We came early, but not early enough. They were there in droves. The hot China sun beat down on us while we stood in the queue of hundreds. Shining through the haze and smog amplified its humid rays onto our heads as we stood in line. The Chinese around us, prepared for the blaze, held umbrellas and donned visors to combat the wicked eastern sun. At a snail’s pace we crawled forward in line. Standing in the center of one of the largest public squares in the world I distracted myself from the heat to take in the architecture before me. It was hard to fathom the number of city blocks the square covered in total. Surrounded on all sides by the bureaucratic might of the People’s Republic of China, the Great Hall of the People and the Gates of the Forbidden City sent their shadows stretching across the pavement. The towering obelisk, the Monument to the People’s Heroes, made famous by the bloody 1989 protests capped the square’s center. As we snaked our way through the roped queue we turned a corner to stand in front of our destination, the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong.
Passing by I stared up at sculptures depicting Chinese citizens, workers, and soldiers joining together in a collective charge forward towards the future. Out of the heat we ducked into a small building surrounded by glass walls,. Up ahead there was bustle and noise, a break up from the hum drum shuffling of the queued masses. PLA soldiers, in crisp ironed brown uniforms, directed us from the line towards the set up of metal detectors, conveyor belts and scanners. I came prepared, with minimal possessions on my person. Save for my wallet and passport I was unencumbered by the usual travel gear. Entrance to the mausoleum is very strict. No, cameras, cellphones, sandals, or bags are allowed beyond the checkpoint. With a curt nod from the guard I passed through the metal detector and out the back of the glass structure, rejoining the pilgrimage towards the mausoleum entrance. As we made our way up the mausoleum steps vendors passed by peddling flowers. The quiet whispers in Mandarin lowered to an almost inaudible hush as the crowd entered the tomb.
Stepping into the entrance hall I was met with a monolithic statue of Mao Zedong. Perched high atop a granite chair he seemed to gaze down with a look of jovial amusement. The cavernous hall was said to have been constructed of all of the culture treasures of China. Porcelain plates, sand from Taiwan, and rocks from Mount Everest are all materials rumored to be used during construction. Posted guards kept us at a slow walk as we slowly circumvented Mao’s vestige. Those who had purchased flowers stepped forward to place them at the massive pile of bouquets at the leader’s feet. I witnessed a family, father, mother, and son step forward hand in hand, place their flowers, take two steps backwards then simultaneously bow before the memorial. Whatever noise there had been drew down to complete silence as we passed through to a room beyond the massive statue. Despite being part of a long single file crowd the lack of noise made the experience intimate and personal. Alone with my thoughts, surrounded by Chinese culture and architecture and the growing anticipation of finally seeing what we had all entered the building for. In a dimly lit chamber we passed in a horseshoe, never stopping or standing around an illuminated case. Beneath the glass lay the Chairman himself, draped in a flag adorned with hammer and sickle, he looked as though he had just been laid to rest. The wonders of science and cosmetics halting the destructive forces of time. I shot glances around me, at the others viewing the Chinese leader. Sniffling, quiet sobs, and dabbing of eyes all were no stranger to the solemn chamber. It felt as though I had just begun to observe what was before me when the guards unceremoniously ushered the line along and out the far door.
Suddenly I was back out onto the expanse of Tiananmen Square and back into the bright summer sun. I felt myself struggling to recap and reflect on what I had just witnessed. Against his wishes to be cremated the Chairman was laid to rest inside his crystal coffin so all could come and pay their respects. Despite the controversy and atrocity of the past, it was obvious the leader was still a revered part of Chinese culture and society. His picture radiated back from everything from souvenir mugs and hats to the giant portrait hanging above the Gates of the Forbidden City. He was an ender of civil wars, an advocate for the rights of women, and the unifier of the current Chinese state.
I stood in the center of Tiananmen. Chinese bustled this way and that, traversing the giant square in crowded masses. Surrounded by the buildings of politics and culture, I glanced at each of the huge structures, beaming down power and communist icons at the square below. Up atop a towering flag pole a Chinese flag flapped in the breeze. The enormous piece of canvas, with its blood red backdrop emblazoned with five golden stars was one of the largest banners I’d ever seen. Standing in the second largest country by area and first largest by population, standing in the middle of Tienanmen Square, the fourth largest public square in the world, having just viewed the founder of one of today’s strongest superpowers, I felt small.
I think I was supposed to feel this way.