A to Z Abroad: Zedong’s Mausoleum

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Picture this: Waiting in line for four hours in 90 degree heat to see a dead guy on display. My tour director in China thought seeing the well-preserved corpse of Mao Zedong would be a perfect way to spend my second morning in Beijing. Yikes.

When I arrived at Tiananmen Square,  a huge line was already forming around Mao’s Mausoleum. The paint I saw on the pavement the day before now made sense. The painted lines are lane markers so people know where to stand on days when the mausoleum was open.

The line around Mao Zedong’s Mausoleum
Photo by: c.b.w. 2005

Guards actively monitor the lanes to make sure people stand four-wide and that the line wraps around the building in an orderly fashion. However, the guard’s most important duty is to watch out for line-cutters and remove those who are not properly attired to view Mao. Flip-flops and cameras are not allowed!

The line was about three rings wide, which translated to about four hours of waiting. Line cutters are  a big problem and there weren’t enough guards to stop them all. We had to actively shoo away rude and impatient people from cutting in front of us. I don’t know if line-cutting is an open rebellion to the Western standard of queuing up or if these people really are that excited to see Mao.

Mao Zedong is a controversial historical figure, especially in the West. He is considered a brutal dictator responsible for millions of deaths, but in China his legacy is protected by propaganda both past and present. Despite the violence and death associated with his regime, many in China still view him as a hero. Even though he’s been dead since 1976, he still enjoys idol status and is worshipped by millions. The crowd surrounding his mausoleum is proof of his elevated status. Thousands of people carry flowers and other offerings, waiting for the chance to catch a glimpse of Mao Zedong’s body.

The entrance to the mausoleum is flanked by statues commemorating all those who fought alongside Mao.

Memorial to the soldiers who fought in the Communist Revolution
Photo by: c.b.w. 2005

After passing through the memorial “gates,” the guards split the line in half – two people go to the right and two people go to the left. Upon entering the building, the guards tell people to keep moving unless they are leaving offerings.

After walking through small causeway, I found myself in the presence Mao lying on a platform and surrounded by bulletproof glass. Offerings of flowers, money, and gifts were piled up at the base of the glass enclosure. Those adding to the pile hit their knees in prayer.

As a history teacher, I found myself staring at a man I’ve only seen in textbooks. Even though I had to keep walking, I pondered his role in the world, while watching people leave offering and offering. Some even cried at the sight of him, the way fangirls do when they meet their favorite singer. Here I was in the middle, considering two very different sides to the same coin.

Within a few minutes, I was again outside. The line was still wrapped around the building full of people waiting for their moment with Mao. As they wait, they look upon his image on Tiananmen Gate.

Mao Zedong’s image on Tiananmen Gate
Photo by: c.b.w. 2005

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Part of the A to Z Challenge!

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c.b.w. 2013

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28 thoughts on “A to Z Abroad: Zedong’s Mausoleum

  1. K.Jacqleene

    I have never understood worshiping man on any level, rather singer, actor, or dictator. You have been honored to see some very interesting events and places to give you a much clearer picture of history and man’s place in it. Thank you again for sharing these posts on your blog. I will continue to follow you now that the challenge is over but I won’t worship you. haha :)

    • It’s sometimes easy to get caught up in something, but I hope we never see anything like dictators of the past rise to power again. Blind worship can be a dangerous thing.

      Thanks so much for following along! :-)

  2. C.B., thanks for the educational and photographic tour of many places I’ve never been and likely never will be. I’ve enjoyed reading every post and seeing every photograph. I’ll be continuing to follow your blog as I can’t possibly imagine not staying in touch.

  3. I imagine that is slightly eerie – is he mummified?

    Really fascinating reading your posts and getting to visit many locales, some familiar, some not at all. Congrats on winning!

    • Astonishing is a good word for Mao. For all the brutality of his regime, there was also some amazing accomplishments. If only all that power was used in a more positive way.

      Thanks for your continued visits throughout the challenge. I’m glad you enjoyed the journey. :-)

    • China as a whole was an incredible experience, but I do have mixed feeling about visiting Mao’s Mausoleum. From a historical standpoint, how could I not walk through and see the man. From a girl who doesn’t like being around corpses it was also incredibly creepy. I don’t understand the need to put on display from a personal standpoint, but from a sociological standpoint I totally get it. Being in the middle like that is a strange place to be. :-)

  4. On the other hand I *can* understand this type of ‘worship’, when I consider Chinese culture’s respect for ancestors and veneration of an ‘Emperor’ figure. This culture survived communism (I don’t regard the current Chinese regime as being communist – it is in fact an oligarchic form of statism/capitalism), and in fact I believe Mao played on this. The controversial biography by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday gives a picture of a man who believed he was destined for personal greatness, and I have always had the impression that he would have been content to get there without Communism, if something else had presented itself to him. I can recommend that book thoroughly.

    The memorial is a brutally impressive example of Chinese triumphalist ‘Socialist Realism’, a style of art you won’t see these days.

    • From a sociological standpoint, I totally understand the worship element – filial piety is one of the more fascinating elements of Chinese culture. Observing this behavior with that filter makes every thing that happened at the mausoleum perfectly logical. But from a personal perspective, I found it puzzling. There I was in the middle, listening to both sides!

      Jung Chang’s biography is a fantastic read. She does make an interesting point that Mao was dead set on personal greatness, but I don’t know that I agree that Communism was just a vehicle to him as that government system plays so heavily into pre-existing cultural elements, (i.e. lack of individual for the greater good, filial piety, etc). In addition, I think his own propaganda machine caused his ego to expand beyond his original concept of personal greatness.

      • I would say that was a cumulative effect. The one fed the other.

        Incidentally I love biographies like that. I have also read Simon Sebag-Montefiore’s two excellent biographies of Stalin, plus biographies of Trotsky and Mussolini (for an anarchist I sure do love my dictators! LOL); still to read – Jack Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy, John Major, Enoch Powell, Winston Churchill. I’ll get round to them some time.

        I have been avoiding Adolf Hitler (too much has been written about him, and it is so difficult to find a ‘way in’ to a personality like that; I have, however, seen a recording of one of his speeches – all the way through, not just the histrionics – and it was a fascinating study) and Margaret Thatcher (we are too close to the fawning hagiolatry at the moment to get a good historical and personal analysis).

        Thank you for your A-Z, by the way. I’m still humming ‘Ma Vlast’, dammit! :D

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