The standard issue chairman mao

I had never before lived in a country where there was a real cult of personality. China has fixed that.

Oh, Americans give it their best shot. God bless them if they don’t want Reagan on everything these days: Ships, money, Mount Rushmore, text books, dog licenses. But as a nation, they seem to have a fair aversion to elevating deceased leaders to godhood.

This is a good thing. I am not in favor of cults of personality or the deification of human beings, living or dead. I am in favor of a scrappy press and an angry body politic that delight in jerking the rug out from underneath the people that run the country.

I am not, however, opposed to enshrining the memory of leaders who have had a significant impact on the history of the nation. Even I misted up at the Lincoln Memorial as I read the Gettysburg Address, one of history’s great orations, from the text etched on the wall in the shadow of the great man’s statue.

But what keeps America great, even in one of its darker periods, is that someone so inclined (perhaps a southerner with a Civil War chip) can stand on the steps of that very same monument and loudly declare, “Lincoln was an asshole!” without fear of state retribution or persecution.

Just try that on the steps of the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall, smack bang in the center of Tiananmen Square, and see how long it takes the state to dish out some retribution.

China knows cult of personality, and Mao is the beneficiary. I realize that “cult of personality” is often used with regards to a living person, but I suspect that, in the Chinese national consciousness, Mao is not entirely dead. One of the interesting things about being in China now is that the country still seems to be building the Mao mythology, even as it modernizes at a breakneck pace and wrestles with itself about Mao’s legacy.

Before I share any further observations, I need to make a disclosure. I am not a China expert, nor a China historian. As with all the other entries in this journal, I write as a layperson awash in China for the first time. If you want to take scholarly issue with any of my observations, the comment form is at the bottom of the page. Among all the articles I have posted on this blog, this is the one for which I would most like to see some input from other people living in China.

The thing that got me thinking about Mao’s place in the Chinese national consciousness was a small photograph that my father bought at a curio store when he was here for a recent visit. Prior to that, I had noted the giant painting on the Forbidden City, the Mausoleum, and Mao’s portrait on all the new currency in a kind of offhand way. The photograph was nothing special. A relic from the 1960s, it shows three students in, naturally, Mao jackets posing at the feet of a Mao statue in front of what appears to be a university or government building.

The statue of Mao is large and imposing, perhaps near ten meters tall. He stands resolutely, gazing forward at the horizon/future/building across the street. He appears to be facing a moderate headwind, as the bottom of his greatcoat is swept back in the imaginary breeze.

I was walking home from class by a back road a couple of days after my father bought the photograph when I passed one of the nearly one-hundred universities in the Haidian district. I can’t remember which university this was; the University of Panel Beating, or the University of Flocculent Textile Sciences or some such. What was important was that it had the Mao statue and what appeared to be the same building in the background! Oh my god, I thought, that’s the goddamn statue! This is the place in the photo! What a coincidence!

I whipped out the digital camera and took a couple of furtive shots, and strolled on past the Starbucks, the Subway, and the other franchise businesses that were, cunningly, located down the street, just outside of Mao’s still resolutely communist gaze.

Well, of course it was not the same statue or the same building. This became completely obvious when I spotted first one, then two, then three other identical Mao statues in front of the indistinguishably drab institutional buildings that still represent the cutting edge of Chinese academic architecture. This was, it turned out, the standard issue Mao statue, planted in front of what appeared to be all public facilities that existed during the 1960s or 70s. On Xueyuan Lu, not far from where I live and study, two of the statues gaze resolutely at each other from opposite sides of the street, in a breathtaking tableau of entombed narcissism.

This experience got me thinking about the rest of the Mao iconography in Beijing, and about how Chinese people today actually perceive Mao. There is no doubt that the Chairman is omnipresent. If the statues on the university campuses aren’t enough, in many Beijing restaurants, a bust of Mao occupies the same spot of honor that, in Singapore, would have a small Buddhist or ancestral altar. Many taxi and van drivers have a Mao medallion hanging from the rearview mirror. On one side will be Mao, and on the other will be either Zhou Enlai or Kuan Yin. (I am not sure why the option.) At this moment the Chinese government is in the midst of introducing new currency in which all the bills feature the Chairman’s likeness.

