Tiananmen Square is the center of Beijing, and everyone in Beijing was flocking there for National Day. We expected some celebrations or entertainment on the square in honor of National Day, but there was nothing except masses and masses of people. Despite western connotations with a massacre, the square is merely a large public square, a great slab of concrete in the center of Beijing. And in the center of this is Chairman Mao’s mausoleum, where his body has been preserved and on view to the public since his death in 1976. To the west of the square is the Great Hall of the People and to the east the Chinese Revolution and History Museum. The square is named after Tiananmen (Gate of Heavenly Peace) which is at the northern end of the square and is home to a giant portrait of Mao. Through this gate is the Forbidden City.
The hoards of people in the square were mostly taking pictures, and quite often we were requisitioned to pose with them. As we wandered the massive square, small squadrons of army people would march through the crowd wearing their green uniforms with gold buttons. We were frequently the target of men with red velvet lined boxes selling Rolex watches and others selling Mao’s little red book or a Mao watch, or ice cream (unfortunately not Mao shaped). We spent the afternoon sitting on the museum steps and just watching all the people who flooded the square. We were interrupted only by “art students” who wanted us to come and see an “art exhibition.” They may very well have been art students, and what they showed us was indeed art, but the main purpose of course was for us to buy the paintings.
One morning, we decided to personally pay our respects to the founder of the People’s Republic of China. We joined the long queue and shuffled around Tiananmen Square for an hour, at the end of which we entered the mausoleum and were rewarded by a 30-second view of Chairman Mao’s corpse. He was covered with a red flag bearing the hammer and sickle; only his face was visible and, perhaps because of the lighting, it looked like it was made of orange play dough. I tried to think something profound when I looked at him, but I was so impressed by his orange hue that I failed to think much of anything beyond, “There’s Mao. It’s weird that I’m looking at his body nearly 30 years after his death. I wonder if it’s really him, or wax?” Once outside of the mausoleum, we had to pass through a gauntlet of vendors selling Mao memorabilia before we were safely on the square again.
Great Hall of the People
Chairman Mao’s mausoleum