Rumour has it that Mao Zedong is regarded as a bit of a joke these days in China. The government might pay lip service to his name, but they have gone far from his legacy – or so the common wisdom has it. In the pursuit of wealth in the new capitalist China, Mao’s memorabilia is the stuff of tourists and not locals. Marxism – well nobody talks about that these days. Even the Chinese word for comrade, tóngzhì (‘of the same mind’), has slipped from common usage and is now used by gays and lesbians.
What of his mausoleum, in the middle of Tiananmen (Gate of Heaven) Square? Is it forlorn and abandoned? Is it visited at most by the odd wizened peasant, bent and shrivelled, who still keeps the faith? Is the square festooned with advertisements and shops and fashion-conscious Beijingese, leaving the former chairman to his ignominious fate? Do wily Chinese hawkers throng the square, forgetting the man from Hunan and using all their tricks to deprive visiting of their cash?
On a sweltering August morning I decide to visit the mausoleum, not sure what to expect. Striding through the early Beijing haze, I pick my way past steaming, freshly cooked street food, of the sort that is eminently tasty – although I have it on good advice that one should make sure it is cooked before your own eyes. Which I do, before downing breakfast with much relish. Meanwhile, a blue-uniformed woman picks up odds and ends of rubbish with a long bamboo pair of pincers in the perpetual war against Beijing litter. I have seen the same type of pincers hanging on the wall of squat toilets in slow overnight trains.
The metro tunnel soon after sunrise seems packed already, although this is nothing compared with the real peak hour. Heads with black straight hair of varying lengths bob up and down to their own rhythms, all part of an unwitting dance as we cross from one metro line to another. Bodies move in the almost imperceptible particularity of the locals: men with barely a movement above the waist; women with a definitive flick of the hips. On the metro I stand, pretending to surf and stare at the map. Locals wonder whether I am lost, trying to make out where to alight. But I am undertaking my daily lesson in Chinese script, correlating the mix of pinyin and translations with the script itself – north (bei), east (xi), gate (men), big (da), mouth (kou), capital (jing) and so on. It is my version of a child’s flashcards. Tiananmen West station is almost empty and only few alight here. Excellent, I think. I should have the place to myself …
Hardly. To me it seems as though the square (when I at last figure out how to get in, through the tunnels and security checks) is already chock-full. Tour group leaders hold up flags as rallying points; members of these groups wear silly hats in bright colours as a kind of contingent clan identity; people stream in and out of the toilets; weary parents with children sag and seek relief; thousands mill about, photographing, acquiring red flags, drinks and snacks from the beverage wagon. In reality it is far from full, as I would find out soon enough.
Massive is the square. It is flanked by impossibly huge buildings – the national museum, a library, a couple of temples, an exquisite red structure with the portrait of Mao spread across its side. For a moment I think that is the mausoleum. But no, the mausoleum is in the centre, seemingly on the horizon from where I stand.
The closer I draw, the larger becomes the line, five abreast, centimetering forward to enter the mausoleum. Before I can go a step further, a guard motions to my camera: ‘In the locker’, he says. Aforesaid locker happens to be an awful distance away. And still the crowd swells. By the time I join the line, really a wide column, it encircles half of the mausoleum. Well over a thousand comrades shuffle slowly along. With our small steps, we sway from one side to another. Long steps make one’s head bob up and down; short steps, like now, make one sway. So I join another slow dance, the swaying dance to see Chairman Mao.
Where are all the old comrades? The occasional old fogeys with dodgy legs, walking sticks, wheel chairs, the grace of bent backs, shrunken bodies and grey-white hair are given the fast lane – even though their pace is no quicker than ours. In the main column, it is mostly younger people, either together with friends, or family groups, or on their own. I had not expected this. Nor had I expected the quiet orderliness of the line. Unlike the usual ‘flexibility’ of Chinese lines, in which one cuts in, opens up a space, calls over backs, slips between legs, thrusts a finger through a gap, people keep their place. To be sure, or two try to jump in, but a guard curtly orders them back.
Eventually we round the final turn, to the front of the mausoleum (I had started at the back of the mausoleum). With plenty of time, we shuffle on past a colossal sculpture. One of four, it depicts a brave man, bare chest thrust out to the enemy, a serious and vigorous woman beside him, others following with guns, ammunition, sabres, what have you. The Red Army in the civil war, I surmise. We turn again and face the front steps of the mausoleum. Another security and I.D. check, a small bouquet of white flowers to be bought if one wishes.
On the first step of the temple-like stairs, I am struck by the realisation: this is just like the Confucius temple I visited in Nanjing. A little smaller, but there too one climbs stairs, there too one finds a figure (albeit a statue), there too one leaves flowers, there too one offers silent respect and perhaps a request. But there too it is simply a significant historical figure, one crucial for the making of China, whom one reverences as one does the ancestors. Indeed, the first chamber of the mausoleum has a white, marble statue of Mao. He sits on a chair, legs crossed, a smile on his lips. Behind him is a large tapestry of the mountains of Hunan, his birthplace. Here the flowers are left (and I thank heaven (tian) that I didn’t waste money on those things.) A black-attired usher urges us to be quiet as the throng splits into two lines to enter the towering chamber with the sarcophagus.
Before me is a clear glass sarcophagus, far, far grander than I had expected. It is large enough for two guards to stand within, a couple of metres away from his shoulders, immovable in green uniform. A warm, yellow light beams on a point at its other end. It is his face, which gradually comes into view. The rest of his body is covered with a red-starred dark cloth on a substantial bier. But I focus on the face.
A double chin smaller than the photographs, the wart under his lip barely visible, eyes closed, lips made up for some colour, the hair dark and receded from his forehead. I had expected that we would be ushered past at a cracking pace. But no, we are allowed to slow down, pause, look long and hard. I feel as though I am in his presence for a long time.
We pass out of the chamber, into a small hall at the back and down the stairs. Before me in a courtyard are spread stalls, around which people throng – Mao memorabilia, of course. Once again I am surprised, for everyone seems to want something, a memento of the visit. So I succumb, checking out all the stalls. I end up with plenty of loot: a Mao pocket watch; a concertina stage set in the Beijing Opera style, but now with images from Mao’s life and Chinese text; and a wall hanging with that famous image of him reading out the announcement of the establishment of the PRC in 1949. He purses his lips, pausing, slightly nonplussed. It is as though he is thinking: ‘what idiot wrote that line? I don’t recall discussing that statement’. Or maybe, ‘how the hell do you say that in Putonghua? Ah well, I’ll just have to do it in Hunanhua, my own dialect’.
Once outside, I notice that the line has tripled in the half hour it took me to visit. It is 9.00 am and the guards are roping off more sections of the line, so that now it snakes and turns many times. I hear that on festival days it can take three hours to get inside. The chairman is in the minds of more, far more than one might expect.