China and his wife goes down as the embodiment of evil. That is hard to reconcile.
By many accounts, the three evil leaders of the 20th century were Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. By body count, Mao might easily win. When Mao died, the Cultural Revolution ended and tremendous reforms began that changed China into the modern super power we know today. It seems that almost everything good that has happened in recent Chinese history began with Mao’s death.
Stalin and Hitler are not celebrated. In general, we don’t celebrate those who ushered in so much pain and death. Yet, I stood in line for two hours with thousands to pay reverence to this murderer. Mao’s portrait still decorates the very heart of Beijing. Portraits of Mao are everywhere and Chinese school children are taught that he is the savior of China. 70% correct and 30% incorrect…
I know that it is easy to make these simple observations as an outsider or westerner. So easy to look at a culture that is not my own and make big sweeping critiques. I mean to write my personal thoughts in humility, but I am sure they can come across as western arrogance. Yet, this culture is my own to a degree. 12 years ago I married into a Chinese family. This family fled China in 1984 because of all this horrific tragedy. They gave up everything in order to gain freedom and to offer a better life for my wife (who was 8 at the time). My in laws lived through the worst of these events. They were a family of musicians (educated academics) and they saw and felt the terror upon their teachers, their colleagues, and themselves. It was awful and the scars run deep even to this day. I still can’t begin to imagine what they went through but I see the residual damage in a very palpable way.
So I am angry with Mao. In fact I am furious. Even if he was a naive, bumbling leader, his arrogance allowed him to lead and under his leadership millions died needlessly. The souls were sucked out of many who lived. The beautiful image of humanity was squashed. And he is largely responsible. If he was a very capable leader and these things happened with malicious intent, then he may well be the greatest monster humanity has ever experienced. In his own words, in order to make an omelet, you have to break a few eggs. Make that millions and millions of eggs. What is the value of a single human life?
I find it stupefying that he is celebrated. I don’t blame the thousands that line up to see him, but I blame a crazy system that continues to prop him up as the savior of China. This is a system that does not allow an honest assessment of its own history. This is a system that does not allow dissenting opinions. He is a villain and he has caused my family and millions of other Chinese great harm.
Before I lined up, I knew every part of what would happen because I had read other accounts of visiting Mao. I knew that two hours of exhaustive waiting would lead to a strange 60 seconds of trying to process the experience of looking at a 35-year dead body. I also knew that many suspect the body has been replaced with a wax replica because the original is either too rotted, or they are worried of vandals. Yet, I wanted to experience this ritual in person. I wanted to stand with thousands and wait for this brief moment. As I seek to understand Chinese culture, I wanted to include this experience. I wanted to see the Chinese people journey on this pilgrimage. I wanted to experience the residual of decades of Mao worship. I probably will never do this again and I certainly don’t advise most western tourists to wait in line. However, I will go again some day if my daughter also wants to experience a visit to Mao’s body. Its important for us to understand this complicated period of Chinese history that has shaped my family.