Forbidden City Gate

By Brian Spencer

There are two things you should know about visiting Beijing’s Mausoleum of Mao Zedong: no cameras are allowed inside (unless like most people you have a camera-phone, which are allowed) and though you can’t take home pictures of his adorable little corpse, snugly tucked under a cozy red blanket in a temperature-controlled glass box, don’t worry, you’ll exit through an outdoor gift shop well-stocked with cheery Chairman Mao memorabilia. Want to commemorate your 30-second shuffle past the embalmed body of China’s modern-day political messiah with a golden bust or silver trinket molded in his smiling pre-death likeness? Or munch on a box of sweet, sugary Chairman Mao Puffed Oats cereal?* It’s free to get in, but the souvenirs are gonna cost a fistful of kwai.

Mao Zedong died at the age of 82 on September 9, 1976, from complications related to his third and most damaging heart attack. Twenty years earlier, perhaps creeped out by the permanent display of Vladimir Lenin’s corpse in Moscow, he had signed the “Proposal that All Central Leaders Be Cremated After Death” — i.e. “Please, for Fuck’s Sake, Don’t Do Me Like Lenin When I Die” — but like Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam some seven years before him, against his wishes his body was embalmed and turned into a sideshow curiosity. In May of 1977 he was moved to a grim monolith prominently located in the center of Tiananmen Square, what now seems destined to be his final, public resting place.

Like millions before me, I had to see it.

I woke up accidentally wrecked from an unexpectedly late night at Great Leap Brewing, but my head’s dull throb would have to be endured since that day was the only day I had to do some respectable sightseeing in Beijing. It wasn’t all bad that morning. The milky blanket of smog you may have been reading about lately had magically disappeared overnight, if only temporarily, and in its place I found a clear, baby-blue sky paired with icy, invigorating breezes; coming from Singapore it felt kitschy pulling on my puffy winter coat.

Outside the Forbidden City

The southeastern walls of the Forbidden City, ringed by a frozen moat pocked with ice-fishing holes and littered with corn cobs, swirled with desolate winter stillness. Wispy trees with no leaves. Breath like steam from a boiling tea kettle. The crunch from patches of packed, blackened snow under my feet. The siren song of Beijingers shuffling by and hawking loogies drawn from the depths of their soul. I’ve never found the dead of winter to be particularly dreary, at least when the sky is colored as brightly blue as it was the morning I woke up with a hangover in Beijing and went to see a dead guy. Mornings like that… I find a strange exhilaration in mornings like that. Mornings like that, I feel alive.

The Mausoleum of Mao Zedong  is open daily from 8am – 12pm, except in July and August when both the opening and closing times shift back an hour. I arrived at around 11am, pleasantly surprised to see no crowds snaked around the concrete barricades. A security guard waved me in, at the outdoor security check I passed my camera and phone into a blue plastic basket, then was pulled aside after stepping through the metal detector. Cameras are not allowed in the mausoleum, I was told, so I’d have to go across the street to a “little red house” to check it.

The little red house was easy to find and I checked the camera for five kwai, but to get back into Tiananmen Square you have to pass through a security checkpoint, which at this entrance was a small box-of-a-room; picture a posh ice-fishing shanty. Now picture some 150 – 200 people amassed outside of and trying to squeeze through said shanty, their progress slowed by two blasé security guards checking each and every person’s ID card before granting access to the square through a single door just large enough for one person.  Hapless claustrophobia setting in, the clock was ticking. I’m all for security measures, but… but… but goddamnit, it’s almost 11:30 and I want to see the body!

I did make it through, eventually, and I did get to see it.

Back of Mausoleum of Mao Zedong

After security you’ll pass a flower stand selling bouquets of yellow flowers for three kwai. The flowers are then placed next to the other bouquets of yellow flowers just inside the entrance, in front of a large Mao bust. (At least, that’s what all the Chinese visitors did with them; I think they’re perfect for brightening up your hotel room and I’m sure nobody would mind.) The single-file line splits into two, and then it’s a slow, steady, solemn procession of curious onlookers gazing from both sides of the glass tomb at the embalmed curiosity laid within, two stone-faced guards looking on, the space swelling with stagnant silence. The Mao Zedong Experience lasted about two minutes from mausoleum entrance to exit.

Outside many stopped to turn and take a picture of the mausoleum’s backside with their camera-phone; some stopped to browse for Mao souvenirs. I wondered what kind of horrific dreams those poor guards must have after standing watch over Beijing’s embalmed tourist attraction for so many hours of so many days.

* Chairman Mao Puffed Oat cereal isn’t actually for sale (yet). I would definitely buy a box if it were, however.

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Brian Spencer

Brian Spencer is a Singapore-based freelance writer. He has written for BBC Travel, CNN Travel, DestinAsian, Fodor's Travel, Lonely Planet, and Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia, among other publications.