Tiananmen Square is, of course, the centre of the Mao cult in China. The Chairman’s immense portrait hangs on the front of the Forbidden City, gazing across the square at the Monument to the People’s Heroes and, beyond that, his own tomb, the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall. The portrait is a mandatory stop for the legions of Chinese tourists who make pilgrimages to Beijing to stand at the heart of the empire. Everyone has their photo taken in front of the Mao portrait. The tomb itself is a monumental attraction, and as the focal point of the average Chinese tourist’s Beijing pilgrimage, plays as a central and formalized a role as the Kabaa does in the Hajj.

But despite the cult of personality, the mythmaking and the iconography, it seems that the Chinese don’t really agree on Mao’s legacy. During my father’s recent visit to Beijing, we were invited to the house of three academics whom, for obvious reasons, I won’t identify. In the midst of a lovely meal of home cooked dumplings, vegetables, and surprisingly palatable Chinese brandy, the topic of Mao came up. Two of the academics were in their fifties and had come from prosperous families. During the Cultural Revolution, as teenagers, they were both shipped to a northern province to till the earth for eight years. They were blunt in their assessment of the Chairman. “We hate him,” said one, leaving little room for argument.

Also at the table was a younger academic, in her forties, who was the head of the institute where one of the other two worked. She was not a victim of the Cultural Revolution, and she had a different opinion. She saw Mao as the founder of modern China, and a figure to be revered. I don’t know much of this sentiment was sincere and how much was a political necessity of her position. I was, however, impressed with the fact that the three of them were willing to share their differing opinions with us, and able to be colleagues and friends despite their fundamentally different outlooks on the most charged figure in modern Chinese history.

Originally, I thought the younger academic’s sentiment might be representative of post-Cultural Revolution Chinese in general. It seemed likely that, if you had not personally had to endure those miserable years, you might be more receptive to the modern mythmaking and reformation of Mao. But a read through the transcript of a Taiwan discussion forum on the Beijing University Website, provided by my friend Dave Hull, made me re-think that. Amidst the lively and somewhat worrying debate about whether China should invade Taiwan were several references to Mao. Clearly, as a group, educated Chinese youth aren’t really sure of Mao’s legacy either. Some admired his charisma and vision. One, screened by the anonymity of his posting, pointedly referred to him as “that madman”.

Meanwhile, here in Beijing, the official iconography of Mao, while still powerful, is slowly being diluted by the transformation of Cultural Revolution imagery, including Mao imagery, into tourist kitsch. On any stroll through Tiananmen Square you will be besieged by hawkers touting Mao watches (the second hand is his waving arm, moving back and forth) and little red books of Mao Tse Dong thought, helpfully translated into English. Go to the Hongqiao Market, near the temple of heaven, and you will find dozens of curio stores selling reproduction Cultural Revolution posters featuring socialist-realist and revolutionary-romanticist renderings of the great figures of the Chinese revolution. Shops in Qianmen sell T-shirts with portraits of Lei Feng, the idealized communist soldier.

The Chinese clearly recognize all of these things as kitsch, and no one seems to mind. Of course the Chinese History Museum, on Tiananmen Square, displays waxworks of the great figures of Chinese history, with a strong emphasis on revolutionary figures. This is done without any visible irony whatsoever, so who really knows how the Chinese view a Mao watch. They don’t wear them.

With all of these conflicting signals, there was only one thing to do. I had to visit the heart of cult, and make the pilgrimage to Mao’s tomb. Technically the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall, this is an enormous, square, Stalinist edifice on the southern end of Tiananmen Square, near Qianmen. It is a huge attraction for the thousands of Chinese tourists who come to the capital.

An artificial scarcity is maintained by only opening the tomb for two or three hours a day, five days a week. The result is a queue that can stretch well over a kilometer, enhancing the Chairman’s mystique. After all, it wouldn’t be so flattering if the Chairman was open round the clock, like a Seven-Eleven, and you could just wander in any time. (Notice: Cashier does not have the keys to the crypt.) No, the government has clearly taken a calculated step to enhance the sense that all the world has come to see Mao.

If you are ever in Beijing, I highly recommend going to see the Chairman. The joy of it is not in actually seeing the body; it’s in witnessing one of the world’s last remaining bits of great, communist theater. Dave Hull and I spent an hour in the immense queue that wound, in crisp right angles, across half of Tiananmen Square. We baked in the brutal, Beijing summer with the salt of the Chinese earth; ordinary people who had come from across the country to see the big city sights. The crowd was a mix of families, old aunties and uncles, and colossal Chinese tour groups in matching caps, dutifully following young women with colored flags and megaphones. Foreigners were rare. People from the countryside, where, I am told, the cult of Mao still holds strong sway, were common. Kites flapped overhead, and water and ice cream hawkers roamed the line, flogging temporary relief and trailing a cloud of beggars who competed with each other for the empty plastic bottles.

