Total time on subway: 98 minutes
Total time in queue: 103 minutes
Total walking time: 18 minutes
Total time to view the corpse: 42 seconds
I think it was back in 1988 that a book appeared in the UK called "101 Uses of a Dead Cat". Way before anyone had really got stuck in to the internet and how it was going to change our lives, this particular book went viral, in the sense that as soon as it hit the bookstores, fur began to fly and everyone seemed to have a copy of it.
Inside its covers you could read about, and see, drawings of some funny, some certainly, outrageous, and some downright sick cartoons. Politically correct it certainly wasn’t!
I was reminded of this tome recently when browsing a web site called topviralpictures.com. One particular picture struck a chord: that of Chairman Meow which had been viewed some 19,000 times and had been given the somewhat low score in my opinion of 2.8 out of 5.
I determined then and there to stop making excuses and to go visit the real Chairman Mao, not least to cross it off my list of places I ought to see before I finally leave Beijing – hopefully some way off.
Mao’s Mausoleum (Maosoleum???) lies on the central Beijing meridian upon which many of Beijing’s most important structures have been built, including the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Drum & Bell Towers, and Olympic (Birds Nest) Stadium.
It’s at the southern end of Tian’anmen Square, a stone’s throw from Qianmen – probably the most magnificent of Beijing’s city gates.
It is said that Mao actually wished to be cremated, but like the bodies of Lenin, Stalin and Ho Chi Minh, he never got to have a say about what happened to his body; the powers that be decided that instead his corpse would be embalmed and put on display in a glass case.
Mao Zedong died on September 9th 1976. Work on his mausoleum was started about two months later and was completed by May 1977.
China lacked the technology for embalming the body and because they had had a spat with the Soviet Union, they couldn’t very well go cap in hand to ask them for assistance. But luckily they managed to persuade the Vietnamese to spill the beans, since they had used the Soviet embalming system to preserve the body of Ho Chi Minh. Even so, many people are firmly of the opinion that the body of Mao Zedong isn’t actually real at all, but just a wax model.
The mausoleum itself is imposing in an ugly sort of a way. Outside there are a number of Soviet-realist sculptures urging the masses onwards and upwards to a communist utopia.
The mausoleum is only open for about four hours each day and when the body is not on display in its glass crystal coffin, it is lowered down into the temperature controlled vaults to preserve what is left of the body/waxwork as best they can.
Queues are amazingly long, however. You’d wonder that such a sight can draw this many people; but though his policies – especially the Cultural Revolution - may well officially now be regarded as a mistake, there is no denying that many Chinese still hold the man in great awe and respect.
Entrance to the mausoleum is actually free, but you cannot take bags and cameras inside, so the locker service located across the street on the east side of Tian’anmen makes a tidy little sum each day storing people’s belongings, with a hefty fee of 5 yuan just for a digital camera.
As the body is open to visitors from 8am till midday, I set my alarm clock early but sleep right through it, and finally emerge from under the duvet at just before 9. But your favourite blogger isn’t called ‘Fast’ for nothing; and by 9.30 I’m out of the door and on my way to Qianmen which I reach in 48 minutes.
Already the queues are miles long, snaking backwards and forwards around the Square in tight formation. Two police vans are situated near the end of the queue with a posse of cameras mounted on their roofs. There are a plethora of cameras also mounted on the lighting poles.
But the queues are pretty well behaved, while minders in smart suits keep the masses in order by shouting through loudhailers at them. The long procession moves at a determined pace and we can all feel that we are making progress moving about 20 metres every minute. It’s actually quite fun people-watching. There’s plenty to look at – granny is in need of a pee, so her daughter gets someone to keep their place in the ever moving queue and walks her over the street to a pubic loo. The minders then help granny & daughter to find their place back in the queue again, perhaps 200 metres further on.
There are loads of coach parties queuing up – each party wearing identical baseball caps in an assortment of fluorescent orange / yellow / green / and of course red colours.
