Stages of History | Tiananmen Square

Chairman Mao's Mausoleum

Shortly after midnight on September 9, 1976, Mao died at the age of eighty-two. There was a ten-day period of national mourning. All loudspeakers and radio stations broadcast somber music. Newspapers, bordered in black, carried the obituary issued by the Central Committee depicting Mao as "the greatest Marxist of the contemporary era," and declaring that "the radiance of Mao Zedong Thought will forever illuminate the road of advance of the Chinese people." At three p.m., on September 18, all the people of China were ordered to stop their work and stand in silence for three minutes. A million people filled Tiananmen Square and all trains, ships, factories, and mines throughout the country were ordered to sound their whistles and sirens in salute.

All this chanting of ‘Long Life!’ is in contravention of natural laws. Sooner or later, people die. They might be invaded by germs, or crushed by a collapsing building, or blown to pieces by an atom bomb. One way or another they end up dying. Once you're dead you shouldn't occupy any space. Burn the bodies. I'll take the lead. We should all be cremated when we die. Be turned into ashes and used to fertilize the fields.

--Mao Zedong, in comments made when signing
"A Proposal for Central Leaders to Support Posthumous Cremation" in 1956

Mao Zedong, the founding leader of the People's Republic of China, its gaozu as first emperors in China were traditionally called, is now the only permanent resident of the Square. Following his death, Mao's corpse was preserved for posterity. The mausoleum is more than a tomb, it's a grand villa. There is a white marble armchair inside as you enter with a massive statue of Mao seated on it in imitation of Abe Lincoln. Behind this statue a massive mural features the mountains and rivers of China, the geopolitical realm of Mao's posthumous rule. In the crypt one can find Mao's body lying in state on a bed covered in a crystalline sarcophagus and surrounded by flowers. Like so many others in Beijing these days, Chairman Mao goes to work everyday travelling from the nether world by elevator to be on display for tourist and faithful alike. At night his body retires after the last visitors have left to lie in an earthquake-proof chamber deep in the bowels of Tiananmen Square.

Side halls in the Mausoleum contain relics of other "first generation revolutionary leaders" -- Liu Shaoqi, Zhu De and Zhou Enlai -- making this monument a true Ancestral Hall of the Revolution.

Any investigation of this modern site would take the pilgrim to other comparable traditional ancestral halls in the Chinese capital like the Tai Miao, or Ancestral Temple, used for the worship of deceased emperors standing next to Tiananmen Gate and renamed the Workers' Cultural Palace (the Cultural Palace itself has often been used by the Communist rulers to display the remains of government rulers during state funerals). Then there is the Confucian Temple in the north-east of the old city or the Daoist Dagaodian on the north-west corner of the Imperial Palace which also once brimmed with cultural significance and now are sequestered in the cement highrise of new Beijing.

View a video clip of the mausoleum.

For more readings, see "MaoBody," by Geremie R. Barmé in Shades of Mao: The Posthumous Cult of the Great Leader, and a sketch by Yau Ma Tei, a satirist born in Peking in 1929, called "Maosoleum." See also "Tiananmen Square: A Political History of Monuments," Wu Hung (Representations 35, Summer 1991).

Night view of Mausoleum

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