We moved quickly, under the constant bombardment of a public address system that explained, in Chinese and English, the decorum that should be observed in the queue and in the mausoleum. Every twenty yards or so, an attendant with a megaphone kept an eye open for queue jumpers and forbidden bags and parcels.

After an hour of switchbacks we approached the entrance to the Memorial Hall. As we moved toward the front stairs, we passed the flower concession. Here you could spend two kuai on a bouquet of artificial flowers wrapped in official “Chairman Mao Memorial Hall” cellophane. Many people were buying the flowers. As we ascended the stairs we had a chance to buy the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall Official Pamphlet for one kuai. “Chairman Mao will always live in our hearts”, it proclaimed on the front, above a photograph of a still living Mao giving a speech. I bought one.

Moments later we were at the grand entrance to the Memorial Hall. After an hour of flirting with heatstroke I was suddenly, gloriously, bathed in the air-conditioned breeze. Inside the doors the queue split into two, flowing to either side of a large statue of a seated Mao, arms in lap, legs casually crossed, gazing benevolently over the masses come to visit his corpse. In front of the statue were two enormous metal bins on wheels into which people duly threw the bouquets of artificial flowers they had purchased moments before. Some genuflected briefly, as they would with incense before a Buddhist shrine, before tossing their flowers into the bins. Obviously, when the bins were full, they would be wheeled back out to the flower stall and replaced with empty ones. Someone is doing well on that racket.

Clouds of starched attendants manhandled the bifurcated queue into neat two-abreast rows and we were rudely prodded into the next room. There was some pressure to keep the visitor throughput up. An auntie and uncle in front of me attempted several times to walk single file so both could be on the inside to get a better glimpse of Chairman, only to be rudely wrenched back into line-abreast by the attendants. Anyone who slowed down or, heaven forbid, stopped was immediately upbraided and poked back into motion.

Two doglegs later and we were in the Hall of Last Respects. There was the Great Helmsman, tucked under a Chinese flag with only his head and upper shoulders showing, as if napping in a refrigerated, glass coffin were simply the way to pass a hot afternoon. An honor guard of four soldiers kept watch. Of course, who knows if that really was him in the crypt. It could have been a bad waxwork. He did, after all, look puffy and, well, dead. Rumors float around Beijing that the real body is swapped with a wax one on alternate days. It is also said that, when not on display, the corpse is lowered on a hydraulic lift into the chamber below where the mausoleum ghouls perform their grisly maintenance tasks. One friend of mine thought that this meant the Chairman was raised into a standing position when on display, perhaps something like the “Evening with Mr. Lincoln” animatronic at Disneyland. I had to disappoint him, but I do think there is potential in the animatronic idea.

In the Hall of Last Respects everyone craned their necks for the best look as we swept past. We all had line of sight on the body for perhaps ten or fifteen seconds. And then we went around the back wall and emerged into the gift shop.

If ever an ironic shock could cause respiratory arrest and death, this was it. Fifteen feet behind the corpse of the literal embodiment of Chinese communism, the gift shop was flogging Mao paintings, Mao medallions, Mao figurines, Mao picture books, and Mao tributes of every other conceivable shape and form. If the gift shop didn’t have what you wanted, behind the mausoleum, stretching towards Qianmen, was a hundred yards of stalls selling even more Mao paraphernalia.

And that was the Temple of Mao. Admission was free.

My father, an Englishman by training, is convinced that the enshrinement of the corpse is a Chinese expression of the Arthurian myth. By not returning the body to the elements, Mao is kept alive in the public consciousness and the implicit suggestion is made that, perhaps, in China’s darkest hour, the Great Helmsman will rise again and steer China through its troubles. Then again, many people here believe that China’s darkest hour already came as a result of Mao’s stewardship.

So Mao continues to loom over China, occupying an uneasy, conflicted spot in the national consciousness, half tyrant, half beloved founder of the modern state. Both views are correct. But the conflict doesn’t seem to be causing the nation any visible agonies. Even those who disparage Mao feel an obvious pride in Chinas current success. Perhaps, one of these days, the Chinese will reconcile their feelings about Mao’s role in their history. Meanwhile, the Chinese might not be sure of Mao’s place in the modern world, but they seem increasingly sure of their own.

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