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

A to Z Abroad: Ya’nan

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One off-the-radar place for an American to visit in China is Ya’nan, as it is considered the birthplace of the Communist Revolution. Aside from monuments and museums dedicated to Mao Zedong (the leader of  communist China until his death in 1976), Ya’nan is also home to beautiful cultural traditions.

Ya’nan, Shaanxi, China
Photo by: c.b.w. 2005

Ya’nan usually isn’t on a Westerner’s agenda, but it does serve as a major destination for Chinese tourists looking to see iconic locations associated with Chinese history. It was interesting to watch anxious tourists waiting in lines to go through a museum preserving relics from the civil war between Communists and Nationalists. Weapons, articles of clothing, and documents that would be objects of curiosity in the West are instruments of hero worship in Ya’nan.

Statue of Mao Zedong outside a museum dedicated to him and the Communist Revolution
Photo by: c.b.w. 2005

As I walked through this museum, guards followed me. As an American, I stuck out and was instantly treated with suspicion. After all, what would a pro-democracy, capitalist be doing in a communist museum? If they really must know, the history teacher in me was fascinated. Luckily, my shadow kept a distance and let me roam freely.

Parts of the hills around Ya’nan are essentially an extension of the museum. In 1934, Mao Zedong lead around 12,000 communists and supporters on The Long March to escape the pursuits of the Nationalist army. Mao settled in an area around Ya’nan, where he as his army lived in cave homes. Many of these homes are preserved and opened to tourists, including the home where Mao lived throughout the revolution.

Of course, I walked through Mao’s cave home. I don’t know what was more interesting, the fact that the interior was so cool without the use of A/C or watching a group of Chinese tourists excitedly feast their eyes on the every day items of a man that still has idol status. Again, I was looked upon as being out of place, but at this point I was accustomed to being an outsider.

Entrance to a cave home in the hills Ya’nan
Photo by: c.b.w. 2005

The star above the doorway is a symbol of Communism and continues to be used today in China’s flag. All around the cave homes are speakers dressed in revolution military uniforms. The man below claimed to fight alongside Mao, but I’m no so sure about that. My guide warned us that most Chinese accept the concept of “authentic fake” when it comes to relics and witnesses. Essentially, if something is realistic, then it’s authentic enough.

Historical speaker in Ya’nan
Photo by: c.b.w. 2005

He spoke English quite well, so I sat down and listened to him for a little while. In a way, it was like listening to my grandpa tell stories about his experiences in the war. However, the Chinese tourists around me listened with incredible enthusiasm.

Ya’nan also boasts a nine-story pagoda built during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.). Aside from beautiful dynastic architecture, the tower is also significant to the Chinese revolutionary movement. When the Communist Party had it’s headquarters in Ya’nan the bell was used to toll the hour of the day and sound alarms.

Ya’nan Hill Pagoda
Photo by: c.b.w. 2005

After getting my fill of Chinese revolutionary history, I was treated to a performance of  tribal dance. China is actually home to at least 68 ethnic groups, each with their own traditions. The people in the hills of Ya’nan are full of smiles and brilliant color as they moves across the stage.

Traditional dance in Ya’nan
Photo by: c.b.w. 2005

Besides being followed and regarded with confusion, I look upon my time Ya’nan as one of the more interesting experiences I had in China. The West sees Mao Zedong in a rather negative light, (rightly so in many respects), but in China the man is still revered by many. History, of course, will be the ultimate judge, but for now the duality of his legacy remains in place.

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Part of the A to Z Challenge!

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c.b.w. 2013

Seeds to Ponder

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Sunflower Seeds by Ai Weiwei is a profound work of art in both its simplicity and awe inspiring scope.  At first glance, it looks like a pile of sunflower seed husks, but upon closer inspection the incredible reality of this piece becomes apparent.  Each seed is handcrafted from porcelain and hand-painted.  No two are alike and more than 100 million were created for the initial exhibition that covered the the Turbine Hall at The Tate Modern.

"Sunflower Seeds" by Ai Weiwei, Original Exhibition in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, (Photo Source: Wikipedia Commons)

During the initial run of the exhibition, (October 2009 – May 2010), people were encouraged to interact with the installation by walking through, sitting or even lying down amid the seeds, but that was short lived as soon as health, safety, and preservation concerns caused it to be roped off.  I’m a little jealous of those who were able to tread through the seeds!

In 2011, the Tate put 8 million of the original seeds on display in response to Weiwei’s detainment by the Chinese government and subsequent disappearance¹.  The display, which represents about 1/10 of the original installation, sits in a large pile in an exhibition room on the third floor. While significantly smaller than the original, the intent and deeper meaning of Weiwei’s work has not been lost.

"Sunflower Seeds" by Ai Weiwei, Tate Museum, London, June 2011, c.b.w.

While open to interpretation on many levels, the intent of Sunflower Seeds reaches into a dark chapter of Chinese history and the human spirit.  During the Cultural Revolution, (a particularly brutal era in history where people lost basic human rights and were stripped of cultural traditions), Mao Zedong launched a massive propaganda campaign where in some instances he depicted himself as the sun and the people as sunflowers who turn their heads to follow him.  However, the artist sees sunflower seeds as a traditional food shared among friends in China and is therefore a symbol of friendship and compassion.  This duality of symbolism creates an interesting insight into the human spirit.  Even in times of strife and struggle, kindness and goodwill continue to survive.

In addition,  Weiwei’s installation offers social commentary on today’s society.  The Tate poses several questions to consider while viewing the seeds:

  • What does it mean to be an individual in today’s society?
  • Are we insignificant or powerless unless we act together?
  • What do our increasing desires, materialism and number mean for society, the environment and the future?

I had the pleasure of spending some time with this installation last summer, but even after an hour of regarding the Weiwei’s work and contemplating these questions I am no closer to answering them.  Though, I am reminded of a favorite quote, which sums up my general impression of the piece:

What happens to people who spend their lives afraid to voice their opinions? They stop thinking, most likely.

– Ivan Klíma

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¹He was released in June 2011, but remains under scrutiny.

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Sources: 

Tate Modern Exhibition Pages

Ai Weiwei on Wikipedia

The Guardian – Detained Artist Weiwei Remembered . . .

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c.b. 2012