Thursday, May 16, 2013

Mao's mausoleum: Myth replaces man

What are we looking at?
But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao
You ain't gonna make it with anyone, anyhow
--"Revolution," The Beatles
In Beijing, as told, I beheld a very strange sight. Specifically, I saw what was purported to be the body of Chairman Mao lying in state.

Mao Zedong --Chairman Mao --had a long and consequential life. Mao was born the son of a peasant farmer in Hunan province and rose out of obscurity to become one of the most renowned historical figures of the modern era (for better or worse). In 1976, at the age of 89, Mao passed. That was 37 years ago.

But what was it that I saw, really?

The simple physics of the matter raise questions about how much of the display was actually human. After all, an embalmed body is a substantially reduced human corpus.

Embalming involves removing the viscera of the subject, performing certain cosmetic procedures (placing plastic "eye caps" under the eyelids to hold shape, sewing the mouth shut, and so on), and pumping formaldehyde or arsenic into the arteries and tissue. But after nearly four decades of undertaker magic, how much of what I saw in that glass case in Tiananmen was actually human?

Sculpture outside Mao's Mausoleum
Mao's legacy adds another dimension to the question. Who was he? Was he Mao Zedong, the communist revolutionary and social engineer, the scourge of both the Kuomintang and the Imperial Japanese Army? Was he China's great visionary that led her from an agrarian backwater to the dominant world power that she is today? Or was he a brutal dictator that inflicted famine and disease on his people with the disastrous "Great Leap Forward?"

A limo driver in Shanghai told me that in his youth in the first decades following Mao Zedong's death, Chinese were required to refer to him as "Leader Mao." To refer to him as simply "Mao" would raise eyebrows and possibly attract negative attention from authorities.

Forward, China!
Times have changed. In 2009, one of Mao's grandchildren, Kong Dongmei, was reported to have assets of nearly a billion dollars. Sort of flies in the face of Mao's vision of a classless society, doesn't it?

Whatever. The long and short of it is this: Mao, the Idea, has expanded out of all proportion to Mao, the Man.

It seems to me that the object I saw in the glass case was a manifestation of ideas; a metaphor upon which each of us imposes his own interpretation.

Chairman Mao isn't the first (V.I. Lenin, George Washington, King Henry V), nor the last (Osama bin Laden, John Lennon, Pope John Paul II) to undergo this transformation.

Novelty playing cards, for sale in a gift shop in Beihai Park.
It's a simple fact and a common recurrence in the human chronicle:

Myth replaces man.

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