Three weeks ago I went to visit the mausoleum of Lenin. I came away a little numb from that experience, but I remember feeling that, if you’re going to leave a dead body lying in state for almost 100 years, then it was a roughly respectful way to do it. It was an experience which moved me, and I had trouble finding the words to really summarise it all.
Earlier this week I went to see my second dead Communist, visiting the tomb of Chairman Mao, in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. It was a very different experience, to say the least.
To begin with we had to queue for over an hour to get in to see the body lying in state. That was an experience in itself. I know the British are known for being world class queuers, and the Chinese are known for a slightly less orderly approach (what might otherwise be called ‘very rudely pushing in’). But quite what the point of elbowing and jostling for position is when you’re still clearly an hour away from the front of the queue is quite beyond me.
Anyway, that aside, we queued and headed through the security checks. What became apparent immediately is that Mao’s mauseolum is on a different scale altogether to Lenin’s. Where as Lenin’s is housed in a small building outside the Kremlin, Chairman Mao’s resting place dominates Tiananmen Square.
Its also clear that its much busier. China is a much bigger country than Russia, and Mao is still loved and revered by much of the country’s population. And we’re talking about a country with 1.3billion people here. So you could say there is some demand!
Upon entering the mausoleum you reach a first room where a vast statue of Mao sits. Sits quite literally, actually – it seems he’s sitting on a large sofa. Many of the locals purchase yellow flowers from vendors outside, which they lay having first bowed before this statue. We saw none of this at Lenin’s tomb.
Finally, visitors are divided into two lines, and are funneled into a second room, which contains Ma himself. Again, its quiet and respectful. You wouldn’t expect anything less. Having passed the body, you emerge again into the warm sunlight of Tiananmen Square. If you want to buy your Mao souvenirs, now’s your chance! ‘Exit through gift shop’, indeed.
So what to make of all this? I guess the first thing to say is that seeing Mao didn’t have as much of an impact on me as did Lenin. Perhaps this is because I know a little more about Lenin than I do about Mao. Perhaps this is because this time I’d been stood up queueing for an hour, and was feeling tired and a little grumpy. Perhaps this is due to differences in the way the tombs are presented. Perhaps, very simply, having already seen Lenin a few weeks back, I sort of knew what to expect from seeing the body of one of the giants of 20th century history. Who knows? But I didn’t come out with the same sense of having seen something profoundly important. I didn’t feel quite so moved.
Is it worth doing? Yeah, I guess so. Understanding modern China is a hard thing to do, but seeing how some Chinese still venerate Chairman Mao, indeed, seeing how they practically worship his memory, is instructive to understanding the country and its people.
By no means everyone in China feels quite the same way about Mao as the hero worshippers we saw last week. But its clear that his legacy lives on, in quite a formidable way.