As we approach one of the lamp standards near Qianmen, there is a notice shouted over the loudspeakers that cigarette lighters are definitely not allowed inside the mausoleum and suddenly there are loads and loads of them discarded along the side of the ever shuffling queue. This causes a problem a little later on given that we are still a good half hour away from the main entrance and the Chinese do love their cigarettes. So there then follows a ballet of people rushing back to retrieve a lighter, lighting up another gasper and then throwing the lighter back down again onto the pavement. Surely someone could make a fortune by retrieving all these lighters and flogging them off in the market place?
All the while the queue shuffles on relentlessly with people now pushing closer and closer starting to get restless to reach the entrance. It is now that I wish the Chinese would worry more about their bad breath and body odour, for it is an unfortunate fact that many – especially those from the provinces - don’t appear to use toothpaste or antiperspirant. Perhaps this is why they spend so much time spitting in the streets?
Eventually we turn the last corner and more instructions are shouted over the loudhailers. I see all around me that people are taking out their national ID cards so in preparation I also get out my “Foreign Expert Certificate” waiting to show it to…. Well, I never find out. It appears to be just an excuse for the plain clothes police to inspect the credentials of anyone they don’t appear to like the look of. They apparently like the way I look, so my FEC goes straight back in my pocket again, uninspected.
Next up, we have to go through a security building. It’s a bit like boarding a plane at Gatwick Airport back in blighty. Phones, keys, pens… you name it … are placed in a little tray while we then parade through metal detectors to see if we are trying to smuggle in a camera or any other naughty bit of equipment. The alarm goes off as I walk through the gate and so I step over to one of the girls armed with a sniffer wand. But she’s not interested in me and waves me on with a smile, stepping forward instead to frisk a guy with a limp, as if he is high on their most-wanted hit list.
Next we pass stall after stall selling white flowers wrapped in cellophane – 3 kwai a pop – which I am surprised to see that maybe one third of all the rubberneckers take advantage of. A notice tells us all to be quiet and to take our hats off (I haven’t said a word, and I have no hat). A granny says something to her daughter and immediately a posse of minders shhhhs her to be silent and insist that she removes her hat. She sulks silently to herself.
We mount the steps into the outer hall where there’s a white statue of the Great Helmsman sitting cross legged and looking munificent. Everybody surrenders their white flowers into a huge pile of them propped up against the base of the statue. 3 kwai for that! I wonder how long it is before the flowers are recycled for the next batch of admirers and can only take my hat off (while keeping silent, of course!) to the powers that be for introducing that little money maker!
Yet another notice exhorting us to “Please keep quiet don’t taking pictures” and “step in turn” as we finally step into the inner sanctum wherein lies the crystal coffin. As photographs are banned, I have lifted this particular pic off an official web site, but I reckon it was taken long ago.
Mao looks like a reject from Madame Tussauds; and with just the head visible, there is precious little in the way even of an outline of a body under the flag (unlike in this photo).
In his book "The Private Life of Chairman Mao", Dr. Li Zhisui describes how, on the death of Mao, he sent a researcher to a medical library. "She found a preservation procedure: a large dose of formaldehyde. We duly injected 22 litres, 6 more than the formula called for, just to be sure. When we finished at 10:00am, Mao's face was as round as a ball and his neck was the width of his head. His ears stuck out at right angles. Formaldehyde oozed from his pores.
"For another five hours," Li wrote, "the team worked with towels and cotton balls to force the liquid down into Mao's body. At last his face looked normal. But his chest was still swollen. So we slit his jacket and trousers in the back to cover his new bulk. The body was then draped with the red Communist party flag and placed in a vacuum sealed crystal casket."
I’m not surprised that many people question whether what we are looking at is in fact a real corpse or just a wax work. But I guess we will never know.
Within 42 seconds we are walking out of the inner sanctum and through the rear outer hall, ready to step once more into the daylight.
Ahead of us is the Qianmen. Immediately ahead of us are a couple of rows of souvenir stalls selling Mao tack such as Mao keyrings, Mao plates, Mao fans - anything, in fact, that can possibly have a picture of Mao printed onto it.
I head on back towards the subway station, being now able to cross off this experience from my list of places to visit. All the while I can’t stop myself from wondering if I could ever reach that magical number to write about … 101 uses for a dead communist leader.