The massive stone mausoleum containing the preserved body of Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung closed this week for repairs that officials said will take at least eight months. But will it reopen? And if so, will it be moved from its dominant position in Tiananmen Square?
The committee responsible for the mausoleum--where Mao’s flag-draped body has rested in a crystal sarcophagus since 1977--insists that the refurbished tomb will reopen early next year.
On Tuesday, the last day the mausoleum was open to the public, many parts of the building were boarded up and the sound of pounding hammers echoed through the grimy anterooms.
But as the cultist fervor of the Mao era recedes here in a country that is now run more by committee than by charisma, some have suggested that it might be a good time to make a symbolic break with China’s troubled revolutionary past. Rumors abound that the rehabilitation is really a removal.
“It would be a good thing if it closed forever,” said Fei Wangxia, 30, a Shanghai real estate agent. “It would mean that the feudal thing is vanishing and that China is really progressing.”
There was widespread opposition to construction of the tomb when first proposed after Mao’s death in 1976. Mao himself had asked to be cremated and had signed a 1956 “no embalming” pledge circulated among the leaders.
Deng Xiaoping, his eventual successor, made no secret of his disdain for the hulking tomb at the center of China’s most sacred square--which, in the dynastic age, was also considered the epicenter of all human life on Earth. The tomb sits on an axis that radiates from the Forbidden City. It blocks the qi--or spirit--that extends in a line from the ancient home of emperors through a series of southern gates into the heart of China.
Significantly, following his wishes, Deng’s body was cremated after his Feb. 19 death and his ashes were scattered at sea.
The official explanation for the closing of Mao’s tomb was that the building badly needed repair, what with more than 110 million people having come to see the chairman’s corpse.
“We needed to do some renovation on the interior,” said a Mao Memorial Committee spokesman. He responded haughtily to suggestions that Mao’s body might be moved, possibly to his hometown of Shaoshan in Hunan province. “Move it? Who said so? These are just wild rumors,” the official said.
But in the days leading to the April 1 closing, tens of thousands of Chinese flocked to the capital to view the body--from which, like a jack-o'-lantern, an eerie orange glow diffuses--of the man who led China’s revolution but whose rule was also marked by political purges, famine of unimaginable horror and the terrible 10-year Cultural Revolution.
On March 31, more than 10,000 Chinese stood in line at the mausoleum. Outside, the atmosphere was one of a temple fair. In shops on the south side of the tomb, merchants hawked an assortment of Maoist iconography, including Mao Memorial Hall brand cigarettes, toys, sport shoes, zodiac jewelry, luggage, statues of Buddha, processed food and cold Coca-Cola.
While similar stalls at other tourist attractions across China are rented out to vendors, all the merchants here belonged to the Mao Memorial Hall work unit. One rotund, 45-year-old woman, asked what she would do in the time that the building was closed, said simply: “Go home and wait for it to reopen.”