Existing Member?

There and Back Again

The Chairman is Closed for Renovations

CHINA | Friday, 29 June 2007 | Views [847] | Comments [1]

China is infamous for its odd English translations. Our hotel room in Qingdao, for example, had a sign that I believed to be a warning, but its message was cryptic: "Point out Friendly, Smooth Floor." I should certainly hope that the floor is smooth, but why the hotel staff believed that it was so important to let me know that the floor in our room was smooth I will never know. Despite myriad English translations that simply make no sense, the sign outside of Mao's mausoleum made it fairly clear that the building that housed the Chairman's body was under renovation, not the corpse inside. Having read about Chinese doctors' less than perfect methods for preserving the Chairman's body in 1976, however, I rather enjoyed the idea that it is Mao rather than his mausoleum that is under renovation. Rumor has it that attempts as preserving Mao's body failed miserably and that a wax facsimile is what people see when they come to the mausoleum to view the venerated and hated Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Though struck by the humor of the idea that laborers were working diligently at making Mao more presentable for the 2008 Olympic Games next summer, I must say that I was more than a little disappointed that I did not get to see the Chairman—or his wax replica.

After more thought, I came to believe that perhaps the problem with Mao's body inside that mausoleum has nothing to do with failed efforts to preserve his corpse for thirty years. It may be that Mao's body has simply rolled over in his freezer, and the laborers are working diligently to turn him upright again. It seems hard to believe that Mao would have appreciated the changes that China has undergone in the past thirty years. When the CCP expelled the Nationalists from mainland China in 1949, the CCP opened the Forbidden City—the area that had been the private playground of Qing emperors until their dynasty was toppled in 1911—for everyone in China to enjoy. They also drastically altered Tiananmen Square. It was enlarged and is today bordered by monuments and museums dedicated to the proletariat. The statues that border Mao's mausoleum are a testament to the CCP's vision of the 1949 revolution as a revolution of the people. In these patriotic statues rural farmers, soldiers, urban laborers, women, and children all help push an image of Mao on their shoulders with their indomitable will. Symbolically at least, the CCP was announcing the dramatic creation of a public sphere in which everyone could participate.

Of course, much of the imagery demonstrating the collapse of an empire ruled by the whims of petulant and spoiled emperors and the creation of country led by the common people is merely rhetoric—or a lie intended to deceive if one wants to look at it more cynically. Time and tme again, the CCP has violated human rights, and made evident to the world that China is not a democratic nation.  Ironically, in 1989 the CCP demonstrated with tanks, bullets, and secret prisons that the imagery in Tiananmen Square intended to depict the creation of a people's republic was more jargon than truth. In 1989, the statues the CCP built to represent the polyglot people whom the 1949 revolution was supposed to represent watched on helplessly as the “People's Liberation Army” arrested and shot unarmed students who had the audacity to question the actions of their representatives. No, unfortunately China has no real sphere of public debate. China truly is a dictatorship of the proletariat.

Despite the irony of the 1989 uprising in a square dedicated to the people's revolution and the CCP’s brutal oppression, it seems doubtful that Mao would have been upset with the CCP's successful suppression of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989. Mao was no bleeding heart humanitarian himself. Millions of people died because of his actions, and Communist ideology typically recognizes that a dictatorship of the proletariat is a necessary step in the creation the ultimate and perfect communist state. No, the reason why laborers are today working to upright a body that has rolled over in its freezer is—I think—because of the capitalistic economy that the CCP is working feverishly to create. Mao encouraged simplicity in lifestyle among his followers. Once again, rhetoric was a bit different than reality. History indicates that Mao had concubines as numerous as any of the emperors he replaced, but at least he claimed that simplicity was something desirable. Indeed, the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976 encouraged mobs of people to destroy ceramics and other cultural artifacts deemed by the mobs to be “imperialist." For all the evils it created, the Cultural Revolution forced simplicity of life upon the people, and prevented some from acquiring artifacts to indicate their superiority over everyone else. In other words, people didn’t try to keep up with the Joneses. Instead, they smashed the stuff that made it appear that the Jonses were better than their neighbors. No longer, however, is the Chinese Communist Party encouraging simplicity among its followers. Today, to be rich is glorious. Citizens in China—as are the citizens in America—are encouraged to buy, buy, buy. For example, Beijing is no longer a city of bicycles. Anyone who tours Beijing on a bicycle today will find the busy and wider roads intended to ease the dramatic increase in automobile traffic a bit dangerous.

In my imagination, I think that China’s contemporary consumption based economy is why laborers are currently working to turn Mao’s body upright. From Mao’s mausoleum a visitor to Tiananmen Square can see Mao’s portrait above the entrance to the Forbidden City, and within the Forbidden City—transformed into a monument dedicated to the people by the CCP—visitors can revive themselves after a couple of hours of touring with a sip of coffee from Starbucks. When I was planning my visit to the Forbidden City, I made it a point to try to find and to partake from the Starbucks inside. I wanted to sip a cup of coffee and stroll through the emperor’s private garden. When I got to the Starbucks in the Forbidden City, I was aghast to discover just how expensive a cup a coffee was. For about thirty-five Reminbi—about one hundred and fifty percent of the price of a decent meal at a fancy restaurant—a visitor can enjoy coffee in the Forbidden City. Such a price made a cup of coffee too expensive for me, and it makes a cup of coffee astronomically expensive for ordinary Beijingers. Not only have western corporations arrived in China, they are encouraging Beijingers to keep up with the Joneses. More like Americans now, the Chinese no longer smash the priceless artifacts of their neighbors in order to create an egalitarian society in the People’s Republic of China. Instead, the Chinese now try to buy all the cool stuff that their neighbors have acquired. Cars, TVs, DVDs and Celine Deon CDs are all hot items in Beijing. The CCP opened the Forbidden City—the private playground of the petulant emperors of old—for all Chinese to enjoy. Now, the parts of the Forbidden City in which western corporations are allowed to set their own prices are simply prohibitively expensive for the majority of the Chinese people. The emperor’s soldiers may not execute people who dare to enter the emperor’s private domain, but now prohibitively expensive prices keep most Beijingers from enjoying the city that they have opened up for themselves. Free enterprise and inequality of condition go hand in hand.  Surely the capitalistic spirit that is being encouraged within the walls of the Forbidden City has made the Chairman roll over in his freezer across the street.

Tags: Culture



Mark, Is this your version of the Da Vinci code?

  John Jul 6, 2007 4:38 AM

About jmleslie

Follow Me

Where I've been

Photo Galleries

My trip journals

See all my tags 



Travel Answers about China

Do you have a travel question? Ask other World Nomads.