How To Visit A Dead Dictator

You'd think that you would be allowed to stand for a while, in awe of a demi-god. Nope, ten seconds is all you get.
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You'd think that you would be allowed to stand for a while, in awe of a demi-god. Nope, ten seconds is all you get.

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In a huge grey building in the middle of Tiananmen Square rests a dead body. The man didn’t want to be there. He wished to be cremated. Instead he was embalmed and has been on display in a glass coffin for a few hours a day for the last 25 years. His name is Mao Zedong.

I used to live in China. I visited Beijing with my good friend and stayed a brief walk away from Tiananmen Square. The opportunity to see the preserved corpse of the human being who adorns every note of Chinese money was too much to turn down. It turned out to be the strangest experience of my life.

At the end of Tiananmen Square is the Forbidden City, a walled paradise with a huge portrait of Mao Zedong above the entrance. In the middle of Tiananmen Square is Mao’s Mausoleum. Chairman Mao’s final resting place.

Now lining up to see a dead body is odd isn’t it? Lining up in the People’s Republic of China, to see a dead person who can be considered responsible for more deaths than Hitler and Stalin combined is a whole other matter.

The Chinese, it is fair to say are not big on queuing. But then nor would you be in a country of 1 and a half billion people.

Having put our bags in lockers we joined the long line. The Chinese, it is fair to say are not big on queuing. But then nor would you be in a country of 1 and a half billion people. It is survival of the fittest. If you don’t get somewhere before others do than you won’t get there at all. This line to see Mao was the Great Queue of China. Pushing. Shoving. Shouting. Arguments. Running. Cutting in. Almost the same as every other queue I had experience of in China but with a dead dictator at the end. My friend, a true British gentleman, not used to this, was in a constant state of annoyance at the pushy 90 year old woman glued to his back.

“I’m going to punch her, Greaney.”

He didn’t.

The line is long. Twisting in on itself and around the Mausoleum. A good 3 hours wait. For many it is a pilgrimage. The majority of the people in the line are old and clearly poor. They had lived a hard life and now were taking a once in a lifetime trip to the nation’s capital to see this demi-god. It must be the most amazing experience. Each old person is wearing a brightly coloured, ill-fitting baseball cap assigned to his or her tour group. The bright colour of their cap is in stark contrast to the old dull fabrics of their clothes. It also seemed, that for many, it was the first time seeing a white person. My friend and I had to deal with a level of unashamed staring that we hadn’t experienced anywhere else in the city.

I walk out of the room and straight into the gift shop. The gift shop, Communism to Capitalism in a few steps.

As we approached the Mausoleum. The pushing increased. Tension. At times people broke the line and began to run. Running to see a dead man. Smiling. Laughing. This was fun for some. Then, when in the Mausoleum's compound the mood begins to change. Quieter. Stern guards looking on. The line becomes tighter and slower.

After an age we walk up the steps into the lobby of the hall.  There is a large mural painting of a dark, mountainous Chinese sky with some pretty cheap looking flower arrangements on the floor.

A female guard knocks off the baseball cap of the old man stood to my right. Caps off. An enforced sign of respect. We round the corner. People suddenly seem hesitant. It was in the next room. He was in the next room. Slowly walk. The last corridor before. Turn the corner. There he is. Orange. He looks a bit like my granddad. Lying flat, encased in a glass coffin in a small room sectioned with glass walls. Guards inside. Guards outside. Again, more cheap looking flowers and what looks like small Christmas trees surround his raised coffin. A red flag covers his body.

We are getting shuffled along. I look at the old man who lost his cap earlier. His face is full of fear. Shock. He stops and stares at Mao’s body. Then he is suddenly punched in the back by a huge guard and told to walk on. I keep walking. After a three hour wait, I was probably only in the room for about 10 seconds. I walk out of the room and straight into the gift shop. The gift shop, Communism to Capitalism in a few steps. I decline a commemorative plate with Mao’s face on. Walk out back onto Tiananmen Square. Turn to my mate and say:

“That was weird wasn’t it?”

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