Saturday, April 18, 2009

We Paid A Visit To...

...The Chairman

Tian’An Men and the Forbidden City have been visited many times in our 3 years in China but it seems that we could never make it to the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall (毛主席纪念堂 - Mao2 Zhu3Xi2 Ji4Nian4Tang2) that is located at the south of the Tiananmen Square. It’s only opened in the morning and it seems to be close often for “refurbishing”.

The Building

The Man

While Chairman Mao was still alive, he was one of the first high-ranking officials to sign up for cremation, a procedure that was shunned by the superstitious population. His body was instead embalmed and construction of a Mausoleum started in November 1976, shortly after his death and was completed in May 1977. The Mausoleum takes up 5.72 hectares.

At Mao's death, China did not have the embalming technologies needed to preserve Mao's body for public display. Since it was impossible for China to obtain the necessary technologies from the USSR in the wake of the Sino-Soviet split, China asked for help from Vietnam, which had learned the trade from the USSR when Ho Chi Minh's body was preserved for public display.

I’ve also learned that his body traveled by elevator to be on display for tourist and faithful from an earthquake-proof chamber deep underneath Tiananmen Square.

The visit describe by Holland Cotter (New York Times)…. Which reflect pretty much our experience!!
At the mausoleum the entry line is long. Most of the people, it seems, are members of Chinese tour groups, out-of-town families or knots of friends on patriotic pilgrimage. At the same time there are quite a few young people, students by the look of them, some in their teens, others a little older, casually dressed in slacks and jeans, and quiet.

Waiting gives us a chance to survey the mausoleum exterior. A colonnaded stone cube with a Chinese-red tiled roof, it was built in 1977 and has the bland, boxy, buttoned-up look of a Mao jacket. […]

The line at the mausoleum entrance starts to move. The guards are practiced at processing visitors, sizing them up, moving them forward. We enter a shed like enclosure. Cameras and cell phones must be put away or left behind. We walk through metal detectors. Police in navy blue double-check us with scanners, then pat us down before directing us out the door.

We are in the entrance courtyard, where I am surprised to find a small floral concession, a kiosk selling two kinds of bouquets: one made up of a single rose wrapped in cellophane and thin as a baton; the other, a bunch of gladioluses also tightly wrapped. People dart over to make a purchase, one per customer, and dart back to take their places as the line moves ahead.
Then we are in a high-ceiling reception hall, and, somewhat startlingly, Mao is straight ahead: a white marble statue seated in a throne like chair, face forward. The figure seems clearly modeled on the Abraham Lincoln by Daniel Chester French in Washington except that where Lincoln looks somber, aged and lost in thought, Mao is youthfully alert, his face raised and faintly smiling. […]

At the sight of the white marble Mao, the people who bought flowers at the kiosk break from line and bring their offerings to the statue. A young man supports an old man, possibly his grandfather, who wears a vintage blue worker’s suit. Both men bow three times to the statue and lay their flowers on a neatly stacked mound of similar bouquets. Other people come forward, including teenagers. They too bow and leave their offerings.

We move on. The big moment is soon to come, and the architecture, like most religious architecture, plays its part in building tension by shifting scale and baffling our sense of direction. After we leave the statue behind, we proceed down a long, plain corridor, guards urging us on.

Then we turn a corner and find ourselves in a tall, wide room with red and white walls. At its center, cordoned off by velvet ropes and sealed in a faceted see-through case, Mao lies on a bier. He seems to be wearing a version of the standard olive-green Army drab. He is covered with a red flag as big as a blanket and pulled up to his chest. But he feels far away and is hard to see, like an object on a high altar encased in a reliquary. […]

As we pass Mao’s bier I think, “So, this was God.” I try to focus on his face, and I get a vague sense of something shiny and smooth. But it’s hard to form a conclusive impression because the line doesn’t stop; the guards make sure of that. They nudge us along gently but insistently, as if we were children needing mild supervision.

The situation soon becomes awkward because as you move, you want to keep looking but without giving the impression of gawking. I sense that for some people around me this is a large and solemn moment, a thrill, a goal reached.

I could be wrong. Maybe the mausoleum is just a de rigueur modern tourist stop, like the Statue of Liberty. If you’re Chinese, you haven’t been to Beijing till you’ve seen it. But the people who offer flowers suggest a different attitude, a reverence paid to a past. And maybe there are other people like me, mesmerized by the machinery of fate.

But as you are weighing how to look back at Mao without seeming to stare, the whole thing is over. You’re moving down another corridor, this one short, then out the door and into the street, where the morning sun seems a little too bright.

At first you think, “Well, that was quick.” Then, “Clean operation; expertly handled; total control.” Then maybe you don’t know quite what to think, about politics and devotion, about patriotism tangled with nationalism, about old buried secrets still unrevealed.

Ms. Connolly knows what she thinks. “He wasn’t real,” she says emphatically. She is not alone in her opinion. The authenticity of the body has been a subject of debate. Judging from a passing glance, it could be wax, a sculpture that might exist in several versions — a multiple […]