Mao mausoleum, Tiananmen Square
Final resting place of China
's "Great Helmsman", Chairman Mao Zedong
in the capital city Beijing. It's one of the Big 4 of mausoleums
of Great Leaders of communist
states. As with the other three, the embalmed body of the deceased Immortal lies on display in a glass coffin.
It's a pilgrimage site and scores of people line up for a quick glimpse of the corpse. That's all you get anyway, as guards make sure you pass through quickly – and in respectful silence. (Obviously enough, no photography is allowed either.) Less respectful is the souvenir shop at the exit from the dimly-lit holy cavern. In contrast, the marble statue of the Great Chairman that you see before entering the actual crypt is reverential enough, though perhaps surprisingly reminiscent of Abraham Lincoln's statue in Washington
… Outside there's a huge column with some words of praise for the revolution by Mao on it, as well as some truly pompous sculptures in full socialist realism
There are rumours that the body on display may not be real but a wax model – what is certain is that China
had trouble with the required preservation techniques. The experts in the field were in Russia
(who benefited from decades of experience with Lenin
) but the countries weren't on speaking terms at the time of Mao
's death. So they turned to Vietnam
, whose own leader Ho Chi Minh
had been similarly preserved beyond death with Russian help a few years earlier.
There's another link to uncle Ho: neither Mao nor Ho had actually wanted to be put on display after death. Instead they had requested to be cremated. Neither wish was granted by the respective successors in power. Too great was the desire (or felt necessity) to continue and extend the cult of personality
surrounding these Leaders. In China, this cult (and the respect) for Mao may have waned a little over the decades, but there's still enough of it present to grant Mao's mausoleum a place in the pantheon of the Big 4 Mausoleums in the world
Opening times are a little unpredictable: nominally the mausoleum is open every morning, sometimes also in the afternoon, but sometimes it remains closed altogether (esp. in summer). Better check beforehand or allow time for a repeat attempt.
The mausoleum building is the centrepiece of Tiananmen Square, reputedly the largest city square in the world – but better known to the outside world, and esp. to the dark tourist, for another very dark chapter in China's modern history: namely the Tiananmen Square Massacre of June 1989, when peaceful student protests were most violently crushed by the Chinese military. One of the most iconic images of the time was taken here: the lone man in a white shirt standing in the way of a row of massive tanks. Nothing symbolized the conflict and its subsequent hopelessness better than this single image. The massacre also stood symbolically for fears that similar things might happen in the changes and revolutions all across the Eastern Bloc
countries in Europe in the latter half of 1989, e.g. in the GDR
. During the protest movement there, which led to the Fall of the Berlin Wall
, the spectre of a possible "Chinese solution" was hanging over the protest movement. Fortunately, it didn't come to that in Germany
(whereas not much later in Romania
it did – only without stopping the revolution, unlike in China).
To this day the Tiananmen Massacre cannot be openly talked about in China and hard facts (e.g. about the exact numbers of the dead) are hard to come by. Needless to say, the massacre is not being commemorated at the place where it happened. But still, when visiting Mao's mausoleum, you can spare a thought for the victims of this massacre – and their cause (which is still largely unfulfilled – as China continues its repression of free speech and democracy).
The Square extends in front of the gates to the Forbidden City (aka Imperial Palace) – Beijing's premier tourist attraction. It may be overrated but is still worth a look – and a listen: apparently the English audio guide you can hire at the entrance has the voice of "James Bond" Roger Moore on it!
On the centre of the outer gate to the Forbidden City facing Tiananmen Square remains a large poster of Mao (elsewhere these have largely disappeared – other than in the form of tourist souvenirs on, rather disrespectful, offer in many places in Beijing).